The Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) was one of the founders of the modern art movement called de Stijl and the chief promoter of its ideas.
Theo van Doesburg whose real name was C. E. M. Kupper, was born on Aug. 30, 1883, in Utrecht. He was involved in painting and interior decorating and writing on art, but it was only in 1917 after he had met the painter Piet Mondrian that Van Doesburg formulated his ideas clearly. The two painters founded the group de Stijl (the Style) and the avant-garde review of the same name when they and several other artists established a number of common aspirations which formed the basis of the movement.
Van Doesburg's temperament made him the public leader of the group. He was an impulsive and vigorous man, with strong likes and dislikes, in contrast to the far more reticent and cautious Mondrian. De Stijl esthetic was based on geometric abstractions and applied not only to painting but to other arts, especially architecture. Unlike many art movements in the 20th century, de Stijl aimed at social and spiritual reforms rather than purely artistic concerns. The leaders believed that a purified geometric esthetic would exert a strong and calming influence on those who saw a de Stijl painting or lived in a de Stijl house.
Van Doesburg traveled extensively from 1919 on, visiting the active centers of progressive art in Germany and France. He gave lectures, wrote numerous articles, and made many personal contacts with the avant-garde leaders in those countries. His contacts and interests were wider than those of Mondrian, who left de Stijl in 1925 because he disagreed with Van Doesburg on esthetic grounds.
In 1922 Van Doesburg became briefly involved with Dadaism and traveled on a wild lecture tour with the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Van Doesburg worked at the same time with the constructivists and became interested in the Bauhaus, which had recently been founded in Germany. In the 1920s his interests progressively widened, and he wrote about these new interests in his articles for the De Stijl review; these articles helped to change the direction of the movement. Finally, he formulated a more dynamic version of de Stijl and published this as a manifesto of what he called elementarism. He continued to experiment with novel ideas, both in writing and painting, and collaborated with the painter Jean Arp. Just before his death on March 7, 1931, in Davos, Switzerland, Van Doesburg helped found the Abstraction-Création group in Paris.
Most of the writing on Van Doesburg is in Dutch. Two useful discussions of de Stijl and Van Doesburg's role in the movement are in Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960; 2d ed. 1967), and H. L. C. Jaffé, De Stijl (1964).