Behind the Obscurity of the Central-European Avant-Gardes (Book Review)

Timothy O. Benson (ed.), Central-European Avant-Gardes. Exchange and Transformation (1910-1930), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002). Timothy O. Benson, Éva Forgács (eds.): Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes (1910 – 1930), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).

The project of Timothy O. Benson and his team, entitled Central-European Avant-Gardes, is great in two aspects: it is enormous in its content and utopian in its nature. The multi-dimensional volume is divided into two books. The first one includes articles, manifestos, essays, program considerations, and textual sources about the subject. The second volume is structured as a catalog of an exhibition, divided according to territorial highlights (chapters cover singular cities and capitals) in the area from Bucharest and Belgrade to Berlin and Łódź. Essays by reputable scholars in the arts and humanities are illustrated by reproductions of covers of important magazines and exhibition posters.

All of the material was originally put together for the exhibition entitled “Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, 1910 – 1930,” held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2002 under the curatorship of Timothy O. Benson. Both volumes were published by MIT Press at that time (2002), but the life of the publication extends far into the future.

Since the ’70s and ’80s, the Russian Avant-Garde in all of its manifestations has become an attractive topic. By comparison, Central Europe has occupied a less exclusive position in the international art community, although the first significant exhibition was held in Germany in 1967. To the general public, nevertheless, this cultural cluster was and still is scarcely known, perhaps with the exception of Dada with Tristan Tzara, Raoul Hausmann and Hans Arp or the Bauhaus with Martin Groppius.

Such marginality was not simply caused by the local conditions or by a dearth of radical expression on the part of Central European artists in comparison with their Russian, French or Italian counterparts. Rather, it was a by-product of the “best of” structure of cultural politics, its market and consciousness, one that tends to exclude marginal, although geographically central, regions. Timothy O. Benson justifiably writes that supranational style created a supranational context.(Timothy O. Benson (ed.), Central-European Avant-Gardes. Exchange and Transformation (1910-1930), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 17.) In this sense there is nothing unusual about the situation of the avant-garde in Central Europe. Ever since the Middle Ages, there has been a very highly developed capacity for cultural crossover in this region. Jennifer Allen has written about avant-gardes as the first truly “global” aesthetic movement.(Jennifer Allen, “Central European avant-gardes: Exchange and transformation, 1910-1930; Los Angeles County Museum of art – Los Angeles,” ArtForum, no.5 (Jan. 2002), 13 Aug. 2008) It would be equally appropriate to talk about cultural “globalism” in Central Europe, including the Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, and Jugendstil. Benson also mentions four decades of Soviet domination with its hatred for what was perceived as formalism (and lacking social realism) as one of the many reasons for the “unfairly” hierarchized promotion of European avant-gardes.

The political obstacles were not the only reason for the obscurity surrounding the Central European avant-gardes. Among other reasons there was a lack of an understandable framework in which many relatively isolated groups, publications and exhibitions operated. Individual artistic evolutions came and left without ever uniting under a big aesthetic framework such as Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism and Surrealism in the West or the Soviet Social Realism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Cubofuturism and Imaginism.

The language barrier also hampered the entry into the cosmopolitan art emporium. The audience for the art proclamations written in Hungarian, Polish or Czech was inherently limited.Only after almost one hundred years does one acquire a body of visual materials, which testifies to the true extent of the avant-garde movement outside of its Western European and Russian metropolises, and at the same time to its close contact with them.

The nature and disposition of the reviewed books is close to that of Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, edited by Laura Hoptman and Tomas Pospiszyl, the product of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and published also by MIT in 2002. The general outcome of the comparison is that we know almost nothing about the background of the parallel culture in the Soviet bloc after the Second World War, or about its pre-history, the Soviet avant-garde of 1910 – 1930.

In Benson’s exhibition catalog entitled Exchange and Transformation, the individual cities function as the main organizing principle. There are fourteen of them and each has its own chronicler (except for Éva Bajkay, who wrote about both Weimar and Dessau, since the Bauhaus movement during 1919 – 1932 had two capitals in central Germany. After closing in 1925 the Weimar art school conceived by Walter Gropius, the art community moved to industrial Dessau on the river Elbe).

