PhotoLexicon, Volume 10, nr. 21 (June 1993) (en)

Theo van Doesburg

Mattie Boom

Janine Dudok van Heel


Theo van Doesburg became world-famous as a painter, architect, and theorist of the international avant-garde. Other aspects of his ‘universal’ artistic production and his shifting identity have not been overlooked: under the names I.K. Bonset and Aldo Camini, Van Doesburg was also active as a poet and a writer. Not only did he maintain contacts with photographic artists such as László and Lucia Moholy-Nagy, Brancusi, El Lissitzky, and Man Ray in his role as chief editor of the magazine De Stijl (‘The Style’), but he even experimented with photography himself in the 1920s. This resulted in a small photographic legacy with traces of Dada, De Stijl, and Bauhaus.




Christian Emil Marie Küpper (Theo van Doesburg) is born in Utrecht on 3 August as the son of Wilhelm Küpper, a photographer by profession, and Henrietta Catherina Margadant. Theo’s legal father, Wilhelm Küpper, who leaves his wife in 1884, is probably not his real father. This is likely to be Theodorus Doesburg, who later becomes his stepfather and whose name Theo assumes.


Theo van Doesburg wants to become a writer, an actor, and a painter. For a brief time, he receives painting lessons from A.J. Grootens (1864-1957). He earns his living by teaching painting to amateurs and copying paintings in the Rijksmuseum.


Theo van Doesburg is called up to serve in the military and is assigned to the 4th Regiment Infantry in Amsterdam.


Van Doesburg is granted long-term furlough from the military.


In addition to his painting, Van Doesburg keeps an extensive daily journal and writes his first short stories.


Van Doesburg marries Agnita Henrica Feis, whom he will eventually divorce in 1917.


With the start of First World War, Van Doesburg is stationed at Alphen, near Tilburg. Here he meets Helena Milius, his future second wife.


Van Doesburg moves to Utrecht, where he meets Erich Wichman and Janus de Winter and is in contact with Piet Mondrian.


Theo van Doesburg is discharged from the military and moves in with his mother and sister in Haarlem. In March, Van Doesburg, Louis Saalborn, and Erich Wichman found the association De Anderen (‘The Others’) in Amsterdam.


Together with J.J.P. Oud, Van Doesburg founds the association De Sphinx (‘The Sphynx’) in 1917 in Leiden. With Piet Mondrian and others, Van Doesburg establishes the magazine De Stijl (‘The Stijl’), with the first issue appearing in early November 1917. In May, he marries Helena Milius, whom he will divorce in 1923.


At the invitation of the architectural historian Adolf Behne, Van Doesburg departs for Berlin in December. He visits the Bauhaus in Weimar. While visiting Mondrian in Paris, Van Doesburg meets the art dealer Léonce Rosenberg. For the first time, he writes Dadaistic poems and stories for De Stijl, under the pseudonyms I.K. Bonset and Aldo Camini. At a lecture in The Hague, Van Doesburg meets his third wife, Nelly van Moorsel.


Theo van Doesburg travels across Europe with Nelly van Moorsel: first to Italy via Belgium, France, and the Riviera; then to Germany via Switzerland and Austria. They decide to stay for a longer period in Weimar. Van Doesburg makes his photo collages in this period. It is probably about this time that he purchases a camera.


Starting in March 1922, Van Doesburg initiates a ‘Stijl’ course in Weimar: one hour of practical lessons and one hour of theory. Together with Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters, and Raoul Hausmann, Van Doesburg publishes four issues of the Dada magazine Mécano. With the hiring of László Moholy-Nagy as Johannes Itten’s successor, Van Doesburg’s ardent wish to become a teacher at the Bauhaus falls through. Disappointed, he leaves Germany and returns to the Netherlands. Together with Kurt Schwitters and Nelly van Moorsel, he organises a ‘Dada Tour’ of the Netherlands.


Van Doesburg moves to Clamart, nearby Paris. Together with Cornelis van Eesteren, he works on preparations for an exhibition on the architects of De Stijl, to be held at Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery L’Effort Moderne.


