By the name of the art magazine the style, and when many think of modernism in painting in the Netherlands, many immediately think of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), whose abstract paintings have become world famous. Everyone knows the rectangles with black lines and faces in primary colors, even if it’s only from a placemat or lampshade. Mondrian was one of the most important workers in The style, but Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) was editor-in-chief and driving force behind the magazine and an important theoretician and propagandist of Nieuwe Beelding, an art direction in which any reference to nature has disappeared in a work of art. His paintings are less known to the general public.
Van Doesburg’s art historical importance and his key role in the avant-garde of his time are widely recognized by art connoisseurs; Bookshelves have been written about his ideas and influence. He was extremely versatile. In addition to being a painter and editor-in-chief, he was also a stained glass artist, typographer, graphic artist, interior designer, architect, art critic, poet and prose writer. All these arts were interrelated for him. Who was this figure who was born Emil Küpper and took the name of his stepfather as an artist? It is known that he was self-taught and died young at the age of 47. Much less has been written about his life than about his work. His biographers, cultural historian Sjoerd van Faassen and Hans Renders, biographer of Jan Hanlo and Jan Campert, are now changing that.
Versatile but difficult figure
They wrote a readable and lively portrait in which they sharply portray Van Doesburg as a versatile, passionate but extremely difficult figure. A person who wanted to prove himself at all costs, who was completely convinced of his own abilities and did not tolerate any contradiction. A hothead, a cock, a fantasist, someone who quickly felt hurt and misunderstood and considered any other opinion of another as ‘treason’. A brawler and vain bitch. His own voice is often heard in this biography because Van Faassen and Renders showed many of his letters from many archives.
So it’s not necessarily a likeable figure that emerges from all this material, and the writers clearly show that. Sometimes they seem a little tired of their main character’s huge ego and boasting. But they also show Van Doesburg’s tireless devotion to art and its ideals, his joy at work and his intransigence. These traits eventually brought him into conflict with virtually all of his friends and comrades.
He had friends. The biographers describe ‘Does’ as a man who was attractive to women: ‘He looks like Humphrey Bogart’, they write. He spent most of his time with his third wife, Nelly van Moorsel, with whom he had an affair in 1920 and married in 1928. His second wife, Lena Milius, was always a helpful friend and admirer, even after he exchanged her for Nelly. Before Lena, he had left his first wife, Agnita Feis. Three chapters of the book are portraits of the three wives, which disturbs the chronology of the life story a bit uncomfortably: It seems that the 1910s, 20s and 30s begin again and again. It is notable that Van Doesburg called all his wives ‘mummies’.
He did not have the best relationship with his own mother. Not even with his father, by the way, who already ran away when Van Doesburg was little. Little is known of Van Doesburg’s youth; the biographers don’t even know what schools he went to. He went his own way early, read a lot and wanted to be an artist at a young age.
From figurative to abstract
The many illustrations in the book nicely show his development. He started out as a figurative painter in the style of Van Gogh. Based on his Christian convictions, he painted the toiling, poor man. He regarded art as ‘the voice of God’; he believed that he could only reach God through the ‘narrow gate of art’. But he fell from his faith. As a painter he fell under abstraction. At first he was fond of the work of the Russian expressionist Kandinsky. In Holland he met influential people who helped him further: in 1916 and 1917 he designed stained glass windows for building projects by JJP Oud and Jan Wils. When he was introduced to Mondrian’s work in 1915, and a year later to the man himself, he concluded that Kandinsky did not represent true abstraction, but that his work was only a transitional form. In the Nieuwe Beelding, as he and Mondriaan called their art movement, art was not an expression of emotion.
In 1917 he founded The style op, a magazine for the international avant-garde, in which Piet Mondriaan, Bart van der Leck, Vilmos Huszár, the poet Antony Kok and the architects JJP Oud, Jan Wils, Gerrit Rietveld and Cornelis van Eesteren would also participate – a special group of e.g. modernists who had in common that they considered the expressionism and architecture of Berlage and the passé of the Amsterdam school, but who differed greatly in their perception of art.
Van Doesburg devoted all his time and energy to the magazine: he ran it on his own, painstakingly scraped together the necessary funds, edited and corresponded. But the differences of opinion between him and the employees were violent and degenerated into a brawl. Van Doesburg was a supporter of the ‘diagonal in a work of art’, according to Mondriaan it was strictly forbidden. This difference in artistic perception led to Mondriaan and Van der Leck leaving The style. He also got into an argument with Oud and Van Eesteren.
Van Faassen and Renders quote from the many letters reporting high levels of disagreement. Van Doesburg could be venomous in his letters. He did not shy away from calling someone an “intellectual wart” or a “dilettante kitchen maid”. “I give a shit about your whole business,” he snarled at his old friends.
IN The style literature also included: sound poems, Dadaist poetry and non-narrative novels. The literature was also not allowed to refer to reality. Most of the stories and poems were written by IK Bonset, a pseudonym for Van Doesburg. He was also at odds with fellow poets; he thought most of them were ‘epigones’.
To Berlin and Paris
Van Doesburg also considered himself an architect. In 1923 he organized an architecture exhibition with Cornelis van Eesteren by The style. Around that time, he regularly stayed in Weimar, where the famous Bauhaus school of architecture was located. He would have liked to have been employed as a teacher. It didn’t work out, because he was too much for the more traditional movement within the Bauhaus. He would eventually influence some of the Bauhaus architects, but by then he had already left disillusioned.
Together with Nelly, he settled in Meudon, near Paris. There he had a studio built according to his own design, completely in line with his own teachings. The house was completed at the end of 1930, but he could not enjoy it for long. He died in March 1931. His emotionally throbbing heart gave out.
The title of the biography, I am all alone, sounds tearful, but fits exactly. At last he stood alone; he had chased everyone away. It also makes him a tragic figure. Only Nelly van Moorsel remained faithful to him, also in spirit; she firmly believed in his ideas and ideals. She survived him by 34 years and became the guardian of his work, his reputation and memory. Her efforts contributed to his international fame, including in the United States, his great desire. Although Van Faassen and Renders certainly do not portray a pleasant person, they know how to appreciate him. This enthusiastic troublemaker could have been luckier in life.
Hans Renders and Sjoerd van Faassen: I am all alone – Theo van Doesburg 1883-1931. The busy bee; 742 pages; €59.99.