Theo van Doesburg: De Stijl to Dada
Dr. Beverly K. Grindstaff
April 16, 2009
Theo van Doesburg helped create the art movement called De Stijl in Leiden, Netherlands in 1917 along with Piet Mondrain, Bart van der Leck and Garrit Rietveld. De Stijl means ‘The Style’ in Dutch. Theo van Doesburg was also the pioneer of the De Stijl magazine which helped to establish the movement and provided an outlet for him and other artists to express their ideals. De Stijl as a style was abstract art which was post-Cubist and responding to World War I in an attempt to create world harmony. The movement required the participation of many artists and even more mediums; van Doesburg himself being specifically prominent in graphic design and typography was the voice of the De Stijl journal. The magazine lasted until 1932, a year after Theo van Doesburg’s death.
De Stijl is slotted into the category of modern art but is hardly categorizable. I.K. Bonset and Aldo Camini are pseudonyms van Doesburg used in making Dadaist works. This helped to separate his identities from the De Stijl group because the De Stijl are very much so about unification through art. Much of van Doesburg’s work was in conjunction with the Dada movement. De Stijl and Dada can be seen as interchangeable devices when viewing such works as Die Scheuche (see Figure 1). While De Stijl was quite structured and Dada was nonsense; both were responses to the war. The war itself was structured and at the same time nonsense.
“There is little doubt that van Doesburg saw Dada’s revolutionary character and its engagement in the destruction of an old culture as a necessary preparation for the realization of De Stijl’s utopian aims” (Baljeu, 1974).
Dada was particularly anti-establishment and would rewrite its own manifesto often to change its identity. Dada made others question their intention as well as the viewpoints of the perceivers themselves. De Stijl intended to implement social change through simplification of the process in which observers could identify with the universal geometric forms. While the rationality (or lack thereof) between the two styles can be argued, the unification of the fashions within van Doesburg’s designs are everlasting.
Theo van Doesburg collaborated with Dadaist Kurt Schwitters to create Die Scheuche (The Scarecrow) in 1925. The book was written by Schwitters and designed by van Doesburg. Kate Steinitz produced Die Scheuchein 1925. It was an extremely typographical work in which the letters themselves are animated as the characters in the story. Matchsticks arranged as personas were sketched by van Doesburg in the original brainstorming designs.
The pieces of typography actually combine to clarify the story as a type of pictograph. Cubism opened up the door for such developmental works of combined poetry, design and illustration to create a novel. Things are not exactly what they seem, yet they are what they are; the letter capital B is the farmer in the story. ‘You are not really a scarecrow’ so the farmer tells him… ‘I’m going to make you like a corpse!’ (Grindstaff, lecture on 4/2/09) De Stijl artists’ belief of life expression through art is seen in the De Scheuche plot.
In an article by Atzmon, she describes the book as:
The plot, in which a rooster and chicks fearlessly and incessantly peck at the scarecrow’s stick, parallels the De Stijl notion of making way for the future by destroying or hacking up the past. The past is represented by the scarecrow. The term scarecrow, or straw man, has come to mean a false obstacle or issue. (Atzmon, 1996)
Scarecrows are interpreted as scary or to be feared. Living in wartime is living in fear itself. War is irrational to civilians who cannot fully understand what is going on outside their own reality. Without a bright outlook, life can seem quite grim and unbearable. The death of the scarecrow at the end of the story is similar to a hopeful death of the war in which light can be seen again; a sense of rebirth. The story helps readers to look forward to the future. In terms of real life, what we hang on to that doesn’t help us must be let go of. This is the way of finding ones path. It is representative of the De Stijl and Dada principles in its multiple takes on conformity of elements within the piece.
Prior to Die Scheuche, the artists organized the Constructivist Congress in 1922 in Weimar, Germany. This meeting was a synthesis of Dada and De Stijl undertaking the constructivist principles of experimentation. Die Scheuche can be seen as influenced by a constructivist approach within its style. A year earlier in 1921 a new version of the De Stijl journal was introduced, published in multiple languages to spread the ideas of the group in a more global direction.
The tenth anniversary issue cover of De Stijl in 1928 by van Doesburg juxtaposes his own image beneath type which is underlined by strong black lines containing the title and length of time the journal has been running (see Figure 2). The organization of materials is particularly Dada in its collage style. This work is quite different than original De Stijl covers in which the use of negative space is emphasized, yet it is still a De Stijl piece. Here, the space is completely used up with no margins to hold the large body of text. The effect gained from this is an in-your-face piece of art which makes a statement, even if just to say ‘This is me!’ and ‘Read me!’
Time spent working with other artists cannot help but lead to the influence of alternate styles through the collaboration and inspiration therein. Synonymous thoughts can be exemplified in Kurt Schwitters’ journal Merz on the mark of the De Stijl approach to art, despite it specifically being typified as a Dada endeavor. Theo van Doesburg contributed to Merz under the aliases established for Dada.
Four issues made up another journal by van Doesburg called Mecano, released in 1922 (see Figure 3). This was published under the pseudonym I.K. Bonset and was created in a strict Dadaist fashion. The cover for the third issue of Mecano is made to be turned in order to interpret the letters that spell out the title. Accordingly, all text in the composition reads from rotating the magazine.
We the viewer can interpret this work as a radical response to the war at hand and a voice in which to protest anti-war ideas. “The saw blade in the center served as an emblem of Mecano, representing the destructive force of Dada satire.” (Eskilson, 2007)
The artists of the early 20th century were put up against the task of creating meaningful works throughout a time of hopelessness and despair. New ideas were constantly being considered on how to reach people, new mediums tested and reactions interpreted. The collaboration of artists unifying towards similar goals put strength in their output. The design and typographical works of Theo van Doesburg have left a lasting impression on the viewer, defining what abstract art is and furthermore what it means. Its primary definition was about neo-plasticism and non-objectivity. What happened over the course of the fourteen-year-long running journal is an exploration of the artist and the development of ‘the style’ of De Stijl. Without the acknowledgement of the war, the De Stijl and Dada evolutions would not have been what they became; reinforced design trends which made sense out of the madness of the times.
Atzmon, L. (1996). The Scarecrow Fairytale: A Collaboration of Theo van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters. Design Issues: Volume 12, Number 3 , 14-34.
Baljeu, J. (1974). Theo van Doesburg. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 39.
Beckett, J. (1990). Untitled. Journal of Design History, Volume 3, Number 1 , 63-69.
Doig, A. (1986). Theo van Doesburg. Cambridge: BAS Printers Limited.
Eskilson, S. J. (2007). Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press. 195-196.
Grindstaff, D. B. (April 2, 2009).
Troy, N. J. (1984). Figures of the Dance in De Stijl. The Art Bulletin, Volume 66, Number 4 , 645-656.
Figure 1: Kurt Schwitters, Theo van Doesburg, pages from Die Scheuche, 1925. Patron of work, Kate Steinitz.
Figure 2: Theo van Doesburg, cover of De Stijl, Tenth Anniversary Issue, 1928. RBK, The Hague.
Figure 3: I.K. Bonset, cover of Mecano magazine, 1922, Letterpress on Paper, International Dada Archive, University of Iowa Libraries.
Baljeu, Theo van Doesburg, 39.
 Atzmon, The Scarecrow Fairytale, Design Issues: Volume 12, Number 3, 1996, 28-29.
 Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History, 195-196.