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Vordemberge-Gildewart at Annely Juda: Paintings, Collages and Drawings 1919-1962  27 January–24 March 2016

A review by Alan Fowler

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

If the German artist, Vordemberge-Gildewart, is all but unknown in this country this seems due more to the general indifference of the British art establishment towards geometric and constructivist  abstraction than to any qualitative assessment of his work.  Here is an artist who played a significant role in the development of abstract art across Europe, following the formation of the International Faction of Constructivists by Theo van Doesburg in 1923. He formed the abstract Gruppe K in Hanover in 1924 and in the inter-war years was an active member of De Stijl, Cercle et Carre and Abstraction-Creation. In 1937 he was shown in the Nazi’s infamous exhibition of  ‘degenerate art’ and many of his works were confiscated and destroyed. In 1954, Max Bill appointed him as Head of the Visual Communications department at the Bauhaus-influenced design school at Ulm. In short, he is an artist worthy of recognition both for art-historical reasons and for the characteristics of his art.

Composition No.194, 1953, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cms. Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London

Yet the Tate has just one of his works, along with either none or only a pathetic few by other major European constructivist artists such as Max Bill, Richard Lohse, César Domela, Auguste Herbin and Bart van der Leck. It is as though, for the Tate and many British art writers and critics, the constructivist movement was either limited to revolutionary Russia or was no more than a very minor episode in the development of art in the 20th century. Yet as many readers of this website can testify, the exploration of non-figurative pure form – the essence of the constructivist concept and the heart of Vordemberge’s work - is still a major source of artistic stimulation, both for contemporary artists who work in this mode and those for whom clarity and precision in geometric abstraction can provide an immensely satisfying viewing experience.

So this exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see a range of work drawn from some forty years’ output of an artist who was involved in most of the major European abstract art movements of the 20th century, and who spent his whole career exploring how “pure” art (art without external content) could be produced from a geometric vocabulary of lines, squares, triangles, squares and circles.

The show is in three rooms of the Annely Juda gallery – one room for paintings, one for collages and another for an array of drawings of which many are titled in the catalogue as studies for compositions. Some appear to be pages from notebooks, others are on whatever paper Vordemberge had to hand, including his headed notepaper. With some thirty framed pages of studies and upwards of eight drawings per page, the exhibition is somewhat unbalanced, as the number of pencil-drawn images greatly exceeds the number of finished works.

Studies for compositions, c. 1927, pencil on headed notepaper. Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London

The display of these studies separately from the paintings is also slightly frustrating as it is not immediately obvious which (if any) were drawn in preparation for any of the exhibited paintings or collages. Only from the catalogue can it be deduced that just two of the finished works in the show link to drawings in the exhibited studies. However, in addition to covering the whole span of the artist’s 40 years of work, the drawings are interesting in at least two ways. They throw light on the way Vordemberge restlessly explored a huge variety of different ways of combining simple geometric elements, and they show how a simple geometric vocabulary can be used to evolve an all-but-unlimited range of abstract imagery. Some drawings, too, are annotated with numerical dimensions or ratios to govern the size and spatial relationships of elements in the finished works – a reminder that measurement is one component in the making of constructivist art of this kind.

The collages displayed in the smallest of the gallery’s three rooms are, perhaps, among the most visually successful works in the exhibition. Titled as ‘designs’, each consists of two or three differently-sized rectangles on which are imposed a number of mainly black or white lines or narrow strips – the whole forming what might be described as images of dynamic stability.

Design 1958, collage with pencil and tracing paper, 45 x 56 cms. Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London

In this, as in all his work, Vodemberge was concerned to achieve visual balance within an asymmetric composition, while at the same time avoiding rigidity. In these collages it is the imposition on the rectangles of lines and strips which brings the works to life.

Prior to his involvement with Doesburg and De Stijl, Vordemberge worked almost wholly within the strict discipline of orthoganality, with compositions limited to vertical and horizontal lines and forms. Then in 1926, Doesburg decided that the horizontal/vertical structure was overly stationary in its effect, and – against the views of Mondrian – introduced the diagonal as a means of achieving greater movement or dynamism. This appealed to Vordemberge who, to a degree, followed suit, though after producing a few works (not in this show) similar to Doesburg’s, his use of the slanted line or form became much less dogmatic than Doesburg’s. In the collage, Design 1958, for example, the imposed black and white strips are off-vertical but not at the 45 degree angles of any implied diagonal. As in this case, Vordemberge responded to the concepts of other artists, but very much in his own voice.

The slanted line is also evident in several of the oil-on-canvas paintings in the exhibition, particularly in the impressive three-part work entitled Composition No. 167 (Triptychon). But in this and other paintings, Vordemberge also uses another way of animating the image. This is the positioning of small elements – squares, triangles, rectangles – within the large colour-field blocks which form the primary structure of the whole image.

Composition No. 214, 1959/60, oil on canvas, 105 x 80 cms Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London

Compositions Nos. 194 and 214 are examples, which also show how the placement of these elements in relation to each other and to the colour blocks contributes to the overall balance of the complete image. As with all constructivist and geometric abstraction, imagery which on first glance may appear simple rewards close scrutiny to reveal how, often, very minor elements and their spacial relationships convert what might otherwise have been considered as no more than a pattern into a rewarding visual experience. To test this with these works, just blank out one small element – say the small black strip bottom right in Composition No. 214 – and see how this unbalances the work.

This exhibition is certainly well worth seeing, although for this reviewer there were two disappointments. Firstly, there were too few paintings to provide an adequate account of Vordemberge’s oeuvre. All were from  the 1950s and late 1940s, and thus omitted any from the pre-war period, including those showing the artist’s first use of the diagonal, which can only be glimpsed in some of the drawings. Secondly, although the catalogue essay rightly refers several times to the importance of Vordemberge’s professional activity as a graphic designer and typographer, there are no examples of any of this work.  Max Bill, who admired Vordemberge’s work, was also active in graphic and typographical design and it has been fascinating in some Bill exhibitions to see how the constructional concepts in his paintings were reflected in, for example, his posters for the 1972 Olympics. It would have been interesting to see how Vordemberge’s commercial design work was influenced by the concepts which governed his paintings and collages.

But there are no doubt practical reasons for these omissions, including the destruction of many of Vordemberge’s works in 1930. In any event, Annely Juda Fine Art should be congratulated for providing this opportunity to see a range of work very rarely shown anywhere in the UK, but which forms an integral part of the great sweep of European constructivism.