The Avant-Garde Museum

Agnieszka Pindera and Jarosław Suchan, Eds. The Avant-Garde Museum: Mузеи художественной культуры, Kabinett der Abstrakten, Société Anonyme, grupa a.r. (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020), 624 pp.

In the context of the current worldwide pandemic crises that have accelerated the search for a new language and channels of communication with the new museum audience, the anthology The Avant-Garde Museum is a powerful reminder that the idea of a modern art museum—one that serves critical artistic, educational, and social purposes—has been shaped by avant-garde artists. Furthermore, the idea for such a museum was created in the shadow of prior global political, social, and economic crises that came about as a result of the Great War in 1914-18, the October Revolution in 1917, and the influenza pandemic of 1918-20.

The Museum Sztuki in Łódź is currently carrying out a unique and complex research project on several (quasi-) institutions established during the interwar period by avant-garde artists, to which the Museum Sztuki is a direct successor. One aspect of that broader project is the edited volume The Avant-Garde Museum, which contains materials devoted to four projects, in the following order: the network of Museums of Artistic Culture established in post-October Russia; the Kabinett der Abstrakten, designed by El Lissitzky for Provinzialmuseum in Hanover in 1927; Société Anonyme, Inc.’s Museum of Modern Art, established in New York in the early 1920s; and the least known, the a.r. group’s International Collection of Modern Art, opened to the public at the municipal museum in Łódź in 1931. All these initiatives were established and administrated by artists in an effort to create new system for contemporary art and its systematization, exposition, and distribution. The study proves that the most radical ideas in contemporary museum theory came from avant-garde artists. The anthology compares the diachronic relations of these temporally and geographically distant projects, which were organized by a rather narrow group of personally and professionally well-connected artists. It covers their history, discusses their theoretical background and approach to institutionalization, and it reflects on the shift in museum paradigms that mirrored society’s modernization, and which should inspire further transformative processes. The authors included in the anthology carefully inspect various strategies of collection building, exhibition staging, arts management, and education in the context of current art and museum theory. They contextualize these museum projects in relation to Wölfflin, Riegel, and Schinkel, to the avant-grade’s vision of history of art, and to the writings of progressive museologists of the time. The essays analyze exhibition practices of artists of the interwar and postwar periods, while also considering new opportunities in museum strategies in our day, ones potentially inspired by these historical avant-garde institutions.

a black book cover with white textThe editors—Jarosław Suchan, the director of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, and Agnieszka Pindera, the head of the Museum Research Center—present the volume in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the opening of the permanent exhibition of the International Collection of Modern Art, organized by the “a.r.” Group. Muzeum Sztuki, one of the oldest museums of modern art in the world, was opened in a working-class city thanks to a collective effort by international artists such as Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, Fernand Leger, Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Theo van Doesburg. Drawing on this history, the museum’s mission is focused on studying the history of the avant-garde and reflecting on the role artistic institutions might play in shaping our future. In 2017, the museum launched the  larger research project, of which the anthology The Avant-Garde Museum is a part, with the international conference “Museum of the Avant-garde or an Avantgarde Museum? Collecting the Radical,” and it will conclude with an exhibition planned for the fall of 2021.

The Avant-Garde Museum consists of twelve essays that provide a comprehensive critical study on the avant-garde’s self-institutionalization as a specific phenomenon, highlighting the connections and parallels between the four case studies included. The editors raise questions about the avant-garde’s motivation and desire to create its own museum institutions: How did the artists imagine these institutions? How did they fit into the avant-garde’s vision of art as a tool for creating a better future? Leading scholars of the avant-garde attempt to answer these questions, analyzing the paradigm shifts that revolutionized contemporary museology and that still serve as its guidelines. The book challenges the dominant narrative of the ontological opposition between the museum as a mausoleum and as a laboratory of living forms that promise to radically transform social life through art. All texts engage in a comprehensive dialogue that gives a complex and multidimensional overview to the topic. Additionally, the publication is supplemented with a remarkably rich selection of primary material: archival sources, manifestos, illustrations, photographic documentation and detailed reproductions of artworks presented by each (quasi-)institution.

The opening essay “The Avant-Garde Museum” by Jarosław Suchan sets the historical and ideological framework for the anthology. Suchan briefly introduces the history of each initiative, with their theoretical background, key actors, and mutual associations and relations. He points out that it was within this community of avant-garde groups   that the idea of a network of museum of contemporary art was proposed, established, organized, and administered by artists themselves, rather than museum professionals. However, he omits the historical, political, economic and social conditions that contextualize avant-garde’s self-institutionalization. These threads, which are often relegated to footnotes by art history, are subsequently developed by authors in the anthology such as Pindera and Załuski, and make a fascinating addition the history of avant-garde.

