Theo van Doesburg was one of the leading figures in the development of geometric abstraction. A highly versatile artist in his own right, he was also the founder and chief spokesman of the De Stijl group, and edited the magazine of the same name. As he developed contacts across Europe, he became a sounding board and transmitter of ideas for a diverse network of artists who shared his desire to construct a new world. This exhibition explores his pivotal role within the international avant-garde not only through his own work – as artist, designer, writer and editor – but also that of the artists he promoted, collaborated with, learned from and influenced.
In his effort to create a universal art, van Doesburg wanted to establish a visual vocabulary comprised of elementary geometrical forms comprehensible by all and adaptable to any discipline. His first magazine De Stijl (1917–18) promoted these ideas and the artists associated with Dutch Neo-Plasticism and Constructivism. In the Dada-oriented Mécano (1922–3), the emphasis was on eradicating traditional approaches to art and advancing artistic ‘counter-proposals’. Though very different, the publications reflected two sides of van Doesburg’s striving for an aesthetic and social revolution.
Born in Utrecht in 1883 as Christian Emil Marie Küpper, he adopted the name Theo van Doesburg (derived from his stepfather, Theodorus Doesburg) for his career as painter and art critic. Initially he worked in a naturalistic style and made Impressionist portraits and landscapes. Around 1914–15 he began to experiment with abstraction, influenced by the writings of Wassily Kandinsky. Like Kandinsky, he saw abstraction as directly embodying the spiritual qualities that he believed to be fundamental to all works of art. It could be a means of expressing the artist’s inner emotions, or of representing the mystical forces underlying the visible world, reflecting a doctrine known as theosophy. Yet by 1916 he was questioning Kandinsky’s theories in favour of a more ordered, rational aesthetic associated with Cubism, envisioning a mathematical approach to composition that would not be realised until the mid-1920s.
Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World is curated by Gladys Fabre, Independent Curator, Vicente Todolí, Director, Tate Modern, and Doris Wintgens Hötte, Curator, Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, with Juliet Bingham, Curator, Tate Modern and Michael White, Consultant Curator, assisted by Iria Candela, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern, Wenny Teo, Curatorial Assistant, Tate Modern, Bridget Donlon, Claudia Segura and GlebVysotski, Curatorial Interns, Tate Modern.
Exhibition organised by Tate Modern, in collaboration with Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden