Theo van Doesburg: Wikis


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Theo van Doesburg
Theo van Doesburg as Sergeant Küpper. c 1915.
Birth name Christian Emil Marie Küpper
Born 30 August 1883(1883-08-30)
Utrecht, Netherlands
Died 7 April 1931 (aged 47)
Davos, Switzerland
Nationality Dutch
Field painting, architecture, poetry
Movement Neo-Plasticism, Elementarism, Concrete art, Dadaism

Theo van Doesburg (Utrecht, 30 August 1883 – Davos, 7 March 1931) was a Dutch artist, practicing in painting, writing, poetry and architecture. He is best known as the founder and leader of De Stijl.



Self-portrait with hat. 1906.

Early life

Theo van Doesburg was born as Christian Emil Marie Küpper on 30 August 1883 in Utrecht as the son of the photographer Wilhelm Küpper and Henrietta Catherina Margadant. After a short training in acting and singing he decided to become a painter. He always regarded his stepfather, Theodorus Doesburg, to be his natural father, so that his first works are signed with Theo Doesburg, to which he later added the insertion "van". His first exhibition was in 1908. He supported his works by copying paintings from the Rijksmuseum[citation needed] and, from 1912 onwards, writing for magazines. Although he considered himself to be a modern painter at that time, his early work is in line with the Amsterdam Impressionists and is influenced by Vincent van Gogh, both in style and subject matter. This suddenly changed in 1913 after reading Wassily Kandinsky's Rückblicke, in which he looks back at his life as a painter from 1903-1913. It made him realize there was a higher, more spiritual level in painting that originates from the mind rather than from everyday life, and that abstraction is the only logical outcome of this.

Principal contributors to De Stijl 1917-1927.

Neo-Plasticism: Composition VII (the three graces). 1917.
Elementarism: Counter-Composition XVI in dissonances. 1925.
A reconstruction of the dance hall/cinema designed by Theo van Doesburg: “Cinébal” at the Aubette in Strasbourg.
Congress of the Union of International Progressive Artists held at Düsseldorf, May 1922.

The De Stijl movement

It was while reviewing an exposition for one of these magazines he wrote for, in 1915 (halfway through his two-year service in the army), that he came in contact with the works of Piet Mondrian, who was eight years older than him, and had by then already gained some attention with his paintings. Van Doesburg saw in these paintings his ideal in painting: 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 in 1917.

Promoting De Stijl

Although 'De Stijl' was made up of many members, Van Doesburg was the 'ambassador' of the movement, promoting it across Europe. He moved to Weimar in 1922, deciding to make an impression on the Bauhaus principal, Walter Gropius, in order to spread the influence of the movement.

While Gropius accepted many of the precepts of contemporary art movements he did not feel that Doesburg should become a Bauhaus master. Doesburg then installed himself near to the Bauhaus buildings and started to attract school students interested in the new ideas of Constructivism. Dadaism, and De Stijl.

The split with Mondrian

The friendship between Van Doesburg and Mondrian remained strong in these years, although their primary way of communication was by letter. In 1923 Van Doesburg moved to Paris together with his later wife Nelly van Moorsel. Because the two men got to see each other on a much more regular basis the differences in character became apparent: Mondrian was an introvert, while van Doesburg was more flamboyant and extravagant. During 1924 the two men had disagreements, which eventually led to a (temporary) split in the same year. The exact reason for this split has been a point of contention among art historians; usually the divergent ideas about the directions of the lines in the paintings have been named as the primary reason: Mondrian never accepted diagonals, whereas Doesburg insisted on the diagonal's dynamic aspects, and indeed featured it in his art. Mondrian accepted some concepts of diagonals, such as in his "Lozenge" paintings, where the canvas was rotated 45 degrees, while still maintaining horizontal lines. In recent years, however, this theory gained critique from art historians such as Carel Blotkamp, who cites their different concepts about space and time as the main reason for the split. After the split, Van Doesburg launched a new concept for his art, Elementarism, which was characterized by the diagonal lines and rivaled with Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism.

In 1929 the two men reconciled when they accidentally met in a café in Paris.[citation needed]

Architecture, design, and typography

Bonset zig-zag.jpg
Van Doesburg's partner Nelly van Moorsel as I.K. Bonset.
Concrete art: Arithmetic Composition. 1929-1930.

Van Doesburg had other activities apart from painting and promoting De Stijl: he made efforts in architecture, designing houses for artists, together with Georges Vantongerloo and he designed the decoration for the Café Aubette in Strasbourg. Together with El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters, Van Doesburg pioneered the efforts to an International of Arts in two congresses held in Düsseldorf and Weimar, in 1922. A geometrically constructed alphabet Van Doesburg designed in 1919 has been revived in digital form as Architype Van Doesburg. This typeface anticipates similar later experimentation by Kurt Schwitters in his typeface Architype Schwitters.