Cities are the real heroes in the representation of the avant-garde activities. They embody the locations of art experiments and possess a unique cultural history, geopolitical characteristic and urbanistic status after the First World War. All those features are taken into account in this narrative about the modern art. Discussing the pre-1930 art milieu is the only way to depict artistic discoveries in terms of geographical units. Later, the storm of ethnic and political emigration will completely transform the space of Central European cities, rendering it impossible to speak of their unique art geography. Mobility and the global art transitions during 1910 – 1930 were limited enough to enable one to analyze a railway from Vienna to Trieste as an art historical fact.(Lev Kreft, “Ljubjana,” in Exchange and Transformation, 284.)

Complemented by fragments of maps and historical photos, the description of the art movement based on the showcase of art exhibitions, cafés and clubs, is grounded in the spirit of the time, space and people: genius loci.There are, however, obvious limitations in using this map of cities. The connection between the individual artists and their urban environments is frequently vague. There is no way to define precisely the roles that cities played in the development of each artist, and in some cases, their domiciles were not permanent at all – as was the case with Toyen, Josef \032Šíma and Zygmunt Szpingier.

Nevertheless, the principle of avant-garde cities is a simple and elegant solution. The Foreword and Introduction are followed by three other general topics: Locale, Internationalization and Nationalism, creating a solid framework for such principle of organizing material. The reader is thus provided with a guide which includes a short overview of the historical perspective. A separate question, which is common and important for more regional situations, is the participation of Jewish artists, intellectuals and organizations in the avant-garde movement. Even for the assimilated Jews, the new aesthetics became a way of socialization. An excellent and markedly represented example is the expressionistic group Jung Idysz (Mojzesz Broderson, Vincent Brauner, Marek Szwarc, etc.), which “deserves particular mention in the discussion of national ideology in modern art, given the group’s multinational orientation.”(Piotr Piotrowski, “Modernity and Nationalism: Avant-Garde Art and Polish Independence, 1912-1922,” in Exchange and Transformation, 317.)

Benson’s and Forgác’s other volume, Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, is more complicated in structure, and not quite as appealing as the mapping method utilized in the first volume. The headings, such as “New Alternatives” or “The Twilight of Ideologies” (which is a quotation of Ernö Kállai´s article from 1925), while generally correct, are also vague and overgeneralized. (Timothy O. Benson, Éva Forgács (eds.): Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes (1910 – 1930), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 606.) There is a random mixture of artistic movements (Dada, Constructivism, Expressionism, Bauhaus) and typological approaches (Form as the Agent of Social Change, etc.). The volume consists of theoretical statements on the subject of the avant-garde, and is subdivided into four sections, fifteen chapters and multiple articles. While individual geographical entities still play an important role, the volume is lacking in the overall coherence. Cities appear and re-appear in no particular order, making it difficult to place them within the overall framework of the artistic movement. While it is possible to follow this format, the volume is not an easy read.

The Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes contains 735 pages of dense text where even a professional reader will discover plently of unfamiliar names. It would therefore be very helpful to include a name index, like the one featured in the Exchange and Transformation volume. Furthermore, the biographical notes in the Sourcebook are extremely brief (pp. 732 – 735). One understands and shares the intention not to concentrate attention on biographical facts and circumstances, which, being methodologically knotty, would produce more questions than answers. However, the way in which the notes are presented in this volume makes the entries almost useless, with the exception of particular dates of births and deaths. The very few facts that are presented about the artists are in some cases misstated. For instance, introducing Vladimir Tatlin as a Ukrainian painter ignores the functional aspect of his cultural identity. Since the age of 17 in 1902 Tatlin attended the Moscow Art School, thus linking his career both territorially and nationally to the Russian art scene by dozens of personal and institutional connections. Like Malewich, he spent his childhood years in Ukraine and he lectured in Kiev during the 20s, but his cultural domicile, his language, and his operative range was absolutely Russian.

In their introduction to the Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, the editors Timothy O. Benson and Éva Forgács ask if the avant-garde in Central Europe was a dialect of Western European art.(Ibid., 18.) The same question is relevant in considering the Eastern European, Soviet avant-garde with its concepts of Constructivism, Suprematism and Productivism. The best answer to the editors’ question comes from the two books reviewed here. Together with the undisputed influence from the West and the East, “the other avant-garde” was a great movement of “new art” without a common denominator, dependence or subordination, but with an appreciable influence on the later European cultural evolution.

