We Like — Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde

The Tate Modern, London, sometimes pulls out occasional surprises; exhibitions or events that somehow seem rather unusual choices for the institution. The current exhibition on Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) – ‘Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde’- is one of these. Having started life as an exhibition in a hardly well-known museum in the Dutch city of Leiden, it was subsequently re-realised for the Tate by curators Gladys Fabre, Independent Curator and Vicente Todolí, Director Tate Modern.

Theo van Doesburg. Counter-Composition VI (1925) Oil on canvas. 690 x 691 x 80 mm. Courtesy of The Tate Collection

‘Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde’ proves to be one of those wonderful surprises, something that delivers far more than might have been expected. At its core is a fairly traditional art historical approach; an attempt to give us a clear historical context to an artist’s work. Van Doesburg is hugely significant in European twentieth century art and most certainly got a poor deal on the international PR and visibility front compared with his compatriot Piet Mondriaan whose signature grids of red, yellow and blue colour blocks within black grids have adorned everything from teapots to haute couture. As the exhibition subtly points out without getting catty, Van Doesburg was working with exactly the same ideas contemporaneous to Mondriaan. So, yes, we can understand that a revision in the public perception is motive enough for such an exhibition.

However, what lifts this particular exhibition onto another level is that its routing and exhibition design all work cohesively to give sense of Van Doesburg’s role in a bigger picture: as an organiser and publisher seeking a Modernism in which everything from architecture and design to painting and publishing would work in a collaborative way to renew Europe after the First World War. Complete with interactive architect’s maquettes – such as for Van Doesburg’s groundbreaking designs for an early arts centre De Aubette – this is an important exhibition for anyone working in a creative field whether as artist, graphic designer or photographer. For, in it, played out in an elegant way is an earlier generation’s Utopian vision of how all creatives might be able to work together as a means to a beautiful end.

‘Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde’ runs at Tate Modern, London until 16 May 2010.

The current issue of Tate magazine includes Alied Ottevanger’s informative article on Theo van Doesburg’s work as a painter, publisher and designer.

The cinema and ballroom of the Cafe Aubette designed by Theo van Doesburg, photographed in 1928. Courtesy Musées de Strasbourg

The cinema and ballroom of the Cafe Aubette designed by Theo van Doesburg, photographed in 1928. Courtesy Musées de Strasbourg