Theo van Doesburg

By James Klugh

Theo van Doesburg was a revolutionary artist who attempted to change art by creating the new style of De Stijl which simplified art down to basic shapes and primary colors. Van Doesburg believed that when the simple shapes and colors were used carefully they truly displayed the spirituality associated with art. Van Doesburg was the pioneer of the De Stijl, travelling across Europe in order to promote its purpose. In addition to his painted pieces, van Doesburg worked in architecture attempting to build the ideal house based on the principles held by the De Stijl movement. In addition to van Doesburg there were other significant artists, including Piet Mondrian and Antony Kok, involved in the De Stijl movement who influence is apparent in many of van Doesburg’s paintings. Overall, van Doesburg led a successful and influential career not just as a painter, but also as an architect and an art critic.

Theo Van Doesburg was born on August 30, 1883 in Holland under the name Christian Emil Marie Küpper. His early years were spent painting and writing articles for magazines. Van Doesburg’s early pieces were influenced by Vincent van Gogh until 1912 when Doesburg began to criticize some of the modern movements such as Futurism.[1] As 1910s progressed, van Doesburg met a number of individuals whose friendships influenced his art down the line such as Antony Kok and Evert Rinsema.[2]  Perhaps the biggest achievement during the decade occurred in 1917 when van Doesburg, along with Mondrian, Wils, van der Leck, Oud, Antony Kok and Huszár, founded the movement De Stijl. Along with the declaration of the movement, van Doesburg founded the journal De Stijl in which he was the editor until his death. The journal’s vision was stated as thus, “This periodical hopes to make a contribution to the development of a new awareness of beauty. It wishes to make modern man receptive to what is new in the visual arts.”[3]

As time progressed, van Doesburg had a considerable influence in the Dutch art world, but none of his articles had been seen outside Holland before the 1920s; however, in 1920 van Doesburg began to travel to various European cities in order to promote the De Stijl movement which was widely recognized throughout Europe as van Doesburg’s travels progressed. As Carsten-Peter Warncke stated, “If De Stijl had a certain charisma about it that made it famous far beyond the Dutch borders, it was due to van Doesburg’s energy, untiring efforts and amazing resourcefulness. He was the driving force behind the movement and the central reference point for the various artists.”[4] De Stijl was largely successful due to van Doesburg’s ability to promote the style and goal of the movement while influencing the minds of other artists. In 1922, van Doesburg attempted to become a lecturer at the famous Bauhaus in Germany but was denied by Walter Gropius. Since he was unable to teach at the Bauhaus, van Doesburg set-up classes in his own studio nearby the Bauhaus instead. This attracted the attention of many of the Bauhaus students allowing van Doesburg to influence them in style of De Stijl.

As the 1920s progressed, van Doesburg’s influence continued to grow with his “critiques…published and reprinted in several languages throughout Europe.”[5] He focused less on De Stijl journal and instead on architecture projects leading to De Stijl architectural manifesto in 1924. In the late 1920s, van Doesburg contributed to the Het Bouwbedriff which reviewed architectural designs in European nations and also continued the publication of the De Stijl journal.[6] In March 1931 while van Doesburg was trying to recover his health in Switzerland he died of a heart attack.

In addition to being involved in the literature of art, van Doesburg produced numerous paintings with the De Stijl style. When van Doesburg founded the De Stijl movement, he wanted to deconstruct painting down to the simple shapes and colors. Generally van Doesburg would take a normal image of an object and draw a series of breakdowns where the object slowly becomes composed of similar shapes until all that remains are the simple shapes themselves. A good example of this process can be seen in van Doesburg’s approach to Rhythm of a Russian Dance in June 1918. Van Doesburg begins with a clear image of a Russian dancer and as the drawing progress the image becomes represented with more rectangles that overlap to form the image. Then, the rectangles size is decreased and the rectangles separated to form the final design for the piece. After the design is in place, van Doesburg uses only the primary colors to fill in rectangles while using different shades of white for the background to help distinguish the image. This process is seen in a variety of van Doesburg’s work including his Composition IX (abstract structure of card players) in 1917 and Composition VII (The Cow) in 1917.Van Doesburg reduced paintings down to the simplest level in order to remove art from the elitist stature and break away from old fashioned art forms such as still life and portraits which did not reflect the true spirituality of art seen in De Stijl. All across Europe and Russia there was an aura of change not only in art, but also politically and economically. The old- fashioned ways of painting were ostracized and instead replaced by unconventional methods of representing the image. De Stijl took the rather extreme approach of breaking down an image into its simplest parts and colors, namely rectangles and the primary colors.

