SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 116 - March 2008

Breaking the rules

Breaking the rules

The printed face of the European avant-garde 1930-37

British Library, London

Until March 30 2008

Admission: free

Reviewed by Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

HOW CAN art communicate change? Can it effect change? What is the relation of art and the artist to politics? Where are art and design at today? Posing these questions and more, this exhibition is both exciting and challenging.

With cubism, expressionism, futurism, Dadaism, suprematism, constructivism, surrealism and other movements explored, my enjoyment was matched by irritation with the curator’s comments. The first few decades of the 20th century saw an enormous growth in working-class empowerment. As mass parties of the working class grew, a clash of ideas about how society should be run developed. Where the existing order was not overthrown it was challenged. The art and design of the avant-garde reflected the advances in technique, and much of it sought to reflect the vanguard of political and social upheaval, anti-capitalist and socialist ideas.

The curator, Stephen Bury, explains that the avant-garde was killed off in 1937 by the combined forces of Stalinism and fascism, hence the parameters of the exhibition. The exhibition ends with images of Nazi book burning. There is a bias towards the nonsensical aspects of the avant-garde, those which sought to confuse and ridicule, such as ‘words without meanings’ and ‘poetry without letters’. Art which overtly seeks to serve political purposes is generally dull. But where artists are inspired to respond to situations and attempt to participate in providing analysis and a way forward, they can play a positive role. Trotsky contrasted this to the ‘socialist realism’ of the Stalinist era. But this exhibition incorrectly equates all socialist art with Joseph Stalin. Ideas and revolution – new ways, not just of seeing, but of running society – impact on art and design.

Initially, the exhibition appears small. Don’t be fooled! There is a vast amount of material – as the title suggests, much of it printed. A wealth of books, pamphlets, manifestos, magazines and posters will keep you going for hours. A myriad of audio, video, painted, photographed and other materials supplement. Recordings range from Gertrude Stein’s poem, If I told him: a completed portrait of Picasso, whose repetition gives it a cubist quality, to Alexander Mosolov’s, Iron Foundry, an orchestral episode from the ballet, Steel, commissioned by the Bolshoi ballet in 1926.

There is much inventiveness. The period saw the attempt at the ‘total work of art’ that would incorporate all of life and the senses. The Hungarian composer, Alexander László, built a ‘soundchromatograph’, a colour-organ projection system, which is described rather than exhibited. There is humour. A manifesto of futurist cuisine aimed to attack bourgeois cooking and proposed the abolition of pasta. Salvador Dali gave a lecture at the first International Surrealist Exhibition in Britain in a diving suit – and nearly passed out. There are challenges to traditional printing methods including the white page. Vasily Kamensky’s, Tango with Cows, is printed on flowered wallpaper of primary colours. The French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, published Calligrammes in 1918, poems whose shape is as important as the words. Il pleut (it’s raining) seems to pour down the page.

A desire to provide social context is another theme. British photographer, Bill Brandt, produced A night in London, in 1938, a book of images contrasting rich and poor in the city. Seventy years later, the images, many of which were staged, are still relevant as the wealth gap persists. Mass observation was a social research group founded in 1937. It aimed to record everyday life in Britain through volunteer observers who kept diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires.

Half of the exhibition is of material from different cities, including Budapest and Belgrade, and the Baltic states, as well as the more familiar artistic centres. Reaching beyond the normal limits of the western Eurocentric realm of art history and its obsession with the Paris-Vienna axis, the courage is undermined by the shallowness of the overall approach.

Impatience made me visit the Moscow booth first, anticipating a wealth of constructivist posters and designs. In the blurb, Bury describes how artists and writers wanted to be known as workers and started clubs to educate the masses. A couple of constructivist posters and beautiful photographs by Alexander Rodchenko, and points on the effects of technology on art – ie lightweight portable cameras – are presented without any reference to the 1917 Russian revolution.

Of course, one exhibition cannot make up for the expunging of Marxism from art history departments and universities in general – continuing as left-wing lecturers, Terry Eagleton and Sheila Rowbotham, face the axe at Manchester University, where Tesco boss, Terry Leahy, is co-chancellor. The William Morris gallery in Walthamstow, east London, which exhibits his socialist art manifesto, is also under threat of closure. In the first decades of the 20th century, working-class people fought for the provision of education, and for a say in how society is run. Now the clocks are being turned back.

Many of the books featured are bi- or multilingual. Artists travelled and were influenced by movements in other countries. Art magazines and international exhibitions aided this internationalist exchange of political ideas.

Bury makes many references to Adolf Hitler’s denunciation of the avant-garde as degenerate. But in one of the recordings, Roland Penrose, one of the organisers of the London International Surrealist exhibition in 1936, describes how the British press reacted against the show, describing surrealism as ‘degenerate’, and a painting of two women as a ‘disgusting display of sexuality’, revealing homophobic and conservative attitudes to new art in Britain.

Many of the movements published their ideas on how new art should be created, and what its scope should be: ideas on life as art and art as life. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto is referred to, but its relevance to the social and political movements of this period is not explained. André Breton is quoted and referenced but, notable for its absence, is his 1938 Manifesto: Towards a free revolutionary art, which was published above his and Diego Rivera’s signatures, and was based on discussions with Trotsky. Trotsky, in contradistinction to Stalin, fought for genuine democratic socialism and for the freedom of artists. The manifesto ends with a declaration of intent:

"Our aims:

The independence of art – for the revolution.

The revolution – for the complete liberation of art!"

Many of the artists grappled with the complex ideas and debates of the time. The posters and pamphlets were not merely created as works of art, but as communication, and bring to mind the battle of the poster/proclamation on Petrograd’s walls in 1917.

Some reference is made to the various responses to war: from the Dadaism of Tristan Tsara to the powerful paintings of George Grosz and plays of Berthold Brecht. Filippo Marinetti is described as glorifying war, calling it the "world’s only hygiene". In response to the horror of war, Grosz insists that "drawing must once again subordinate itself to a social purpose". Responses to the Spanish civil war include a leaflet exhorting fellow artists to "intervene as poets, artists and intellectuals by violent or subtle subversion and by stimulating desire".

The Franz Ferdinand album, You Could Have It So Much Better, demonstrates the legacy of this period with its reference to Rodchenko’s 1924 portrait of Lilya Brik. This portrait is plastered all over London advertising a Hayward gallery exhibition. There seems to be a bit of interest in the art and design that came about through the changes made by the Russian revolution: Battleship Potemkin was free with The Guardian recently, and Vladimir Tatlin’s tower features as the climax of the Russians exhibition at the Royal Academy. This goes hand-in-hand with a growing interest in the ideas of socialism and questions of how society can be changed.

This exhibition, while featuring artists and movements and a period of history where new ground was broken, is limited by a traditional art history approach. The title almost seems to reference Trotsky when he wrote "art, like science, not only does not seek orders but, by its very essence, cannot tolerate them… Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity". While I rail against the curator’s conventionality, this is a fantastic exhibition. And it’s free!


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