A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM; Theo Van Doesburg, a Zealot Who Founded the Most Coldly Inhuman Art Movement of the 20th Century, Is the Subject of Tate Modern's Best Exhibition for Years; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

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Byline: Brian Sewell

Tate Modern, SE1

AT A time when museums and galleries in this country seem to be abandoning the historic academic and educational purposes of transitory exhibitions and permanent displays, turning to more populist approaches that induce the "Ooh!" and "Ah!" of astonishment and uncomprehending awe, it is a relief to see Tate Modern making no concessions with Theo van Doesburg and the international influence of his "little magazine", De Stijl.

This may, of course, be because no populist approach could work with a movement of which we have so little prior knowledge. Van Doesburg is hardly a household name in Britain and De Stijl was a magazine of art theory and aesthetics with virtually no following here -- though in Holland and elsewhere it immediately spawned an influential group under the same name. If we know of them at all it is probably because we have, in Amsterdam, encountered rooms full of their paintings and furniture, all of which we see as tiresome adjuncts to, or three-dimensional interpretations of, the painting of Piet Mondrian, whom we adore, but who seems to be diminished by them. Who among us can put an image to Vantongerloo, van der Leck, Joostens and Zwart, or even Rietveld, whose name might just ring a faint bell? Van Doesburg, born on 30 August 1883, was a long decade younger than Mondrian, with whom he corresponded in 1915 and under whose influence he fell. An indifferent painter, slightly Post-Impressionist, slightly Fauve, slightly Orphist -- an unoriginal eye and mind borrowing ideas -- van Doesburg was profoundly influenced by Mondrian and by 1917 or so had painted abstract compositions that were all but indistinguishable from those of his mentor. For some years their developments ran in parallel as they moved towards the rectangular, square and lozenge-shaped grid patterns that are Mondrian's most popular works. It was in 1917 too that van Doesburg founded both the magazine and the De Stijl group (of which Mondrian was also a founder member) and for the rest of his life the principles of De Stijl and the aesthetic beliefs that were its foundation were his consuming obsession. Not only did he paint, he wrote, lectured and taught, but it was in embarking on architectural enterprises embodying his ideas that he had the greatest and most widespread influence -- his notion of architectural space defined by geometrical elements and primary colours is still evident, the better part of a century later, in the debased design of council estates and affordable housing.

De Stijl, the magazine, ceased publication in 1928 when even van Doesburg wearied of expounding the party line; he had edited and financed it for 11 years and it had made the avant-garde cultural world of Europe well aware of him, bringing him close contacts with Italian Futurism, Constructivism, Dada and Bauhaus (though in opposition to this last). The subtitle explained its early issues as "The Monthly Journal of the Expressive Professions" and its later editions as "The International Monthly for New Art, Science and Culture", but with at first no circulation outside Holland, a precis of sorts was published in Paris under the title Le Neo-Plasticisme.

Mondrian was the major initial contributor, but van Doesburg wrote much of it himself, not only under his own name, but as IK Bonset, a Dadaist poet, and as Aldo Camini, an Italian Futurist. His intention was to provide a platform for painters, graphic artists, architects, urban planners, craftsmen, poets and playwrights who might be concerned with the development of new forms of art and architecture, but in effect he provided it, not for others, but himself. Were there to be other contributors, they must share his belief that for art to represent the modern world (and this was well before the end of the Great War in November 1918), it must be far more conscious of itself and its power to influence, and so revolutionary that the general public must be educated to understand it. …