Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)
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Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)

Contra-Composition XX

Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)
Contra-Composition XX
stencilled with the artist’s name and title ‘THÉO VAN DOESBURG COMPOSITION ELEMENTAIRE’ (on the reverse of the frame)
oil on canvas; in the artist’s painted frame
canvas: 11.7/8 x 12 in. (30.2 x 30.5 cm.)
frame: 25¾ x 16 in. (65.4 x 40.6 cm.)
Painted circa 1928
Otto Carlsund, Sweden, by whom acquired directly from the artist before 23 January 1930 and returned to the artist before 15 March 1930.
Nelly van Doesburg, Paris, by descent from the artist.
Private collection, Zurich, by whom acquired from the above between 1932 and 1937, and thence by descent to the present owners.
E. Hoek, ed., Theo van Doesburg, Oeuvre catalogue, Utrecht, 2000, no. 808, p. 487 (illustrated).
S. Polano, ed., Theo van Doesburg, Scritti di arte e di architettura, Rome, 1979, no. PITT 186, p. 535 (titled ‘Contro-composizione XX. Composizione elementare’).
Paris, Palais des Expositions, Premier Salon d’Art Français Indépendant, February – March 1929, no. 263 (titled ‘Composition élémentaire’).
Barcelona, Galerías Dalmau, Exposición de arte modern nacional y extranjero, October – November 1929, no. 13, p. 14 (titled 'Composition élémentaire’).
Paris, Parc des expositions de la porte de Versailles, ‘1940’, Deuxième exposition, Rétrospective Van Doesburg, January – February 1932, no. 55, p. 5 (titled ‘Composition élémentaire’).
Basel, Kunsthalle, Konstruktivisten, January - February 1937.
Zurich, Helmhaus, Konkrete Kunst. 50 Jahre Entwicklung, June – August 1960, no. 32, p. 21 (titled ‘Composition élémentaire’ and dated '1924').
Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbe-Museum, Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), December 1968 - January 1969, no. A33.
Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum, Theo van Doesburg, Architect, Schilder, Dichter, March - June 2000.
Munich, Museum Villa Stuck, Theo van Doesburg, Maler-Architekt, October 2000 - January 2001.
Leiden, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World, October 2009 –
January 2010, no. 167, p. 204 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to London, Tate Modern.
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Adrienne Everwijn-Dumas
Adrienne Everwijn-Dumas

Lot Essay

‘What is the supreme state for the painter? To feel himself as colour, to be colour, without that, the work is colourless, even though it is a medley of colour. To be colour, to be white, red, yellow, blue, black, that is to be a painter. It is not sufficient for today’s and tomorrow’s painter to think in colour, he must be colour and eat colour and make a painting in himself… As form, a single element is sufficient, the square, for example. Line is divisive and binding at the same time, it gives the work direction and force. Composition is not the highest thing, it is the transition to a universal form of plastic expression. The only ones capable of really great work are those who do not hesitate to distrust their visual impressions and are able to destroy. Perfect work is first created when we also surrender our ‘personality’. The universal lies behind our personality, impulse has never produced a work of lasting value and importance, the approach to universal form is based upon the calculation of measure, direction and number. The same approach lay at the basis of the pyramid…’ (Theo Van Doesburg, ‘Elementarism’, Paris, 13 July 1930, in 'De Stijl, Final Number', pp. 15-16, reproduced in H. Jaffé, De Stijl, New York, 1971).

A masterful pictorial composition comprising solely of six flat and separate planar elements, Counter-Composition XX is a major example of the ‘Elementarist’ art that Theo van Doesburg practiced in the late 1920s. Executed circa 1928, this deceptively simple and yet dynamic composition is also one of an extremely small number of oil paintings chosen to represent van Doesburg’s mature aesthetic at the Tate Modern’s 2009 exhibition dedicated to van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde.

Van Doesburg’s concept of ‘Elementarism’ was essentially a dynamic development from the Neo-Plasticism he had pursued in conjunction with Piet Mondrian in the early 1920s. Both these pioneers of abstraction had founded their joint aesthetic, which for a time they called ‘de Stijl’ (the Style), from a recognition of the need for art to move beyond easel-painting and from their utopian belief in
the power of such an art to shape the world. Each in their own way sought to establish a practical blueprint that gave harmonious pictorial expression to their shared philosophical view of the world as an entity comprised of a set vocabulary of forms. An harmonious pictorial resolution of these fundamentals reduced to their barest essentials - line, colour, space - could, they believed, lead ultimately to nothing less than the establishing of a universal harmony of life on Earth.

Where the two artists differed most fundamentally was on the concept of the diagonal. Van Doesburg favoured what he called ‘an expression of dynamic equilibrium’ in opposition to Mondrian’s belief in a ‘static equilibrium’. The inclusion of the diagonal motif encouraged this, van Doesburg felt, while his concept of ‘Elementarism’ was a call for a concrete form of expression that ‘forced the
unification’ of ‘the two principal factors of our creative activity - repose and movement, time and space – into ‘a new’ and harmonious ‘ form of expression.’ (Theo van Doesburg, quoted in Theo van Doesburg, Art of This Century, exh. cat., New York, 1947, unpaginated).

Counter-Composition XX derives from a period when van Doesburg was seeking to extend his pictorial practice into the realm of life through architecture and design. As a painting, the work is therefore an idealised and conceptual form - a concentrated pictorial expression of the principles that van Doesburg wished to be extended into all aspects of life. Taking a square format, the essentially static geometry of this form is enlivened by the strong diagonal composition within. Comprised solely of three primary coloured elements, its pictorial structure is such that it hints at a language of form existing beyond the confines of the canvas plane itself, while harmoniously combined within it. Set against a large white background frame made by the artist, the painting hints also at the breaking down of the traditional boundaries between painting, object and architecture and the establishing of a holistic art of clarity and dynamic harmony.

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