Through Hans Arp, Van Doesburg is commissioned to renovate the interior of the Café Aubette on the Place Kléber in Strasbourg.


The Café Aubette opens in February. Theo van Doesburg loses his studio in Clamart and has no permanent place to live. In July, he moves to a studio in the Villa Corot on the Rue d’Arcueil in Paris. In November, Van Doesburg and Nelly van Moorsel—who have been living together up to this time—marry.


Construction begins on a house and studio designed by Van Doesburg in Meudon, outside Paris. He sets up a group under the name of ‘Blanc’. In December 1929, contact between the artists Joaquin Torrès-Garcia and Michel Seuphor intensifies, resulting in an offshoot of the Blanc group, called Cercle et Carré. Van Doesburg is invited to become a member of this group but turns it down. A new group is then founded around Van Doesburg, called Art Concret.


As the summer progresses, it becomes apparent that both groups are to be short-lived. Van Doesburg travels to Spain, where he gives lectures in Madrid and Barcelona. Upon his return, he becomes seriously ill: he suffers from asthma and his condition deteriorates into full-fledged bronchitis. Not until November are there signs of a recovery.


In February, just after the completion of the house in Meudon, Van Doesburg travels to Davos to be treated for his illness. He weakens due to asthma and dies of a heart attack on 7 March.


Theo van Doesburg was not a photographer in the typical sense of the word. As an artist, he was in contact with virtually every branch of the arts. He was greatly intrigued by anything new and experimental in a wide variety of areas, including film and photography. From 1921 up until his death 1931, Van Doesburg produced several photo collages and photomontages, as well as a number of typographic designs for which he used photography. Van Doesburg also took portraits of his artist friends and his wife, Nelly van Moorsel. In addition, he used photography to document his architectural designs. Van Doesburg’s photography can be described as informal, spontaneous, and incidental. They are sketches, annotations, and thoughts executed in the photographic medium. The photos can best be compared to a ‘sketchbook’, in which the artist explores his ideas.

Van Doesburg was a cultural glutton. He maintained numerous contacts with artists, was constantly devising new ideas in every area of the arts, and ensured there were sufficient pathways to communicate his ideas. Van Doesburg was always sparking debate in his own magazine De Stijl as well as various other magazines, and at lectures and soirees. He worked strictly according to the principles of the Nieuwe Beelding (literally ‘New Representation’, but known as Neoplasticism) and later Elementarism. Van Doesburg contributed a virtually countless number of reviews and literary articles to various magazines.

Van Doesburg’s legacy, comprising artworks, designs, manuscripts, letters and documents—all carefully overseen by his wife, Nelly van Moorsel—also includes approximately 3,000 photos: a small group taken by Van Doesburg himself, the rest made by others. The latter group consists of photos sent to him by artists: reproductions and portraits to be used for publication in the magazine De Stijl, the Dadaistic pamphlet Mécano, and to accompany his own articles in various other magazines. The legacy also includes photographs used for the Bauhaus classes, as well as architectural photographs. These photographs of executed projects, interiors, stained glass designs, models, and designs were all mounted on demonstration cardboard mounts, colourised, and subsequently hung on a pin board in the workshop or studio, or displayed at exhibitions. Van Doesburg also owned a collection of reproductions and lantern slides used during his lectures.

At a young age, Theo van Doesburg was certain he would become an artist. By about 1899, he was already active as a painter. In this early period, photography played no role whatsoever: it was, if anything, a means to reproduce his work, which was still figurative at this time. He acknowledged the function of the photographic portrait as a means of representation. As a young man of nineteen, Van Doesburg had a portrait taken of himself with a painter’s pallet and brushes, leaning arrogantly against the easel, conveying the look of an artist.