The Central European focus of both volumes implies a bifurcation. On the one hand, it denies the avant-garde the kind of national identity possessed by any other 19th century art movement. The international, even supranational universalism became the framework for the new era and new art. On the other hand, local avant-garde varied immensely all over the world. In the Sourcebook, where many singular articles, statements and manifestos by Central European authors are published in English often for the first time, this notion of bifurcation seems to be an important factor.

Éva Forgács speaks about the artist as “a beacon in the fight for the cause of the nation” and “freedom fighter, ready to sacrifice himself for the independence of the nation, its language and its culture.”(Ibid., 47.) The meaning of this is unambiguous. Éva Forgács considers the historical roots of the “national” avant-garde process as an attribute of pre-avant-gardistic cultural formation. Nevertheless, even as a stepping stone, the “national” framework looks too outdated for the ideology of the avant-garde. It would probably be more useful as an ideological counteraction to the local avant-gardes. The avant-garde is the perfect example of crossing this ancestral national line and proving that already in the late 19th century there were whole streams of artistic movements which evolved entirely separately from this unified national culture. Benson convincingly depicts this fin-de-siècle atmosphere of the “sense of excitement and commonality.”(Ibid., 79.)

Of course there is an appreciable difference between the international “zeitgeist” of the 1920s and that of the foregoing period. There are plenty of examples of national rhetoric in contemporary documents, especially at the beginning of the 20th century. But even at the inception of modern art in Central Europe, there was already evidence of diminishing cultural nationalism, and the shift to abstract values artistic ideological independence. As the painter Jacek Malczewski said in his lecture in 1912: “We shall practice art out of love, to come closer to and to unite with the Holy Spirit, God and Eternal father, in silence, humility and loneliness.”(Ibid., 65.) One should also keep in mind that ethnicity and folk ideals were common subjects in European aesthetics, better known as (neo)primitivism (see the “Hungarian Art” of Lajos Fülep from 1916).(Ibid., 72.)

It is commonplace in the avant-garde discourse to define aesthetic division in terms of political dimensions. Generally, the most disruptive breakdown in the field of politics and social movements for the avant-garde was the war and the revolutions of 1917 – 1919. The avant-garde art itself is undoubtedly prominent evidence of this time period, although the Central European artists were in a different position from their Russian colleagues. Contrary to the more active roles undertaken by the Soviet Revolutionary artist, in Central Europe, as the book under discussion shows, the artists were relegated to positions of dreamers, observers, and philosophers of the changes. In 1922 Tadeusz Peiper wrote that the first fourteen years of the twentieth century were “an embryo in the tail of its predecessor” (see “Points of Departure”). (Ibid., 265-266.) He goes on to solemnly declare that “[i]t was only the war that carried man onto the paths on which he would meet the spirit of the age and follow it.”(Ibid.)

Perhaps ruins and wreckage of the past were more widespread in Central Europe than, for example, in the Russian and later Soviet “New Society” or the “Art Nouveau Parisian.” Ljubomir Micić Poignantly talks in his article “Man and Art” (1921) about “the darkness of the black old days, of our sad non-youth.” He promises: “We will bring out a new ember to illuminate Yugoslavia´s darkness.”(Ibid., 293.)

Whatever framework one chooses to navigate through the avant-gardistic aesthetics, politics, social, religious, technology-oriented, dream-based or nonsensical conceptions, one will find everything in these texts translated from Romanian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian and German.

Ljubomir Micić (Man and Art, 1921) sums it up briefly: “New Man! New Spirit! New Art!”.(Ibid., 295.) Two years later Jindřich Štýrský adds to the implicit dialogue: “The old mastersstudied historical masterpieces to see how they should not paint. The modern painter goes them one better: he takes no notice of them at all. Do not preserve the dead! Get rid of the corpses because they stink!”

With a kind of hyperbole we can assert that today, almost one hundred years later, the Central-European Avant-Garde is finally coming back to Central Europe.