The transformative impact of the Russian Revolution on art has been the impetus for a series of excellent exhibitions at Tate Modern. Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World (2006), Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction (2006) and Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism (2009) all drew attention to the imaginative explosion that took place internationally in the wake of 1917, while not always telling us about the social processes that gave birth to such dynamic movements. This exhibition continues in this vein.
Entering the exhibition, dancing shapes in vivid colours are instantly reminiscent of the lyricism of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings, but this soon changes. Along with Piet Mondrian and others, Theo Van Doesburg experimented with representing everyday objects as unadorned rectangles of colour, often to such a point of abstraction that the original object becomes indistinguishable. These were turned into brilliant designs made of stained glass and a number of them are displayed here.
This form of composition became unified into the movement De Stijl (The Style), launched in 1917. As with the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and the Russians Alexander Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova, the influence of the huge struggles that took place across Europe around the time of Russia’s socialist revolution was a striving for an art that was part of people’s everyday lives – art had to come off the gallery walls. For example, Van Doesburg designed a De Stijl alphabet for use on leaflets and posters for theatre, music recitals and exhibitions.
As you walk through the gallery there is experimentation with an impressive range of different media. A series of mesmerising films are particularly exciting. They take the geometric forms developed in the paintings and turn them into hypnotic kaleidoscopes.
Planes of colour in the early paintings became incorporated into designs for buildings and pieces of furniture. In one project, Van Doesburg redesigned the music venue Café Aubette in Strasbourg following De Stijl principles. You can view numerous models, drawings and objects from the building.
As his alter ego, IK Bonset, Van Doesburg also used collage and photomontage and created poems whose unconventional form on the page was integral to their meaning. This was Dadaism, a movement which developed out of anger at the insanity of the First World War. Critics seem divided in their interpretations of a movement which explicitly aimed to be “anti-art” and at times feels nihilistic in content.
This exhibition shows us the path-breaking art of a generation horrified by war and inspired by revolution. Many of them would come to teach at that giant of art schools, the Bauhaus. There is a rich vein here of Van Doesburg influencing and being influenced by many different artists around Europe. However, as with the other Tate Modern exhibitions, the “red thread” of the historical and political context is often considerably underplayed.
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