In 1925 Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart1Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart was born on 17 November 1899 in Osnabruck, Germany. He died on 19 December 1962 in Ulm. stood before a group of avant-garde film followers to clarify and defend his views on abstraction in art (fig. 1).* In a brief lecture in which he introduced the most experimental films of the period, Picabia’s Entr’acte, Leger’s Images Mobiles and Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale, the 26-year-old painter announced that ‘so-called content and the object are no longer possible considerations for abstract art. There is really no content in art … not in painting, dance, architecture or music’.2F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Der Absolute Film’, 1925, in D. Helms (ed.), Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart: Schriften und Vorträge, St Gallen, 1976, p. 12. It was a claim for abstraction, for precision, clarity and a rejection of the emotional to which Vordemberge rigorously adhered throughout the forty years of his artistic career. These words and his final pronouncement that ‘form no longer has any contact with the appearance of Nature’, were a verbal testimony to what had been apparent in art all over Europe for some time, in the abstracted form of De Stijl artists and architects, in Malevich’s mystical directions in the Black Square, and in the design activities of the Bauhaus.
From his first ceramic reliefs made in 1919 to the last paintings done before his death in 1962, Vordemberge never wavered from his intention of instilling into his art geometry, measurement and pure abstract form. From the beginning, he was as unswerving as Malevich and Mondrian in attempting to define a higher reality through ideal form and mathematical laws. But unlike them, he did not track down abstraction through a preliminary series of academic or figurative studies.
He came to abstraction through his initial training as a carpenter and interior designer, and later as sculptor with Professor Vierthaler at the Technical High School in Hanover. His architectural inclination is especially apparent in two ceramic reliefs done between 1919 and 1922 where he built up and sculpted the surface with rectangular frames, protruding semi-circles and prismatic bodies (fig. 2). These two juvenile works, done while still at art school, indicate the direction his work was to take, with their emphasis on the corporeal presence of objects, the subtle juxtaposition and playing of one form against another. The ball and the frame were to continue as pervasive elements in his work, even after the radical change affected by his meeting with Theo Van Doesburg in 1924, when he used them to balance his newly developed diagonal compositions.
During the first five years of his work from 1919 to 1924, Vordemberge worked more or less in isolation from other artists whose interests in abstraction coincided with his own. Relatively little work from this period survives, and the National Gallery of Victoria’s recently purchased Etude of 1920 (fig. 3) is one of nine existing drawings which enable us to see how far his own ideas had developed before his participation in the De Stijl group, or before his meeting with Schwitters.3A similar drawing, Etude 1920, pencil, 15 x 11.5 cm, is in the collection of Kurt and Inge Fried, Ulm. Nine extant drawings are illustrated in H. L. C. Jaffé, Vordemberge-Gildewart: Mensch und Werk, Cologne, 1971, in the section ‘Arbeiten ausserhalb des Werkstattbüches’, pp. 112 and 113.
Vordemberge’s widow, Frau Vordemberge-Leda, has recently indicated that only two of the nine drawings were studies for later completed paintings.4Frau Vordemberge-Leda in correspondence with the author, 15 October 1979. ‘Es gibt sehr wenige Bleistiftskizzen von Vordemberge-Gildewart, im Jaffe-Buch sind 9 abgebildet, nur bei zwei der Skizzen kann man sagen, dass sie zu Entwürfen fur ein Bild gedient haben.’ (‘There are very few pencil sketches by Vordemberge-Gildewart; in Jaffé’s book nine are illustrated, and only two of the sketches were to serve as designs for a picture.’) The two sketches done as designs for a picture are clearly those illustrated in Jaffé, op. cit., in the section ‘Arbeiten ausserhalb des Werkstattbüches’, and are Skizze 1923, pencil, 19.5 x 12.5 cm, artist’s estate, and Skizze 1924, pencil, 17.6 x 13.6 cm. The paintings which followed are Grosse konstruktion 1924, oil on canvas, 175 x 105 cm, Jaffé, op. cit., catalogue no. 3, p. 84, and Rot konstruiert 1924, oil on canvas, 160 x 120 cm, Jaffé, op. cit., catalogue no. 7, p. 86. In both paintings Vordemberge departed slightly from the original drawings. The Gallery’s Etude was not conceived as a study, but a fully complete artistic statement. In this youthful work, done at the beginning of his artistic career at the age of 21, Vordemberge set down the major pictorial forms which he was to use over the next nine years: the circle, shaded rectangles, and the right angle which he turned upside-down to intersect the middle of the drawing. It is a highly complex work indicating a sureness of purpose and sophisticated visual thinking. He began by marking out a frame at the edges of the paper and proceeded to set down a series of lines forming horizontal ‘shelves’ on which to rest his shaded circles, ovals and rectangles. These ‘shelves’ formed the skeletal structure of the drawing and the strategically located shaded forms make it come alive by dynamically leading the eye from point to point. The tension produced between these shaded forms is balanced by the upside-down right angle which aggressively intrudes into the central space of the page to collect a group of configurations along its inside edge.
