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Theo van Doesburg Photo

Theo van Doesburg

Dutch Painter, Designer, and Architect

Movements and Styles: De Stijl, Elementarism

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

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

Theo van Doesburg Timeline

Important Art 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)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on asbestos-cement - Kroller Muller Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Composition VIII (The Cow) (c. 1918)

Composition VIII (The Cow) (c. 1918)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Rhythm of a Russian Dance (1918)

Rhythm of a Russian Dance (1918)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Stained glass Composition IV (1918)

Stained glass Composition IV (1918)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Stained Glass - Created for the de Lange House

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)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Pen, ink and gouache - Netherlands Architectural Institute, Amsterdam

Counter-Composition in Dissonance 16 (1925)

Counter-Composition in Dissonance 16 (1925)

Artwork description & Analysis: This geometrically abstract painting is the most famous work in van Doesburg's Counter-Compositions series. It consists of rectangles outlined in black and titled 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.

Oil on canvas - Haags Gameentemuseum, the Hague, the Netherlands

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)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Pencil, gouache and collage on paper

Simultaneous Counter-Composition (1929-1930)

Simultaneous Counter-Composition (1929-1930)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York



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Theo van Doesburg Photo

Related Art and Artists

Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany (1919-1925)

Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany (1919-1925)

Movement: Bauhaus

Artist: Walter Gropius

Artwork description & Analysis: Gropius's complex for the Bauhaus at Dessau has come to be seen as a landmark in modern, functionalist design. Although the design seems strongly unified from above, each element is clearly divided from the next, and on the ground it unfolds a wonderful succession of changing perspectives. The building consists of an asphalt tiled roof, steel framework, and reinforced concrete bricks to reduce noise and protect against the weather. In addition, a glass curtain wall – a feature that would come to be typical of modernist architecture - allows in ample quantities of light. Gropius created three wings that were arranged asymmetrically to connect different workshops and dormitories within the school. The asymmetry expressed the school's functionalist approach and yet retained an elegance that showed how beauty and practicality could be combined.

Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture (1921)
Artwork Images

Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture (1921)

Movement: Dada

Artist: Kurt Schwitters

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Assemblage of wood, oil, metal, board on board, with artist's frame - National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Composition A (1920)
Artwork Images

Composition A (1920)

Movement: De Stijl

Artist: Piet Mondrian

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rome

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