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Theo van Doesburg: Jack of all trades, master as well

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As a retrospective of the work of Theo van Doesburg and his contemporaries opens at the Tate Modern, Joseph Rykwert recalls the life of the Dutch polymath

Constructing a New World: van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde, Tate Modern, until 16 May, £10, www.tate.org.uk/modern

Dadaist, neo-plasticist, futurist, constructivist, elementarist – Theo van Doesburg was all of these and more. Not separately either, but often simultaneously. A few of the movements he founded himself. Nor was just his given name, Emil Küpper, enough for him – he took others: van Doesburg, most famously; IK Bonset, for his Dada activities; and Aldo Camini when he was a quasi-Futurist anti-philosopher. He even contemplated taking Küpper as another pseudonym.

All this makes him seem restless, which, of course, he was. Go and visit the exhilarating exhibition at Tate Modern (never mind the mouthful of a title) that displays his work along with that of his contemporaries (its context as well as his influence) to gain a sense of the feverish, seemingly inexhaustible energy and the impact of this prodigiously talented painter, sculptor, typographer, poet and architect over the 15 years of his activity. Throughout this time he was also dogged by ill health, dying at 47 of a heart attack.

The matrix of all his work was architecture. The overweening figure of Hendrik Petrus Berlage was the dominant influence on van Doesburg’s early associates, the architects JJP Oud and Jan Wils. Like Berlage, they were very impressed by the achievements of Frank Lloyd Wright, particularly his analysis of built volume into planar compositions, which became a point of reference for Dutch architects and artists.

Some of van Doesburg’s earliest work in the Tate show are stained glass windows and coloured-tile compositions for Oud’s early, all-too-stolid buildings. And it has to be said that they do look a bit crummy in contrast to the brilliance of his paintings from the same period. By then, he had encountered his most important associate – Piet Mondrian. Mondrian was almost his opposite: fastidious, withdrawn and already master of that abstraction to which van Doesburg aspired.

A little later he met the young cabinet-maker, Gerrit Rietveld, who was transforming himself into an architect (his craft training gave him a mastery of material), as well as Robert van t’Hoff, who had studied architecture in England and taken himself to Chicago where, like the older and grander Berlage, he had seen Wright’s buildings. Being much better off than the others, he became the patron of De Stijl, the small but hugely influential periodical that Mondrian and van Doesburg (with Oud, Wils and some others) had launched and which, over the following decade, became one of the most influential avant-garde publications.

During this time, van t’Hoff joined the Communist party and jibbed at his associates’ lack of political commitment. Having denounced ‘proletarian’ art, van Doesburg was still, however, looking for a corporate context. Anyway, Holland was too narrow for his activities. Mondrian had moved to Paris in 1919 (where he stayed till the impending war drove him to London, then the Blitz to New York), while van Doesburg was drawn to the more effervescent Berlin and the Bauhaus, which seemed to be a centre for new art.

He arrived in Weimar early in 1921. It has never been clear whether he had actually been engaged to teach or whether he was presuming on a chance invitation. At any rate, he tried to establish an explosive Dadaist-constructivist international centre there (with conferences, publications and so on) and held extra-curricular courses. His impact was instant and powerful. The mystic-expressionist atmosphere fostered by the most influential of the earliest masters, Johannes Itten, was displaced by the more impersonal constructivist teaching of van Doesburg’s associate, László Moholy-Nagy, who became the youngest Bauhaus teacher. It was at Weimar that he also met another collaborator, the young Dutch architect Cornelis van Eesteren, whom he induced to present a De Stijldesign for his final thesis, which was rejected by the Dutch examiners.

It was inflation time and Van Doesburg and his third wife Nelly moved to Paris as his attention veered increasingly to architecture. The 1923 De Stijl exhibition at the l’Effort Moderne gallery displayed a number of models he made with van Eesteren and which have been convincingly re-created for the Tate exhibition. The summation of his work was, appropriately enough, an interior – a cine-club and bar, l’Aubette in Strasbourg (AJ 16.11.06) – which he designed with Hans/Jean and Sophie Arp. The drawings and models for it make a wonderful climax to the show. Sadly, his last projects, for high-rises over traffic lanes, had none of the excitement of the futurists, nor the lyrical appeal of Le Corbusier’s analogously visionary proposals.

One of the things the show almost forces you to do is to compare: Van Doesburg never had the crystalline concentration of Mondrian, nor did he achieve the light-fingered brilliance of Herbert Bayer in his typographic essays. Without Cornelis van Eesteren’s collaboration, his architecture was halting. Yet the whole was so much bigger than all his parts. Without the heady excitement he offered, the art of the 20th century would have been different and very much poorer.

Joseph Rykwert is an architectural historian. He is professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and Paul Philippe Cret professor of architecture

De Stijl – van Doesburg’s creative set

Theo van Doesburg moved in what were to become rarefied circles of the architecture world. His peers included architecture greats JJP Oud, HP Berlage and Gerrit Rietveld, but also included painters, typographers and poets. The picture below shows him sporting a hat made of a cover of De Stijlmagazine at the Weimar Congress of Constructivists and Dadaists in September 1922. De Stijl, which he founded, was published between 1917 and 1932.

Like its creator, the magazine was a magnet for European talent. Among the group pictured here is his third wife Nelly; experimental photographer Max Burchartz; Russian constructivist El Lissitzky (of Red Wedge fame); graphic artist Werner Graeff; architect and planner Cornelis van Eesteren; painter
and film-maker Hans Richter; poet and critic Tristan Tzara; and sculptor Jean Arp, van Doesburg’s collaborator on Strasbourg cine-club and bar l’Aubette.

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