As well as an exercise in careful formal balances, the drawing is also a study in the potential of line to outline shape, to model in three dimensions, and to pull planes up to the surface or push them back into the paper. Sometimes line is used to saw into the picture, as in the fan-like shape at the bottom, as shading along a surface, or to delineate rectangular form.
Vordemberge is still very much the carpenter here, with his suggestion of the furriness of an unsanded wooden edge, as in the shading which cuts through the half curving line in the upper right. There is even a mild allusion to carpenter’s tools – to the knobs of planes, to T-squares, rulers and saws. In his paintings of 1924, Konstruktion no. 7 and Konstruktion no. 8 (figs 4 and 5), he made these allusions real by superimposing T-squares and wooden frames on the canvas.
As a young artist living in Hanover, Vordemberge would probably not have been familiar with the theories and Purist painting developed by Ozenfant and Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier) between 1919 and 1920. Yet Vordemberge’s aims reveal a startling likeness to his French counterparts in several ways: balance, a return to order and an interest in compositional laws were the key signposts of much French post-war painting. The Purists hoped to reinstate a classical order in painting, an order to be achieved through the strict application of harmonious proportion and the laws of nature. In Après le Cubisme Ozenfant and Jeanneret likened the artist to a machine which could respond with great precision to sensation. Similarly, Vordemberge’s hope was to eliminate ‘the individual temperament and delightful vagaries of the personality cult.’5F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘die unvergleichliche mechanik’, De Stijl, Jubilee no. 1927, p. 106. There is a further formal family resemblance between these artists. The Purists insisted that their objet types – bottles, vases, glasses and guitars which they prised away from Cubist form – indicated the universality of proportional laws governing the life of both inanimate as well as human form. While Vordemberge’s motifs were always more abstract than those of the Purists, they did signal an ideal world of perfected form. In both cases, the intention was to focus solely on the formal laws represented by the objects of shapes rather than on their meaning.
Vordemberge’s other drawings, especially the two studies for the paintings Skizze 1923 and Skizze 1924 (figs 6 and 7) show a greater austerity in their use of strict measurement and rectilinearity. They are far from his experimentation with texture and the soft expressive line in the Gallery’s drawing, and already show him working in a language akin to that of the De Stijl group which he was soon to join (figs 8 and 9).
Most likely it was Vordemberge’s visit to the First Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar in the summer of 1923 which affirmed and consolidated the direction in which he had been moving. The impersonality of Schlemmer’s Mechanical ballet, in which puppet figures were manipulated from above by ‘invisible hands’ made a lasting impression. But of even greater importance for Vordemberge’s drawings of 1923–24 were the presence and teaching of Klee and especially of Kandinsky, whose Fundamental Elements of Form was published as part of the large collection of documents made available to the public at the time of the exhibition. In it Kandinsky argued that form in its broader sense should be based on the simplest shapes – the triangle, square, and circle. Vordemberge had already shown a marked disposition towards such configurations, and the Bauhaus visit confirmed for the young artist that his efforts towards abstraction and universality were part of a larger, widespread movement.
The Bauhaus visit provided precisely that kind of impetus which Vordemberge needed. His return to Hanover marked the beginning of a period of intense creativity and active organisation of group exhibitions and associations. Hanover itself provided a fertile ground for this activity, both as a centre of Schwitter’s Dadaism and more importantly as a locus of Constructivism. For Vordemberge the ‘artistic life in Hanover was probably the most interesting of all German cities’.6F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Fragment einer Autobiographie’, n.d., in D. Helms, op. cit., p. 25. At the Galerie von Garvens he had seen recent French and Russian art, had heard the latest music, and in 1920 had heard Schwitters read his Dada poems. Schwitters was a central figure in Hanover art circles, as important for the links which he provided between local artists and other similar movements across Europe as for his diverse artistic activities. He had formed an alliance with Herwarth Walden’s important Der Sturm group, was a participant in the Berlin Dada movement with Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch, and had made friends with Jean Arp. His poetry, his interests in typography and the Merzbau constructions of found and built objects, all indicated possibilities which a young painter, with strong leanings towards non-representational art, might take up. It was through Schwitter’s activities that the Hanover public had first been exposed to contemporary art. Their reaction was more sceptical than enthusiastic, so that continued support of the avant-garde came from the encouragement of galleries rather than from the public. These galleries gave their attention to international constructivism: the Kestner Gesellschaft, founded in 1916, the Galerie von Garvens, active from 1920, and the Provinzialmuseum, reorganised under the visionary leadership of Alexander Dorner. Vordemberge was to have connections with all three.
