Breaking the Rules

January 7, 2008

Blueprint Magazine

Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937
The British Library, until 30 March 2008

It was a time of bold declarations and ideology. Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dadaism and Constructivism all came out of this period, breaking moulds and ways of thinking. It is ironic, then, that within such mental and cultural freedom, artists took such pains to define their actions – as if breaking the rules created a hunger for new ones. So much so, that the manifesto became an art-form in itself – worked up through fonts, bolded out words, italicised statements, exclamation marks, underlinings and the all-important bullet point. Definitions are compounded in words and form by El Lissitzsky and Hans Arps’ ‘The Isms of Art’, providing a central motif for the show.

The shapes of letters and words, and the sounds they produce are to be re-conceived in this, the machine age. In Gino Severini’s freeword painting ‘Dancer = Sea’, letters whirl in coruscating circles, and form bold triangles like blades. There is movement, texture and dynamism, blasted as if shot from a gun with a headline banner of TTA TTATA TTATTA TAT. But the balletic beauty of gunfire is given a more sinister twist in Wyndham Lewis’ issue of Blast from 1915, where angular soldiers hunch forward with guns pointing out against a crowded, fractured cityscape.

These are not the posters of revolution or propaganda; the artefacts on display, culled from the British Library’s expansive collection, are less showy, but no less dramatic in their significance. The works’ papery delicacy belies the force of conviction with which they were made. Artists’ self-belief in redefining the cultural landscape, if not the world, is overwhelming.

Marinetti’s radical Zang Tumb Tuum – a poem reportage of the Siege of Adrianople – looks like a scientific diagram. Arrows and math symbols chart the flow and movement in words and columns. Photobooks of Man Ray show the dawning of surrealism, and Brassaï’s nocturnal wanderings reveal a Paris of oddly-lit pockets of humanity – a man behind his newsstand, illuminated in the dark by the glamour and beauty magazines on sale.

Culture had made a definitive conceptual leap, away from harmony and renderings of myth or natural beauty, to intellectual games, challenges and questions. The confidence and exhilaration only ruptured by the extreme repression of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and pan-European trauma of World War 2.

To appreciate the crackle of energy, held in stasis on the printed page, takes some concentration in these dimly-lit rooms. But it is worth it. The years between 1900 and 1937 have had the most far-reaching influence on graphic design in modern times. Politically, the world is unrecognisable from a century ago, but aesthetically and conceptually, the artists, thinkers and designers of this Avant Garde period really did, it seems, write the rule book.

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