As the leading member of the Dutch art and architecture collective known as De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg was instrumental in defining the formal principles of 20th century Modernism. “The visual artist can leave the repetition of stories, fairy-tales, etc, to poets and writers,” Van Doesburg once said. “Painterly means are: colours, forms, lines and planes” (Theo Van Doesburg, Principles of Neo-Plastic Art, p. 280). His writings on Neo-Plastic art, which he first presented at the Bauhaus in 1917, proposed a formal approach to painting by which color planes were cancelled out by non-color planes, lines canceled out by voids. In the 1920s van Doesburg created a series of pictures that perfectly exemplified his treatise, which he had further modified to include the idea of "Elementarism". Elementarism called for his paintings to be turned at a forty-five degree angle so that they would appear in contrast with the horitonzal-vertical axis of their architectural setting. These highly abstracted compositions, or Contra-Compositions, as he called them, exalted the primacy of the line and the simplicity of form. Sectioning off quadrants of his canvas with a few black lines and bands of primary colors, he 'cancels out' his compositional elements, plotting them in opposition to each other to create a 'formative harmony'.
The Neumann Family’s Contra-Composition VII is one from a series of works that exemplifies this radical philosophy. The artist painted in while he was living in Paris in 1924 and when he was working very closely with his Dutch colleague Piet Mondrian (see fig. 1). Their close relationship and interchange of ideas can be seen in Mondrian's compositions from this period, which is completed with similar aesthetic objectives.
The present composition closely relates to a sketch of the same title at the Yale University Art Gallery. According to the catalogue raisonne, Contra-Composition VII is based on the seventh preliminary study from the publication Liber Veritatis. It is the fourth painting which came about in response to the studies in the Liber Veritatis and for this reason the artist also called this picture Contra-Composition IV. Van Doesburg wrote the following about this series: "On the one hand, the notion of 'counter-composition' is opposed to the classical, it is an 'abstract' notion of composition and plastic expression. On the other hand, counter-composition is opposed to the fact that fundamental structural elements of nature and architecture are predominant everywhere" (quoted in Joost Baljeu, Theo van Doesburg, New York, 1974, p. 152).
Although he did work as a architectural draftsman with his contemporaries Cornelis van Esteren (see fig. 2), J.J.P. Oud and Gerrit Reitveld. His experience in this field carried over into the 'construction' of his paintings and axonometric drawings, which take on the dimensionality of architectural blue-prints (see fig. 3). Van Doesburg also had specific ideas about the placement of his paintings within a given architectural setting, indicating on the back of the picture that a work should be hung at a forty-five degree angle, as in the case of the present work. In a photograph of the artist's studio in 1931, we can see the present painting propped against the wall before it was hung at a forty-five degree angle (see fig. 4).
Fig. 1, Piet Mondrian, Diamond Painting in Red, Yellow and Blue, 1925, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of Herbert and Nannette Rothschild
Fig. 2, Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Esteren (left) working on a model of a house in van Doeburg's studio, Paris, 1923
Fig. 3, Theo van Doesburg, Counter-Construction, 1923, gouache on collotype, Netherlands Office for Fine Arts, The Hague
Fig. 4, Vie of the interior of the artist's studio at Meudon, 1931, The present work is propped against the wall on the second row, third from left.
Oil on canvas in the artist's frame
Theo van Doesburg
(possibly) New York,The Little Review Gallery, Works by Léger [...], Theo van Doesburg, Ossip Zadkine, etc., 1925
Canvas: 17 7/8 by 17 7/8 in. 45.5 by 45.5 cm
Evert van Straaten, “Theo van Doesburg”, in Carel Blotkamp, De vervolgjaren van de Stijl, 1922-1932, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 40
Els Hoek (ed.), Theo van Doesburg, oeuvre catalogue, Utrecht, 2000, no. 732, illustrated in colour p. 392
Nelly van Doesburg
Harry Lackritz, Chicago (probably acquired from the above in 1947-48)
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above and thence by descent