Theo van Doesburg - Photo of the artist in his uniform - Image via wikipediaorg

Theo van Doesburg /   Christian Emil Marie Küpper

Netherlands 1883 - 1931


Theo van Doesburg
Christian Emil Marie Küpper
September 5, 2017
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Theo van Doesburg is best known as the founder of the Dutch avant-garde group De Stijl (The Style), but he also worked as a painter, architect, designer and writer. One of Piet Mondrian’s closest colleagues, Theo saw abstraction as art’s apotheosis – after an initial focus on post-impressionist-style paintings, he propelled the development of abstract painting and non-representational art, providing modern movements with the conceptual fire that can still be felt in contemporary art. Like most of his colleagues, van Doesburg as well drew inspiration from Euclidean formalism, primary colors, political radicalism and the blended co-existence between design, architecture and fine art. He was one of the key individuals who nurtured the idea of non-representational painting while the entire concept was in its infancy.

Simultaneous Counter Composition and Pure Painting are pieces that display van Doesburg's artistic versatility
Theo van Doesburg – Simultaneous Counter Composition, 1929 / Pure Painting – Images via and

Becoming Theo van Doesburg

Christian Emil Marie Küpper was born on the 30th of August in the year of 1883, in Utrecht, the Netherlands, as the son of the photographer Wilhelm Küpper and Henrietta Catherina Margadant. After a short training in acting and singing, young Christian decided to pursue a career of a full-time painter. He always regarded his stepfather, Theodorus Doesburg, to be his true father, so that’s the reason why Christian’s first works were signed with Theo Doesburg, an alias to which he later added the insertion van[1]. From that point on, Christian Emil Marie Küpper was known as Theo van Doesburg and the occasions on which the artist used his original name became rather scarce.

Theo van Doesburg loved combining contemporary concepts with his own ideas and beliefs
Theo van Doesburg – Untitled – Image via

Introducing Abstraction to His Works

Theo van Doesburg’s first exhibition was held in the year of 1908. Since he did not hit the ground running in terms of success, he was forced to work as a writer in magazines in order to support himself financially. Interestingly, Theo considered himself to be a modern painter although his early work was in line with the Amsterdam Impressionists and is heavily influenced by Vincent van Gogh, both in style and subject matter. This suddenly changed in 1913 after van Doesburg was done reading Wassily Kandinsky‘s Rückblicke – the book made him realize there was a higher, more spiritual level in painting that originates from the mind rather than from everyday life. This, naturally, resulted in a sudden and radical turn towards abstraction.

Like many of his contemporaries, Theo Van Doesburg as well advocated a simplified, geometric and reductive aesthetic in the visual arts

In many ways, Theo van Doesburg was the one who dictated the course of contemporary art with his visuals and concepts
Theo van Doesburg – Untitled – Image via

Piet Mondrian and De Stijl Artworks

It was during his service in World War II that Theo came in contact with the works of Piet Mondrian, an eight years older artist who already gained some attention with his paintings. Van Doesburg saw his conceptual ideal in Piet’s paintings – a complete abstraction of reality. Soon, Theo contacted Mondrian and the two got together. In 1917, them and a few colleague artists founded the magazine De Stijl, a new avant-garde current that had Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian at its helm[2]. Running De Stijl quickly became a full-time job as Theo started to tirelessly promote it across the Old Continent. He moved to Weimar in 1922, deciding to make an impression on the Bauhaus principal, Walter Gropius, in order to spread the influence of the movement.

Beside creating numerous abstract paintings, Theo Van Doesburg also designed buildings, room decorations, furniture and household items, all of which exemplified aesthetic theories of De Stijl

Paintings like Dance II and Composition XIII show how Theo's art evolved over time while referencing his older artwork
Theo van Doesburg – Dance II, 1917 / Composition XIII, 1918 – Images via

Issues Between Theo van Doesburg and His Contemporaries

While Gropius accepted many of the precepts of contemporary art movements brewing in Europe at the time, he did not feel that Doesburg should become a Bauhaus master. As a response, heated Doesburg then installed himself near the Bauhaus buildings and started to attract school students interested in the new ideas of Constructivism, Dadaism and De Stijl in an attempt to steal the young bright minds from Gropius. Unfortunately, this was not the only thing that stagnated Theo’s artistic activities. After van Doesburg and Piet both found themselves living in Paris, the two naturally concluded their letter correspondence and started seeing each other face to face. The differences in character became apparent almost instantly – Mondrian was an introvert, while van Doesburg was more flamboyant and extravagant. Soon, the two men had disagreements which eventually led to a professional and artistic split. Although there are many reasons why the two artists did not want to work with each other anymore, the primary reason was that Mondrian never accepted diagonals, whereas Doesburg insisted on the diagonal’s dynamic aspects.

Much like the case was with Mondrian, Theo as well had a few themes he liked to depict over and over again
Theo van Doesburg – Dancers, 1916 – Image via

Later Life

After the split with Piet, Van Doesburg launched a new concept for his art, Elementarism[5], characterized by the diagonal lines[3] and rivaled with Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism. Interestingly, the two ex-friends and rivals reconciled when they accidentally met in a café in Paris. Beside working on De Stijl and Elementarism, Theo’s mature career was also dedicated to efforts in architecture as he was often designing houses for fellow artists. He never stopped writing as well. At the end of 1931, he was forced to move to Davos in Switzerland because of his declining health. Unfortunately, van Doesburg did not recuperate – on the 7th of March in 1931, he died of a heart attack. After his death, Nelly van Doesburg released the last issue of De Stijl as a memorial issue with contributions by old and new members of the movement.