Maria Gough’s text “Futurist Museology” has been of fundamental importance for museum studies since it was originally published almost twenty years ago. The author names the Russian network of Museums of Artistic Culture, which emerged between years 1918 and 1921, as a progenitor of the museum of contemporary art. Although she begins her argument with the popular assumption that global art tourism effectively recalibrated art museums to become multiplex entertainment and fine dining centers, which often leads to a leveling of critical ambition (p. 49), Gough argues that an alternative praxis laid the foundation of contemporary museology. She dates it back to the October Revolution, which resulted in the radical institutional reform of Russia’s cultural life. The artists called for a network of contemporary art museums across the country; in Russia’s highly centralized command economy, avant-garde artists made an attempt to create a centralized administration for artistic culture and the redistribution of resources that fell entirely within the exclusive competence of those artists. Gough meticulously reports discussions on the desired course and mission of the new institutions involving the leading representatives of the Russian avant-garde, including Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and Aleksandr Rodchenko. The prerogatives for the contemporary art museum were formulated during the Petrograd Conference and published in 1919. It defined a history of art as a history of artistic invention and associated culture with active work. Therefore, it repositioned formal, stylistic, or technical innovation as the exclusive criterion of aesthetic value and shifted the paradigm away from the canon of great artistic masterpieces that served as normative models of beauty. The new museum of living works was to become a laboratory in which art would become an ongoing experiment capable of shaping the future.

Masha Chlenova carries out another study of Russian avant-garde institutions in the chapter “Museums of Artistic Culture in Russia and Władysław Strzemiński.” She reports on Malevich’s vision of art history and the form of museum narration he implemented in the Moscow branch of the Museums of Artistic Culture network. In the second part of her essay, Chlenova carefully analyzes the evolution of Strzemiński’s art and museum theory from his experience in Moscow to Smoleńsk to Łódź. Chlenova indicates a correlation between Strzemiński and Malevich’s close professional and personal relationship with their models of avant-garde institutions. She studies documents attributed to Strzemiński, a list of artists ranked according to different trends in modern art, that she interprets as a sketch for a future permanent exhibition at the Smoleńsk museum, and that she identifies as a theoretical base for the later a.r. group’s International Collection of Modern Art (p. 88).

These texts by Gough and Chlenova, together with brief analyses of visual materials, expose the Russian avant-garde’s paucity of materials and technologies, and reveal that self-institutionalization played a vital role as a social support for artists during the Russian Civil War.

Another avant-garde museological concept, the Kabinett der Abstrakten created by El Lissitzky, is presented by Sandra Karina Löschke as a lavish project. In her essay “Sensational Pedagogy: El Lissitzky’s Demonstration Rooms as Precursors to the Contemporary Museum Experience,” Löschke describes Lissitzky’s attempt to directly translate the experience of the modern metropolis into an exhibition space. The artist replaced a traditional museum space with an interactive environment. The dynamic architecture was intended to reproduce the sensory experiences of the modern world, and thus invited the audience to engage actively with the exhibition (p. 93). This historical change shifted the museum paradigm from the normative parameters of the canon into contemporary multi-dimensional spectacle.

Rebecca Uchill’s critical analysis addresses the problem she paraphrases in the title of her contribution: “‘Why Have Art Museums’? Alexander Dorner, El Lissitzky, and the Dimensions of History.” The author investigates the relations between Lissitzky’s project and the artistic ideas behind it, especially those inspired by new theories of space, time and humane perception, and the progressive museum theories of Alexander Dorner, who commissioned Kabinett der Abstrakten. Uchill speculates that it constituted a “capstone” (p.116) to Dorner’s vision of history of art, as well as the concept of museum narration derived from it.

The next three texts examine the activities of Société Anonyme, an association whose original goal was to establish the first museum of modern art in the United States. In her text “A Museum Without Walls, for Artists, by Artists: The Société Anonyme,” Frauke V. Josenhans reports the history of this artistic venture created by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Katherine Dreier. Josenhans notes that it was Dreier who stood behind the concept of the museum and the paradoxical idea that avant-garde art should be presented in intimate, almost domestic setting (p. 131).

The o.k. group (Julian Myers and Joanna Szupińska)—in a chapter “Bachelor Modernism: On the Société Anonyme’s International Exhibition of Modern Art, 1926”focuses on Dreier’s largest curatorial project. The authors attempt to reconstruct the narration of the exhibition based on the limited visual documentation. They discuss the internal contradictions in Dreier’s vision and investigate her art theory and close relations with European art scene.

