Theo van Doesburg’s “Painting: From Composition to Counter-Composition” (1925)

Translated from the Dutch by Hans L.C. Jaffé.

In De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York:1971).

• • •

Memorandum 1926.  In 1912, under the title ‘Attempt at a New Art Criticism,’ I published my first essays on the new art.  I tried to measure my own development as objectively as possible against the general development of art and came to recognize the universal as the new content of art and the straight line as the new means of expression of the future.  These two elements were found, in my opinion, to lead to a new style.

I ended this period with an abstract composition that was an abstraction of natural form [Girl with Buttercups). In 1916, after my release from military service, I founded, not without enthusiasm, De Stijl. If the war had not prevented it, I would have started De Stijl in 1914, for I resumed in 1916 where I had left off in 1914, although my work and views may have been purified and sharpened in the meantime.  In an article ‘From Nature to Composition’ (which appeared in 1918 in De Hollandsche Revue), I summarized my views in a series of illustrations — abstractions of a subject — and showed how I had evolved from naturalistic to pictorial composition.

With this result (a composition made up of dissonants) I ended this period.

When I wrote down the title for this article, it seemed to me desirable to record the above notes since this article might serve as a sequel to ‘From Nature to Composition.’

In 1924, with the white-black-grey composition illustrated in this issue, I ended what I now regard as the period of Classical abstract composition.

I.  The concept ‘counter-composition’ was not deliberately invented, but arose. And not accidentally or arbitrarily.  It indicates a stage of working and plastic thought (or vision) which can be explained after the event.

In so far as painting itself is a form of thought, of plastic thought or vision, it might be said that any explanation is superfluous.  And rightly so, [202] but an explanation after the event (which, therefore, precludes theorizing

can meet this objection.  The time is past in which the painter, architect

or composer did not think in the course of production or did not live

during the process of thinking.

On the one hand, the concept of ‘counter-composition’ is opposed to Classical-— albeit abstract — composition and to the Classical plastic concept.

On the other hand, it is opposed to the fundamental universally prevailing structural elements of nature and architecture.

Of course, the latter were important for development…but man has only recently discovered himself and his own age.  It is our age which has produced the need for contrast.  The latter was realized not only in the external manifestation of color and matter plasticism, but also and chiefly in the tempo of life and in the technique of the daily mechanical functions of life, such as standing, circulation, driving, lying, sitting — in fact, in everything that comprises the content of architecture.

The vertical walls of our dwelling, the horizontal planes of floor and ceiling, and the intermediate vertical and horizontal planes, table, chair, cupboard, bed, etc., are sufficient proof of this.  These movements, in so far as they were connected with industry, have now been taken over by machines.

In short: we execute our physical movements in the horizontal-vertical direction.

Through the continual repetition of these natural movements they have become more or less mechanical.  Instinct has been mechanized.  Our spirit plays no part in it.  Our spirit, in so far as it has not become fossilized in our physical life, opposes this natural ‘mechanism’ and assumes a completely new dimension.

In everything that surrounds us the fundamental polarity of the natural horizontal and vertical structure reveals itself.  In our homes and in the city, more elementary perhaps than in the forest and the landscape, but everywhere, this natural duality, more or less tautened.

Our predecessors expressed it in all their productions as much as we do, although figuratively in ‘Standbein and Spielbein or, symbolically, in the cross.  All Classical constructions (load and support) were built upon it.

Horizontal-vertical (H.V.) is the fundamental content of physical, real and optical nature.  The Classical principle of art was to bring these two into plastic unity through equilibrium, but this principle proved inadequate to express the modern spirit, which is characterized by the need for the [203] sharpest contrast of nature, physical structure and of every symbolic romanticization of the latter.

Since our physical life function is carried out in H.V., it is obvious that, for so long as this function has not yet been taken over by machines, the best architecture is that which is completely based on H.V.

II.  Although there exist no objective and absolute laws, independent of an ever-deepening and changing way of thought (which, if they did exist, would lead to dogmatic rigidity) — no fundamental, objective truths, no universal truth — the specific gravity of our spirit has nevertheless become calculable.

If optical vision had not changed into a more-than-sensuous, a super-sensuous vision, our age would never have produced the courage to see spirit in matter.  No essential difference would exist between a painting by Picasso (from his ‘abstract’ period) and a painting by Paulus Potter, or between a recent Brancusi sculpture (for the blind) and a glass egg from a bazaar.

Nature has not changed independently of us, but we have constantly made different use of her.

If this were not so, natural forces would not have been transformed — thanks to the human spirit — into mechanical and imponderable forces.  The same is true of the individual, organic life function.  We are convinced that it is a sign of ‘higher civilization’ when these organic functions are transformed into mechanical functions, and we already more or less despise those who function organically in complete naturalness.  This contempt is directed chiefly towards the complete identification with organic nature.  What we miss in ‘natural’ man is: opposition, contrast, resistance, struggle — in a word, spirit.