In 1924 van Doesburg published his De Stijl architecture manifesto in Paris. This declaration attracted some of Paris’ best architectural minds to the De Stijl style. After this declaration, van Doesburg, along with other De Stijl artists, began to work on architectural designs. The goal of this new architectural movement was to integrate the ideas and philosophies of De Stijl and architecture in order to design the ideal modern home. Essentially the concepts for De Stijl paintings were the same as for architecture. As van Doesburg states, “Elimination of all concepts of form in the sense of a fixed type is essential to the healthy development of architecture and art as a whole.”[7] Similar to the De Stijl paintings, van Doesburg believed the purest way to represent an image was to break it down to the simplest level, even architecture. De Stijl architectural designs wanted to allow an integrated modern home experience without compromising the individuality of each element. For example van Doesburg stated, “Thus they form a coordinated system in which all points correspond to the same number points in the universe. It follows from this that the surfaces have a direct connexion to infinite space.”[8] Naturally many of the key aspects from the painting De Stijl style carried over into the architectural designs of van Doesburg. Similar to his paintings, the only shapes used were rectangles and squares, and the only colors used were the primaries and non-colors. The difference between van Doesburg’s paintings and his architectural designs is his how he incorporated the third dimension. Van Doesburg was attempting to create a new concept of space in the home, “Thus height, breadth, and depth plus time gain an entirely new plastic expression…which operates, as it were, in opposition to natural gravity.”[9] In addition to the third dimension, van Doesburg was interested in the fourth dimension’s (times) involvement within construction. To van Doesburg, by uniting the space and time aspects of architecture, a more complete architectural design could be achieved. [10]

Similar to other art styles attempts to reshape modern buildings, many De Stijl modern buildings were designed but were never produced on a large scale like they were intended. Two well-known models van Doesburg produced were Café Aubette Strasbourg and Contra-Construction Project Axonometric.[11][12] Café Aubette Strasbourg was designed as a modern café where people could come relax after work. It incorporates all of the normal De Stijl designs with large primary colored rectangles for the walls and open red cubes for people to sit in. It can also be noted the rectangles and squares on the side walls are placed at a diagonal. This is almost certainly due to van Doesburg’s disagreement over style with Piet Mondrian that had occurred a few years prior to the making of this model in 1927. Contra-Construction Project Axonometric is an interesting two-dimensional representation of a design for a private home. While van Doesburg did not include clear indications of floors and windows, the outline of the house can be seen with the essence of De Stijl. There are large open spaces in the design which is consistent with the idea of keeping the new architecture open.[13] Overall, both Café Aubette Strasbourg and Contra-Construction Project Axonometric were excellent models of van Doesburg’s attempt to integrate De Stijl and architecture, but, similar to other various art styles, unfortunately never realized on a large scale.

As stated prior, Piet Mondrian and van Doesburg had a disagreement over style around 1924. More specifically Mondrian did not believe in the use of diagonal lines whereas van Doesburg believed they could be used to bring a dynamic aspect to De Stijl. After the split, van Doesburg developed a new theory that incorporated diagonal lines into the De Stijl style. He called this new art theory Elementarism.

Elementarism was staunchly opposed to Mondrian’s Neoplasticism which can be seen in the opening statement of its manifesto, “Elementarism was born, partly as a reaction against an all too dogmatic and often short-sided application of Neoplasticism… [and] as a strict correction of Neoplasticist ideas.”[14]  Van Doesburg believed the diagonals truly captured the human spirit because, “…recognizes neither the left nor right, neither symmetry, nor static, nor the exclusively Horizontal-Vertical but is always in revolt, in opposition, to nature.”[15] An example of an Elementarism painting produced by van Doesburg is Simultaneous Counter-Composition. Simultaneous Counter-Composition followed the normal De Stijl style of using squares and primary colors, but instead of having all of the lines and shapes vertical and horizontal, some of the shapes are placed on diagonals. Overall, van Doesburg’s Elementarism theory changed his style from using solely horizontal and vertical lines, as seen in Rhythm of a Russian Dance, to the incorporation of diagonal lines to bring a dynamic aspect to his paintings, as seen in Simultaneous Counter-Composition.

When van Doesburg founded De Stijl, he started an art movement that would change his life. From his contributions to numerous journals and magazines to his own De Stijl paintings, van Doesburg led an influential life. His paintings can still be found in museums worldwide, and his architectural designs influenced future architectural movements for decades to come.

 

 

Bibliography

Langmead, Donald. The Artists of De Stijl: A Guide to the Literature. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000. 66-69.

Van Doesburg, Theo. Café Aubette Strasbourg. Ink on paper, 1927. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

Van Doesburg, Theo. Construction Project Axonometric. Gouache on lithograph, 1923. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

Van Doesburg, Theo. “From Painting and Sculpture: Elementarism.” In De Stijl, edited by Hans L.C. Jaffé, 215. New York:  H.N. Abrams, 1971.

Van Doesburg, Theo. Towards a Plastic Architecture. 1924. 78-79. http://www.gwu.edu/~art/Temporary_SL/177/pdfs/Doesburg.pdf

 

 

 

 


[1] Donald Langmead, The Artists of De Stijl: A Guide to the Literature (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000), 66.

[2] Langmead, 66.

[3] Langmead, 66.

[4] Langmead, 67.

[5] Langmead, 69.

[6] Langmead, 69.

[7] Theo van Doesburg, “Towards a Plastic Architecture,” (1924), 78.

[8] Van Doesburg, 78.

[9] Van Doesburg, 79.

[10] Van Doesburg, 79.

[11] Theo van Doesburg, Café Aubette Strasbourg, Ink on paper, 1927, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

[12] Theo van Doesburg, Construction Project Axonometric, Gouache on lithograph, 1923, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

[13] Van Doesburg, 79.

[14] Theo van Doesburg, “From Painting and Sculpture: Elementarism,” in De Stijl, ed. Hans L.C. Jaffé (New York:  H.N. Abrams, 1971), 215.

[15] Van Doesburg 215.

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