running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Constructing a New World - De Stijl

Monday, 19 April 2010

entry door to the De Stijl exhibition, Tate Modern.

I finally managed to get a day down in London to see, amongst other things, the De Stijl (literally, 'The Style') exhibition at Tate Modern, which I previewed in a post back in February.

This is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Dutch artist, writer, designer and pivotal figure of the European avant-garde, Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931).

The exhibition explores van Doesburg's tireless promotion of Dutch Neoplasticism, his relationship with Dada and Bauhaus, his links with Constructivism, and his legacy as chief protagonist in the movement which brought modernism to mass culture.

As you'd expect at the Tate Modern, this show is immaculately installed. The works are split up into 12 rooms, and the influence of De Stijl on a number of disciplines, including film, architecture, design and typography is presented in roughly chronological order.

For me the real highlights were Rooms 5, 6 and 7, which showcased De Stijl typography, magazines, and events posters.

In Room 5, Van Doesburg's geometric alphabet was on show, as an exhibit in its own right, and on dozens of posters and leaflets.

Van Doesburg Alphabet

Room 6 featured a series of Dadaist slogans and pronouncements (written by Van Doesburg under the pseudonym of IK Bonset) which typified the ethos of times -

In Room 7 were numerous copies of the seminal magazines De Stijl, Merz, and Mecano, all in surprisingly good condition, and displayed using the 'leger and trager' freestanding exhibition display systems, invented in 1924 by another De Stijl designer, Frederick Kiesler.

Magazines and Posters

As well as a wide selection of Van Doesburg's own paintings and designs, this brilliant exhibition features over 350 works by artists such as Jean Arp, László Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters and Sophie Taeuber.

There is a stunning set of El Lissitzky lithographs, and a series of visual 'scores' by Hans Richter. As if that wasn't enough, there are half a dozen pieces by Mondrian, some of them free of glass, allowing you to clearly see the texture and strokes on his famous geometric compositions.

The amazing level of collaboration between the various artists of the period is inspiring.

The overall impression is one of dazzling optimism, unbridled experimentation and Van Doesburg's enormous self-belief. This is the guy who was so committed to De Stijl that, on failing to gain a teaching post at the Bauhaus in 1921, he promptly wrote his own course and recruited a number of important Bauhaus students over to it. By 1924, De Stijl writings were regularly being published by the Bauhaus movement.

It's not all celebratory stuff though. The latter part of the exhibition demonstrates that by the late 1920's, the De Stijl 'rules' were beginning to fracture - some of the work looks like tired parody, and a certain amount of monotony creeps in to the primary colour palette and the heavy grid layouts.

Towards the end of the show, in Rooms 10A and 10B, van Doesburg's dramatic 'Counter-Compositions' make their appearance. These works embrace van Doesburg's trademark diagonal, and are brilliantly juxtaposed with Mondrian's final minimalist refusal to move beyond the horizontal and vertical - effectively the end of the movement, but emphatically the beginning of graphic design as we know it.

Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde
Tate Modern - 10 Years Old.