Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)
Property from a Private Collection
Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)


Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)
signed and dated 'TH.v.D '24' (lower right)
gouache and paper collage over pencil on paper in the artist's frame
14 5/8 x 13¾ in. (37 x 34.8 cm.)
Executed in 1924
François and Mary Arp, Meudon (gift from the artist, 1927).
Ruth Tillard-Arp, Meudon (by descent from the above).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
E. Hoek, ed., Theo van Doesburg: oeuvre catalogus, Utrecht, 2000, p. 371, no. 714 (illustrated in color; with incorrect medium and dimensions).
Paris, Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, La beauté exacte: de Van Gogh à Mondrian, March-July 1994, p. 289, no. 10 (illustrated in color, p. 242).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

During the early 1920s Van Doesburg's efforts toward forging collaborative interaction between neo-plasticist painting and contemporary architecture were gaining currency as he argued in print the rationale behind this program, and demonstrated the aesthetic merits of its application in plans for prospective projects. Adherents of De Stijl held that there was an essential, inherent link between the two disciplines in the concept of planarity: the plane in the painting support and the plane as a wall in architecture could be put to similar use, employing color, in the creation of a harmonized environment. They met resistance, however, from architects who were reluctant to allow the walls in their plans to be converted into the color units of a large composition, and it furthermore remained difficult to win public acceptance for the novel concept that such planar elements would be devoid of any figurative aspect. Van Doesburg recognized that two forces were here at odds; "architecture joins together, binds," he observed, while "painting loosens, unbinds." He did not doubt, however, that bringing these two opposing notions into balance was the key to the great synthesis that he anticipated would constitute the universal art of the future.

Based on the concept of planarity, the present Compositie is an autonomous painting Van Doesburg executed in relation to the most elaborately conceived of four projects on which he worked with the young architect Cornelius van Eesteren during 1921-1923, the design for a university hall in the South Amsterdam Development Plan. Van Eesteren had won the Prix de Rome in 1921 for his design of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science, and while working subsequently with Van Doesburg in Weimar and Berlin he had been converted to De Stijl principles concerning color and architecture. Proceeding with the knowledge that their design for the hall would never see construction, and they did not have to take practical matters of construction into consideration, Van Doesburg and Van Eesteren hoped to make their designs an inspiring showcase for De Stijl ideals. Van Doesburg devised the arrangement of planar elements in Compositie from studies for the floor design for the hall. There is another related autonomous gouache painting, Composition decentralisée, also dated 1924 (Hoek, no. 713).

A representative set of the university hall designs was not ready, as Van Doesburg had hoped, to show at the De Stijl group debut exhibition in Paris, held at Léonce Rosenberg's Galerie l'Effort Moderne during November 1923. He did contribute, however, three models and plans for houses, one of which Rosenberg intended to have built for himself; these projects were the other three collaborations Van Doesburg had realized with Van Eesteren. The L'Effort Moderne exhibition was notable for the inclusion of Mondrian's most recent grid paintings, for which Rosenberg had high regard. None sold, however, and Mondrian even talked of giving up painting for good. Some in Paris avant-garde took notice; Léger, for example, was strongly drawn to ideas he found manifest in De Stijl painting and designs. The concept of planarity informed the series of six large peintures murales Léger painted in 1924-1925 (Bauquier, nos. 391-396); he also began to employ colored planar elements to structure the classical object paintings that he produced through 1928. Léger continued to give voice to De Stijl ideas on modern architecture and color in his writings following the Second World War.

The architectural component in the Rosenberg gallery show was reconstituted in 1924 for an exhibition at the Ecole Spéciale d'Architecture, Paris, where Van Doesberg and Van Eesteren distributed to visitors a manifesto entitled "Towards Collective Construction." This idea, despite the fragile unity of the De Stijl group, which by 1925 faced the defections of many of its members, and the difficulties they encountered while trying to implement their theories in real practice, would become Van Doesburg's core belief: "the possibility of collective creation on a universal basis" (quoted in De Stijl: Visons of Utopia, exh. cat., The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1982, p. 185). It was not until 1926, in the commission that he, Jean Arp and Sophie-Taeuber Arp received to decorate the interior of Café Aubette night-club in Strasbourg, that Van Doesburg was given his first opportunity to carry out his theories of abstract interior design on a major scale.

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