The controversial diagonal line

I went to the Van Doesburg exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday. I’ve yet to go to a press view at the Tate without being terribly late, howling across the wobbly bridge in the driving rain and bursting in ten minutes into the curator’s talk, in time to hear them say “…and that’s the most important idea we are trying to get across.” By the time I arrived they were already up to Van Doesburg’s architecture so I ended up seeing the second half first.


Ordinarily I wouldn’t say this matters. I still follow the advice of my school art teacher who said you should go round an exhibition in whatever order you like, but twice: once very quickly, to give yourself an overview, and again more slowly, focusing on the things that especially grabbed you the first time around. I hate the sort of plodding from picture to picture you often get at exhibitions – especially those with bloody audioguides, which should be banned. Or at least confined to separate audioguide sessions at antisocial times of the day. But in this case a linear approach is justified, because the exhibition charts Van Doesburg’s dizzying diversity as an artist, architect, Dada poet, and organising figure in the ‘international avant garde’. You need a bit of structure, of narrative, in order to cope with the volume. It’s a very good exhibition, if a little overwhelming.

I knew next to nothing about the artist before I arrived, apart from that he and Mondrian had a tiff over the use of diagonal lines. I wasn’t really that interested: this sort of argument over visual semantics I thought to be a bit obscure. But you can’t help being enthused by Van Doesburg’s own enthusiasm, which comes over in the sheer proliferation of works. Mondrian kept to the horizontal and the vertical because he was interested in representing harmony, stasis, order; Van Doesburg was interested in representing time in painting, and movement. The diagonal line gives his work more dynamism than Mondrian’s, which, to me, comes over as being rather uptight and obsessive.

Van Doesburg



 But, for all that, there were only a handful of works which really struck me. There were a lot of interesting things to think about – the idea of an international avant garde, the links between De Stijl and Dada, the controversy of the diagonal lines – but that was all on an intellectual level. I could have got that from reading the catalogue at home. I remember Alan Bennett describing the sort of vertigo he felt standing in front of a painting by some Venetian artist whose name escapes me – that’s what I look for in a painting, but it wasn’t much there. (EDIT: By ‘some Venetian artist’ I actually mean Vermeer, who is of course not very Venetian. See comments below.)

Having said that, I did spend a long time on ones like this:

Worth belting over the bridge for, anyway.


4 thoughts on “The controversial diagonal line

  1. Without being able to lay my hands on the volume itself and to check this, it seems that Bennett’s vertigo was brought on by an attack of the Vermeers, which he describes as “standing on a cliff and feeling oneself pulled to the edge”. He goes on to say, “If I were to put my fist through this painting . . . things would be irrevocably changed and my whole life be seen as leading up to this act.” My guess is that it was the combination of the richness of the work and its being so utterly unique and priceless that made the author dizzy. On the other hand, the beauty of Van Doesburg’s paintings is that they are so unassuming, simple and still sublime. Rather than a rush to the head, they give the viewer a very different hit, more like a calm sense of vanishing.


  2. You’re right, it is Vermeer. But I don’t know if you can completely explain what it is about a painting that provokes this reaction. Or, indeed, predict which painting will grab which individual.

    p. 187 of the paperback edition of ‘Untold Stories’, if anyone’s interested in looking it up.


  3. I don’t think you can. I can’t even begin to explain why I feel moved in the presence of paintings by Frank Auerbach — only when I see them in the flesh, the thickness of the paint makes photos of them impotent. They are generally a complete mess and anything but beautiful. What’s more, I really don’t want to know either and I this is why so much art criticism and curators’ text is just wordy, superfluous or misses the point. Visual art is just that, visual.


    1. This is why I don’t like audioguides. Apart from the way it makes a person oblivious to those around them, so they feel free to stand blocking a painting for ages, I object to anything that tells you what to think about a painting – tells you what’s important about it, what particular detail to focus on. I’ve sat in the National Gallery before in front of a painting with an audioguide accompaniment and watched people stare obediently at the detail of the, say, flowers in the bottom left hand corner and then up to the depiction of sunset in the window and trot off quite happily without having properly looked at the painting at all.

      Audioguides provoke nothing but rational reactions to paintings, whereas I think they should stand and fall by the way they make you feel. This is why conceptual art also leaves me cold.


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