Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg
10 July 2020 - 9 October 2021
Nelly & Theo van Doesburg
Theo van Doesburg showed his wife Nelly how to adapt her clothes and make-up to the latest fashion. Nelly later ensured that Theo's name was firmly anchored in art history following his death.
The exhibition Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg recognises Nelly as a key figure in establishing Theo's reputation. A series of four accompanying articles provides an insight into Nelly's life, her artistic network and her role in promoting Theo's work. The first of these looks at her early life and relationship with Theo.
'Now that De Stijl, and Van Doesburg in particular, has such widespread recognition, it is high time we paid attention to the woman who made such a major contribution to that reputation.' Wies van Moorsel, Nelly van Doesburg 1899-1975, 2000
An artist's charisma
While decorating the Christmas tree at her parents' house in Scheveningen in 1920, Nelly was told by her mother: 'You will marry an artist, a penniless artist of course.'Idem Nelly was then 21 years old. Two years earlier, in 1918, she had passed an exam at The Hague Conservatory that qualified her to teach piano, and had given her first solo concerts. In addition to music, her great passion was dance. She was elegant and from an early age showed an artist's charisma. Her mother must have known that Nelly yearned for a life of glamour and excitement and wanted nothing more than to surround herself with artists, dancers, poets and other artistic people.
Nelly van Doesburg, born Petronella Johanna van Moorsel, made her name as an avant-garde pianist, dancer and visual artist, and performed under the Dadaist stage name Pétro van Doesburg. Her extravagant behaviour made her the black sheep of her family. She was only 21 when she met Theo van Doesburg, and the couple's lifestyle was a far cry from what was considered appropriate by her affluent Roman Catholic family.
Nelly's older brother Kees, who was an architect, greatly influenced her development and her interest in modern art. It was in his study that she discovered De Stijl, the magazine that promoted a universal art, a new world and a new way of depicting it. Nelly was particularly attracted by the magazine's utopian worldview in which architecture, visual art, dance, literature and music came together and in which every discipline was connected. Inspired by such views, Nelly increasingly moved in avant-garde circles, partly thanks to Kees, who was personally acquainted with Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck, Jan Wils and the founder of De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg.
Nelly met Theo in 1920 at the opening of an exhibition of the Section d'Or Cubist group at The Hague Art Circle. Theo was then married to Lena Milius, but their marriage was already coming to an end. Theo was attracted to Nelly's youth - she was 16 years his junior - and her knowledge of and sensitivity to art. Unlike his wife Lena, Nelly was more than willing to get involved in the international art world. Once she became part of the artistic circle around Van Doesburg, he exerted a great influence on her appearance, encouraging her to dress in the latest fashion and change her hairstyle and make-up.
The studio-house in Meudon
In 1926, Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966) and Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) were commissioned to convert the interior of the 18th-century Aubette building in Strasbourg into a complex of cafés and nightlife venues. They advised the client to ask Theo van Doesburg to design the ground-floor café spaces, the two dancehalls on the first floor and the signage for the building's interior. Because it was such a large-scale project, Nelly moved to Strasbourg in 1928 to join Theo.
On their return to Paris, it proved difficult to find a living space that could also serve as a studio. Nelly and Theo dreamed of a double residence with a studio where they could live and work together with the Arp couple, to whom they remained close after the Aubette project. In the spring of 1929, they found an ideal plot in Meudon, a suburb of Paris. In the meantime, the Arps had found their own studio-house in Clamart, not far from Meudon, so the Van Doesburgs decided to build a house with a studio just for themselves, designed by Theo, with Nelly as the client.
Unfortunately, there were many problems with the construction. The flat roof leaked and there were cracks in the cement layer. There were arguments about payments, and Theo, who had been struggling with severe asthma for years, was getting sicker. Even when the house was finally completed and habitable, the interior was nowhere near finished. The cracks in the walls had to be sealed and the colour scheme still needed to be applied. Ideally, Theo wanted the architecture and interior to form a cohesive, organic whole. Theo and Nelly envisioned a space that would be a meeting place for younger artists and architects. They gave form to their comprehensive philosophy of art and life in their architectural creation in Paris, the capital of the international avant-garde and a city that was dear to both of their hearts.
The house in Meudon, finally completed in 1930, is now known as the Van Doesburg House. It still stands today as a representation of Theo's ideas about the synthesis of the arts and the ideal of uniting them with society, industry and science. Van Doesburg House link https://vandoesburghuis.com/en/
Theo died before the house was decorated and furnished. Nelly was inconsolable. Theo had been her teacher and had given her a different view of life. She said, 'I lived with Van Doesburg for only ten years, but it may as well have been 50.'
Spreading Theo's ideas
In 1931, Walter Gropius, the founder and former director of the Bauhaus, asked Nelly to organise a retrospective exhibition of Van Doesburg's work. After visiting the Netherlands and Germany, Nelly returned to Meudon to arrange and frame Theo's paintings and drawings with Jean Arp's help.
In Meudon, Nelly began to think about other ways to keep Van Doesburg's ideas alive. She would devote the rest of her life to this aim. She wanted to combat the notion that Theo had been primarily a follower rather than an innovator of modern art. To this end, she organised a series of exhibitions of his work and found a good home for many of his paintings by selling them to the world's best collections of modern art. As the representative of Theo's estate and artistic legacy, she did her best to keep in touch with all his artist friends, and made important new contacts in the art world, such as the millionaire collector Peggy Guggenheim. She had romantic relationships with the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and with Sourou-Migan Apithy, later president of French Dahomey (now Benin).
Little was left of Nelly's own career after Theo's death. She had initially played piano on their joint tours or during Dada soirées and had painted and even enjoyed some fame as a dancer in Paris. But after Theo's death, Nelly was concerned only with Van Doesburg's legacy, both physical and intellectual.
During the course of the 1930s, Nelly gained increasing recognition for her knowledge of modern abstract art. She was an authority on De Stijl and had immersed herself in the literature and manifestos of all other movements within abstract art. Her expertise led to her involvement in organising several exhibitions around the world. One of her most important contacts was Peggy Guggenheim, who opened a gallery in London in January 1938. Nelly visited her there in May of that year, and they became lifelong friends.
Next in this series: Nelly and Peggy Guggenheim.
Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg
A new look at the work of Nelly and Theo van Doesburg following the recent restoration of the Van Doesburg collection. The exhibition recognises Nelly as a key figure in establishing the reputation of Van Doesburg and De Stijl. While research the archive, it became increasingly clear that Nelly van Moorsel played a more significant role than has so far been acknowledged. The research raises questions such as identity, authenticity and Nelly's voice within the art world. The star of the exhibition is the couple's most striking joint project: the studio-house in Meudon, including previously unseen or rarely shown sketches, drawings and models that illustrate the house's rich history.
Because of its special cultural and historical value, the Theo van Doesburg collection has been extensively researched, preserved and, where necessary, restored as part the extensive _Disclosing Architecture_ restoration programme. Disclosing Architecture looks at the archives from fresh perspectives in order to reformulate the collection policy and develop new ideas in relation to how we value historical sources.