Art in Action: Lajos Kassák’s Avant-Garde Journals

Art in Action: Lajos Kassák’s Avant-Garde Journals from A Tett to Dokumentum (1915-1927). Edited by Eszter Balázs, Edit Sasvári and Merse Pál Szeredi (Budapest: Petőfi Literary Museum-Kassák Museum Kassák Foundation, 2017)

A series of photographs that appear halfway through Art in Action: Lajos Kassák’s Avant-Garde Journals from A Tett to Dokumentum (1915-1927) show the artist, poet, and editor Lajos Kassák — a central figure of the early twentieth century Hungarian avant-garde — and his partner and collaborator Jolán Simon in their small flat in Vienna in the 1920s. Forced to flee Budapest in 1919 with the fall of a short-lived communist government, their ascetic circumstances are clearly on view. Despite a lack of furnishing, however, in one photo a series of contemporary artworks can be seen to fill a wall, underscoring the privileged place that artistic production occupied in their day to day existence. Though they lived a life of poverty in exile, Kassák refused to let these circumstances interrupt his active publishing agenda, apparently even stealing money from his wife in order to keep on printing.

As this story suggests, Kassák was not a man acting alone — aside from the collaboration with Simon (who receives scant further mention in Art in Action) he was one amongst a network of actors in the Hungarian interwar avant-garde diaspora, including László Moholy-Nagy, Ernő Kállai, Farkas Molnár, and László Péri. But he was of a slightly older generation, born in 1887, and managed to outlive many of his younger peers through several regime changes, thus having a singularly long and variegated career. And it was specifically his work, concerning a particularly dynamic period in his oeuvre, that was the focus of a series of exhibitions in Budapest in 2017.

Art in Action, supported by the Kassák Foundation, is an outcome of this activity, as both a catalogue and an anthology of texts. The volume was published to accompany a series of three exhibitions — called “Kassákisms” — at the Petőfi Literary Museum, Kassák Museum, and the Gizi Bajor Actors’ Museum. As the Director of the Petőfi, Gergely Prőhle, notes in brief introductory remarks, the engagement of three separate but affiliated museums made possible a much larger presentation of Kassák’s publishing activities than would have been feasible were the exhibition to be confined to the limited space of the Kassák Museum alone. Exhibition views from each distinct “Kassákism” are included as unique sections interspersed across the book and indeed display the expansiveness of the materials on view at the three locations, organized along historical and thematic lines. As an anthology, the volume includes seven complementary texts that present new scholarship from mostly local art historians and curators, moving chronologically through the publishing activities of Kassák in Budapest and Vienna over the span of a little more than a decade, beginning during the First World War and continuing into the postwar period.

What we now know to have been, alas, only a pause between two World Wars, the 1920s was, in its own moment, a period of optimism and unprecedented transnational exchange amongst avant-garde artists across Europe as they collectively envisioned a new, brighter future. As this volume also highlights, there was great diversity and dissent in imagining what this future should look like and how it ought to be obtained. The variety of artistic forms and polemics that Kassák engaged in during this short span of years indicate what György Tverdota describes in one chapter as the “scorched earth” tactic of Kassák and his circle: ardently adopting some new -ism or aesthetic form, then promptly abandoning it, even coming to outrightly denounce it in the most unequivocal terms.

The opening essay in Art in Action, by Hubert van den Berg, serves to situate Kassák’s keystone magazine MA within this larger network. By now, amongst scholars of the interwar avant-garde in Europe, the involvement of Kassák and his Hungarian counterparts in this period is generally known. But with a few notable exceptions, the presentation of this material in English and outside of Hungary is certainly still limited, and, perhaps as a consequence, as van den Berg notes, Kassák and his circle have been largely left out of histories that center on Western European narratives. Van den Berg emphasizes that in their own time, avant-garde movements across Europe tended to cross-advertise in their publications. He offers familiar examples from the Polish Blok magazine, French Manomètre, Yugoslav Zenit, Belgian Het Overzicht, Italian Noi, and of course, Hungarian MA, journals that each advertised a swath of other journals (and thus, each other), in grids that often reflect the principles of the international style of New Typography.

Another form of advertisement within the avant-garde magazines, perhaps less well-known, went beyond the naming of other publications to actually illustrate them, through the employment of photographic reproductions. Van den Berg includes two such examples. One is something of an advertisement within an advertisement, reproduced from the Czechoslovak magazine Pásmo. An advert for a bookstore in the city of Brno includes an image of the shop’s window display, which has on view a range of avant-garde magazines, including, for instance, Blok, Manomètre, and Merz, alongside Czech publications. Similarly, a reproduced page from the Swiss publication Das Werk shows another photographic advertisement that features the cover of various avant-garde journals, that likewise includes Merz, Blok, Pásmo, Manomètre, MA,Pásmo, and so on. This was featured in a special issue of Das Werk, guest edited by Hannes Meyer, who would become the second director of the Bauhaus.

