As the Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg exhibition undergoes a modest transformation in order to safeguard fragile drawings from the collection, designers and curators Jannetje in ’t Veld and Toon Koehorst tell us how such limitations informed their concept. How did they approach the project? Why does Nelly van Doesburg take centre stage? How did they balance their roles as curators and designers? And how can digitisation help uncover new stories and connections?
“Our guiding principle was the ambition of activitating the archive”
This winter, the Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg exhibition will undergo a modest transformation. Because they are fragile, design drawings and other items from the collection cannot be exposed to the light for very long. They are therefore making way for other, similar, works that fit in with the various storylines – drawing on the huge wealth of the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning. When designers and curators Jannetje in ’t Veld and Toon Koehorst started working on their concept for the exhibition, this practical limitation was one of the preconditions. Another was the context of the exhibition as part of the long-term Disclosing Architecture programme, whereby Het Nieuwe Instituut is focusing on the restoration and digitisation of important parts of the national collection until 2024.
Given the status of the Theo van Doesburg sub-collection as one of the most loaned parts of the entire collection, and because the restoration of these works was well advanced, Van Doesburg was chosen as the starting point for the first public exhibition in the context of Disclosing Architecture. How did the Koehorst in ’t Veld designers approach this project? What did they do to balance their content role as curators with the design of the physical exhibition? Why is the leading role assigned to Nelly van Doesburg? And what is the added value of digitisation when it comes to discovering new stories and connections? Taking turns, complementing and sometimes correcting each other, Jannetje in ’t Veld and Toon Koehorst explain the origin of “their” exhibition.
Beyond the canon
An exhibition featuring the work of Theo van Doesburg, icon of European Modernism? Hasn’t that path been trodden by armies of art historians, since the widespread rediscovery of De Stijl? Besides the undoubtedly interesting details surrounding the restoration process of the drawings, was there a story to tell that hadn’t already been told and retold, down to the last detail? In any case, such considerations did not apply to Koehorst in ’t Veld. The duo’s first conversation with Het Nieuwe Instituut was dominated by an enthusiasm for the possibilities of looking beyond the canon – for example, through the institute’s choice to highlight the role of Nelly van Doesburg in particular in the exhibition.
Jannetje in ’t Veld: “We would never approach an exhibition like this as art historians. As a designer, you look at things differently. Perhaps, unlike historians, we are not as interested in answers as we are in the questions that come before them. We have developed an editorial method based on our own research. You delve into archives and collections to derive essential lines of development from them. Our guiding principle was the ambition of activating the archive. What happens when you pull a piece out of the archive and then make it public through an exhibition? How much context does it take to bring it to life? By means of a spatial installation, we try to give the visitor suggestions to continue that research themselves.”
Artist’s residence in Meudon
That’s how they got to work this time, too. In the conversation with Het Nieuwe Instituut, Nelly van Doesburg was nominated as the focus of the project. After all, she not only contributed significantly to the creation, preservation and promotion of Theo van Doesburg’s work, but as a concert pianist Nelly also frequently performed during the many public performances by Theo and their kindred spirits. Especially in the creation and ultimate fate of one of the highlights of the architectural oeuvre – the design of the artist’s home in Meudon that the couple intended to live in themselves – her role can shed a different light on the canon around Van Doesburg. The home therefore acts as the heart of the exhibition.
Toon Koehorst: “We made ourselves subservient to the material – in the first instance, of course, to what we found in the national collection. But then you immediately run into problems with a figure like Van Doesburg, whose oeuvre covers the entire spectrum from painting to architecture to literature. That versatility has contributed to his legacy now being spread across all kinds of archives and art collections. Often in the Netherlands, with various custodians, but also in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, for example. Moreover, in his architectural practice, Van Doesburg regularly collaborated with fellow artists and architects, so some drawings or photographs ended up in other estates.”
Jannetje in ’t Veld: “This had two important consequences for us. On the one hand, it meant that we had to look both within and beyond the national collection to find new connections and to open up new perspectives. On the other, the focus on Nelly required targeted research into her contribution to the creation of the works, and her role in preserving them – while we also know that she sometimes sold pieces for her own livelihood. Ultimately, it’s thanks to her niece, Wies van Moorsel, that most of the remaining works could be transferred to the Dutch state.”
