the long-awaited biography of Theo van Doesburg


Theo van Doesburg in Davos, early 1931.Image Van Doesburg archive

Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) died young, but his influence on the European avant-garde cannot be overestimated. He was a jack of all trades: painter, essayist, architect, poet, interior designer and above all founder of the magazine founded in 1917 The styleto which names such as Piet Mondriaan, Bart van der Leck, JJP Oud and Gerrit Rietveld are linked.

Through the vast network he built up during his years in Weimar and Paris, Van Doesburg aspired to a leading role. He attempted to achieve these by publishing manifestos and theoretical reflections and by actively involving himself in a wide range of artists’ groups and magazines. Again and again he preached his message with tremendous enthusiasm. He didn’t understand that people stuck to their own views.

He quickly connected his views on painting with architecture and saw color as a means of fusing the two disciplines. In the early 1920s, he tried to get a teaching position at the famous Bauhaus in Weimar. His ideas resonated with a number of students, but he provoked so much opposition from the teachers that his attempt failed. In 1926 he finally got a major commission.

The gigantic work

Together with Hans Arp and his wife Sophie Taeuber de Aubette, he traveled to Strasbourg to ‘reimagine’ a building from the eighteenth century. Van Doesburg created designs for various spaces, including a Ciné dance on the first floor.

Van Doesburg complained to friends that the whole renovation had caused him nothing but misery: “Financially it would have been better if Aubette had not intervened, but I thought this gigantic job would have given me more tasks. But nothing, nothing. It is also not possible to go back to the Netherlands. Life there is absolutely unbearable. A stupid, ignorant plebeian mentality and an astonishing credulity with half-obsessed vestiges of religion.’

Van Doesburg gradually realized that the world was not waiting for him. Nevertheless, he remained hopeful. After Aubette finished in 1928, he wrote in his diary: ‘Back? No… Go on…’

Van Doesburg’s ambitions in architecture would culminate in the design of his own studio home in Meudon, southwest of Paris, on which he worked from the second half of 1927 to the end of 1930. It was a house with a businesslike, practical appearance. Here he had finally wanted to put his ideas into practice. However, the budget was limited, and Van Doesburg’s physical concerns prevented him from fully devoting himself to the design in the way he himself probably would have liked.

The house makes an inward impression with an almost closed white front as Van Doesburg – with the yellow garage door, an external staircase hidden behind the facade to the blue front door on the first floor and the red door to the roof terrace on the second floor, second floor – wanted to give the appearance of a style painting.

Primitive installed

Van Doesburg foresaw great possibilities for his house. He wrote hopefully to his bosom friend Antony Kok: ‘I hope to be able to take on a lot of new things for the house, a kind of Bauhaus or Academy for new art’. But the house is hardly suitable for receiving larger groups. Death would prevent the execution of Van Doesburg’s unrealistic plan. Van Doesburg wrote to Oud during the construction of the house in Meudon: ‘I hope that through this house I will be able to improve my position because I was always so primitively installed that I never dared to receive anyone, which caused me much of harm. have.’

‘I have to work so insanely hard to survive that I can’t catch my breath,’ Van Doesburg wrote in early 1929. He had returned from Strasbourg ‘economically as good as ruined and morally as stupid as’, he said. and robbed’. He felt he had to start over in Paris.

Nelly van Moorsel, Van Doesburg’s third wife, complained to the architect Cornelis van Eesteren in March 1930: ‘Does has no commission whatsoever and writes himself as a “monkey” to make some money!’ It was not until December 1930 that the Van Doesburgs were able to move into their home in Meudon. It was only half furnished. Van Doesburg was already seriously ill and had had almost no income since August. Nelly painted a grim picture: ‘He can’t work, rests and lives on a strict diet, and it’s now so that he can’t even lie in bed at night, but sleeps in a big chair at the table. You understand that all this makes him very weak and emaciated’.

desperate letter

According to his doctor, Van Doesburg had to go to a sanatorium in the mountains to recover. However, the financial resources for such a stay were lacking, so Arperne, with the help of Van Eesteren, asked a number of friends and acquaintances for financial help in early February to enable a stay in Switzerland. Finally, on February 24, 1931, the Van Doesburg family traveled to Davos higher up. ‘I really hope Does makes a full recovery,’ wrote Nelly.

Van Doesburg’s second wife, Lena Milius, also took care of Van Doesburg after their divorce. During his illness she wrote: ‘It has been going on for several months now, and although Nel has hitherto held up unusually bravely and stood alone in all trouble and misery, yesterday I received such a desperate letter from her that I would rather go . there immediately. go to cheer them up. Of course I send them as much money as I can spare, but now that it is taking so long he is getting so worried that he is going to be in great distress every time.’

In the late 1930s she traveled to Paris to help with the move to Meudon, but in March 1931 she arrived in Davos too late to find Van Doesburg alive: her ‘own wonderfully stupid, beautiful, strong silly, blonde , passionate boy’ had succumbed to a heart attack completely unexpectedly two days before.

Satisfied expression

In the very last picture taken of him lying dead on his bed, Van Doesburg had a contented expression on his face. Van Doesburg was forty-seven years old. “You might say it’s young, but it was in the midst of his work,” thought Nelly. “That was totally Doesburg’s character, he was alive and then suddenly dead.”


I am all alone. Theo van Doesburg 1883-1931

Sjoerd van Faassen and Hans Renders
The busy bee
€49.90, 744 pp.

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