Van Doesburg also kept a link with DADA, publishing the magazine Mécano under the heteronym of I.K. Bonset (possibly an anagram of "Ik ben zot", Dutch for "I am foolish"). He also published Dada poetry under the same name in De Stijl. Under a second pseudonym, Aldo Camini, he published anti-philosophical prose, inspired by the Italian representative of Metaphysical art, Carlo Carrà. In these works of literature, he heavily opposed individualism (and thus against the movement of the Tachtigers, realism, and psychological thinking. He sought for a collective experience of reality. His conception of intensity had much in common with Paul van Ostaijen's conception of "dynamiek". He wanted to strip words of their former meaning, and give them a new meaning and power of expression. By doing this, he tried to evoke a new reality, instead of describing it.

Last years

Van Doesburg stayed active in art groups such as Cercle et Carré, Art Concret and Abstraction-Création, which he founded in 1931. At the end of February 1931 he was forced to move to Davos in Switzerland because of his declining health. Van Doesburg did not recuperate: on 7 March 1931 he died of a heart attack. After his death Nelly van Doesburg released the last issue of De Stijl as a memorial issue with contributions by old and new members from De Stijl.


  • Baljeu, Joos. Theo van Doesburg. Studio Vista: 1974, ISBN 0-289-70358-1.
  • Hoek, Els, Marleen Blokhuis, Ingrid Goovaerts, Natalie Kamphuys, et al. Theo Van Doesburg: Oeuvre Catalogus. Centraal Museum: 2000. ISBN 90-6868-255-5.
  • Overy, Paul. De Stijl. Studio Vista: 1969. ISBN 0-289-79622-9.
  • White, Michael: De Stijl and Dutch modernism. Manchester University Press: 2003. ISBN 0-7190-6162-8.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Theo van Doesburg (30 August 18837 March 1931) was a Dutch artist, practicing in painting, writing, poetry and architecture. He is best known as the founder and leader of De Stijl together with Piet Mondrian. Later he engaged himself more with Dadaism, in cooperation with Kurt Schwitters and Hans Arp.


  • .. art and life are no longer separate domains.. ..The word ‘art’ no longer has anything to say to us. In place of that, we (= De Stijl) insist upon the construction of our surroundings according to creative laws, deriving from a fixed principle. (on integration of art in life, 1918)
    • Abstract Art, Anna Moszynska, Thames and Hudson 1990, p. 85
  • We speak of concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a colour, a surface. (1925)
    • Abstract Art, Anna Moszynska, Thames and Hudson 1990, p. 107
  • It must be emphasized that in seeing a work of art that has been composed by precise means, the viewer does not perceive dominant details. His impression is one of perfect balance to which all the parts contribute, an impression which not only applies to the parts as such, but is transmitted also to the relation existing between the work of art and the viewer. Although it is very difficult to express in words the effect of a work of art, it may be said that the viewer’s deepest impression can best be defined as the achievement of a balance between objective meaning and subjectieve meaning, both directly penetrated by awareness. He has a sensation of height and of depth which are no longer in any way bound to natural conditions or to spatial dimensions, a sensation which places the viewer in a state of consciousnes harmony. (1925)
    • Abstract Painting, Michel Seuphor, Dell Publishing Co. 1964, p. 85-86
  • True artistic experience is never passive, for the spectator is obliged to participate, as it were, in the continuous or discontinuous variations of proportions, positions, lines and planes. Moreover, he must see clearly how this play of repeated or non-repeated changes may give rise to a new harmony of relations which will constitute the unity of the work. Every part becomes organized into a whole with the other parts. All the parts contribute to the unity of the composition, none of them assuming a dominant place in the whole. (on the necessary unity of a piece of art, 1925)
    • Abstract Painting, Michel Seuphor, Dell Publishing Co. 1964, p. 86
  • The work of art should be entirely conceived and formed by the mind before its execution. It should receive nothing from Nature’s formal properties or from sensuality or sentimentality.. ..The picture should be constructed entirely from purely plastic elements, that is to say, planes and colours. A pictorial element has no other significance than ‘itself’, and therefore the picture has no other significance than 'itself'. (on plastic art)
    • first and only issue of the artmagazine Art Concret, Paris 1930


  • "Art as we understand it.. ..does develop powers that in turn determine culture as a whole."
  • "..every machine is the spiritualization of an organism." - Attributed to Theo van Doesburg by Reyner Banham in his book "Theory and design in the first machine age".

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