Toon Koehorst: “The house in Meudon played a key role. Whenever we asked ourselves questions, there turned out to be an answer. This place was, of course, completely designed around the artist lifestyle of Nelly and Theo, but you can actually see that in Theo’s earlier, never-executed designs for studio houses in the archives. A studio and a separate music room were drawn in all those designs; never a nursery. The status of the house changed with Theo’s death. It has since become part of the estate itself. While it continued to function as a meeting place for the cultural avant-garde, at the same time it was the depot where the oeuvre was stored. Nelly watched over Van Doesburg’s legacy as custodian, archivist and agent. “Wies van Moorsel’s research has documented this part of history well. And we were lucky that we not only had her book about Nelly to rely on, but that she was also willing to discuss some topics with us in person.”
Koehorst in ’t Veld elaborated the various themes in the exhibition in what they refer to as “cloud shapes”. These clouds are each built around a specific work from the collection, which is then provided with a context with reference material that can be borrowed from the national collection, but that often also comes from other sources and archives. The recent changeover was already pre-programmed. Central pieces could easily be replaced by similar works from the collection, while maintaining the storyline – for example, about the application of colour or the materialisation of the architecture. These thematic installations are supplemented with projections that reveal interesting sub-aspects in a succession of images, for example based on the business cards of Nelly van Doesburg, which we found at the Netherlands Institute for Art History, or photos of the same balcony, taken over time by very different people.
Jannetje in ’t Veld: “For us, the different archives were a constant source of new discoveries. Especially when we started to include the connections between collections in the story. The wealth that you tap into then is inexhaustible. This brings the exhibition in line with the ambition of Disclosing Architecture, which not only works on the restoration and conservation of the collection, but also wants to contribute to its accessibility through digitisation. We see Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg as a plea to look for multiple voices in opening up archives, by establishing connections between collections and involving the public in the interpretation of the stories that then emerge.”
Part of the exhibition focuses on the physical traces left by Nelly and Theo on the works. Remarkably enough, these included metres of adhesive tape that have since been removed by the restoration studio. They also included fingerprints and signatures. During the restoration process, it became clear that certain signatures had been tampered with, for example; it cannot be ruled out that Nelly added Theo’s signature to some unsigned works after his death. Such storylines are unique and cannot easily be told by a comparable piece. So they had to be replaced by new stories for the changeover.
Toon Koehorst: “In addition to zooming in on beautiful details like these, we also see the exhibition as a spatial model for how you can deal with digitisation. You can see how important it is to look at other sub-collections, for example that of Cornelis van Eesteren, with whom Theo often collaborated. There you’ll find sketches which they worked on together. Or in the archives of Piet Zwart, who regularly stayed in Meudon and photographed the interior of the house from the balcony. The trail ran through these archives to that of the CIAM conferences. And so on. Naturally, the curators of the national collection are familiar with this research practice, but the challenge for us was how to make such an ever-expanding search visible and accessible within an exhibition.”
Jannetje in ’t Veld: “Digitisation makes it relatively easy to follow such a process, within the national collection and beyond. If you take the trouble, a world opens up through the wealth of links. In the design of Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg, we have translated this by using multiple ways of opening up to tell the multitude of stories. Of course, those selections are arbitrary. They reflect our own choices and interpretation. The archival world often still shies away from such choices, because they have insufficient academic foundations. Our way is probably faster and lighter. But we also don’t pretend to tell the definitive story. None of what we show is cast in stone. In fact, we love it when our reading of the material is contradictory. That only benefits the multivocality of the conversation.”
An essential shift is emerging in the way we view digitisation, according to the designers. As Toon Koehorst says, “For the time being, the image of a purely technical task dominates. But we believe that the essential impact is linked to the cultural value it contains. Because digitisation provides access to all possible links and networks. Such a layer is indispensable to achieve fundamentally different access to heritage.”
Because of its special cultural and historical value, the Theo van Doesburg collection has been extensively researched, preserved and, where necessary, restored as part of 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.