Without wishing, as in medieval Stoicism, to undervalue nature, we see that the human spirit is of a completely different structure and that, in the general aspect of the technique of life (formerly called ‘drama’), nature serves only as contrast, as opposition (and not as counterpart) to the spirit.

A flight in an airplane may suffice to convince you how great is the difference in method between nature and the human spirit, when you compare together city and countryside.  Everywhere that the human spirit has intervened, as in the city, a completely different order prevails, based upon completely different laws and expressing itself in completely different form, color, line and tension.


Just like the relationship of the city to the countryside, just as contrasting, just as hostile, is the relationship of the structure of the human spirit to that of nature.

The spirit is the natural enemy of nature (however paradoxical that sound), without this necessarily implying a duality.

The distance which lies between the soughing of the wind, the murmuring of the water and the electrical instruments of the Negro jazz band, is filled by the human spirit.

III. What I understand by spirit is very different from what our fore fathers understood by it, or from what modern witches, fortune-tellers and theosophists still understand by it.

Because of the way in which expressions pass into tradition, the word ‘spirit’ (as the superior principle in man) has lost its meaning and, consequently, also its force of expression.  It is, therefore, difficult to describe what is immediately revealed in plasticism.  If the tension between the extremes of our consciousness is neutralized, such as, for example, the tension between nature and spirit by a relative plastic equilibrium, there nevertheless arises, because of the urge towards evolution, the need to take up a new position in relation to this equilibrium.  If this were not so, the spirit would become fossilized in the equilibrium that had been attained and (to quote Roland Holst for once) this would then be the ‘dead point.’  Irrespective of what is understood by this equilibrium — a new culture, a new construction, a new religion, or a new attitude towards life — if this equilibrium were the only concern, there would be contained and achieved in it everything that the human spirit was capable of producing.  As a new culture, this equilibrium would allow no further evolution.  If this equilibrium were a new construction or plasticism, it could neither be improved nor developed.  The equilibrium achieved would, in this instance, be absolute instead of relative, stable instead of labile; it would be eternal and unchangeable.

Such a thing is, of course, impossible and yet, however nonsensical it may sound, it is the basis of all traditions and all dogmas which, because of the firm belief in the immutability of their principles, became formal and ultimately died.

The urge towards evolution and its accompanying disruption of the equilibrium already achieved (revolution), the most glorious and ineradicable quality of the human spirit, order things differently, however.


Just as the longing to enrich our concept of space by means of mathematics continually enriches our power of imagination (intuition or consciousness) with a new dimension by assuming a new direction in relation to the direction already known, so also does the urge towards enrichment of our concept of plasticism make our consciousness accessible to a new polarity, but on a completely different and higher plane than the earlier, Classical polarity between nature and spirit.

If we are able to see the principle of balanced relationship that preceded this new polarity as the perfect résumé of the Classical principle of art, we shall be able to understand that this new polarity is formed by the unity of nature and spirit, with, as its counter-pole, the new superior life principle.

With the diagrammatic illustration of the ever-shifting equilibrium given below, it will be easier to follow the line of evolution to which we have been referring above.

IV.  The foregoing remarks are not intended to be more than rather imprecise indications of what is immediately expressed plastically by the diagonal (in relation to natural and architectural structure).  The new painting can still have significance as a means of spiritual expression only in so far as it opposes natural organic structure to architectural structure instead of being homogeneous with it.  Now this homogeneity was expressed by the exclusively H.V.-determined painting in the H.V.-determined structure of architecture.  The former emphasized the latter.  The extension of color plane and line was in the same direction as the natural and tied architectural structure.  In contrast painting (counter-composition) this extension of line and color plane runs counter to the natural and architectural structure, i.e., contrasts with the latter.

These two extreme possibilities offer a great number of secondary possibilities.  Plastic intuition governed by scientific understanding — that is what modern man requires.

In the following article I shall discuss how far technique and method change at this new level of work.  In this first article, too, it is necessary to give up all illusion (e.g., the suppression of illusion or romanticism in the form of value, tone, etc.), and to dare to employ pure material as the most determinate and superior means of expression.


With the explanations given below I have tried to describe more closely [206] the meanings that I attach to various frequently repeated expressions.  I feel that by this means much misunderstanding can be avoided.

Spirit: The thinking principle in man, which distinguishes him from the beast.  The superior quality of substance, which is borne by the soul.

Instinct. The first impulse arising from the purely animal need of self-preservation, to protect oneself and reflect on a natural opposition.

Intuition: Immediate insight in respect of values, truths and things, without thought having first been given to them.

Intellectual: What is grasped by the spirit, instead of exclusively by the intuition.

Intelligence: The actual operation of the spirit, which governs and unites all the other functions of the emotions.

[From De Stijl, Vol. VII, No. 73/74, pp. 17-27]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 19, 2010.

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