Van Doesburg discussed the possibility of establishing a magazine with Antony Kok in Tilburg, and Erich Wichman in Utrecht. It was intended to be the mouthpiece of the Nieuwe Beelding. In 1917, Van Doesburg founded the magazine De Stijl, together with Kok, J.J.P. Oud, Piet Mondrian, R. van ‘t Hoff, Bart van der Leck, and Vilmos Huszar. From this moment forward, he possessed an interest in both the arts and architecture in the broadest sense of the word. Van Doesburg was the most important initiator of De Stijl, the magazine’s editor during the period 1917 to 1927, and a contributor of numerous articles on all kinds of topics. Figurative art was decisively replaced by abstraction: Van Doesburg became the protagonist of the so-called ‘Elementarism’ in painting and especially in architecture.

With the emergence of De Stijl, and later the Dadaist pamphlet Mécano, Van Doesburg came into contact with photographic material. There are many letters in which he writes his colleagues requesting photographs of their work. It was his task to do the image editing and to gather photographs of objects, buildings, and interiors, as well as the portraits of collage artists and architects. Among these were also occasionally photographs by Van Doesburg himself. These photographs also served other purposes. In the 1927 anniversary issue of De Stijl, Van Doesburg provided an account of the struggle to find a new manner of representation—the ‘Nieuwe Beelding’. During his visit to Berlin in December 1920, Van Doesburg organised an evening in the home of Bruno Taut. In attendance were Walter Gropius, Adolf Meyer, Fred Forbat, and various students of the Bauhaus. There he showed ‘an extensive collection of photographs after works by the De Stijl collaborators’. In no time, the Germans had become converts: ‘upon the circulation of these photographs the desire was expressed at the Bauhaus to work in the manner of “De Stijl.”‘ The medium of photography was chiefly implemented both practically and functionally for the dissemination and exchange of artistic work. In the ‘age of the machine’, the camera was an obvious means to achieve this, simply to document, but also as an instrument of a shifting insight with respect to the functioning and aim of representation itself. During his lecture ‘Der Wille zum Stil’ (‘The Desire for Style’)—presented in various cities during his stay in Germany in the year 1922, including Jena, Berlin, and Weimar—Van Doesburg presented examples of what he interpreted as pure, contemporary design: a racing car, mechanical children’s toys, and a photograph by Man Ray alluding to the machine age, Dancer/Danger of 1920. In a 1925 article in De Stijl, entitled ‘Einde der Kunst’ (‘End of Art’), Van Doesburg described the utter need for new images and an alternative way of seeing. In his view, art itself was impeding the development of ‘true life’. Aestheticism aims for an artificial harmony. ‘Everything is artified,’ he complained. ‘Do such things, which are not art, not refresh us: the bathroom, the bathtub, the wheel, the automobile, the engine room, an iron.’

The only reminder of Van Doesburg’s visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in Paris in 1921 is a self-portrait he took in a mirror, together with his girlfriend, Nelly van Moorsel. A plate camera of an unknown make can also be seen in the photograph: the only tangible proof of Van Doesburg making a photograph.

In 1921, Van Doesburg and Van Moorsel travelled for six weeks across Europe. The couple ended up in Weimar, where they stayed for a longer period of time. It was Van Doesburg’s intention to promote the ideas of De Stijl, hoping to put them into practice at the Bauhaus once he arrived at Weimar. Prior to their departure on this trip, a camera was possibly purchased, to which several surviving album pages with photographs attest. They appear to be the earliest personal photographs that Van Doesburg took. The negative material for these photos, however, has not survived.

What can still be found in Van Doesburg’s archive are 9×12 glass negatives, produced during a visit to Hanna Höch’s studio in Berlin in 1925. This is the earliest negative material found in his archive. Later, Van Doesburg switched to nitrate cellulose 9×12 cm. During their travels, the couple used a smaller camera with the negative format 5.6 x 8.0 cm.

It is not known whether Van Doesburg had access to his own darkroom at the various addresses where he is known to have lived. Payments for orders of 9×12 prints with a photography store at 114 Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris still exist. In any event, a darkroom would have been required to make his combination prints. It is certain that there was never any darkroom designed for the house in Meudon. Nelly often recorded Theo’s authorship on the back of his photographs with the text ‘photo Does’. Only in a few cases did Van Doesburg sign a photograph himself.