Under the leadership of Paul Erich Kuppers, the Kestner Gesellschaft had supported Constructivist painters from the outset to make Hanover, along with Holland, Russia and the Weimar Bauhaus, one of the main centres of the movement. Between 1923 and 1924 El Lissitzky took a studio above Kestners and completed his important commission of lithographs illustrating Kruchenykh’s Victory over the sun. Lissitzky’s influence in Hanover was of singular importance, especially for Vordemberge, since Lissitzky’s constructivist work was aimed towards exploring the spatial tension and relationship between objects without relying on nature as inspiration. The fact that Vordemberge and his friend, Hans Nitzschke, took up Lissitzky’s studio when the Russian departed for Switzerland makes this connection even more poignant, and shows to what degree the interrelationship between these artists was encouraged by the sponsorship of Kestners. In the same year that Vordemberge and Nitzschke took the studio in 1924, they jointly exhibited in the downstairs gallery, and formed the Gruppe Κ (Κ for Konstruktivismus) which was to promote constructivism through lectures and discussions. Vordemberge’s own enthusiasm and impatience with the new movement was aired in his preface to one of the group’s exhibitions in which he urged artists to ‘Create! don’t just paint, model, talk or doze … As a man of today. Without regard for ancestors or for the future’.7F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Gruppe K’, 1924, D. Helms, op. cit., p. 11.
The May exhibition of Gruppe Κ at Kestners proved a success, both as the first indication of growing public recognition of Hanover Constructivism and as a focal point for the contacts between artists from other groups. At the exhibition Vordemberge met Schwitters for the first time, although he had long known his work.
Alexander Dorner’s support and his acquisition of contemporary work for the Provinzialmuseum were also crucial for Hanover artists. Dorner’s purchase of works by Vordemberge, Lissitzky, Archipenko, Moholy-Nagy, Schlemmer, Gabo and Mondrian, meant that before 1937 the Provinzialmuseum had one of the largest collections of avant-garde art in Germany. His courage to support these abstract artists led him to install Lissitzky’s Abstract Cabinet in 1928, a room designed to combine painting and architecture into a unique spatial milieu (fig. 10). Lissitzky set narrow tin lathes at right angles to the walls, painted them white on the left side and black on the right, with the result that the colour of the walls changed with the spectator’s movement. He then hung the unframed paintings of his contemporaries on this ‘spatial wall’, including his own work and that of Vordemberge, Leger, and Mondrian, to complete the impression of the gallery as a work of art in itself.
Lissitzky’s interests in the interior as artwork were closely aligned to those of Vordemberge, who did sketches and designs for interiors throughout his career. The aim of creating a fully realised artistic space was pursued by Constructivists all over Europe – by Jean Arp, Sophie-Tauber Arp, and Van Doesburg who carried it out in L’Aubette, elsewhere by Lissitzky in his Proun and Exhibition Rooms, and by Russians like Ivan Pougny who designed the Sturm Exhibition of 1921 in Berlin.8On Pougny’s design for Der Sturm Exhibition of 1921, Berlin, see H. Berninger and J. A. Cartier, Pougny, Les années d’avant-garde, vol. 1, pp. 124, 128 and 129.
It was because of the support of these galleries and several private collectors, such as the Beindorf and Bahlsen families, that Hanover increasingly attracted important figures such as Lissitzky and Van Doesburg. A proselytiser, polemicist and publisher of De Stijl magazine, Van Doesburg, while in Hanover during and after 1924, made an important contribution to the development of the constructivist style. Never hesitant to invite himself to exhibit, Van Doesburg showed his work at Der Quadar in February 1924. Vordemberge’s contact with Van Doesburg and his work at this time was a decisive point in his career. Describing the moment when Schwitters introduced Van Doesburg to him at the time of the exhibition, Vordemberge remarked that he
‘would never forget Theo Van Doesburg’s entry into my studio. His eye fast on the picture K, he asked me if I took it to be a work of art. As soon as I explained to him that I regarded it as a painting and not as an advertisement, he congratulated me with hearty compliments and said that he was so impressed that he wanted me to come to Paris to be a participant in the De Stijl group.’9F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Fragment einer Autobiographie’, n.d., in D. Helms, op. cit., p. 26.
