Avant-Garde Apostle

http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/avant-garde-apostle

The cinema and ballroom of the Cafe Aubette designed by Theo van Doesburg photographed in 1928
The cinema and ballroom of the Cafe Aubette designed by Theo van Doesburg, photographed in 1928

In 1923 he also gave the Netherlands an opportunity to see his Dada side. Following on from the Dada soirées in Germany, he had a troupe of six artists in mind, including Hausmann and Tzara. Ultimately, the co-operation was limited to Schwitters, Huszàr and Nelly. In variable configurations they undertook twenty appearances in three months that ensured the necessary upheaval in the Netherlands. Van Doesburg read seriously from his pamphlet What is Dada?, Schwitters recited poems and made strange noises, Nelly played the piano and Huszàr intermittently let his mechanical moving figures cast shadows on a white backdrop. The Dada campaign more or less concluded van Doesburg’s German period. Paris replaced Weimar as the epicentre. There, in the summer of 1923, he began preparations with the young Dutch architect Cornelis van Eesteren for the exhibition promised to him by the gallerist Léonce Rosenberg, who was particularly keen on the collaboration between the De Stijl architects and painters. However, Oud had broken with the movement at the end of 1921 and Wils remained excommunicated as a result, all of which left an architectural void. Fortunately, in the meantime van Doesburg had recognised the qualities of the furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld, who had designed his chairs on De Stijl principles since 1919. He had also started to value van Eesteren, but neither yet had their name to any (completed) De Stijl architecture by 1923. None the less, van Doesburg succeeded in involving them in the exhibition preparations. Most specifically through an intensive collaboration with van Eesteren, he realised different maquettes for astoundingly progressive architectural designs, such as those for their Maison particulière and Maison d’artiste. He also succeded in showing the work of Oud and other De Stijl architects in the exhibition, if only in the form of drawings and photographs. Although the show was a highpoint in the history of the De Stijl movement, it failed to attract any commissions. So in the following years van Doesburg once again concentrated on his painting. His Contra-compositions are particularly good examples of how he was able to incorporate the achievements of his architectural models into this new transverse painting style.

When he was invited by Hans and Sophie Arp in 1926 to work with them on the creation of a large entertainment complex in the famous l’Aubette building in Strasbourg, van Doesburg grabbed the opportunity with enthusiasm. In this project he saw the possibilities of realising an even greater synthesis between painting and architecture. For almost two years he worked on the diagonal colour designs for the large hall where dances could be alternated with film screenings. He experimented with new materials such as rubber and aluminium in the banqueting hall and determined the design of everything from the ashtrays and crockery to the signage. But when it was completed in February 1928, the public did not take to it – to the point that the interior was modified within weeks.

Staircase at the Cafe de Aubette designed by Theo van Doesburg and Sophie and Hans Arp photographed in 1928
Staircase at the Cafe de Aubette designed by Theo van Doesburg and Sophie and Hans Arp, photographed in 1928

That the ideals of De Stijl in the modern context and on this scale were not appreciated deeply affected van Doesburg. He reacted as he always did: with a radicalisation of his ideas. His art would need to become more rational, colder and harder. Moreover, he devised a systematic approach that was founded on a spiritual basis. In his paintings he deployed a mathematical model that dictated the size and proportions of the colour fields. He also designed a house incorporating a studio for himself in Meudon, near Paris. But he never saw the project realised. He was increasingly debilitated by asthma and bronchitis which prevented him from working much after 1930. Van Doesburg did not personally participate in the last collaborative project of De Stijl. After a year of illness, he died on 7 March 1931 in a health clinic in Davos. Nelly and Lena subsequently decided, together with Arp, to produce one more issue of De Stijl, devoted entirely to him. Nearly everyone co-operated and thus, one year after his death, the last issue of De Stijl, the van Doesburg issue, appeared.

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Avant-Garde Apostle

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