Theo Van Doesburg argued that painting, design and architecture should be fully integrated without any kind of conceptual borders separating them

Tripartite Stained Glass Window is a piece that shows Theo did appreciate Mondrian's concepts despite the fights the two had
Theo van Doesburg – Tripartite Stained Glass Window – Image via

A Key Instigator of Non-Representational Art

Van Doesburg’s work is similar to many of his contemporaries who worked within the styles of Constructivism, Suprematism and the Bauhaus school, yet he still managed to leave an impressive mark that still very much echoes throughout the contemporary art world[5]. Unfortunately, due to his uncompromising nature, Theo found himself in the midst of many disputes, like the ones that saw him start competing with the Bauhaus school and the fight he had with Mondrian. These distractions, combined with the fact van Doesburg died at a relatively young age, somewhat stifled Theo’s impact on his contemporary scene. Nonetheless, his influence remained profound and Theo van Doesburg is now considered to be one of the most important artists who developed the idea of non-representational painting.


  1. Inconnu, Theo van Doesburg, painter and architect, SDU PUBLISHERS, 1988
  2. Fabre, G., Hotte, D. W., White, M., Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World, Tate, 2010
  3. Fabre, G., Theo Van Doesburg: A New Expression of Life, Art, and Technology, Mercatorfonds, 2016
  4. Hedrick, H. L., Theo Van Doesburg: Propagandist and Practitioner of the Avant-Garde 1909-1923 , UMI PUBLICATIONS, 1980
  5. Baljeu, J., Theo van Doesburg, Macmillan, 1974

Featured image: Theo van Doesburg – Photo of the artist in his uniform – Image via
All images used for illustrative purposes only.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2017Architecture and Interiors: The desire for StyleGemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague Group
2017Humour. 101 Years of Laughing at ArtFrans Hals Museum, Haarlem Group
2016Theo Van Doesburg: A New Expression Of Life, Art And TechnologyPalais des Beaux-Arts & Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels Solo
2016Dadaglobe ReconstructedMuseum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City, NY Group
2016Dadaglobe ReconstructedKunsthaus Zürich, Zurich Group
2015Wie leben? Zukunftsbilder von Malewitsch bis FujimotoWilhelm Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen Group
2015Ein Quadrat ist ein Quadrat ist ein QuadratMuseum Ritter, Waldenbuch Group
2015Fuego blanco: La colección moderna del Kunstmuseum BaselMuseo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid Group
2015(un)möglich! Künstler als ArchitektenMARTa Herford, Herford Group
2015Cézanne bis RichterKunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart, Basel Group
2014Changing the field of view. Modern printing and the avant-gardeMuzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Main Building, Lodz Group
2013İstanbul Eindhoven Saltvanabbe Modern TimesSALT Galata, Istanbul Group
2013Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern ArtThe Contemporary Jewish Museum San Francisco, San Francisco, CA Group
2013Vues d´en hautCentre Pompidou-Metz, Metz Group
2013Constructive, ConcreteMuseum Ritter, Waldenbuch Group
2012Correspondences Modern Art and UniversalismMuzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Main Building, Lodz Group
2012Société Anonyme: Modernism for AmericaYale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT Group
2012These Socks Are Not WhiteStedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven Group
2012The Small Utopia. Ars MultiplicataFondazione Prada, Venice Group
2012The Avant-garde. From Picasso To PollockPeggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice Group
2011die sache 2011Gesellschaft für Kunst und Gestaltung, Bonn Group
2011Construyendo UtopÍasGalerìa Guillermo de Osma, Madrid Group
2011Publishing Modernism: The Bauhaus in PrintThe National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Group
2010Rietvelds UniverseCentraal Museum, Utrecht Group
2010ganz konkret Folge 1Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich Group
2010Utopia Matters: From Brotherhoods to BauhausPeggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice Group
2010Utopia Matters: From Brotherhoods to BauhausDeutsche Guggenheim, Berlin Group
2010Gipfeltreffen der Moderne. Das Kunstmuseum WinterthurMuseum der Moderne Salzburg Rupertinum, Salzburg Group
2010Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New WorldTate Modern, London Group
2000theo van doesburg: maler-architektMuseum Villa Stuck, Munich Solo
2000Theo van DoesburgCentraal Museum, Utrecht Solo
1988Theo van Doesburg: painter and architectMuseum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam Solo
1983Theo van DoesburgGemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague Solo
1970Theo Van Doesburg: The Development of an ArchitectMuseum of Modern Art, New York City, NY Solo
1969Theo van DoesburgKunsthalle Basel, Basel Solo
1969Theo van DoesburgKunsthalle Nürnberg, Nuremberg Solo
1969Theo van DoesburgGemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague Solo
1968Theo van DoesburgStedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven Solo
1951Theo van DoesburgRose Fried Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
1947Theo van Doesburg. Paintings, drawings, photographs and architectural drawingsThe Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL Solo
1947Paintings by Theo Van DoesburgSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA Solo
1947Theo van Doesburg: retrospectiveArt of This Century Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
1924Retrospektiv Theo van Doesburgkestnergesellschaft, Hannover Solo
1923Retrospektiv Theo van DoesburgNeues Museum Weimar, Weimar Solo
1908Teekeningen en schetsen van Theo van DoesburgHaagse Kunstkring, The Hague Solo