At the age of 33, Theo van Doesburg (Utrecht 1883 - Davos 1931) followed his sweetheart and settled in Leiden in 1916. Theo van Doesburg was his alias; his real name was Christian Emil Marie Küpper. At the time, he already had an impressive track record: he had started out as a figurative painter around 1900 but he developed a lyrical abstract style of painting around 1915. He also wrote poems and art reviews. Furthermore, he was active in the art world as an organiser of exhibitions and as a co-founder of artist groups. However, his period in Leiden – from 1916 to 1922 – was extremely important. Not just for the development of Theo van Doesburg's own works, but also for the development of the visual arts in general.

De Stijl in Leiden

Soon after he moved in 1916, Van Doesburg founded the artists' association De Sphinx in Leiden. However, it did not live up to his expectations because of the variety of views and styles. Consequently, he founded magazine De Stijl in Leiden in 1917, inspired by his introduction to the artist Piet Mondriaan. As from the first issue, the magazine played an important part both nationally and internationally. Van Doesburg also invited sympathizing artists from abroad to publish in the magazine.


De Stijl

An artists' group developed around magazine De Stijl and included Piet Mondriaan, Bart van der Leck, Vilmos Huszar, Gerrit Rietveld, and others. This group of painters, architects and designers aimed at autonomous, universal art, intended for a new man in a new society. No longer the individual, but the aggregate society should be the measure of things. A completely new image language would have to be able to address all men in an equal manner. Their ideas on the subject were published in the magazine.

THEO VAN DOESBURG, SFEER, CA. 1916 museum de lakenhal, leiden

Theo van Doesburg in Leiden

Van Doesburg’s most characteristic period started in Leiden: he dedicated himself to works of art that were fully composed of abstract geometrical elements. Initially, he still looked for support in visual reality. As such, he started with a rather true-to-nature painting of the Blauwpoortsbrug in Leiden. Next, he continued to 'further image' the drawing, which means that he reduced the drawing time and again to increasingly elementary shapes; until finally, only lines and rectangles remained. The recognizable theme is 'further imaged' into an abstract composition. Quite soon, he found the courage to start his paintings afresh as independent abstract compositions.


In 2009-10, Museum De Lakenhal organised the large-scale exhibition ‘Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World’ in cooperation with Tate Modern (London). In it, Van Doesburg was portrayed as an inexhaustible, versatile and central figure in international avant-garde. Paintings, sculpture, scale-models, furniture, placards, motion pictures, typographic designs and magazines paint a picture of the bustling international art world at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the various disciplines became increasingly entwined. The international magazine Artforum elected the exhibition as one of the best of that year. Works by Van Doesburg were matched with those of artists including: El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Gino Severini, Kurt Schwitters, Hans and Sophie Arp, Mondriaan, Vilmos Huszár and Bart van der Leck.

Exhibition 'Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World' (2009-10), Museum De Lakenhal
Exhibition 'Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World' (2009-10), Museum De Lakenhal Foto: Marc de Haan

In 2012-13, this exhibition was adequately followed up by ‘UTOPIA 1900-1940. Visions of a New World. In a wide range of visual arts, films, architecture, dance, theatre, design and photography many renowned names passed in review, including alongside of Van Doesburg: Max Pechstein, Fernand Léger, El Lissitzky and Bruno Taut. The works represented the revolutionary ideals of the expressionists and the constructivists: two of the main avant garde movements of the early twentieth century. This internationally compiled exhibition presented the two movements in a bright new coherence. In December 2013, Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant proclaimed this exhibition the cultural summit of the year.

UTOPIA 1900-1940. Visions of a New World
UTOPIA 1900-1940. Visions of a New World Photo: Marc de Haan

2017: 100 years De Stijl

In 2017 it will be 100 years ago that Theo van Doesburg established a journal called De Stijl in Leiden, to showcase the artistic philosophy of the Dutch art movement De Stijl. World-famous artists like Piet Mondrian, Gerrit Rietveld and Bart van der Leck were members of the avant-garde movement. From Leiden the radically innovative abstract art of De Stijl took over Holland, and thereafter the world. Throughout 2017 Holland will be celebrating 100 years of De Stijl with numerous large and small exhibitions all over the Netherlands, all centred on the theme of From Mondrian to Dutch Design.

Leiden is the birthplace of De Stijl, and so will play a key part. From June 2 til August 27 2017, Museum De Lakenhal presents Open Air Museum De Lakenhal. 100 Years after De Stijl, featuring works by contemporary artists on the Pieterskerkhof (Peter's Church Square), located in the historical centre of Leiden. More info soon.