Dennis 'De Stijl' Bergkamp
Reduce an object to it's simplest form. Strip away unnecessary details, leaving the essential core. And PAF! There it is. A purity of form; a deeper truth; an underlying order to the world; a cheat code for harmonising the universe! We have arrived at nothing less than the visual vocabulary of a 'divine aesthetic'.
Them there is the fightin' words of the Dutch De Stijl movement (1917-1931), a loose group of artists and designers intent on remaking the world according to this mystical theory of design. They got halfway there. 80 years later, Dennis Bergkamp finished the job with a simple flick of his right boot.
It's a big call, so let's start with the common ground for Dennis and De Stijl - simplification. For De Stijl, founded in 1917, simplification meant rejecting representational images, in favour of simple geometric forms and primary colours.
Looking at the work they produced however, the link between collections of brightly coloured squares and a unified theory of cosmic order seems ... a bit of a leap. Their simple aesthetic has been hugely influential on modern design, but the mystical overtones have been lost completely. Enter Dennis Bergkamp.
Bergkamp, like De Stijl, deconstructed his craft. Just as De Stijl had identified core graphic elements used in design, Bergkamp analysed the key mechanics of kicking a ball.
"Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways: first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things: inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces… getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down...You’re just enjoying the mechanics of it" Dennis Bergkamp
If geometric shapes and primary colours were the building blocks of De Stijl, pin point strikes and deft ball control were Bergkamps equivalent. These were the tools used to compose his game, and he relentlessly perfected his craft (“However hard you work, you can’t work as hard as Dennis,” Paul Merson). Armed with elite mastery of basic technique, the focus becomes how to best apply it on the pitch. Here, Bergkamp was influenced by footballs philosopher king, Johan Cryuff. The dutch masters thoughts on the game read like a De Stijl Style guide.
'Strictly necessary' for Cryuff did not mean ugly or unrefined, rather it was doing what was effective and efficient to win the game. A bicycle kick could be the most efficient way to the back of the net, but not everyone is capable of doing one. The more accomplished your skill level, the better equipped you were to choose the right option in any given situation.
Bergkamp had mastered the fundamentals to such a degree, that it opened up possibilities unavailable to most players. His goal against Newcastle united is an exceptional example.
It is a sublime piece of skill, a move that manages to be both unbelievable and completely logical at the same time. Describing the goal, it sounds implausible, and yet watching the footage, the intentionality of his movements, the turn appears not just logical but necessary. There is absolutely no wasted energy, every micro second perfectly tuned towards a seemingly predestined conclusion. Bergkamp describes his thought process for the goal, and it is equally devoid of excess or embellishment. He is not attempting to create magic, he is 'simply' following the most direct route to goal. The result however, is magic. It's a goal that leaves us with the impression of having witnessed something divine.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Bergkamp was not concerned with revealing a transcendent or divine harmony, but on occasions, his play was of such simple perfection, that it gave us a sense of exactly that.
Another transcendent moment came in the 90th minute of the 98 World cup quarter final against Argentina. Again, as Bergkamp receives the ball, it is not an obvious goalscoring threat. Three touches later, it's in the back of the net. The impossibly difficult is made to look effortless, and we find ourselves searching for quasi religious language to describe it.
"I had witnessed it: the utterly material yet transcendent beauty of the sport. I could never return to the way soccer and I were before." NATHAN F. ELMORE
As he takes his first touch, he slips into the shadow being cast across the pitch. Here in the darkness, he turns inside his marker, before re-emerging into the light with his deadly final touch. Playing on the edge of two worlds, dancing between the shadow and the light, reshaping our perception of what is possible.
De Stijl believed the divine order they were pursuing could reshape the world around it. Simply exposing an individual to such design would put them on the right track. Taking the football team as a microcosm of society at large, Bergkamps influence did just that.
"The rebirth of Arsenal, from a stylistic point of view, began with Bergkamp. He played the orchestra’s first note. He was the oboist, whose clear, pitch-perfect A tunes every other musician around him. He starts, the rest respond." Amy Lawrence (Invincible)
De Stijl created a timeless and influential aesthetic - but no one enthuses about responsive web grids with the same reverential language used to describe Bergkamps finest moments.
Apart from Arsenal fans, few people will argue that Bergkamp is a divine being, but it's fair to say that passages of his play evoke a sense of wonder and awe. The artists and designers of De Stijl would certainly have found much to admire about Bergkamp, in both his method and its outcomes. Mondrian disciple Jean Gorin wrote,
"In creating qualitative perfection of pure plastic relationships, the work can attain cosmic unity".
Had he been alive to watch Bergkamp, it may well have read,
"In conjuring footballing perfection with decisive technical skills, his play can attain cosmic unity."
For now, we can simply be thankful that Bergkamp - like De Stijl - simplified and deconstructed his craft, and in the process, created moments of transcendent Beauty.