In one of the earliest albums, a portrait has been mounted with a text in Nelly’s handwriting: ‘Doesnel. Weimar. 1921.’ This concerns a photo collage by Van Doesburg, constructed from a studio portrait of himself with Nelly’s head substituted for his own. Another page features portraits of Theo and Nelly, somewhat resembling passport photos, mounted next to each other in an inverted position accompanied by a second portrait of Theo.

Van Doesburg is likely to have made many more of these collages in this same year, 1921: a printed photograph of a hand with long fingernails, with a photograph of a manicure on top of it; a composition with the interior of a sporting goods store placed in an ellipse; and a collage featuring balls of wool. It was all meant to be more for play than anything serious, if we are to believe an interview that Nelly van Moorsel gave in 1968 in Vrij Nederland. Together with Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters, they all filled their afternoons with this pleasant form of pastime. It remains uncertain whether any of the seven collages preserved in Van Doesburg’s legacy were made while in their presence. They are all signed with the name I.K. Bonset, Van Doesburg’s pseudonym which remained practically unknown right up until his death. This signature would seem to indicate that he himself took these works seriously. The collage La Matière Dénaturalisée. Destruction 2 was, after all, published in 1923 under the same pseudonym in Van Doesburg’s Dadaistic pamphlet, Mécano. Moreover, this collage was the only one included in the design for an oeuvre catalogue put together by Van Moorsel in 1948. In actuality, it is hardly a photo collage, but rather a hotchpotch of pieces of fabric, text fragments, and remnants of photographic prints. The title speaks for itself: in this work, the ‘denaturalisation’ of the representation is carried out to the maximum degree. Destruction reduces the existing material back to non-representational matter. In Réconstruction, another collage dating from the same year, machine-made and handmade works are juxtaposed. With all of the collages, there was never a camera used nor did they ever include photographs that Van Doesburg had taken himself. The method entailed instead the cutting and gluing—and again reusing—of already existing, printed photographic material. With the production of these works, Van Doesburg wished to experiment with the phenomenon of photo collage. The balls of wool, the sporting goods store, and the long nails all fall more into the category of creations made in jest or serving as mini-experiments. These works are of too little substance for them to be considered an artistic concept when compared to, for instance, the more thematic, socially critical collages produced by Hannah Höch, Alexander Rodschenko, to Kurt Schwitters’ ‘Merz’ works, or the photomontages of László Moholy-Nagy’, who made series based on a clear concept.

Several years later, Van Doesburg began experimenting with reflection, combination print, and double exposure. In three studies of the piano room that Nelly rented for herself in Clamart in 1924, this can be seen for the first time. For this space, Van Doesburg designed a colour scheme in diagonal planes; this was the first time he worked with diagonals in accordance with the ‘elementaristic’ principle. In paintings that he referred to as ‘contracompositions’, he carried his working approach even further. After its completion, the colour scheme for Nelly’s piano room was photographed with a camera. In one of the photographs, the reflection in the window is vaguely perceivable. Almost unintentionally, he has created a certain layered effect of different images in a single photograph.

Van Doesburg often made use of glass reflections in his shots in order to ‘fragmentise’ the representation, as it were, such as in his portraits of Hannah Höch of 1925. The same effect could have in fact been achieved by double exposing a negative or by placing two or more negatives in the enlarger. Two of Van Doesburg’s portraits of the dancer Valentin Parnac fall into this category. Van Doesburg had asked Parnac to pose for him at home. Two virtually identical portrait studies taken during this session have been preserved, in which the Parnac holds his head in his hands, with the arms crossed above the head in the form of a diamond, and the legs crossed. In one of these, the painting Counter-Composition XI (XVI) can be seen—standing in the upright position—in a way that it creates light bands over Parnac’s dark suit. In the second portrait, Parnac himself is positioned in front of the contracomposition, with the original reproduction of the painting this time printed through it. The photographs do not include any annotations made by Van Doesburg himself, only the words ‘Dans Épopée’ and ‘photo Does’ in Van Moorsel’s handwriting. An article by Parnac about the ballet ‘Danse Épopée’, based on schematic drawings, appeared in 1926 in De Stijl.