Vordemberge’s participation in the exhibition planned by Van Doesburg, held in Paris in November/December of 1925, was L’art d’aujourd’hui. The fact that Vordemberge was the only artist to sell a picture in the three weeks of the exhibition must have encouraged him enormously. He was also reunited with Arp and met Man Ray, Vantongerloo, Brancusi and Tsara; he was on his way to international recognition. From this point onwards he began to receive invitations to exhibit abroad as well as to work on avant-garde magazines.10Vordemberge-Gildewart wrote articles and gave lectures throughout his life. These articles appeared in De Stijl (vol. vii, 79/84, 1927, pp. 100, 105, 106. 109), in the Bauhaus Zeitschrift, in Der Sturm and in the Hannoverschen Kuriers. The most significant texts have been republished in D. Helms, op. cit. Shortly after the Paris visit, Vordemberge testified to the influence which Van Doesburg had had on him. He was quick to incorporate Van Doesburg’s De Stijl aesthetic in his Composition no. 16 1925 (fig. 11). The creed was a severe one, and appealed to Vordemberge because it so closely approximated his own tendencies, namely the rejection of a literal transcription of the world for an abstract one. This was to be achieved with a minimum of means, with the horizontal and vertical, the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, and the primary non-colours black, grey, and white. The painting shows how immediately these ideas took shape in his work, and how far Vordemberge extended these notions. Taking the horizontal-vertical axis as a basis, he superimposed a wooden frame on the flat coloured planes beneath. Where colour had previously played a secondary role to form in his work, he now made the classical primaries an essential basis for his painting. Despite his adaption of this new pictorial code, the work still shows the distinctive signs which were just emerging in the Gallery’s Etude 1920 – the tendency to mark off the picture space from the edges and to use motifs from his days as a carpentry student in the wooden mouldings now shaped into a frame.
A year later, in 1926, Van Doesburg rethought his theoretical position. Believing that the human spirit could now only fully express itself through diagonal compositions in painting, ‘Counter Compositions’ as he was to call them, Van Doesburg rejected the horizontal/vertical as being too stationary and mechanical. Vordemberge followed close behind, and to the diagonally structured Composition no. 19 1926 (fig. 12) he characteristically added the half-ball and wooden frame as balancing devices, thus personalising the De Stijl language.
By 1927 the Hanover artists realised that they could only succeed in exhibiting their work internationally by banding together. The formation of the Abstrakten Hanover – Vordemberge, Nitzschke, Bucheister, Jahns, Schwitters, and later Domela – was more a culmination of trends already current than a fresh beginning. Most of the artists were already known by this time, although their impoverished financial status necessitated supplementary work. Vordemberge, for example, sustained himself with his work by making poster designs, typography and catalogues for Kestners. While none of the artists made visible changes to their work as a result of group interaction, the group did enable them to keep in close contact with the ideas of other artists whom they invited to talk. Gabo delivered a lecture on ‘The Theory and Practice of Constructivism’, Herwarth Walden came from Berlin, Katherine S. Drier travelled from New York, and Cornelis van Eesteren spoke on De Stijl architecture. Mostly the group was linked by the need to give collective economic support to widening the acceptance of their work, and to exhibiting abroad. Their manifesto, published in Der Sturm in July/August 1927, reads more like a statement of strongly directed mature artists than a cri de coeur of youth. In it they attacked the growing reactionary realism of the twenties, known as Neue Sachlichkeit, and proposed the need to build a new society through abstract art. How the latter was to be achieved was never made apparent, although Vordemberge did attempt to clarify the issue in a lecture in October 1928 on ‘Müde menschen, verspätete Künst und Gestaltung’. The group life was relatively short-lived, and by 1930 its members increasingly turned from Hanover to Paris to exhibit. Vordemberge had already shown there at the Galerie Povolozky in 1929, and by 1930 he joined the Cercle et carré group and eventually became a founder member of the Abstraction-Creation artists, thus beginning another phase of his work.
Seen in the context of the Hanover Constructivists, Vordemberge was, with Lissitzky, the most decisive practitioner of geometric purity. He was amongst the first artists to make a complete breakthrough to non-objective art. His strict belief in abstraction enabled him to bypass academic figure studies, and from the outset he concentrated solely on abstract form. Vordemberge’s achievement resides in his sustained exploration of pictorial laws and their general validity. This places him firmly in the tradition of the 20th century – in search of universals to be found in forms which Plato in his Philebus said were ‘beautiful in themselves’, beautiful for their own structure without reference to objects.
