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The Art Story Homepage Artists Theo van Doesburg Art Works

Theo van Doesburg Artworks

Dutch Painter, Designer, and Architect

Theo van Doesburg Photo
Movements and Styles: De Stijl, Neo-Plasticism, Concrete Art, Bauhaus

Born: Born: August 30, 1883 - Utrecht, Netherlands

Died: Died: March 7, 1931 - Davos, Switzerland

Artworks by Theo van Doesburg

The below artworks are the most important by Theo van Doesburg - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Dancers (c. 1916)

Dancers (c. 1916)

An example of van Doesburg's early abstraction work before the influence of Mondrian, Dancers presents his explorations into Theosophy and spiritualism. The two figures in the diptych are abstracted representations of the Hindu deity Krishna, dancing and playing the flute. He based the images on a Theosophy figurine of the deity, showing two sides of the figurine in the diptych. Van Doesburg sought to portray spiritual ideas which ignited his belief in the higher powers of art. The Theosophical doctrine outlined in the painting is of the harmony that exists between things on the ideal, divine level underneath the chaotic surface images of everyday existence. By abstracting away the chaotic elements, and representing the harmonious realm beyond the surface, art could make people aware of, and allow them to experience, a spiritual perspective. In the work, he borrows the techniques of Indian art, in which colors and shapes do not reflect nature, but instead express spiritual truths and states.

Composition VIII (The Cow) (c. 1918)

Composition VIII (The Cow) (c. 1918)

Acting on his mission to inform people of the tenets of De Stijl, van Doesburg abstracted the image of a grazing cow, beginning by creating figurative studies, and gradually changing the image until the cow became a carefully coordinated arrangement of colorful rectangles and squares. Van Doesburg used this composition, as well as his preliminary studies, in a treatise on De Stijl that he distributed for educational purposes. This painting is part of the artist's early foray into De Stijl, and demonstrates his passion for the burgeoning movement. This painting literally demonstrates the meaning of "abstracted" or "to abstract" in that it simplifies and reduces the thing depicted, transforming it into basic geometric structural components. A contrast between Dancers and Composition VIII (The Cow) demonstrates the change in his abstraction before and after creating De Stijl.

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Rhythm of a Russian Dance (1918)

Rhythm of a Russian Dance (1918)

Dating from the beginning of van Doesburg's career, this work demonstrates the artist's willingness to modify his ideas about De Stijl's aesthetics. In this painting the movements of traditional Russian dancers, in quick sweeps and short stops that are carefully timed and emphatically horizontal or vertical, are suggested with long narrow lines of various colors. The colored lines seem to move in short, quick bursts and then become very static once again. Here he is combining the static order of De Stijl with dynamic rhythm, signifying the radical ideas that would cause the break between him and Mondrian. The painting, he felt, was proof that abstraction was more concrete than naturalist painting, because it realistically depicted the mental constructs behind ideas.

Stained glass Composition IV (1918)

Stained glass Composition IV (1918)

As van Doesburg began to explore the integration of fine, decorative, and applied arts at the end of World War I, stained glass was a frequent choice for his forays into achieving this unification. The carefully arranged small rectangles and squares of clear, black, blue, yellow, and red glass with black lines created with the lead framing customary of stained glass is an early example of how he modified De Stijl to have a livelier, musically rhythmic effect not seen in Mondrian's Neoplastic painting of that time. However two decades later, in Broadway Boogie Woogie, Mondrian also experimented with incorporating the rhythmic elements of music into his paintings. So, long after van Doesburg's death, Mondrian explored some of the themes van Doesburg had pioneered.

Color design for the floor, walls and ceiling of an academic building in Amsterdam (1923)

Color design for the floor, walls and ceiling of an academic building in Amsterdam (1923)

This design is an early example of van Doesburg's use of diagonal organization of rectangles and squares. It shows the octagonal shaped skylight over one of the larger rooms in the college building and the upper parts of the walls adjacent to it in a flat, diagrammatic way. He is attempting to bring elements of De Stijl into the third dimension by using the primary colors and geometry of the style in architectural designs. Additionally, he has incorporated his interpretation of the aesthetics into the diagram with the diagonals. It was this difference in opinion that is cited as the reason for his break with Mondrian. In his architectural works of this period, he hoped to prompt the viewer to a dynamic visual interpretation of volumes that did not rely on a stable construct or structure. In the following year during which he conceived of his related theory of Elementarism, and began painting his Counter-Compositions.

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Counter-Composition in Dissonance 16 (1925)

Counter-Composition in Dissonance 16 (1925)

This geometrically abstract painting is the most famous work in van Doesburg's Counter-Compositions series. It consists of rectangles outlined in black and tilted at 45-degree angles relative to the edges of the canvas. The shapes are smoothly filled in with different tones of red, blue, yellow, gray, and white. By tilting the rectangles in an abrupt but consistent way and shifting tones slightly, van Doesburg attempted to create a more dynamic and complex balance of abstract forms than that usually expected in De Stijl, which is best known from the works of Mondrian.