The ‘simultaneous portrait’ depicting Nelly van Moorsel with dogs, cats and painting is best known. On the reverse side of the small, original print with the dimensions 11.1 x 7.2 cm, Van Doesburg himself applied the term ‘simultaanportret’ and noted down the year, 1926. The photograph was printed in the format 50.2×29.9 cm, together with a large group of photos that Van Doesburg had ordered to be enlarged for the De Stijl group architecture exhibition in the Poirel Gallery in Nancy (France). The portrait was probably not shown: there is no mention of it in the exhibition catalogue. The designer Hans Möhring used the same portrait in a poster design for a theatrical performance entitled La doublé vision (‘The Double Vision’), which was featured in a publication on graphic design. The way in which paintings are incorporated in these photographs is interesting. There are even more photographs in which paintings figure, such as those of the dancer Kamares for Counter-Composition XI (XVI). Both Parnac and Kamares are standing in front of Counter-Composition XI (XVI) with the painting standing upright, though, in actuality, it is meant to be horizontal. In the photograph of Parnac, the painting has been turned ninety degrees to the left; with Kamares, it is turned ninety degrees to the right.

With the simultaneous portrait, a move in the direction of Elementarism was carried out further. The figural aspect is reduced to a number of basic elements and leads to a construction of elementary parts, such as planes, lines and colours. This idea was almost literally projected onto the representation in the Parnac combination prints. In the simultaneous portrait of Nelly with dogs, cats and painting, the representation is, as it were, broken up and takes place on various levels. The second portrait of Nelly found in the dark diagonal of the painting gives the photograph a depth in various directions, making her almost three-dimensional.

No negatives have survived for any of Van Doesburg’s combination prints, preventing a reconstruction of the procedure that he followed. The fact that two formats are known for the simultaneous portrait of Nelly suggests that there was one negative, in which different shots were combined. For another simultaneous portrait—a double portrait of Nelly with Hans Arp (1927)—a print with the dimensions 7.7 x 7.0 cm has been discovered for one of the shots: a print possibly made using two negatives on one piece of light-sensitive paper. The use of double exposure (i.e. two shots on top of each other in the same negative) and combination print (i.e. a print of two or more negatives on one piece of paper) occurred more often. El Lissitzky applied this technique starting in 1924, for instance, with his self-portrait Le Constructeur (1924), in which six different photographs are combined. A variant of this particular self-portrait was also found in Van Doesburg’s legacy. It is not known when or how this photograph came into Van Doesburg’s possession and whether it had served as an inspiration for his own simultaneous portraits. Van Doesburg also had a simultaneous portrait by Lucia Moholy-Nagy in his possession: a portrait of Nelly with Kurt Schwitters (1927). László Moholy-Nagy’s influential book Malerei Photographie Film (‘Painting Photography Film’) appeared in 1925, as volume eight in the series Bauhausbücher (‘Bauhaus Books’). Moholy-Nagy identified and demonstrated a number of new functions and applications for photography: collages, the typophoto, photo-sculpture (‘photoplastik’), the possibilities of combination photos with double exposure, and the use of reflections. The term ‘simultaneous portrait’, i.e. two portraits combined in one print, is introduced in his book as ‘Anfangsform des simultanen Portrats’ (‘Originating Form of Simultaneous Portraits’), with a double portrait of Hannah Höch probably taken herself. Moholy-Nagy did not view photography as an isolated phenomenon, but rather always in relation to the other visual media. He also spoke about the technical possibilities and requirements of the art of film. Here too, he played with the thought of simultaneity: the projection of two or more films as a single combination film.

