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Theo van Doesburg (Christian Emil Marie Küpper) (Dutch, 1883–1931), Cornelis van Eesteren (Dutch, 1897–1988)

Contra-Construction Project, Axonometric

Date:
1923
Medium:
Gouache on lithograph
Dimensions:
22 1/2 x 22 1/2" (57.2 x 57.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.
MoMA Number:
149.1947
Copyright:
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 124

Van Doesburg, a painter, writer, editor, and architect, was a founder and driving force behind the de Stijl movement, which was centered in the Netherlands in the late teens and early 1920s. Cornelis van Eesteren, an architect, joined the group in 1922. Artists and others contributing to van Doesburg's periodical, De Stijl, attempted to create a new harmonic order in the aftermath of World War I. They attempted to construct a utopian solidarity between art and life under the influence of Piet Mondrian's early theories of Neo-Plasticism, which proposed that the essence of the imagined and seen world could be conveyed only through a logical system of abstraction based on the line, square, and rectangle and the primary colors plus black and white.

According to van Doesburg, architecture had to be approached in an entirely new way, which would ultimately give rise to a universal aggregate of easel painting, sculpture, and architecture. As suggested by this axonometric drawing, one of a group rendered but never built, architecture, enlivened by flat colors, was to be economical and dynamic, with planar elements balanced asymmetrically around an open core. Such structures would allow the modern individual to achieve harmony with his or her surroundings.

Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, pp. 56–57

With the zeal of a crusader, Theo van Doesburg, the prolific writer, painter, and cofounder of the avant-garde Dutch movement de Stijl, promoted a new order uniting art and life. In his utopian quest for a universal ideal, cleansed of social and artistic conventions but not without moral and spiritual dimensions, van Doesburg predicated a formal language of abstraction on the rectangle, primary colors (red, blue, and yellow), and asymmetrically balanced compositions. To suggest what a de Stijl environment might look like, van Doesburg enlisted the assistance of the architect Cornelis van Eesteren. In 1923 the two men mounted a landmark exhibition at Léonce Rosenberg's Galerie L'Effort Moderne in Paris. This so-called "Contra-Construction" was among the works exhibited.

The Contra-Construction is not a study for a specific building but a meditation on a new kind of architectural space and structure. Serving as a demonstration of the ideas in the artists' manifestos, the composition-an axonometric placed diagonally on the paper-is key to understanding their aims. The construction seems to float on the sheet, divorced from time or place. The high vantage point lets us see many sides at once, but we have no clear understanding of front, side, or back, or of inside and out. Horizontal and vertical planes define a complex of asymmetrical volumes around a central open core. Color is a constructive element, applied to elements running the height, length, and width of the construction. The planes have an atectonic character, being divorced from a supporting function. The spatial relations and sense of freedom in the composition underscore van Doesburg's overarching goal: to liberate humanity from material things through a new form of modernism.

Peter Reed

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