Dr. Marty Bax, art historian, international expert on the work of Piet Mondrian, and on Modern Art & Western Esotericism

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26 July 2011

The birth of Theo van Doesburg's alias

Have you ever wondered why someone takes on an alias? I can think of a myriad of reasons. There is one thing in common: all of these reasons are tied to the person who takes on this alias: his person, his personal life and his life within a community, and also aspects like tradition and ‘fashion’. The basic questions here are: ‘why’ and ‘why this specific alias’? Because the choice of an alias is always the choice of the person involved. 
Let’s turn to the alias which Christian Emil Marie (Emil) Küpper (1883-1931) chose as an artist: Theo van Doesburg. He was one of the chief promoters of De Stijl and Dada. Van Doesburg also used other aliases in his life: I.K. Bonset and Aldo Camini. Until I researched his youth (in 1999-2000), no art historian had really questioned the personal reasons behind Emil Küpper’s choice of the alias ‘Theo van Doesburg’. His genealogy provided the only plausible answer. Moreover: family circumstances also gave rise to new hypotheses about, and possible answers to, why Emil Küpper had such explosive relationships with his fellow-artists.

It is very easy to fantasize about Van Doesburg's reasons for taking on an alias. All too often, these fantasies become ‘facts’. And the researcher starts out to find evidence to support this fantasy. But this is not research; this is fiction! Or otherwise said: belief. Sometimes this is called: tunnel vision. A fantasy is not even a scientific hypothesis. It should be an open, general question, like: ‘If I see that a person is using this alias, what could be the reasons and where did the alias come from?’ 
Now this is a complex issue. But Humanities is a complex section of science. Because it originates from the fact that people live and think. And to lay your hand on all facets of a human life is an impossible task. You only have to realize: how many emails, twitters, postcards do you throw away in the course of life, how many events in your life are not documented by photo’s, and how many thoughts and emotions are not noted down?
But it is not impossible to test an hypothesis on the remaining facts, gained from studying the life of a person in all its details available. This is a very laborious task, and it involves many sciences within the Humanities. The starting point, however, is genealogy. As a matter of fact, it is a vital part of science – not only the system of retrieving and double-checking biographical facts, but also their interpretation within e.g. the civil laws and registration methods, or religious boundaries. Sometimes, what is not mentioned can be more important than what is mentioned. Genealogy provides the biographical framework, within which all further social relationships can be studied.
The case of Küpper alias Van Doesburg is as follows, and it will be clear that one has to know the ‘rules of genealogy’ to be able to interpret the facts. These facts can be checked on www.theartarchives.org
Emil Küpper was born in Utrecht in 1883 as the last child of Wilhelm Küpper, a German photographer, and Henrietta Catharina Margadant. Interestingly, the boy was not named Christian (often misspelled in art historical literature as Christiaan) according to Dutch custom, but Emil (often misspelled as Emile). This was probably due to his German father: in Germany boys were (or still are) most often called by their second name.

So Emil was the seventh and last child. The first three children had died at infancy, so after Emil had been born, the family had four children (and sometimes other children lived in). Judging from the intervals between the children, two to three years, everything looks quite normal.

On September 24, 1884 the mother leaves Utrecht and enters Amsterdam with three children: Emil’s older brother (born 1878) and sister (born 1880) and Emil himself, then just over a year. After two years, the eldest living son (born 1875) joins the family.

Hey. There’s no father to be seen in this registration! Because Wilhelm Küpper was officially – i.e. his exact departure date was not recorded – written out of the Utrecht civil registry on October 6, 1884. It is not known what the time span could have been between his disappearance and the official departure date. The art historian Alied Ottevanger, who at my instigation used the same sources for e.g. her entry in http://www.historici.nl/Onderzoek/Projecten/BWN/lemmata/bwn5/kupper, suggests that the mother was deserted by her husband early in 1884 and that that is why she came to Amsterdam. However, it might just as well have been the other way!

On exactly the same date the mother was registered in Amsterdam, a watchmaker born in Montfoort in 1863, named Theo Doesburg, also came from Utrecht to Amsterdam, and registered at the same address: Jacob van Lennepkade 17. They did not live together; they are registered in different apartments. In March 1886 the mother moves to Kerkstraat 144; Theo follows in April, again in another part of the building. In May 1889 the mother moves to P.C. Hooftstraat 103; Theo follows in August 1889. Same picture: separate apartments.

Then the parallels become diffuse; it looks as if they got the ‘seven year’s itch’. Theo moves to the Kinkerstraat 23 in December 1889 to live with his parents; in the same month the mother moves to Jacob van Lennepstraat 6. This is around the corner of the Kinkerstraat, so fairly close. But in January 1890 Theo moves back to Utrecht, and comes back to his parents’ house in the Kinkerstraat in December 1890. Two months after, he moves out of the Amsterdam boundaries to Nieuwer-Amstel, Kuiperstraat 127, and in January 1893 he moves further away into the neighbouring town of Watergraafsmeer. Emil’s mother in the meantime, moves to another address in Amsterdam, Nassaukade 328, in April 1892. 

It looks as if Emil’s parents have separated. But in July 1893 the threads come together: they were married on July 18, 1893 in Watergraafsmeer. After 10 years minus a month after Emil was born.
Nowadays we would have typified such a relationship as ‘living apart together’. But what was the reason? Why keep up this game for 10 years and not get married?

