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Winter Ruminations, part two: Van Doesburg, and that big black box


WILLIAM McBRIDE: Our walk along the riverbank is disrupted by that blunt dead-end beneath Blackfriars Bridge, and we are forced to mount the stairs and pick our way through the undistinguished streets that wrap the cultural landmarks of Southbank to the Thames like brown packaging tape. The temptation is to cross the river here, but with the special vista from London Bridge in mind we stick to the plan and find our way back to the river via the Tate Modern.

Over the past few weeks, my friend and I have both been pummelled by the preëminent gallery’s advertising for the new (poster-friendly) exhibition, VAN DOESBURG & THE INTERNATIONAL AVANT-GARDE, and tonight – call it serendipity, or acquiescence – we decide to take a look.

The exhibition is massive and consists mostly of spare and colourful paintings of geometric shapes. It’s an aesthetic I first encountered while gazing down at the floors of supermarkets in the 1980s, but it has its origins as a trailblazer of Modernism, at the very centre of Avant-Gardism, and heavy theory underpins every colour choice and every line.

There is ample text adorning the walls of each of the 14 rooms, gently encouraging the viewer through the exhibition. We learn that the character of Theo van Doesburg – Dutch artist, writer, publisher, and organisational lynchpin of Europe’s early 20th Centruy Avant-Garde scene – fuelled by a staunchly utopian determination to unify and universalise art, was pivotal in binding his peers into a bonafide movement. Many different artists are on display as part of this exhibition.

On first impressions, the works here seem to give very little – they are dispassionate and simple, aesthetically pleasing in design, but lacking in sweaty, fleshy humanity. I have been back since, however, and this lacking is kind of the point.

These artists’ often-stated aim was to reach some kind of essence in their works by locating a pure, universal geometry within every object, be it a woman or a landscape – and there is a beauty to this ambition (and its result), like the beauty of fine glass, or a clear sky.

One painting, Theo van Doesburg’s own ‘Composition in dissonances, 1919,’ we are told, was originally a traditional female portrait, and what we see hung on the wall is in fact the final stage of eight systematic refinements, from which only pastel-coloured squares and rectangles have survived.

Vilmos Huszar’s ‘Composition with Female Figure, 1918,’ renders the classic painting of a female demure – head tilted down and to the side – with scarcely more than a cluster of small painted triangles and squares balanced atop larger ones. But I look at these shapes and I do see: a torso, a head, perhaps even folded knees – a demurring female.

‘Monument to J.S. Bach, 1928’ by Henri Nouveau, is a small metallic-looking plastic sculpture that resembles something between an esoteric mathematical diagram and a treacherous mountain range, showing a jagged but ordered climax which is said to represent Bach’s ‘Fugue in E Flat Minor’ with some kind of methodical fidelity.

Elsewhere, we learn how van Doesburg initially clashed with, then embraced Dadaism, and the writings and images from those first recalcitrants adorn the walls. Shouting in quotation marks above the prints and magazine displays are several take-home quotes, including this one from van Doesburg in 1923:

“DADA allows the simultaneous negation of any affirmation. DADA is yes-no, a bird on four legs, a ladder without steps, a square without angles. DADA possesses as many positives as negatives. To think that DADA simply means destruction is to misunderstand life, of which DADA is the expression.”

When we escape the exhibition (after 14 rooms, it feels like an escape), our mood of solemn irony following The Seventh Seal has now mingled with a sense of sparse, essential non-answer; of Dadaist yes-no.

“Should we go and quickly contemplate our mortality?”

The Tate’s blockbuster Big Black Box by Miroslaw Balka still haunts the Turbine Hall and, like a cheeky night-cap, a tarot reading or a quick hit of free psychotherapy, it can be a nice way to burnish a trip to the gallery.

“Yeah, alright.”

This installation is both over- and under-whelming. During those trepidatious first steps into the void, you actually cannot see a thing; for a few precious moments the darkest black ink seems to fill your vision and you could be anywhere in the universe.

But then, quite quickly your eyes adjust, picking our seams and subtle changes in the textured blackness; you ears alert themselves and compensate for the muffle, your feet shuffle, you get bored, or lightly anxious, or irritable at noisy strangers, cowardly reaching for their mobile phones to light the way, and that potentially annihilating moment of pitch-black has comprehensively left you.

DADA -ah ah ahh. Roma roma-ma…

It is time to leave.


BFI Southbank runs an excellent ongoing program of classic and modern films, but they also do special screenings, film festivals, etc.

VAN DOESBURG & THE INTERNATIONAL AVANT-GARDE has just opened at the Tate Modern, and will run until 16 May. Miroslaw Balka’s cavernous black box is still lurking in the Turbine Hall until 5 April.
[Main image: Vilmos Huszar’s ‘Composition with Female Figure, 1918,’]

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