So it is that Art in Action, while largely dedicated to the Hungarian magazines produced by Kassák, takes off from a premise of their place within a pan-European network of exchange. The subsequent chapters that deal specifically with the each of the publications Kassák produced in the period of focus — namely A Tett, MA, 2×2, and Dokumentum — place their subject in a framework of collaboration and transnationalism (albeit limited to a European and Soviet frame of reference). As Merse Pál Szeredi argues in his chapter on MA during the magazine’s Vienna years, “The networks of avant-garde journals reached directly across national and cultural borders, ignoring the hierarchical relationship between the centre (the ‘West’) and the periphery (East-Central Europe). In the first half of the 1920s, MA’s contents and visuals made it one of the most prominent artistic periodicals of its time, because of which Kassák’s name became well-known throughout Europe.” (110) Each of the chapters in Art in Action sets out to correct certain geographical and linguistic divisions inscribed by art history in the Cold War period, which, as we see clearly in the case of MA, were not operational at the time of production.

The chapter on A Tett (The Action) by Eszter Balázs, introduces the work of Kassák within the frame of a “radically anti-war stance,” (33) though she notes that at the onset of the war he had participated in a nationalist, pro-war rhetoric among left-wing intellectuals, and got his start publishing in the magazine Új Nemzedék (New Generation), which even printed Anti-Semitic material. But by November 1915, when A Tett was launched, Kassák was ardently against the war, and used his own platform to publish material critical of the war propaganda espoused in the popular press. With A Tett, he also already indicated an interest in representing international artists — we learn he had previously spent time in Paris in 1909 after years working in factories — but, as Balázs notes, while it “clearly declared its affinity to the European avant-garde networks, […] it was not connected to them.” (42)

 A Tett was banned within a year, and basically re-emerged under another name — now as MA (Today) in 1916. In its new incarnation, we see a continued commitment to representing artists from across Europe and Russia. Unlike the case with A Tett, Kassák and his colleagues now had increasingly direct access to colleagues across the European avant-gardes, apparently largely facilitated through travel in the post-war period. It is certainly MA by which Kassák is best known today, and the magazine rightly receives the most emphasis in Art in Action — half of the chapters deal with it specifically, though curiously, its name does not appear in the title of the volume. One chapter each is devoted to the magazine’s Budapest (1916-1919) and Vienna (1920-1925) years, with another focused solely on a 1924 special issue dedicated to music and theater.

Márton Pacsika’s chapter on MA picks up where Balázs’s chapter on A Tett left off, and some information is repeated across the two chapters. This happens throughout the volume, but not so often that it becomes burdensome for someone reading the whole book, while on the other hand it ensures that someone choosing to read a single chapter for specific research purposes does not miss basic biographical details. Pacsika’s chapter focuses on the Budapest years, emphasizing a state of constant aesthetic and political debate that was duly represented in pages of the magazine, likewise reflecting the tumultuous period in which it operated. Even in the first issue, Kassák concedes that the literary movement around which MA has formed is considered “deranged eccentricity and humbug” by the public. (73)

While there is an emphasis in the chapters on Kassák’s socialist politics, and the position of MA as an agitational journal in pursuit of a communist revolution, a bit more space dedicated to articulating Kassák’s nuanced position vis à vis socialism, and how it differed, for instance, from that of György Lukács—to whom, we learn, he stood in bitter opposition—would have been helpful, since it is clear that the political inherently undergirded the artistic, literary, and even business decisions that Kassák made for his magazines. More space dedicated to the interpretation of Kassák’s own writing, poetry, and design work could have been a productive way to frame such a discussion, offering concrete examples for how his own ideological and aesthetic positions changed over time.

Clearly though the choice not to linger on close readings of Kassák’s own artistic production was made in order to dedicate maximum space to evincing his role within an international avant-garde network. And, the extensive documentation in Art in Action of the covers of MA in the Budapest and Vienna years effectively visualizes some of Kassák’s own design work, and evinces the transitions in his artistic affiliations. Early issues of MA in Budapest are compared by Pacsika to the German Expressionist publications Der Sturm and Die Aktion. The very first issue of MA features a linocut by the Czech artist Vincenc Beneš, and other covers highlight the multidirectional gaze of the magazine, including work by Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Franz Marc, and Umberto Boccioni, representing a variety of styles from Impressionism to Cubism and Futurism. By the time Kassák and MA move to Vienna, however, we see a marked and consistent shift in interest eastward and orientation towards Constructivism and Suprematism, with works by the likes of El Lissitzky and Ivan Puni coming to grace the covers by 1922.