Well, one should first of all acknowledge the religious views in regard to marriage. Wilhelm Küpper, the mother’s husband, was Catholic. At that time (as still is in some countries) divorce was not allowed. And even though the divorce could be a civil one, Catholic religion did/does not allow a person to be married twice. But this in itself would not have been a problem either for Emil’s mother or Theo Doesburg, because the former was Dutch Reformed, the latter Lutheran.

One can only speculate about the reason, when all further information fails. From other sources is known that Wilhelm Küpper died in Lindenhöhe near Cologne on March 7, 1892. Maybe he had opposed divorce (either out of religious conviction or not), or he was untraceable, so that Emil’s mother and Theo Doesburg simply had to wait for him to die. Or there was a financial reason, because it is not known how the mother supported herself and her family. Judging from Theo’s occupations (watch maker, travelling merchant) and the fact that he moved in with his parents, it is quite unlikely that he could support a family of five (and sometimes six or seven, because of other children living in). Only when he was registered as a business agent in 1893, it seems he had climbed the ladder a bit.

In any case: between the end of 1882 and July 1893 it was a relationship between a married woman and an unmarried man. Even worse: when Emil was conceived, the mother was nearly 38 and Theo Doesburg had just turned 19! Emil’s eldest brother was 8 when Emil was born. So he must have seen Theo Doesburg walking into the life of his mother, and see him circle around the family for the next ten years. Until they were officially married. 

It is of course improvable through hard evidence, unless one performs DNA-research, but one can see the picture: Wilhelm Küpper learns about the relationship between his wife and Theo Doesburg, and the child that is the result. He goes back to Germany. Or the mother chooses to leave her husband. Theo moves with her, but they can’t live together officially. Or don’t want to. Theo Doesburg was still an adolescent when he became a father, and he had no steady job. And what would the people say about the mother?!

Reviewing the hard genealogical facts, everything points in the direction that Theo Doesburg, the biological father of Emil, became Emil’s stepfather after his marriage to the mother.

Is there any evidence to underpin this? Yes, in fact there is. In letters by Emil Küpper to his wife Agnita Feis, which are preserved at the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, he speaks about Theo Doesburg alternately as his ‘father’ and ‘stepfather’. Alied Ottevanger typifies this as strange and confusing. One could say he was simply sloppy in his formulations. But for Emil the situation was in fact a double one. And they were his real life's circumstances. 

Ottevanger goes on to characterize his situation in these words: ‘As a result of the marriage, Emil’s semi-official status of a bastard son was lifted’. Now this is a very peculiar formulation, for two reasons:
1)      A natural (illegitimately conceived) child born within a marriage is always a legitimate child;
2)      A bastard child is an old-fashioned term for a illegitimate child of a married man.
Emil Küpper was neither. 

The only accurate genealogical description here is: Emil Küpper was a legitimate child from an extra-marital relationship of his mother’s.

After the marriage, Emil’s last name never was changed to ‘Doesburg’. Theo Doesburg could never have legalized Emil as his son, because Emil was born within the marriage of the mother, and thus was automatically named after her husband Küpper. Emil could have filed for an official name change, but that would have had to be been done through the Crown and that costs money.

Interestingly enough no other children were born from the relationship between Emil’s mother and Theo Doesburg, although the pair clearly stayed very close, at least in living quarters. There could have been more children, although the mother was already 38 when she gave birth to Emil. But she was obviously fertile enough, with 7 children. Was Emil an ‘accident’ not to be repeated? It is also remarkable that such a young adult like Theo Doesburg, with his life still well in front of him, stayed with the much older woman and did not seek an other relationship – well, at least none which resulted in other children – as far as known. Theo Doesburg died young, in 1912.

Emil was his father’s only child, so he held a more or less exclusive position within the family after the marriage - not before, when he could have been regarded as the’ black sheep’. By taking on the alias ‘Theo van Doesburg’ Emil Küpper stated publicly: “ I am not the child of Küpper, but of (‘van’ in Dutch) Doesburg’. Within the family I belong to ‘this side’, and all of you to the ‘other side’.” From being ‘the last son’ in the family he became ‘the first son’ because of his father’s new status within the family.
It might also explain why Emil appears to have sided with his father more than his mother, and that the death of his father in 1912 seems to have been a real blow to him.

From this complex, double-sided situation one speculate about certain other characteristics of Emil Küpper’s aka Theo van Doesburg’s behaviour towards other people. This of course is speculation, but it is possible to recognize certain behavioural patterns.

Theo van Doesburg’s whole adult life as an artist was punctuated with relationships circling around ‘this side’ as opposed to ‘the other side’. As a young and last (illegitimately conceived) child in a large family he most probably had a hard time standing up for himself. There are coping mechanisms in such situations, akin to flight mechanisms. Emil developed a large mouth. It will also not have helped the self-esteem of the young Emil, that he was physically very short. Estimates have always run between 1.61 m. and 1.67 m. His military records (see www.theartarchives.org) give the exact height: 167,5 cm. His military records also show that he tried to dodge military service by faking a ‘physical deficiency’. He didn’t succeed.

Theo van Doesburg’s relationships with his fellow artists are punctuated by problems to maintain these relationships and to moderate conflicts. He also showed a remarkable need to position his own identity. He could charm himself into a leader’s position, and easily assume the role of the leader. And he had the habit of antedating his own work, another facet of this desire to be ‘at the front lines’. Everything went well, until he would meet opposition or had to deal with another artist’s ego and personal opinions. Then he would become enraged, be vindictive or extremely disappointed, discard the person and move to greener pastures.
Out of something ‘bad’ always comes something ‘good’ too. On the up-side was Van Doesburg’s relentless energy to start new things and to be the propagandist of other people’s creativity. The rest is art history.