A year after the appearance of this book, in 1926, Van Doesburg began making his simultaneous portraits. From September 1926 on, however, his major commission to design the interior of the Café Aubette in Strasbourg was taking up most of his attention. We can only assume that Van Doesburg’s experimentation with photography, which was never much more than a studious interest, had come to an end. This is also reflected in his theoretical writings, where there is little sign of any noticeable regard for the photographic medium. Contrary to Moholy-Nagy, who made photography the central focus of his book, Van Doesburg was interested in other matters. In 1924, a collection of his thoughts previously expressed during his lectures was published in the sixth volume of the Bauhausbücher Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst (‘Fundamental Concepts of the Newly Formed Art’). This book included photographs elucidating various design principles. The topic of photography in itself, however, was not addressed.

Van Doesburg’s connections with members of the international art world, as well as with artists who photographed, were lively. From the outset of the De Stijl period, there was also contact with Italian futurists: Van Doesburg’s collection includes photographic self-portraits by Bragaglia and Fortunato Depero. Upon their arrival in Germany in 1921, Theo and Nelly became friends with Lucia Moholy-Nagy, who took portraits of the couple on numerous occasions. During the so-called ‘Constructivist Conference’ of 1922 held in Dusseldorf, Van Doesburg and Van Moorsel spent significant time with both El Lissitzky and László Moholy-Nagy. The influence of the Bauhaus itself was minimal: photography, after all, was not taught as an independent discipline until the late 1920s. Since his time in Weimar, Van Doesburg was also friends with Werner Gräff, who had partaken in his ‘Stijl’ course.

Another friend was the photographer Max Burchartz, who also attended Van Doesburg’s classes at the Bauhaus and had assisted him with the German translation of his Bauhaus book. Burchartz later became an instructor of photography at the Folkwang School in Essen (Germany). Starting in 1922, Van Doesburg made several references to Man Ray’s work in his publications and lectures. He also viewed Man Ray’s experimental film. After the couple’s move to Paris in 1923, Nelly established contact—most likely in early 1925—with Man Ray, who also lived in Montparnasse and is known to have made portraits of her twice.

The most productive period that Van Doesburg was involved with photography appears to be his time in Paris, from 1923 to 1927. It was there that the majority of photomontages, artists’ portraits, and personal photos were taken. Photos were taken of his architectural models and designs, for instance, to be put on display at the ‘De Stijl exhibition’ at the gallery L’Effort Moderne. The Aubette project was also extensively documented photographically, along with working photos, spatial studies, and portraits. In the project’s working space, Werner Gräff and Van Doesburg took portraits of each other.

Prior to this, Van Doesburg took portrait photos of many of his visitors at the house/studio in Clamart standing in front of the open hearth. Among them were artists such as Hannah Höch, Piet Mondrian and Branko Poliansky. Van Doesburg also photographed Hans Arp, Xanti Schawinsky, and O.G. Carlsund. For the anniversary issue of De Stijl in 1927, Nelly was photographed as I.K. Bonset. For the cover, Van Doesburg took a photographic portrait of himself and let it run directly through the text and lettering. Besides portraits, there are also several photographic still lifes by Van Doesburg that are known.

The camera was an instrument that, in Van Doesburg’s era, was seen by artists as the exponent of a new age. This machine could, after all, transport them to a revolution, a new dynamic, and new objectives of ‘representation’. As a machine art, photography was automatically part of a ‘total package’ of arts longing to be anything but traditional. That said, in the De Stijl magazine of 1926, photography was still mentioned nowhere specifically: ‘De Stijl and its movement in Painting, Architecture, sculpture, monumental imagery, music, literature, anti-philosophy, Machinism, objects, dance.’

