Back to the future

November 2, 2007

The early part of the 20th century witnessed an explosion of avant- garde art that threw off the shackles of the past to embrace the dynamism and challenge of the modern age. Stephen Bury revisits an extraordinary history. In the 1930s, to be avant-garde was definitely not a fashion statement. On July 19, 1937, four years after the book burnings that ranged from Kiel to Munich, Cologne to Breslau, the Entartete Kunst ("Degenerate Art") exhibition curated by Adolf Ziegler, head of the Reich Chamber of Visual Art, opened at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. It juxtaposed 650 "degenerate" Expressionist, Cubist, Futurist, Abstract, Dada and Surrealist works, all confiscated by the Nazis from German museums and galleries, with Aryan Neoclassical "realist" works. Avant- garde manifestos were displayed alongside "edifying" speeches by Nazi leaders.

Instead of celebrating the avant-garde at the expense of the traditional or kitsch, the Nazis' propaganda exhibition did exactly the reverse. Meanwhile, in the Stalinist USSR, the closure of avant-garde art groups had already started alongside the promotion of Socialist Realism as the exclusive art form for the socialist society. The great wave of experimental creativity in design, art, music and literature that had expressed itself in overlapping "isms" through most of the first four decades of the 20th century was over.

Although there are examples of manifestos before 1909, it was the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who first perfected its persistent injunctive tone, attacking the institutions of traditional society in favour of the new, and celebrating speed and movement. Marinetti's "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism", published on the front page of Le Figaro on February 20, 1909, was the start of a torrent of manifestos in French and Italian: there were Futurist manifestos on literature, painting, sculpture, photography, cinema, mathematics, flowers and even lust. The manifesto was also to be performed or declaimed: the Italian Futurist Francesco Cangiullo took a stick to the bourgeois passeistes in the theatre, while in 1913 the Russian Futurists advertised their performances with posters printed on toilet paper and via walkabouts in which Vladimir Mayakovsky sported a yellow blouse and a wooden spoon in his buttonhole.

Oral performance called for simplicity of structure. The dichotomy - "this is good, this is bad" - is at the heart of the manifesto: Guillaume Apollinaire's "L'antitradition futuriste" (1913) has lists under "mer ... da ... ai" ("shit" to) historians, Venice, Bayreuth, theosophists, but "rose aux" Marinetti, Braque, Duchamp and, naturally, Apollinaire himself. Wyndham Lewis in Blast (1914), influenced by William Blake's "Damn braces! Bless relaxes!", has Bless and Blast sections.

At the centre of every movement or "ism" was a magazine. The titles of some of them gave the name to the movement - Zenit in Zagreb (and later in Belgrade) gave rise to Zenitism; in Leiden, the magazine De Stijl (The Style) shared the title of editor Theo Van Doesburg's movement. The magazines advertised each other; articles, poems, drawings and photographs appeared promiscuously in more than one journal, as copy was shared between groups in different cities - Berlin, Florence, Prague - sometimes whether it was avant-garde or not. A further characteristic was the financial precariousness of these magazines: many did not survive beyond the initial issue and some, incompetently or recklessly, did not even have an address for subscriptions. Two surrealist magazines edited by Andre Breton, La Revolution Surrealiste and Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution, lost subscribers, readers and money until in 1933 the publishers Skira and Teriade came up with the proposition for Minotaure, emasculated Breton's hardline Communist stance and introduced an international network of professional subscription agents. And they could afford colour covers.

Both manifesto and magazine emphasise the grounding of the avant-garde in print culture and its internationalism, which are central themes of the forthcoming Breaking the Rules exhibition at the British Library. This covers the whole period from 1900 to 1937, an A-Z of European cities from Belgrade to Zurich and a huge range of manifestations of the avant-garde in print: an anti-German poster of 1914 by Kazimir Malevich and Mayakovsky; the sackcloth-covered manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (1912); the Georgian magazine H2SO4 intended to corrode traditional forms of literature and art; and the painting-like collaged cover of Ardengo Soffici's poetry collection, BIF(s)ZF+18 (1915).

Art history has treated Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque's use of fragments of words in the collages of synthetic cubism or Kurt Schwitters's use of printed ephemera in his "Merz" pictures as unusual episodes in the development of 20th-century painting. But the avant-garde was obsessed and totally immersed in a print culture that was still the dominant medium for the dissemination of knowledge. The medium was temporarily enhanced by the adoption of photography by newspapers and journals in the first decade of the 20th century. But film and broadcasting would soon usurp this role, just as the web is now replacing them. The history of Dada is in effect a bibliography: it is characterised by posters, flyers, invitation cards, manifestos, artists' books and journals. The city was the three-dimensional word: posters, neon lights, newspaper stalls and bookshops proliferated. When Henri Matisse attempted to flee Parisian Cubism, he holed up in a room where the view from the window turned out to be an advert for Kub stock cubes.

