THEO VAN DOESBURG (1883-1931)
THEO VAN DOESBURG (1883-1931)
THEO VAN DOESBURG (1883-1931)
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THEO VAN DOESBURG (1883-1931)

Contra-composition IV

Details
THEO VAN DOESBURG (1883-1931)
Contra-composition IV
signed and dated 'THvD 1924' (lower right); signed again and dated 'THEOV.DOESBURG PARIS 1924' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
20 x 20 1/8 in. (50.8 x 51.1 cm.)
Painted in Paris in 1924
Provenance
François & Mary Arp, Paris, a gift from the artist, circa 1927.
Ruth Tillard-Arp, Paris, by descent from the above; sale, Sotheby's, London, 3 December 1985, lot 43.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
T. van Doesburg, List 1, 1916-1926, as ‘Contre-Kompositie III…1924 (klein rood kwadraat) 50-50 IV Mad. Arp’.
S. Polano, ed., Theo van Doesburg, Scritti di arte e di architettura, Rome, 1979, no. PITT 165, p. 533 (illustrated fig. 202; with inverted dimensions).
H.L.C. Jaffé, Theo van Doesburg, Amsterdam, 1983, no. 80, p. 103 (illustrated; with inverted dimensions).
E. van Straaten, ‘Theo van Doesburg’, in C. Blotkamp, ed., De vervolgjaren van De Stijl 1922-1932, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 41.
E. Hoek, ed., Theo van Doesburg, oeuvre catalogue, Utrecht, 2000, no. 736, p. 391 (illustrated).
Exhibited
(Probably) New York, The Little Review Gallery, Work by Léger, (…), Theo van Doesburg, Ossip Zadkine, etc., March - April 1925 (no cat).
(Probably) New York, The Little Review Gallery, April - May 1926 (no cat).
Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Theo van Doesburg, December 1968 - January 1969, no. A32; this exhibition later travelled to The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, February - March 1969.
Nuremberg, Kunsthalle, Theo van Doesburg, April - June 1969, no. A28; this exhibition later travelled to Basel, Kunsthalle, August - September 1969.
Paris, Grand Palais, Hommage à Christian et Yvonne Zervos, December 1970 - January 1971, n.p..
Special notice
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Keith Gill
Keith Gill Head of Department