Colored perspective drawing for university concert hall designed by Cornelis Van Easternern (1926-1928)

Colored perspective drawing for university concert hall designed by Cornelis Van Easternern (1926-1928)

In 1926 Hans and Sophie Tauber Arp invited van Doesburg to work with them on the design and decoration of a new entertainment complex in the L'Aubette Building in Strasbourg, and he spent two years on the project. Part of the complex was built by 1929 but it was poorly received by the public and so it was then promptly modified into a more traditional style. The color design above is for a part of the building that was never built. It is a pure and highly effective visualization of his aesthetic as applied to architecture, largely so effective because it remains a theoretical illustration with no need for practical compromises and limitations. Van Doesburg has placed his dynamic diagonals front and center, they are the focal point of the design.

Simultaneous Counter-Composition (1929-1930)

Simultaneous Counter-Composition (1929-1930)

Created after the split with Mondrian, Simultaneous Counter-Composition is an example of the artist's newly formed theory of Elementarism. In this painting van Doesburg has retained the primary colors and geometric abstraction of De Stijl while rejecting its strict adherence to only horizontal and vertical lines with the use of diagonals, whose dynamism he felt was necessary. Four rectangles and squares of red, ultramarine blue, yellow, and black are placed asymmetrically on the canvas and cropped by its edges. Two long black lines connecting at right angles and titled at slight angles to the edges of the canvas overlap the geometric shapes. Thus it seems that two separate and "simultaneous" geometric compositions are overlapped in one painting.

Related Artists and Major Works

Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany (1919-1925)

Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany (1919-1925)

Movement: Bauhaus (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Walter Gropius (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This iconic building, with its spare rectangular shape, glass-curtain walls, and distinctive vertical logo extending up one side, encapsulates the spirit of Bauhaus architecture, and predicts many of the developments that would emerge out of it in the years to come. As the architectural critic Lee F. Mindel wrote, Gropius's "innovative use...of industrial sash, glass curtain walls, and an asymmetrical pinwheel design forged an unforgettable path in the development of what we now call modernism and the International Style."

Born into a culturally and politically well-connected family in Berlin in 1883, Walter Gropius was a decorated war-veteran and avowed patriot, whose advocacy of modernist design principles would see him hounded from his home-country by the Nazis. Like fellow giants of modern architecture such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he worked in his youth for the influential proto-modernist architect Peter Behrens, and in 1913 published an article on "The Development of Industrial Building", featuring pictures of utilitarian structures such as grain-elevators, which would become a classic statement of the 'form-follows-function' philosophy of modernist design and building. In forming the Bauhaus in 1919 from two existing schools - the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts and Weimar Academy of Fine Art - he redefined the Arts and Crafts aesthetic for the twentieth century. However, the famous headquarters above was created for the school's relocation to Dessau in 1925. The project was funded by the city council, which also provided the land for the site. At that time, the Bauhaus was seen as a vital part of the culture of Dessau, which was then in the process of reinventing itself as a modern industrial center.

Amongst the innovative features of the building are the new relationship it establishes between the viewer and the overall architectural space: the three wings, separated according to their functions, are adjoined asymmetrically, with no central view, so that the building can only be experienced by circumambulating it. The use of glass walls on recessed beams, meanwhile, not only creates light-filled interior but also allows for an outside view into the interior functions of the building, suggesting a spirit of openness and transparency. The succession of changing perspectives which the building affords reflected Gropius's vision for social evolution: for the emergence of a more egalitarian, rational, orderly culture. With the design of this building, Gropius laid down a blueprint for the minimalist functionalism which dominated twentieth-century architecture, predicting in particular the development of the so-called International Style - a kind of globalized variant of Soviet and Northern-European Constructivist architecture - during the 1930s.

Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture (1921)

Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture (1921)

Movement: Dada (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Kurt Schwitters (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This is an early example of assemblage in which two and three dimensional objects are combined. The word "Merz," which Schwitters used to describe his art practice as well as his individual pieces, is a nonsensical word, like Dada, that Schwitters culled from the word "commerz", the meaning of which he described as follows: "In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me.... Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz". In his Merzpictures, which have been called "psychological collages," he arranged found objects - usually detritus - in simple compositions that transformed trash into beautiful works of art. Whether the materials were string, a ticket stub, or a chess piece, Schwitters considered them to be equal with any traditional art material. Merz, however, is not ideological, dogmatic, hostile, or political as is much of Dada art.

Composition A (1920)

Composition A (1920)

Movement: De Stijl (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Piet Mondrian (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Composition A - whose title announces its nonobjective nature by making no reference to anything beyond itself - is a good example of Mondrian's geometric abstraction before it fully matured within the framework of the De Stijl aesthetic. With its rectilinear forms made up of solid, outlined areas of color, the work reflects the artist's experimentation with Schoenmaekers's mathematical theory and his search for a pared-down visual language appropriate to the modern era. While here Mondrian uses blacks and shades of grey, his paintings would later be further reduced, ultimately employing more basic compositions and only solid blocks of primary colors.


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