Only two articles in the magazine by Van Doesburg himself make mention of photography, and in both cases, this occurs solely in relation to film: in 1921, an article entitled ‘Abstrakte filmbeelding’ (‘Abstract Film Imaging’); and in 1923, ‘Licht- en tijdbeelding’ (‘Light and Time Imaging’). At an early stage, in 1922, De Stijl did feature a short article written by László Moholy-Nagy, ‘Produktion–Reproduktion’. Here Moholy-Nagy presented his vision of art in the machine age for the first time, which he would later further elucidate in his book Malerei Photographie Film. In it, he argued for a kind of ‘Umwertung’ (‘reassessment’), in which new, unknown forms of communication would be sought for through visual (and acoustic) means. In 1929, Van Doesburg juxtaposed the two mediums photography and film, in an article entitled ‘Film als reine Gestaltung’ (‘Film as Pure Design’) published in Die Form, the magazine of the German Werkbund (‘German Association of Craftsmen’). In this article, Van Doesburg stated most explicitly that he indeed viewed photography as a mature form of art. He described the development of film as a pure design form by discussing the development of photography, which itself was then compared to painting and sculpture. Just as with all forms of art, this growth process of reproduction and imitation leads to creation or production. His arguments revealed major similarities to Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus book. Just as Moholy-Nagy, Van Doesburg applies the terms ‘reproduction’ and ‘production’, regardless of whether he is talking about optical (visual art) or acoustic (musical) experiences. It concerns identifying elementary technical processes in order to arrive at a new form of design by experimenting and reorganising. In this way, a transition takes place from imitated or copied art (reproduction) to creative art, which expresses itself in absolute forms that are new (production), in accordance with the technological age.

Van Doesburg was not represented at the important photo exhibitions of his day. Not a single work of his was even shown at Film und Foto, the exhibition organised by the German Werkbund in 1929 in Stuttgart, to which various friends had submitted large series of photographic and typographic works.

In Van Doesburg’s letters during this period, no mention is made of the exhibition or the book. An exhibition in this year to which he did submit work, however, was ‘Neue Typografie’ (‘New Typography’), organised by Moholy-Nagy for members of the ‘Ring neuer Werbegstalter’ (‘Circle of New Promotional Designers’) in Berlin and Magdeburg in the same year. Van Doesburg sent in a multitude of designs, including most likely the combination of photography and typography he had produced in 1925 for Fagus, the German shoe last factory. His theories regarding applications for photography and typography were later further outlined in an article on book design published in Die Form.

Although Theo van Doesburg’s photographic production may perhaps be viewed as rather insubstantial and incidental, his contribution to New Photography, at least in terms of intention, is significant. The comprehensive survey De Nieuwe Fotografie in Nederland (1989), by Flip Bool and Kees Broos, opens with the simultaneous portrait of Nelly van Moorsel with dogs and cats. This implies that characteristics of a new vision of photography are present in Van Doesburg’s photos and that he can therefore be considered as a forerunner. This applies not only to his photomontages, but also to Van Doesburg’s collages. In this regard, he preceded Paul Citroen (1923) and Cesar Domela Nieuwenhuis (late 1920s), as well as Piet Zwart, Jan Kamman, and Paul Schuitema. While others were seized by the medium of photography and expressed their theories in this area consistently and full of purpose in the form of posters, books and brochures, Van Doesburg confined his view to the conception of a design principle. His photographic experiments stemmed much more from a longing for innovation in painting and design in general. The idea of elementary constructions was the basis of this endeavour. Andreas Haus, in his study of photography at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s, discusses the vague distinction between the sought-after artistic photograph and the ordinary photographic document. That ‘art’ and ‘life’ intermingled seems to be particularly relevant when it comes to Van Doesburg’s photography. Sometimes as a photographic document, sometimes as a design experiment: in any event, much more a concept versus tangible photographic production.


Primary bibliography

Abstracte filmbeelding, in De Stijl 4 (juni 1921) 5, p. 71-75.

Der Wille zum Stil, (Neugestaltung von Leben, Kunst und Technik), in De Stijl 5 (1922)2/3, p. 23-41.

Licht- en tijdbeelding, in De Stijl 6 (1923) 5, p. 57-62.

Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst, dl. 6 Bauhausbücher, 1924.

Film als reine Gestaltung, in Die Form 4 (15 mei 1929) 10, p. 241-248.

