Theo van Doesburg

Counter-Composition VI

1925

Artist
Theo van Doesburg 1883–1931
Original title
Contre-compositie
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 500 x 500 mm
frame: 690 x 691 x 80 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1982
Reference
T03374

Summary

Counter-Composition VI is a square oil painting by the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg. This monochrome work features two grids, one on a vertical axis and the other on a diagonal, that crisscross against a white background. Three intersecting thick black bars have been painted within the diagonal grid: the smallest, located at the bottom centre-right of the composition, takes up only two squares of the grid, travelling from right to left before meeting the largest bar, which extends over eight squares in a left to right direction. The third bar meets this second bar towards its top, rising to the upper left of the composition over six squares.

Van Doesburg created Counter-Composition VI in 1925 using oil paint on a medium-weight canvas attached to a wooden stretcher. The canvas has been commercially prepared with an off-white ground. The paint was mostly applied with a brush, although conservation reports suggest that the black lines may have been drawn in with a pen (see Susan Breen, Tate Conservation Report, 12 March 2014, Tate Conservation File). The work has been left unvarnished.

In 1915 van Doesburg was inspired by the spirituality of Piet Mondrian’s abstract work to form the principles of the De Stijl movement, and he founded and became editor of the journal De Stijl in 1917. Ten years later, in 1925, van Doesburg reintroduced the diagonal into his work in his series of Counter-Composition works of which this one is a part. De Stijl design projects for private houses and for the 1923 De Stijl exhibition at Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery L’Effort Moderne helped the artist develop the dynamic principle of the series. He termed this Elementarism and outlined it in his 1928 De Stijl article ‘L’Elémentarisme et son origine’ (see van Doesburg 1928, pp.20–5), explaining that Elementarism was ‘based on the neutralization of positive and negative directions by the diagonal and, as far as color is concerned, by the dissonant.’ (Quoted in Jaffé 1956, p.126.)

Despite using extremely limited formalist parameters, the Counter-Composition paintings are a schematically varied sequence that investigate contemporary ideas about both science and spirituality. The earlier work Contra-compositie V 1924 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), contains large squares of the three primary colours together with one black square, all presented on a white background. The forms are set on a diagonal grid as in the Counter-Composition VI, although the grid is not visible. Counter-Composition VIII (Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago) is dated to 1924, but appears to further formalise the principles of Counter-Composition VI by dispensing with the grid lines and taking the shape of a diamond when hung, rather than a square. Van Doesburg’s ambitions for this sequence were for each plane to be ‘part of peripheric space and construction has to be more conceived as a phenomenon of tension than as one of relations in the plane.’ (Quoted in Jaffé 1956, p.126.)

The Counter-Composition series of the 1920s marks van Doesburg’s transition from neo-plasticism to concrete art in the 1930s (see Theo van Doesburg, ‘Base de la peinture concrète’, Art Concret, no.1, April 1930, p.1). Curator and writer Magdalena Dabrowski writes that these works ‘illustrate his search for means to convey dynamic quality in art, a quest aligned with the spirit of the contemporaneous theories of the fourth dimension and the space-time relationship’ (Dabrowski 1985, p.111).

Further reading
Theo van Doesburg, ‘L’Elémentarisme et son origine’, De Stijl, vol.8, nos.87–9, 1928, pp.20–5.
Magdalena Dabrowski, Contrasts of Form: Geometric Abstract Art 1910–1980, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1985, pp.111–12.
Allan Doig, ‘Doesburg, Theo van’, Grove Art Online, 1998, http://www.oxfordartonline.com:80/subscriber/article/grove/art/T023071, reproduced, accessed 17 June 2016.

Hana Leaper
June 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

Van Doesburg was the editor of De Stijl magazine and its combination of art, architecture and design reflected his own wide-ranging activities. He painted his first ‘Counter-Composition’ in 1924, using a diagonal grid to create a dynamic tension between the composition and the rectilinear format of the canvas. For van Doesburg, the shift marked a spiritual liberation from the ‘earth-bound’ verticals and horizontals used by the De Stijl group.

Gallery label, November 2015

Catalogue entry

T03374 Counter-Composition VI 1925


Oil on canvas 19 11/16 × 19 11/16 (500 × 500)

Inscribed ‘HAUT’ on top bar of stretcher and ‘THEO VAN DOESBURG/1925’ on back of canvas
Purchased from the estate of Frau Ilse E. Vordemberge-Leda through Juda Rowan Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1982

Prov: Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, Hannover (from the artist, by exchange 1925); Frau Ilse E. Vordemberge-Leda, Rapperswil
Exh: Theo Van Doesburg 1883–1931, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, December 1968–January 1969 (A35); Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, February–March 1969 (A35); Kunsthalle, Nuremberg, April–June 1969 (A30); Kunsthalle, Basle, August–September 1969 (A30); Vordemberge-Gildewart Remembered, Annely Juda Fine Art, July–September 1974 (43, repr.); Abstraction-Création 1931–1936, Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster, April–June 1978 (Van Doesburg 1, repr.); Line and Movement, Annely Juda Fine Art, June–September 1979 (13, repr.); The 1st Russian Show, Annely Juda Fine Art, September–December 1983 (92, repr.)
Repr: De Stijl, VII, no.78, 1927, p.92 as ‘Contre-Compositie’ 1925; The Tate Gallery Illustrated Biennial Report 1982–84, 1984, p.44

Van Doesburg painted his first ‘Counter-Composition’ in 1924, the title denoting that the lines of the composition are at 45 degrees to the sides of the picture instead of being parallel to them, so that there is a dynamic interaction between the composition and the format of the canvas. The sketch for this particular work in an ‘elementarist’ sketchbook in the Van Doesburg archive at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, shows that it was originally conceived as a lozenge (that is to say hung obliquely by a corner), though the picture itself is inscribed ‘HAUT’ along the top bar of the stretcher, which indicates that it was meant to be hung in the conventional manner.

This picture belonged to the German abstract painter Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, who joined the de Stijl group in 1924 and obtained it from Van Doesburg in Paris in 1925 in exchange for two of his own works.


Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986