In “Alike and Yet So Different: The Artists’ Museum, Société Anonyme, Inc., and Alfred Barr’s Museum of Modern Art,” Jennifer R. Gross compares the visions of modern art underlying the activities of Dreier’s association and those that defined MoMA’s activities under the administration of its first director, Alfred H. Barr Jr. Gross remembers (along with other authors) that Barr travelled to Germany and Russia, and was strongly influenced by European avant-garde institutions as well as by Dreier’s project. Dreier’s museum project had never materialized due to lack of funds. However, Gross emphasizes that the strength of the collection assembled by Société Anonyme is in the geographical and aesthetic diversity it preserved (p. 170), whereas Barr focused on already well-known artworks.

In her essay “The Fine Art of Self-Institutionalization,” Agnieszka Pindera reflects on the economic circumstances of avant-garde organizational activities. This often-overlooked aspect determines the operating strategies of the institution. For example, she argues that Dreier’s considered purchases of artworks and constant search for exhibition spaces and various form of promotion of avant-garde in America was a form of financial support for the artists (pp. 182-83). The author notes that it was Kandinsky who encouraged Dreier to establish an artist-run organization as a most efficient form of art management (p. 183). Pindera also emphasizes the significance of donations for both Société Anonyme and the a.r. group collection. Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro, the founders of the International Collection of Modern Art, enjoyed a close relationship with the international avant-garde community that allowed them to assemble a collection similar to Dreier’s (pp. 188-90).

Daniel Muzyczuk in “Developing a Narrative of Modern Art: On the History of a Certain Concept” examines the dispute over how the a.r. group collection was displayed in the museum in Łódź. He indicates the differences and similarities between art history’s models of the avant-garde artist and the progressive museologist Marian Minich, the director of   Muzeum Sztuki in Łódzi from 1935 to 1965. Muzyczuk provides a comprehensive comparative study of the ideological base of the a.r. collection and the museum’s systematic method, in which Strzemiński’s Neoplastic room and his concept of  “The Vision Theory” overlapped with Minich’s  curatorial practice.

In the essay “Art as an Agent of Modernization: Władysław Strzemiński’s Double Politics of Social Change and the Museum of Artistic Culture,” Tomasz Załuski analyzes the a.r. group’s activities in relation to Russian Museums of Artistic Culture . Załuski focuses on Strzemiński and Kobro’s vision of museum as an agent of modernization, which the author identifies with the biopolitics of Taylorism (p. 224-25). Załuski does not stop at historical interpretations, pointing to the relevance of Strzemiński’s modernizing legacy of the avant-garde in contemporary art and activism.

The critical section of the book is closed by Marcin Szeląg’s text “The Kabinett der Abstrakten and the Neoplastic Room: Avant-Garde Approaches to Permanent Museum Exhibitions.” He draws attention to the relationship between Strzemiński’s Neoplastic Room and El Lissitzky’s Kabinett der Abstrakten. Szeląg compares these two museum projects, both resulting from the collaboration of an avant-garde artist and a progressive museologist. These projects reflected the artistic practice and thought of two outstanding representatives of the European avant-garde, and played an important role in the history of museum exhibitions. They were also an expression of artists’ conscious efforts to exert an influence on the reception of contemporary art, and a manifestation of their theories regarding museum exhibitions.

The anthology The Avant-Garde Museum brings into the spotlight four avant-garde (quasi-)institutions that often remain in the shadow of their more traditional counterparts, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Pindera and Suchan pay tribute to all artists and enthusiasts who participated in the effort to create the idea of the Avant-Garde Museum, and the editors aim to reposition the avant-garde’s self-institutionalization projects—among others the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź—into the canon of contemporary museum studies. Secondly, the editors map the mutual connections of international artists and progressive museologists in an attempt to contribute to the horizontal history of art. The volume was edited and published by the museum in Łódź, and therefore its narrative culminates with Muzeum Sztuki, arguing for that museum’s status as a unique and direct successor of the avant-garde’s self-institutionalization.

Karolina Łabowicz-Dymanus

Karolina Łabowicz-Dymanus is a researcher in art history. She received her PhD from the Institute of Art at the Polish Academy of Sciences, where she now works. She is currently working on a book project entitled Global Contacts of the Polish People’s Republic: An Artistic Exchange between the ‘Second World’ and the ‘Third World’ in the 1950s. Her publications include the book Synchronised over Network. Soros Centers for Contemporary Arts – four models: Budapest, Kiev, Tallinn, Warsaw (2016, in Polish) and the articles “Normative Practice and 'Tradition Management' in the Polish Art and History of Art of the 1950s” (in A Socialist Realist History?: Writing Art History in the Post-War Decades, 2019) and "The Corporate and Market Strategies for Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe in the 1990s” (Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia, 2019).