Vordemberge’s originality lay in his ability to forge a new subject matter out of materials alone. He believed that objective and precisely rendered subject matter was somehow allied to an optimistic belief in the possibility that art could lead to reason and to a more truthful grasp of the present. He unfalteringly sustained this optimism, and it is not without a certain irony that he was considered by the Nazi regime as one of the most degenerate artists in Germany. Such convictions forced him to live out most of his life in Holland, but he never wavered from his belief that ‘nature and art are two worlds, completely in opposition to one another. The more clearly and fanatically this is pursued, the better for both sides’.11F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Raum zeit Flache’, 1923–26, in D. Helms, op cit., p. 15. It is a statement which has a particular relevance for our own time.
Memory Jockisch Holloway, Lecturer in Fine Arts, Department of Visual Arts, Monash University (in 1980).
* figs 1–2, 4–12, reproduced with permission from Frau Vordemberge-Leda, are from H. L. C. Jaffé, Vordemberge-Gildewart: Mensch und Werk, M. du Mont Schauberg, Cologne, 1971.
1 Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart was born on 17 November 1899 in Osnabruck, Germany. He died on 19 December 1962 in Ulm.
2 F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Der Absolute Film’, 1925, in D. Helms (ed.), Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart: Schriften und Vorträge, St Gallen, 1976, p. 12.
3 A similar drawing, Etude 1920, pencil, 15 x 11.5 cm, is in the collection of Kurt and Inge Fried, Ulm. Nine extant drawings are illustrated in H. L. C. Jaffé, Vordemberge-Gildewart: Mensch und Werk, Cologne, 1971, in the section ‘Arbeiten ausserhalb des Werkstattbüches’, pp. 112 and 113.
4 Frau Vordemberge-Leda in correspondence with the author, 15 October 1979. ‘Es gibt sehr wenige Bleistiftskizzen von Vordemberge-Gildewart, im Jaffe-Buch sind 9 abgebildet, nur bei zwei der Skizzen kann man sagen, dass sie zu Entwürfen fur ein Bild gedient haben.’ (‘There are very few pencil sketches by Vordemberge-Gildewart; in Jaffé’s book nine are illustrated, and only two of the sketches were to serve as designs for a picture.’) The two sketches done as designs for a picture are clearly those illustrated in Jaffé, op. cit., in the section ‘Arbeiten ausserhalb des Werkstattbüches’, and are Skizze 1923, pencil, 19.5 x 12.5 cm, artist’s estate, and Skizze 1924, pencil, 17.6 x 13.6 cm. The paintings which followed are Grosse konstruktion 1924, oil on canvas, 175 x 105 cm, Jaffé, op. cit., catalogue no. 3, p. 84, and Rot konstruiert 1924, oil on canvas, 160 x 120 cm, Jaffé, op. cit., catalogue no. 7, p. 86. In both paintings Vordemberge departed slightly from the original drawings.
5 F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘die unvergleichliche mechanik’, De Stijl, Jubilee no. 1927, p. 106.
6 F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Fragment einer Autobiographie’, n.d., in D. Helms, op. cit., p. 25.
7 F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Gruppe K’, 1924, D. Helms, op. cit., p. 11.
8 On Pougny’s design for Der Sturm Exhibition of 1921, Berlin, see H. Berninger and J. A. Cartier, Pougny, Les années d’avant-garde, vol. 1, pp. 124, 128 and 129.
9 F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Fragment einer Autobiographie’, n.d., in D. Helms, op. cit., p. 26.
10 Vordemberge-Gildewart wrote articles and gave lectures throughout his life. These articles appeared in De Stijl (vol. vii, 79/84, 1927, pp. 100, 105, 106. 109), in the Bauhaus Zeitschrift, in Der Sturm and in the Hannoverschen Kuriers. The most significant texts have been republished in D. Helms, op. cit.
11 F. Vordemberge-Gildewart, ‘Raum zeit Flache’, 1923–26, in D. Helms, op cit., p. 15.
Annely Juda Fine Art, Vordemberge-Gildewart Remembered, London, 4 July – 14 September 1974.
Galerie Bargera, Die Abstrakten Hannover, Cologne, 1975.
Helms, D. (ed.), Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart: Schriften und Vorträge, St Gallen, 1976.
Helms, D., ‘The 1920s in Hanover’, Art Journal, vol. XXII, 3 September 1963. pp. 141–44.
Jaffé, H. L. C., Vordemberge-Gildewart: Mensch und Werk, Cologne, 1971.
Kunstverein Hannover, Die 20er Jahre in Hannover, Hanover, 12 August – 30 September 1962.