Theo van Doesburg was born Christian Emil Küpper in 1883 into an artistic family in Utrecht, when he started painting he adopted the name – Doesburg – from his stepfather. At the start of his career Van Doesburg was a figurative painter, influenced by impressionism and reminiscent of Van Gogh, but he soon came in contact with non-figurative painting and in 1916 met Mondrian – who was 8 years his senior and newly returned from Paris. In Mondrian’s work, Van Doesburg saw his ideal in painting: a complete abstraction of reality. The devotion of both men to the creation of a purely abstract art led to the formation of the De Stijl group in 1917 and the publication of its magazine, De Stijl, which Van Doesburg edited and published.
Van Doesburg's life may have been short (he died at the age of 47) but he was enormously energetic and an ambassador and founder member of diverse artistic groups from Paris to Weimar, from Berlin to Zurich and Milan. Neo-plasticism, constructivism, suprematism, dadaism, elementarism – Van Doesburg was involved in all of them. In character he was both gregarious and eclectic, a centralising figure in a diverse and chaotic artistic world. He lectured and published, talked and theorised, attended conferences and congresses and exhibitions, many of which he organised himself.
Van Doesberg was a strong presence in the field of architecture and in1921 he set off for Weimar, seemingly with the intention of participating in Walter Gropius's Bauhaus school. Some, including Gropius himself, were alienated by Van Doesburg's dogmatic and aggressive views; others, such as the young Mies van der Rohe, were inspired. In June he was publishing De Stijl from Weimar and the next year began his own De Stijl architecture course, poaching students from the Bauhaus itself. This was a crucial time in the development of the Bauhaus, when it was in the process of moving from its individualistic arts and crafts origins to embrace the uniformity and austerity of style that was soon to be become "modernist". Van Doesburg lectured on geometry and the use of primary colour and the submersion of the individual in the collective, things that later became an integral part of the Bauhaus philosophy. After almost two years of frenetic writing, publishing, lecturing and organising, Van Doesburg returned to Holland from Germany in 1923 and later re-established himself in the suburbs of Paris where he seemingly had a major disagreement with Mondrian (supposedly to do with opposing theories about the use of the diagonal line in painting). It was some five years before the two artists were reconciled in 1929. Van Doesburg died tragically of a heart attack in 1931.
Van Doesburg featured extensively in landmark De Stijl, Dada, Bauhaus and Avant-Garde exhibitions during his lifetime and posthumously. ‘Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World’ a major show at the Tate Modern, London, in 2010, recognised his importance as a painter, poet, critic, architect, and how the influence he had amongst the avant-garde of the 1920s shaped generations.