Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde, Tate Modern, London

Well-chosen works show how De Stijl – 'The Style' – movement led to a revolution in European art that still resonates today

It is mildly ironic that Theo van Doesburg should be remembered as Mr Diagonal, although not entirely so. With his more famous countryman, Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter fathered a movement and magazine called De Stijl ("The Style") – a utopian group that practised and preached the universal truths of abstract geometry. In 1923, Van Doesburg followed Mondrian to Paris, where, the following year, they fell out.

Heretically, Van Doesburg proclaimed diagonals to be better than horizontals and verticals, which he saw as classicising, old-fashioned and – worst of all – based on the human body. Mondrian, scandalised, maintained that the contrary was the case. Van Doesburg stalked off with a splinter group, the Elementarists, leaving his ex-friend to tend the flame of what he now called Neo-Plasticism alone.

All of which might give the impression that De Stijl had been a movement of unwavering (not to say nutty) rigidity, of petty boundaries obsessively observed. Actually, nothing could have been further from the truth. Room 10 of a large, complex and clever exhibition at Tate Modern called Van Doesburg & The International Avant-Garde is given over to the diagonal "counter-proposals" of the Elementarists and their few followers; Room 3 is largely hung with Mondrian's orthogonals. Between these two rooms, though, are half-a-dozen more which show the extraordinary impact Van Doesburg had on European art in the 1920s – an impact which was all to do with boundary-crossing and line-blurring, things so revolutionary that they still resonate today.

First, a little history. De Stijl had come into being in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and of Passchendaele and Ypres. In a world gone mad, it is easy to see why the other-worldly rationalism of geometric abstraction might have appealed. In Moscow, Kazimir Malevich and his cohorts were coming to the same kind of conclusion. But that conclusion, like Van Doesburg's, had a political element – a belief that art had to improve the lot of the masses by coming down off gallery walls and going into the streets. And not just Russian or Dutch streets, but – much of the point of De Stijl being its internationalism – into all streets.

Thus, in Room 5, we find the De Stijlists turning their attention to typography. If their entirely new message was to be read, then it had to be read in an entirely new way. Van Doesburg was having no truck with seriphs and curlicues. The point of geometry was that it was rational; letters, therefore, must be geometric. Each would fit into a square or rectangle, and to avoid complexity there was to be only a single – upper – case. To free itself from the horrors of history, Van Doesburg's typeface had also to stand outside of time. To do this, texts were printed so that they overlapped, several words thus being allowed, in theory at least, to be read simultaneously. The results are easy enough to imagine. So remorselessly simple, so extraordinarily legible is Van Doesburg's poster for a Section d'Or exhibition of around 1920 that it is pretty well unreadable. In the same way, the chairs in Room 4 by the De Stijl architect, Gerrit Rietveld, are just too rational to be sat on.

But as with the orthogonal/diagonal wars, the sum of De Stijl was greater than its occasionally inflexible parts. If few of the artists (and architects and typographers and film-makers) who followed Van Doesburg and Mondrian spawned followers themselves, then the Dutchmen did set an extraordinary precedent: they made art multidisciplinary. The current assumption that it is as likely to be found in a nightclub or an artist's book as on a gallery wall dates back to the multinational, multi-media works in Rooms 4 to 9.

Most pressingly, these rooms account for video. On a monitor in Room 7 play Composition I/22 and Composition II/22 by the German sculptor Werner Graeff – two-minute films that bring to life the motionless squares and rectangles of Mondrian and Van Doesburg. Both men had wanted their works to break the bonds of history by breaking the bonds of time: here, on 16mm film transferred to DVD, they do just that. And not just by moving about and changing. The idea that art can move – that a moving image can count as art – is a hugely revolutionary one, still vexatious nearly a century later. If the inclusion of videos in the Turner Prize show makes you frown, remember: you heard it here first.

To 16 May (020-7887 8888)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent sees Paul Nash: The Elements at Dulwich Picture Gallery – a running together of still life and landscape by the great 20th-century British romantic

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?