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.
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.)
Worth belting over the bridge for, anyway.