The city was a key factor in this development and in the success of the avant-garde in the period from 1900 to 1937. In 1900, half of the world's largest cities were in Europe. The city meant escape from the illiteracy and traditional hierarchies of the countryside. It meant leisure and money to spend on films, exhibitions, the theatre and concerts, as well as easy access to printing presses and publishers.

And the division between publisher and writer or artist became blurred. In Russia, the Futurists published a myriad of cheaply produced but groundbreaking artists' books: they used wallpaper (which led to problematic accumulations of chalk on printing plates), newsprint, even gingerbread. Different weights, types and colours of paper were used within the same book. And every process then imaginable: stencil, offset lithography, hectography and collage, or a combination of them all. The Ukrainian poet Dmitry Petrovsky recalled meeting Velimir Khlebnikov, the Russian Futurist poet, "bare-headed, dirty, sunburnt, unshaved and dishevelled ... dressed in rags" in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1920. He presented Petrovsky with a copy of "a thin booklet ... Ladomir (Good- World), which had just been printed on a duplicator". In an edition of 50 fragile copies (around the number of surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible), this is one of the incunabula of the avant-garde.

History has restricted the canon of avant-garde cities to Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Vienna. Not only did other cities have an avant-garde trajectory - Brno, Lyons, Prague, Riga, St Petersburg, Warsaw, Zagreb, Zurich - but the avant-garde of Paris, Berlin or Vienna numbered many who were not born in France, Germany or Austria. Prominent in Paris were Guillaume Apollinaire (Polish-Italian), Blaise Cendrars (Swiss), Picasso (Spanish), Tristan Tzara and Constantin Brancusi (Romanian). And even London had an avant-garde history - which might have been suspected, given its position as the centre of the world's economy before the First World War. It was receptive to Futurism - Marinetti recited at the Coliseum. The Ballets Russes performed, inspiring David Bomberg to create a book of poems and prints about them. Visitors to Paris, Berlin or Moscow returned with ideas and inspiration and articles. The Poetry, Zwemmer and Parton bookshops sold home-grown and imported avant-garde books and journals. The Academy Cinema, founded by Elsie Cohen, showed new continental films.

The only movement London seemed immune to was Dada, and its reception of Surrealism was tardy. On the other hand, it is possible to see in Mass Observation, the study of everyday life in Britain founded in 1937, the last avant-garde manifesto-producing movement: its typography owes something to Blast; it references Marcel Duchamp, and its collaborators included surrealists such as Humphrey Jennings and the painter Julian Trevelyan. Their answer to the 1930s question of the most appropriate art form for modern society - the options ranged from Abstraction to Constructivism to Socialist Realism - was social observation and documentary film.

London also demonstrates the inter-relatedness of artist and writer. Wyndham Lewis was both. The poet Ezra Pound would write the first monograph on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed in the First World War. In Paris that relationship was, if anything, even stronger. Marinetti is usually seen as the precursor of Futurist art, but, first and foremost, he was a French free-verse poet, whose radical departure of rejecting punctuation propelled Apollinaire into removing the punctuation from the proofs of his collection of poems, Alcools, as part of his challenge for leadership of the Paris poetry scene.

But it is Blaise Cendrars' picture-poem, La Prose du Transsiberien et de la petite Jehanne de France (1913), that perhaps best sums up the avant- garde. It was self-financed, a new poem published for the first time in collaboration with a contemporary avant-garde artist, Sonia Delaunay. And it was conceived that its entire edition of 150, unfolded and laid end to end, would reach the top of the Eiffel Tower. Its account of a journey on the newly opened pan-Russian railway sums up the hopes and fears of travelling into the 20th century. As the narrator's companion Jehanne, the Parisian prostitute, repeatedly asks: "Are we there yet?"

Stephen Bury is head of European and American collections at the British Library and the lead curator of Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937, showing at the British Library's Pearson Gallery, from November 9 to March 30, 2008. His curator's blog can be found at http:///britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/breakingtherules/

- Events accompanying the exhibition at the British Museum (from November 9) include a study day (in association with the Institute for Romance and Germanic Studies at the University of London) on February 4, 2008, where the curators and academics such as Gunther Berkhaus, Charlie Leadbetter and Michael Berkowitz will explore the vibrant activities of the European avant-garde, as reflected in manifestos, photography, film and music, and look at its continuing influence today. On February 3, playwright Tom Stoppard and actors Antony Sher and John Hurt will present selected readings from Stoppard's Travesties (one of whose main characters is Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara). Also linked to the exhibition is a competition (closing date November 9) challenging "postgrad creatives" "to design a piece of work that embraces the spirit of the avant-garde, exploring whether its philosophy is relevant to you and the world today". Details on the British Library website, www.bl.uk.

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