Theo van Doesburg, Nelly van Doesburg, dadaism, De Stijl

This is a video about paintings by Theo van Doesburg.

He was born Christian Emil Marie Küpper, in Utrecht, in 1883. He died in Davos, in 1931.

At the moment, there is a big exhibition, called Van Doesburg and the international avant-garde. Constructing a new world. Next year, the exhibition wil move to Tate Modern in London.

Both Theo van Doesburg, and his third wife Nelly van Moorsel, played major roles in the artistic movements of Dadaism and De Stijl. Both movements arose in 1916-1917, as reactions against World War I.

Both were avant-garde movements with some of the paradoxes which may be involved in this.

Some of the people in De Stijl had fled from the war, from belligerent countries like Hungary, to the neutral Netherlands. De Stijl was internationalist, against the nationalist ideologies which had contributed to the war.

Theo van Doesburg personally had been a soldier in the Dutch army from 1914 to 1916. Though the Dutch army then did not participate in the bloodbath, van Doesburg whose unit guarded the Belgian border, had heard from refugees about the horrors that Belgium was going through.

In Van Doesburg, like in many other people then, this lead to the view that drastic change was needed in a society which had led to this horrible war. Before the war, Van Doesburg’s interest in politics had been limited to membership in the Vrijzinnig-Democratische Bond. That was a moderate liberal party, just slightly left of center (though it was also pacifist; contrary to some people today calling themselves liberal leftists).

Like Van Doesburg was not a life-long political revolutionary, he also was no avant-garde artist from his cradle to his grave, no artistic revolutionary for the sake of it. Before the war, he did, eg, a fairly conventional landscape painting of the dunes of Meijendel near The Hague (included in the exhibition). In 1912, he was critical of the (politically and artistically ambiguous) futurist movement.

Van Doesburg during the war and later wanted to do more to change society.

In this, he claimed a central role for art, more precisely, his new tendency in art moving towards abstraction. Didn’t he over-estimate the role of art in social change, as other artists (and people in other professions) may over-estimate the influence of their own roles?

It may not all be artistic self-overestimation, if we look at the views on this issue of Trotsky and Stalin: both politicians, not artists. Different from each other. But both saw the role of the arts as important. Trotsky wrote much about art, including a joint manifesto with French surrealist artist André Breton. Stalin said that the work of writers was more important than producing tanks.

Theo van Doesburg had links to Russian avant-garde artists, like the constructivists.

This is a video from the USA about De Stijl.

Piet Mondriaan originally was a De Stijl colleague of Van Doesburg. Eventually, both had a conflict, however. In Mondriaan’s theory, there should just be horizontal and vertical lines in paintings etc., no diagonal lines. While Van Doesburg eventually brought back diagonal lines in his work. Mondriaan’s views on horizontal and vertical lines were influenced by Theosophy, and ideas there about “active” males vs. “passive” females. Ideas that were problematic for the active role of Nelly van Doesburg and other women in De Stijl and dadaism.

This video says about itself:

The Dada movement was a protest against the barbarism of World War I, the bourgeois interests that Dada adherents believed inspired the war, and what they believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society. Dada was an international movement, and it is difficult to classify artists as being from any one particular country, as they were constantly moving from one place to another.

On 15 November 2009, there was an interview with art historian, and niece and biographer of Nelly van Doesburg, Ms Wies van Moorsel.

Nelly van Moorsel came from a rather conventional Roman Catholic shopowner’s family. Unusually for such a background, she went to music school to learn to play the piano, on the advice of the architect Berlage, their next door neighbour. However, the music school was conventional in its own way. Nelly did not learn anything there about music written after the nineteenth century Romantic composers. In 1920, she first met Theo van Doesburg in The Hague. He asked her about modern composers like Erik Satie. In her reply she managed to avoid to show that her education had taught her nothing about modern composers. Soon, they fell in love; which lead to a break with her family.

