The Essence of a Complicated Artist: Van Doesburg Exhibition in Leiden and London

Theo van Doesburg, Simultaneous Counter Composition (1929-30). Digital image © 2009, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence.

In the 1920s, a number of Dutch artists were associated with the journal De Stijl. All of them incorporated the characteristic De Stijl elements in their work: the use of the primary colours red, yellow and blue, complemented by white, grey and black, and a clear domination of horizontal and vertical lines. Their work embodied a quest for the essence of the art of painting, combined with the notion that, by creating a well-designed living environment, humankind would experience inner improvement. The best known contributor to this movement is undoubtedly Mondrian, who is part of the Tremendously Famous Triumvirate of Dutch painting (the other two triumviri being Rembrandt and Van Gogh). De Stijl itself owes much of its acclaim to his Rubik cube-like 'Neo-Plasticist' paintings and of course also to the Red and Blue Chair designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1917.  Incidentally, speaking of renown, the White Stripes' album 'De Stijl' (2000) was dedicated to furniture designer Rietveld, thus proclaiming the minimalist and deconstructionist aspects of the movement's priciples of design as a source of inspiration for their own musical image and presentation.

The White Stripes: De Stijl's primary colours revisited

Mondrian and Rietveld may be the poster boys, the founder of the journal De Stijl, however, was Theo van Doesburg. He was also the chief advocate of the movement's ideas of a synthesis of arts and society, of a new utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and order. Van Doesburg, born as C. E. M. Kupper in Utrecht in 1883, started out as a painter in the Van Gogh vein, but after reading Wassily Kandinsky's Rückblicke and , later on, meeting Mondrian, he dedicated himself to a higher, more spiritual level in painting that originates from the mind rather than from everyday life, an idea which led logically and inevitably to abstraction.

Van Doesburg's temperament made him the public leader of the group. He was a radical, impulsive and opinonated man, with controversially strong likes and dislikes, in contrast to the far more reticent and cautious Mondrian, with whom he had a serious disagreement and even a temporary split about their different concepts about space and time. He also travelled extensively from 1919 on, giving lectures, writing numerous articles, and initiating many personal contacts with the avant-garde leaders in countries such as France and Germany. That made him truly the ambassador of De Stijl and a spokesman for its concerns about social and spiritual reform rather than focussing on purely artistic achievements.

Theo and Nelly van Doesburg in the studio on Rue du Moulin Vert, Paris. 1923

No wonder then that in an exhibition which just opened at the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, Van Doesburg is represented as a lynchpin of the European avant-garde. 'Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World' will also travel to the London Tate Gallery in due course (4 February- 16 May 2010). Next to work by Van Doesburg himself and dozens of related objects (magazines, posters, movies, furniture), there are over 300 works by 80 different artists on display, including works by Alexander Archipenko, Raoul Hausmann, El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter, Sophie Taeuber and - of course - Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld.  The exhibition does not only concentrate on Van Doesburg's 'pivotal role as a conduit for the international exchange of information and ideas' but also on his 'search of unity in the arts' (see Saskia Bak in the seventh yearbook The Low Countries) as a painter, architect, designer, poet, typographer, art critic and publisher. It's a fitting tribute to a complicated man's desire for simplicity and essence, who once wrote that 'the new architecture is anti-decorative', but whose less transparent lack of patience and tact also prevented Walter Gropius from making him a teacher at the Berlin Bauhaus.

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