In the chapter dedicated to the Vienna years of MA, Merse Pál Szeredi carefully articulates the magazine’s transformations under the influence of Russian Constructivism, as well as Dada and the Bauhaus, while also emphasizing Kassák’s reticence for his own project to be absorbed into any of these other movements. He notes for instance that Kassák wrote in a letter from 1921 that, despite Dada’s marked influence on MA—Kurt Schwitters’s Merz received special attention on its pages—“I have absolutely no inclination to belong to their ranks or to allow MA to come under their control.” (111)

With regards to Russian Constructivism, Szeredi notes that MA co-editor Béla Uitz had travelled to Moscow as early as 1921 in order to take part in the Third Congress of the Communist International, and brought back manifestos and photo reproductions that would later appear in the May 1922 issue of the  journal—again, alongside works by Dadaists and artists at the Bauhaus. Szeredi associates the year-long lapse in time between Uitz’s travel and the MA publication with a “delay” in interest in Soviet Constructivism. But we also learn in another chapter—devoted to a special issue of MA on music and theater by Judit Galácz—that Kassák himself had been exposed personally to the work of Lissitzky, Tatlin, and Kazimir Malevich for the first time in 1922, on the occasion of his trip to Berlin for the First Russian Art Exhibition. Kassák’s direct exposure to the Soviet avant-garde and personal first impressions might thus be understood as the impetus to ultimately publish examples of such work that year.

The year 1922 proved to be highly productive for Kassák—besides MA, two major one-off publications in which he had an editorial role also appeared. The single-issue journal 2×2 (introduced in a chapter by György Tverdota), for instance, edited together with Andor Németh, published Kassák’s seminal poem “The Horse Dies, The Birds Fly Away.” Additionally, the Book of New Artists, published simultaneously in German and Hungarian and edited with Moholy-Nagy, showcased a synthetic approach to picturing constructivist, new art alongside innovations in engineering and architecture. This album, now a canonical object of the interwar European avant-garde, singularly displays the international inclinations and connections of Kassák’s circle. Though a discussion of it is briefly embedded in Szeredi’s chapter on MA in Vienna, a more sustained discussion of the book could have illuminated how the international exchange on evidence in the volume was actually enacted materially, as the editors borrowed “clichés” (or process blocks) from other magazines abroad to reproduce such a vast selection of images.

Galácz does expand on one common mode of exchange, that being the influence of contemporary exhibitions. In the case of the “Music and Theater Special Issue” of MA, Galácz notes that besides Kassák’s visit to the First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin, the publication also followed the International Exhibition of New Theater Techniques in Vienna, which had included works by such artists as Oskar Schlemmer, Schwitters, and Moholy-Nagy. Through her simultaneous consideration of the role of exhibition and international influence, Galácz casts the net a bit wider in our understanding of how Kassák came to feature the set of artists and writers that he did. In the case of the special theater issue, this resulted in a bi-lingual and variegated approach to its subject, which included photographs and illustrations of set design, models, and costumes, as well as the original, Hungarian language version of Moholy-Nagy’s so-called film sketch “Dynamic of a Metropolis.”

The multimedial aspects of Kassák’s magazines are emphasized across all the chapters of Art in Action, especially in the final one, by Gábor Dobó, on the magazine Dokumentum, which was started after Kassák had returned to Budapest in 1926, and which ran for only five issues. Dobó describes the “synthetic” approach of the publication as its commitment to include various types of subject matter from the sciences to the arts, as well as different media, from painting and photomontage to dance and stage design, architecture, and engineering. As with the rest of the book’s authors, Dobó also emphasizes the internationalism in this magazine’s references. Kassák’s preoccupations in Dokumentum remain consistent with those of his later Vienna years, as is evident from the pages reproduced from this magazine, which in several cases either recycle the exact same image, or present other works by the same artists, from previous publications in which Kassák had a hand, such as MA and the Book of New Artists.  

 In this vein, and while outside the scope of Art in Action, it would also be interesting to further trace the migration of photographs that were in circulation across the pan-European avant-gardes. A Suprematist painting by Kazimir Malevich that appears in the second issue of Dokumentum from 1927, for instance, appeared likewise in the second issue of the Czech magazine ReD—which had announced itself explicitly as a “synthetic” magazine from its first issue—launched in October of the same year. Such a mapping could further help to determine how closely Kassák was working with colleagues across Europe by sharing images (as referenced above in relation to the Book of New Artists)—an economy of mutual exchange that was active at the time across the avant-gardes.

Collaborative study that simultaneously accommodates careful consideration of the local, alongside the more global networks in which the interwar avant-garde magazines operated, could draw out further comparisons, and help to more fully visualize just how interconnected these magazines were, while increasing our understanding of their unique historical and political contexts. As such, Art in Action is a welcome contribution towards better understanding one site of artistic production within the larger body of avant-garde magazines in interwar Europe. It notably expands the available English-language scholarship on some of the work produced by the Hungarian avant-garde centered around Kassák, and points towards further paths of inquiry, that would accommodate a larger set of actors.


Note: The book can be downloaded as a pdf, courtesy of the Kassák Museum, Budapest:

Art in Action: Lajos Kassák’s Avant-Garde Journals from A Tett to Dokumentum (1915-1927). Edited by Eszter Balázs, Edit Sasvári and Merse Pál Szeredi (Budapest: Petőfi Literary Museum-Kassák Museum Kassák Foundation, 2017)

Meghan Forbes
Meghan Forbes is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. She is the editor of International Perspectives on Publishing Platforms: Image, Object, Text (Routledge, 2019) and co-curator of BAUHAUSVKhUTEMAS: Intersecting Parallels (Museum of Modern Art Library, 2018).