Walter Dexel’s “Theo van Doesburg” (1931)
Translated from the German by David Britt. From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
On March 7, Theo van Doesburg died at Davos. He was a highly significant and almost a tragic figure, since the opportunity to realize his potential to the full was largely denied him — a fact that is hard to understand if one looks at some of those who are permitted to work.
He was a painter, an architect, a typographer, and from 1917 the founding editor of the magazine De Stijl, the first ever to campaign consistently for new formal design. (The cover of De Stijl remains an exemplary piece of modern typography — think of the visual changes that have overtaken our periodicals in the past decade, and you have one small illustration of Van Doesburg’s startling anticipation of present-day design principles.). He fought in the foremost ranks of the Dutch shock troops alongside Mondrian, Oud, Rietveld, Wils, Huszár, Van t’Hoff and others. What they stand for is well known. Now that he is dead, let us reflect for a moment on what we in Germany owe to Doesburg. Historical justice and the memory of an important man demand that we remember.
In 1921 Theo van Doesburg came to Weimar, with his vital energy and his clear critical mind — Weimar, where the Bauhaus had been in existence since 1919, and where a considerable number of modern artists were living, attracted by the wind of progress that used to blow — in those far-off days — through Thuringia. The credit for inviting Doesburg to Weimar goes to Adolf Meyer; straightforward, phlegmatic, and consistent, Meyer never diverged from the straight line that led from the buildings designed in cooperation with Gropius in Cologne and Alfeld to the works of his later, mature period in Frankfurt. The teaching appointment as such was not a success, since it proved impossible to bridge the gap between Doesburg’s views and those of the then dominant Bauhaus personalities.
But Doesburg did not lose heart. True prophet that he was, he passed on what he had to say to anyone who wanted to learn. We had lived through the war in ignorance of the living forces at work in other countries; he was engaged in a constant exchange of views with members of the avant-garde everywhere, and he brought the whole world with him into our seclusion. All that Holland, France, Italy, America, and Russia possessed, by way of major progressive work and new ideas, was there in the countless illustrations and publications in alt languages that lay piled up in Doesburg’s Weimar studio.
In countless private conversations, but also in systematically constructed courses, he clarified the fundamental concepts of new design in every area of work. These courses were regularly attended by numerous Bauhaus students, among others; and the fundamental reorientation that took place at the Bauhaus in 1922-23 would have been unthinkable without Doesburg’s influence. His personality was essentially that of a teacher. As a teacher, he was a spellbinder, who swept his hearers along with him. Energized by his subject like no other teacher, he was always at pains to establish universally comprehensible basic principles, and to give his hearers not subjective impressions but a method. He provided, at least for Germany, the first valid formulation of the ABC of the new impulse in design. Consciously and deliberately, Doesburg was an artist/theoretician. As an artist, he was one of a select few; but as a theoretician he is, in his own field, as unique as Adolf Loos. He had no interest in exploiting artistic individuality as a means of gaining attention; he strove with all the means at his command to enact a universally valid stylistic impulse with the utmost clarity and purity. By imposing an at times disabling burden of — perfectly sound — theory on his own work, Doesburg the thinker eased the way for others to gain, through more  accessible words and works, the popularity that was always denied him. But if the criterion of priority has anything like the status in artistic matters that it has in science, Doesburg’s contribution to the evolution of the new formal design has yet to receive its due.
His lectures of 1921-22 anticipated most of the ideas purveyed in subsequent years by leading artistic personalities: ideas that are now current coin. He identified the characteristic signs of today’s world-view as against yesterday’s —
openness, not closure
clarity, not vagueness
religious energy, not faith and religious authority
truth, not beauty
simplicity, not complexity
proportion, not form
synthesis, not analysis
logical construction, not lyrical conjunction
mechanics, not handicraft
formal design, not imitation and decorative ornamentation
collectivism, not individualism
— as applied to painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, film, music, and life in general. He sought to resolve the problem of architecture on a scientific basis of social and biological fact. By 1921 he proclaimed housing as a vital function that affects our mental as well as physical activity. At that early date, he clearly understood that any attempt at renewal that concentrated exclusively on one factor was impoverished and doomed to perish. He prophesied the early demise of utilitarianism unless it once more acknowledged our psychological needs. Sadly, this hope has yet to be fulfilled — as can be seen from many modern housing projects, which, sailing under the colors of function and fitness for purpose, often do no more than revive yesterday’s back elevations and put them along the street frontage. Doesburg unmasked the decorative and dilettante uses of Modernist methods, at a time when there was a general inability to tell the difference. He was one of the first to recognize that craftsmanship has become steeped in individualism, and that collectivist formal design needs the machine in order to fulfill the new aesthetic needs that arise from the remodeling of society.
The ideas of Doesburg’s final half-decade have yet to be fully realized. Partly put into practice at the Aubette in Strasbourg and at his own house in Meudon, they offer endless material for the theoretician above all. For Doesburg, color was a design material, an architectural element. Ever more clearly, he saw that, although nakedly structural — or, as he called it, “anatomical” — architecture had banished the decorative principle of the past, its exclusive utilitarianism had led it to neglect optical, tactile and psychological needs. Doesburg calls for architecture and painting to operate synoptically, so that architectural and painterly elements relate to each other: a process that involves the materials of glass, concrete, steel, etc., together with horizontals and verticals, light and shade, color and gray/black/white. He knew that the fundamentals of a new theory of formal design must necessarily rest on the scientific and artistic exploitation of these antitheses.
[Originally published as “Theo van Doesburg,” in Das neue Frankfurt, No. 6 (1931)]