Van Doesburg & The International Avant-Garde

Theo van Doesburg - Composition II (Still life)

Theo van Doesburg - Composition II (Still life)

Art exhibitions are like running. Even if the run was slow, the route hard or the weather harsh, I always return home glad I went out.

So it is with exhibitions. Even with those that don’t move me or excite me, I always come away feeling that I’ve gained something.

On Friday evening, with a little manoeuvering at home (and after bathing the baby), I set off to meet a friend at London Bridge and from there to head to the Tate Modern for its Van Doesburg exhibition.

Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) was a leading figure in the development of geometric abstraction, founding the De Stijl group and editing the magazine of the same name.

He experimented with abstraction, moved to the more ordered lines of Cubism and then in the mid-1920s realised a mathematical approach to composition.

The last two paragraphs are clearly culled from the guidebook you’re given when you walk in the exhibition, and Van Doesburg was not an artist I’d heard of before, though some of the painters featured alongside him in the exhibition, such as Piet Mondrain and Wassily Kandinsky, were familiar.

The exhibition was interesting, and certainly worth seeing, but I found it difficult to connect with some of the more abstract pictures and objects. Instead, earlier pictures in the exhibition, such as Composition II (Still life), appealed more.

My friend on the other hand loved the fact that Van Doesburg tried to express time through superimposing lines on squares (it’s the mathematician in him), and we both appreciated the commitment required to create buildings and have them and their contents, from lights to carpets to furniture, conform to a rigid design aesthetic.

Having read a little on the Dadist movement, I was also greatly impressed by the handwritten letters from Van Doesburg to Tristan Tzara. I also liked his typefaces for the De Stijl magazine, which reminded me a little of some of Satyajit Ray’s work in typography.

• The Van Doesburg & The International Avant-Garde exhibition at the Tate Modern in London ends today (Sunday 16 May).

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