Architect Theo van Doesbrug was a braggart and fabulous – with enormous influence

‘He wrote to his best friend Antony Kok: ‘I am all alone.’ As always in the case of Van Doesburg, it was grossly exaggerated.’ This is how Hans Renders and Sjoerd van Faassen decide I am all alonethe long-awaited biography of the painter, typographer, designer, (interior) architect, art and architecture critic, poet, novelist and editor-in-chief of The style Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931). The last sentence, expressing some dislike of Van Doesburg, is a fitting end to the biography. In the previous 581 pages (not including notes), the biographers have exhaustively portrayed Theo van Doesburg, pseudonym of Emile Küpper, as the greatest pride of the European avant-garde in the interwar period. They have filtered numerous statements made by Van Doesburg about himself and his work, labeling them as exaggerations, boasting and untruths.

Only the fatherhood of De Stijl, the art and architecture movement around the magazine of the same name, to which Piet Mondriaan and the architect JJP Oud belonged, among others, they do not take entirely from Van Doesburg. Although they believe that his claims to the leadership of De Stijl and Dutch Modernism are exaggerated and accuse him of ‘rooster behavior’, they admit that the magazine The style there was mainly ‘thanks to the unswerving zeal of Van Doesburg, who single-handedly edited’.

The person behind the artist

In recent decades, there have been so many publications about the artist Van Doesburg that ‘Van Doesburg himself threatened to become an abstract’ and ‘the person Emile Küpper only became more shadowy’, according to Renders and Van Faassen at the end of their work . I am all alone firm. The aim of their biography is therefore ‘to give a face to the person behind the artist’.

They certainly succeeded in that. They describe in detail how Emile Küpper, the son of a Dutch mother and a German father who abandoned his family, became a jack of all trades in the arts. The biographies have not been able to establish what education Van Doesburg had – it is not even certain whether he attended school. They do know, however, that at the age of 15 he decided to lead ‘a spiritual life’ and began to draw, paint, read and write. Ten years later, in 1908, deciding that his life would continue to be ‘at the service of art’, he adopted a pseudonym that was almost the name of Theodorus Doesburg, his mother’s second husband.

In the early years, the completely self-taught Van Doesbrug was a searching, rather traditional painter and writer who thought of art in religious terms. ‘Art is the voice of God’, he thought, and through the ‘narrow gate of art’ a man could come to God. But just before the First World War, which he spent in part as a soldier for the mobilized Dutch army in Tilburg, the Dutch Reformed baptized Van Doesburg lost his faith. He fell under the spell of Vasili Kandinsky, the Russian pioneer of abstract expressionist painting, and his esoteric book ber das Geistige in der Art. But when he became acquainted with Mondrian’s work in 1915, he immediately realized that Kandinsky’s ‘vermicelli expressionism’, as he later called it, was not real abstract art. Two years later he founded the magazine The style to spread the word about the orthogonal Nieuwe Beelding by, among others, Mondrian and himself in Europe.

Although Van Doesburg managed to attract several foreign artists to his magazine, De Stijl never became the international movement he had in mind. It was mainly due to himself. Sooner or later he fell out with almost all De Stijl staff, although it rarely led to a complete split. The biographers detail how, during the 1920s, De Stijl became a one-man movement through quarrels with Oud, Mondriaan and the architects Robert van ‘t Hoff and Cornelis van Eesteren, leading Van Doesburg to sigh that he was everything. alone.

Marriage worries

The authors also place great emphasis on Van Doesburg’s three marriages. The chapter on his third wife, Nelly van Moorsel sixteen years his junior, with whom he fell in love in 1920, when he was still married to the ‘faithful’ Lena Milius, causes a remarkable change of style. While all the other chapters are filled with quotations from letters, articles, books and other writings by Van Doesburg and others, Van Moorsel’s portrait is a rather dry description, leaning on a Wies van Moorsel Nelly van Doesburg 1899-1975.

The downside of the abundant attention given to the person of Emile Küpper and his marital concerns is that Theo van Doesburg’s work remains underexposed. For example, the diagonal ‘counter-compositions’ that he began making in the mid-twenties are given a brief treatment. The fundamental difference of opinion with Mondrian about the ‘diagonal’, which led to his withdrawal from De Stijl, is also only touched upon.

Render’s and Van Faassen’s struggle with the fabulous Van Doesburg also often stands in the way of an adequate treatment and interpretation of his work. For example, the chapter on poems and other literary works published by Van Doesburg consists largely of a large number of refutations of his exaggerations and fabrications. The reader is told little about the content of his literary work, although biographers let it be known that his Dadaist sound poems, for example, are not very sensational and not very original. They even consider his Dadaist collages ‘not to be taken seriously’.

The boastful Van Doesburg also hinders their assessment of his influence on the European avant-garde. It is true that they acknowledge in the preface that Van Doesburg had ‘an influence that cannot be overestimated on the European avant-garde’, but there is little evidence of that in the book. When it comes to Van Doesburg’s crusade against the Bauhaus in Weimar, for example, they cannot help pointing out numerous exaggerations by his followers at the twentieth century’s most influential art and design college. Perhaps their distaste for the person behind the brash everything-just-doesn’t-know-it-all Van Doesburg had grown so great during the writing that they were unable to do justice to his key role in the transition from Expressionism to Constructivism, as the Bauhaus in 1922 made.

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