Das Buch und seine Gestaltung, in Die Form 4 (1 november 1929) 11, p. 566-571.


images in:

De Stijl 10 (1927) 79/84 (jubileumnummer), p. 9.

Hans Möhring, Das photographische Bild im Dienste der Reklame, in Offset. Buch und Werbekunst 5 (1928) 11, p. 447-451.

K. Schippers, Holland Dada, Amsterdam (Querido) 1974, p. 35, 37, 41, 46, 49-50.

Flip Bool en Kees Broos, De Nieuwe Fotografie in Nederland, Amsterdam (Fragment) 1989, p. 42.

Secondary bibliography

Jean Leering, Theo van Doesburg, in Catalogus tent. Theo van Doesburg 1883-1931, Eindhoven (Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum) 1968, p. 4-8.

L. Leering-van Moorsel, Notities bij de typografie van Theo van Doesburg, in Catalogus tent. Theo van Doesburg 1883- 1931, Eindhoven (Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum) 1968, p. 28-31.

Carel Blotkamp, Nelly van Doesburg: “de Sikkensprijs komt veertig jaar te laat”. Een gesprek over Schwitters, Cohn-Bendit, Mondriaan, Gropius, Lissitzky en Theo van Doesburg, in Vrij Nederland 14 december 1968.

Joost Baljeu, Theo van Doesburg, Londen 1974.

K. Schippers, Holland Dada, Amsterdam (Querido) 1974, p. 30-92, p. 132-136.

Erika Billeter, Malerei und Photographie im Dialog von 1840 bis heute, Bern (Benteli Verlag) 1977, p. 290-291, 389.

Ute Eskildsen en Jan-Christopher Horak (red.), Film und Foto der zwanziger Jahre. Eine Betrachtung der Internationalen Werkbundausstellung “Film und Foto” 1929, Stuttgart (Verlag Gerd Hatje) 1979, p. 30, 172-179,220,225,241,246.

Evert van Straaten, Theo van Doesburg 1883-1931, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1983 (met foto’s).

R. Sachsse, Lucia Moholy, Diisseldorf (Marzona) 1985, p. 14, 18-19, 34, 56, 116-117.

Evert van Straaten, Theo van Doesburg peintre et architecte, Den Haag (SDU Uitgeverij) 1988, p. 53, 55, 67-68, 70, 105-107, 111, 113, 124, 136-137, 141, 144, 178-182, 200, 244-248 (met foto’s).

Chris Rehorst, Hannah Höch und die Niederlande, in Catalogus tent. Hannah Höch 1889-1978, Berlijn (Argon Verlag) 1989, p. 40-61.

Barry Friedman en Margarita Tupitsyn, El Lissitzky. Experiments in Photography, New York (Houk Friedman), 1991, p. 8.

Bouwe Hijma, Archive of Theo van Doesburg and his wives, ca. 1900-1975.

Inventory by Bouwe Hijma, Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst. Netherlands Office for Fine Arts. Guide to the microform collection IDC no 0-21-27, Den Haag/Leiden (IDC) 1991.

Evert van Straaten, Klare en lichte, gesloten ruimten geaccentueerd door diepe en pure kleuren. Het werk van Theo van Doesburg in de architectuur, (proefschrift) Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit) 1992.


1973 (g) Turijn, Stedelijk Museum, Combattimento per un immagine arte e fotografia.


Amsterdam, Janine Dudok van Heel (ongepubliceerde doctoraalscriptie kunstgeschiedenis: Theo van Doesburg en de fotografie. Een onderzoek naar de bemoeienis van Theo van Doesburg met fotografie aan de hand van de Schenking Van Moorsel in het bezit van de Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst in ‘s-Gravenhage, Rijksuniversiteit Leiden, december 1992)

Berlijn, Bauhausarchiv.

Den Haag, Rijksbureau Kunsthistorische


Den Haag, Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst.


Berlijn, Berlinische Galerie (Archiv Hannah Höch).

Den Haag, Letterkundig Museum.

Den Haag, Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst (Schenking Van Moorsel).

Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit Leiden.