Lot Essay


Dating from 1924, Contra-composition IV is a key work within Theo van Doesburg’s oeuvre which illustrates not only the growing complexity of the artist’s iconic, purist style of painting at this time, but also the essential link between architecture and art that underpinned his unique creative vision. Van Doesburg had been an instrumental figure in the founding of De Stijl, a group of likeminded Dutch artists and architects who gathered together in 1917 to advocate for an aesthetic and cultural revolution, one which would result in a new unity between life and art that could counteract the senseless destruction and violence of war. Their works were driven by the belief that the synthesis of art, architecture and design offered a path to this new social utopia, and featured a common focus on pure geometric shapes, stark abstraction and primary colours. Together they ‘not only redefined the vocabulary and the grammar of the visual arts,’ Hans L. C. Jaffé has written, ‘they assigned a new task to painting, architecture and the other arts: to serve as a guide for humanity to prepare it for the harmony and balance of the “new life,” to serve mankind by enlightening it’ (H.L.C. Jaffé, De Stijl: Visions of Utopia, exh. cat., Minneapolis, 1982, p. 15). Van Doesburg quickly emerged as the central spokesman for the group and, determined to propagate the ideals of De Stijl amongst the international avant-garde, he left Holland in 1921 on a grand voyage of Europe, visiting cities across the continent, delivering lectures and organising exhibitions of their work.
For much of 1921-1922, Van Doesburg based himself in Weimar, Germany, near the revolutionary art school known as the Bauhaus, before moving to Paris in 1923, where he returned to painting in a great flurry of activity. In a letter to Antony Kok dated 24 July 1924, Van Doesburg explained with a palpable enthusiasm that he had reached a breakthrough, and felt he was driven by a new creative energy: ‘I … plunged myself into work with great fervour and am already working on five things, one of which is ready. Beautiful, entirely new-outlook-work’ (quoted in E. Hoek, ed., Theo van Doesburg: Oeuvre Catalogue, Utrecht and Otterlo, 2000, p. 385). The artist had been experimenting for several months prior to this, creating numerous studies and drawings of innovative compositional formats that challenged and expanded the strict vocabulary of his earlier De Stijl works. Later collated in a volume titled Liber Veritatis, these studies would prove an important touchstone for Van Doesburg’s paintings and theoretical writings throughout the rest of the decade.
Contra-composition IV was the third work to emerge directly from these innovative studies, and takes inspiration from the fourth drawing in the series (Hoek, no. 727e). Though still comprising a series of flat, simplified rectangular planes of colour, it eschews the slender, overlapping lines traditionally used to divide De Stijl paintings into a grid. Instead, the composition is dominated by a continuous, thick, inky black form at its centre, which appears to shift and change under our gaze. The weighty presence of this central element suggests it is a plane of colour in its own right, rather than simply a boundary between the other rectangles, and as such establishes a completely new dialogue between the various forms within the painting. At first glance this central element appears as a sharply linear U-shaped form, with appendages that shoot off in different directions, continuing infinitely beyond the edge of the canvas. However, it can also be read as the visible portion of a large monochrome plane of colour, upon which the blue, white and red rectangles float independently. As such, this central black form generates a complex sense of space within the painting, allowing different elements to alternately recede and advance towards the picture plane, imbuing the composition with distinct new form of dynamism.
As with many of Van Doesburg’s paintings from 1924, the colour palette, compositional patterns and arrangement of forms in Contra-composition IV are rooted in the artist’s interest and engagement with architecture. Particularly pertinent to the present composition were the drawings and sketches Van Doesburg created in 1923 for the interior designs of Cornelis van Eesteren’s University Building. Van Eesteren had won the Prix de Rome in 1921 for his design of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science and, while working with Van Doesburg in Weimar and Berlin, had been converted to De Stijl principles concerning colour and architecture. Originally conceived as a final project in Van Eesteren’s studies at Amsterdam’s Higher Education Institute for Architecture, the project saw the pair collaborate on a series of designs for the University Hall, which they hoped would act as an inspiring showcase for the application of De Stijl ideals in architecture. Though not ready, as Van Doesburg had hoped, in time to show at the De Stijl group’s debut exhibition at Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie l’Effort Moderne in Paris during November 1923, their designs were instead included in the 1924 exhibition at the École Spéciale d’Architecture, Paris, alongside a manifesto entitled “Towards Collective Construction.”
While the arrangement of elements in Contra-composition IV contains echoes of the studies for the hall’s floor designs, it is in the dynamic play of colour and sense of space that the clearest parallels between the two projects can be drawn. In the plans for the University Hall, Van Doesburg’s colours were to be integrated into the design via large enamelled plaques secured to the walls and balconies, an effect which would emphasise colour as an independent element, existing alongside the architectural structure as a key formal element within the environment. In this way, the designs embodied Van Doesburg’s vision for the future of art, architecture and design: ‘The new architecture employs colour organically as a direct means of expression of relationships in space and time … The task of the modern painter is to integrate colour into a harmonic whole (by placing it not on a plane surface of two dimensions, but within the new realm of four-dimensional space-time)’ (quoted in N. J. Troy, ‘The Abstract Environment of De Stijl’, in H.L.C. Jaffé, op. cit., 1982, pp. 184-185). The result was a sensation that the planes of colour were suspended freely within the space, their forms existing as distinct entities in their own right. It is a concept that Van Doesburg successfully translated into pictorial form in Contra-composition IV, using the thick black central shape to suggest a sense of movement and dynamism, setting the colour planes free and creating the impression they are floating within the composition.
The first owner of Contra-composition IV was François Arp, younger brother of the artist and poet Jean Arp. Van Doesburg and Jean Arp had become fast friends following an introduction from Tristan Tzara in the early 1920s, and in 1926 the two joined forces with Sophie Tauber-Arp on a collaborative project for the complete redesign and refurbishment of the Café Aubette in Strasbourg. Indeed, the relationship between the Arps and the Van Doesburgs was so close at this time that Nelly van Doesburg purchased a plot of land in Clamart with the intention of building a house for the two couples to share. Van Doesburg most likely became acquainted with François through his brother, and in 1927 presented the composition to the young man as a gift.

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