When Wies van Moorsel in the 1960s had the first long meeting with her aunt, Nelly van Doesburg asked her about the latest trends in visual arts. Like in her aunt’s 1910s music school, Ms van Moorsel’s art history education excluded new avant-garde tendencies, and she was unable to reply seriously.

Nelly van Doesburg soon learnt about 1920s avant-garde music. In 1923, during a series of dadaist performances in the Netherlands, she started playing Chopin on the piano; what conventional audiences expected from music. Then, suddenly, she disoriented the audience by changing to very recent piano compositions.

After Theo van Doesburg’s death, Nelly organized many exhibitions of the works of her late husband and other artists. Late in her life, she was still very interested in social and political issues, like opposition to the war in Algeria. Like the students’ and workers’ movement in 1968 in Paris where she lived. Like anti pollution movements. She told Wies van Moorsel that Theo, if he would have been still alive, would have been an activist rather than an artist. A view, different from the central role for art which Theo himself had claimed decades earlier.

Barney Bubbles who designed many punk and New Wave record sleeves in the 1970s-1980s, was much influenced by Theo van Doesburg.

About the Van Doesburg exhibition in London:

The visitor’s guide does not explain the socio-historical context of war and revolutions which gave artists such utopian desire to create a better world. This is a serious omission which will particularly affect younger viewers, since history is now taught so cursorily in schools.

A new book on the history of anti-war movements in Britain illuminates the stories of those who refused to fight in the First World War. Chris Bambery looks at their struggle: here.

Arts and society: here.

The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960: The Varley Art Gallery, Unionville, Ontario, until Feb. 28, 2010; The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, March 19 to May 30, 2010; review here.

Jan van der Marck, former chief curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, dies. On his views about art and society, see here.


30 thoughts on “Theo van Doesburg, Nelly van Doesburg, dadaism, De Stijl

  1. Forced Journeys: Artists in Exile in Britain 1933 to 1945

    This exhibition of the work of German and Austrian internees on the Isle of Man marks the 70th year since the opening of internment camps on the island.

    The British authorities shamefully interned thousands of people, mostly Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis, in ten camps on the Isle of Man.

    Artists, some who the Nazis had called “degenerate”, used whatever was available to make their work. It often commented on their condition.

    The exhibition, which was originally displayed in London at the Ben Uri Gallery, showcases 90 works from around 35 artists, including Dadaist Kurt Schwitters and Martin Bloch.

    Sayle Gallery, Douglas, Isle of Man
    Until 23 May


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  19. Zurich, April 14 [1917]: Dadaists hold event with works by Apollinaire, Marinetti, Kandinsky, Kokoschka and others

    Artists adhering to the recently formed Dadaist trend hold a Second Soiree at the Galerie Dada in Zurich, where the movement emerged in 1916. The group was disgusted by the war and the society that produced it. The artists respond with “anti-art,” work that defies conventional logic and rationality.

    The soiree consists of an introduction by Tristan Tzara; performances of music by Hans Heusser and Marcel Sulzberger, played by the composers; the recitation of poems by Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jakob Van Hoddis, Albert Ehrenstein and painter Wassily Kandinsky; the reading of pieces by Futurist Filippo Marinetti and artist-critic Herwarth Walden; and the performance of a short play by Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, Sphinx and Strawman (1907).

    One critic asserts that the “Zurich Dada soirees… were the central event in the founding of Dada as a spectacular international phenomenon,” and “have remained famous ever since in the history of the development of European art.”

    The fate of many of the artists speaks to the tragedies and traumas of the 20th century. The Frenchman Apollinaire, weakened by wounds received in World War I, will succumb to the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. The German-Jewish Van Hoddis will die in a Nazi concentration camp. Having fled Hitler for the Soviet Union, Walden, a German, will die in a Stalinist prison in 1941. The Austrian Ehrenstein will die a pauper in New York City in 1950.

    Poet Richard Huelsenbeck later commented that the Zurich police “took an interest in our carrying-on while leaving completely undisturbed a politician who was preparing a great revolution. I am referring to Lenin, who was our neighbor.”


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