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A notable acquisition: Georges Vantongerloo

On 5 June 2008, the museum paid the sum of €17,800 at Christie’s Amsterdam auction house for a small but exceptional painting by the Belgian artist Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965). It depicts a seated woman in an interior on a canvas measuring 33.5 x 44 cm, still in its original grey painted frame. The painting is in a rough pointillist style, with broad, rhythmically applied strokes of paint in white, black, red, yellow, and green on a blue background. Although flamboyantly signed by the artist and dated 1916, it was probably executed in 1917, when Vantongerloo was a refugee in The Hague. By then he had already made a name for himself in Belgium as a realist sculptor, who finished off his works with an impressionistic touch showing the influence of his somewhat older countryman, the sculptor and painter Rik Wouters (1882-1916). Vantongerloo’s solo exhibition in October 1917 at the Kunstkring Hollando-Belge [Dutch-Belgian Art Circle] in The Hague was the first time that he also presented paintings, including this Seated woman. In The Hague he had met the futurist Jules Schmalzigaug (1882-1917), another Belgian refugee, who had undoubtedly introduced him to the latest modern art. Soon after, in 1918, Vantongerloo became a member of the circle associated with De Stijl and one of the seminal figures of the 20th-century avant-garde.

This painting gives us a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at Vantongerloo's transition from traditionalist to avant-garde artist. There are echoes of Wouters and Schmalzigaug in the free and supple way that this moment – a woman seated in a room – is captured in paint on canvas. The Dutch contribution lies in the emphasis on primary colours, on the complementary colour green, and on white, black, and grey (in the frame), and in this respect, the painting is truly modern. It is tempting to imagine that in the winter of 1916-1917, Vantongerloo went to Helene Kröller-Müller’s provisional museum on Lange Voorhout in The Hague, where he was living at the time, and saw the latest works by Bart van der Leck. When Theo van Doesburg, founder of De Stijl, and Vilmos Huszàr visited that museum in late December 1916, they were especially enthusiastic about one of Van der Leck’s most radical works, Composition 1916 no. 4, better known as Mine Tryptych, a severe composition in black, white, and the primary colours. Given that Van Doesburg and Huszàr began experimenting with this new style right away, why should Vantongerloo not have found inspiration in the same place?

Since then, De Stijl has become part of the canon of Dutch art history, but it was always an internationally oriented movement. Mine Tryptych, and many other paintings made around 1917 by artists associated with De Stijl, can now be found at the Kröller-Müller Museum, side by side with the work of other artists from the same period. De Stijl is one of our strong points, and Vantongerloo’s painting now has a place in this context, enriching our collection and the ways of looking at it.

Evert van Straaten
June 2008