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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Theo van Doesburg

Counter composition XIII, 1929, Theo van Doesburg
Sometime around September, 1968, I was taking my first bonafide college-level class at the University of Maryland. I was still in the U.S. Air Force at the time stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland. It was an English composition class for military personnel only. Up until that time, I'd done quite a bit of fictional writing. It had always come easily to me and I considered myself a reasonably competent writer. Then I got back my first writing assignment. It was fairly dripping with red ink. The instructor had really done a job on my work. I was stunned. In writing about that moment later in the course, the instructor suggested I'd had an epiphany. It was pretty hard to argue with that since I had no idea what an "epiphany" was. Consulting Merriam-Webster, I learned that an epiphany (apart from its religious or supernatural implications) is "...a moment of sudden revelation or insight." I couldn't have agreed more. I suddenly had the revealing insight that I wasn't even half the writer I thought I was. I had a lot to learn...and I did. I got an "A" in the course.

Mouvement Héroïque, 1916, Theo van Doesburg
In 1913, Theo van Doesburg also had an epiphany. He was reading Wassily Kandinsky's Rückblicke (Recaps), in which he looks back at his life as a painter from 1903–1913. The book caused van Doesburg to realize that there was a higher, more spiritual level in painting which originated from the mind rather than from everyday life; and that therefore, abstraction was the only logical outcome. Up until this point, van Doesburg had always considered himself to be a modernist painter, although his early work was more in line with the Amsterdam Impressionists, influenced by Vincent van Gogh both in style and subject matter. A month or two later, van Doesburg further discovered the work of Piet Mondrian and that artist's reliance upon lines. Van Doesburg wrote in his journal: "The line has almost become a work of art in itself; one cannot play with it when the representation of objects perceived is all-important. The white canvas is almost solemn. Each superfluous line, each wrongly placed line, any color placed without veneration or care, can spoil everything—that is, the spiritual [aspect]."

What was Modern Art like one-hundred years ago?
You're looking at it.
Published from 1917
through 1931.
Theo van Doesburg was born Christian Emil Marie Küpper on August 30, 1883. He grew up in Utrecht, the Netherlands, as the stepson of a photographer. In his early years, he trained to become an actor, but after a short time, decided he wanted to be an artist instead. Van Doesburg's first exhibition was in 1908. From 1912 onwards, he supported himself by writing for magazines. It was while reviewing an exposition for one of these magazines in 1915 (while still serving in the army), that he came in contact with the works of Mondrian, who was eight years older than van Doesburg and had by then already gained some attention with his paintings. Van Doesburg saw in those paintings his ideal: a complete abstraction of reality. Soon after the exposition Van Doesburg got in contact with Mondrian, and together with related artists Bart van der Leck, Anthony Kok, Vilmos Huszar, and J.J.P. Oud, they founded the magazine, De Stijl (The Style) in 1917.

Van Doesburg's work shows considerable influences relating
to Mondrian and their on-again, off-again friendship. Note
his use of diagonals, however, a design element seldom seen
in Mondrian's work.
Composition in Gray
 (Rag-time), 1919,
Theo van Doesburg
In 1923 Van Doesburg moved to Paris where he worked alongside Mondrian on various art and architecture works. Because the two men got to see each other on a much more regular basis, the differences in character became apparent: Mon-drian was an introvert, while van Doesburg was more flamboyant and extravagant. During 1924 the two men had disagreements of various kinds, the primary one being the fact that Mondrian never accepted diagonals, while van Doesburg insisted on the diagonal's dynamic aspects, as featured in his art. In recent years, however, art historians cite their different concepts as to time and space as the reason for the split. After the split, Van Doesburg launched a new concept for his art, Elementarism, which was characterized by the diagonal lines rivaled Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism. In 1929 the two men reconciled when they accidentally met in a Paris café.

Van Doesburg's abstract tribute(upper image) to
Cezanne's series of Card Players.
Van Doesburg had other activities apart from painting and promoting De Stijl. He became involved in architecture and interior design for other artists. In 1919 he designed a geometrically constructed alphabet which has been revived in digital form as Architype Van Doesburg. This typeface anticipates similar later experimentation by Kurt Schwitters in his typeface Architype Schwitters.

De Stijl was as much about graphic design as it was about painting.
As he grew older, Theo van Doesburg remained active in art groups and the magazine Cercle et Carré. In the spring of 1928 Van Doesburg made the first designs for the layout of the periodical he called Art Concret. He co-founded Art Concret in 1929, along with Abstraction-Création, in 1931. Toward the end of February, 1931, van Doesburg was forced to move to Switzerland because of his declining health. He died of a heart attack in March 1931. After his death his wife released the last issue of De Stijl as a memorial issue with contributions by new writers and old ones from past issues.

Composition Décentralisée,
1924, Theo van Doesburg.
His Counter composition XIII
(top) was one of his final paintings.


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