Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the Avant-Garde 1900–1937 in the British Library’s Pearson Gallery opens with a caveat, “Warning. This is not an art exhibition”. The sign continues by explaining the show’s aim to “look behind the white cube presentation of artwork to the immersion of European avant-garde in the material of print culture”. If the sterile environment of the white cube has become rule number one in the display of visual art, then this show certainly breaks it.
The display of hundreds of books, magazines and photographs is architectural in its scale and ambition. The dark space of the gallery has been filled with temporary walls at unsettling angles, monumental architectural props and dozens of flickering screens displaying avant-garde films. It is a highly theatrical environment. Designed by Andrew Kellard Associates, the aim is to capture the excitement for speed and volatility of the modern city felt by the Futurists, Vorticists, Constructivists and Dadaists.
The exhibition’s stirring design is no doubt an attempt to draw a much wider audience than the dusty bibliophiles who would conventionally be drawn to a display of rare books and magazines. The question is really whether the exhibits need this kind of dramatisation. They are—quite simply —brilliant. Collectively, they represent perhaps the most ambitious assembly of modernist publications of the first half of the century mounted in London. Futurist manifestos issuing ringing threats to shoot down the bourgeois world in scattergun typography; illustrated photo-books recording the mysteries of the city after dark; and surrealist photograms which capture the shadowy place of things in the recesses of the mind demonstrate not only the diverse interests of the avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s: they reveal the central place of print in modernism. There would have been no Modern Movement without the extensive network of manifestos, books and magazines which spread across Europe in the 1910s and 1920s.
The curators have gone far beyond the conventional geography of the avant-garde. Art history classes introduce their students to artists in a chain of cities from Paris to Moscow: but what do you know about Futurism in Tbilisi or Surrealism in Copenhagen? Scouring the margins of Europe for the long-lost cousins of the Bauhaus might look like an esoteric exercise: but, © ß when gathered together in this way, the differences and interchanges between different corners of Europe become all the more apparent.
Some of the exhibits still seem strikingly vivid today. On the cover and back of Hans Arp’s book Der Pyramidenrock (Pyramid Dress, 1924), the artist repeats the title 41 times in three tightly-set columns which buzz before the eyes. The ascetic design seems remarkably fresh. Others are extremely rare. The show includes a copy of Ardengo Soffici’s book BÏF&ZF+18 (1915), with its beautiful cover combining fragments of newsprint. Produced in a small edition, very few copies survived a flood in Florence in 1966. Blaise Cendrars’ exquisite prose poem,
La Prose du Transsibérien (‘Trans-Siberian Prose’, 1913, shown 1) recalling a train journey from Moscow to Harbin in China is a luxury object illustrated by the painter Sonia Delaunay. Like memory, the swirling fields of colour pull in and out of focus (including a vivid red Eiffel Tower which emerges from the abstract background). Produced in a long format that unfolds into a two metre column, the entire edition when stacked end-to-end was to match the height of the Eiffel Tower.
Print is at the heart of this show, but it also features a dizzying survey of film and music clips from the period. They include extraordinary vintage recordings of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s biting cabaret songs from Weimar Germany; interviews with aging designers recalling their first days at the Bauhaus; and, most extraordinarily, Kurt Schwitters performing one of his own sound poems, Ursonate, in a recording made in the early 1930s. Hearing his swelling vowels and razor-sharp elocution is all the more electrifying when accompanied by the animated concrete poems laid out by artists across Europe in the gallery.
These audio-visual records testify to the widespread desire after the First World War for the word to burst beyond the conventional columns of the printed page and the stiff covers of the traditional book. In 1926 Soviet constructivist artist and designer El Lissitzky imagined that the book would be replaced “by auto-vocalizing and kino-vocalizing representations”. Of course, we live in that world: words, sounds and moving images have entered into new kinds of fluid relationships on the internet. In fact, the exhibition has an excellent website which offers, amongst other things, the viewer a chance to zoom along Cendrars’ Trans-Siberian railway line or listen to expert podcasts from British Library curators exploring the exhibits. In this way, the exhibition bursts beyond the conventional framework of that aforementioned white cube.
Strangely, Breaking the Rules has two endings. The first is the conventional story of the death of the European avant-garde, assassinated by the philistine and paranoid regimes of Germany and the Soviet Union in the 30s. In some cases, like Gustavs Klucis, the Latvian photomontage artist executed in Stalin’s jails, this was literally and all too tragically true.
The second ‘ending’ (which actually features as a kind of preface) is to demonstrate the impact of the avant-garde on leading lights in the graphic design firmament today. Franz Ferdinand’s You Could Have It So Much Better album (2005), designed by Matt Cooper, features, as does Peter Saville’s celebrated designs for Factory records from the 1980s. Whilst their debt to the avant-garde is very clear, it makes one wonder whether they really are the inheritors of the dynamic and iconoclastic impulse which animated print culture in the first decades of the twentieth century.
David Crowley teaches design history at the Royal College of Art in London