Sunday, March 30, 2008

Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937

Went to this yummy exhibition on Wednesday, in the bowels of the architecturally confused British Library (I thought it looked like a brick kiln; my friend KH thinks the forecourt looks like Tiananmen Square; but the totalitarian tropes apart, it's a good people-spotting venue). The exhibition is a fascinating introduction to the major 'isms' of the Avant Garde - Dadaism (which I first discovered through Poile Sengupta's unfathomable Collages - but Dadaism just is like that), Futurism, Constructivism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism. Walking through this exhibition, it's hard to believe that some of this stuff is almost a hundred years old. The idioms are still with us, and we seem to aspire to many of the same horizons - the rejection of tradition, the interest in abstraction, the impulse to render strange, the tendency to distort reality for emotional impact. Other elements appear extremely dated in a postmodern age: e.g. the more totalising manifestos seeking an aesthetic that embraced all aspects of life including literature, music, art, food and sex (one incredibly suggestive photograph features two cooks presenting some rather phallic and breast-like creations). KH was reminded of St. Catz in Oxford, where the designer Arne Jacobsen designed virtually everything, down to forks for left-handed diners; I could just be making this up, but I think there are regulations about the sorts of curtains you can hang in your room, as heterogeneity on this score is thought to vitiate the appearance of the glass-fronted main building. Talk about totalising.

The emphasis in the exhibition was on the printed face of the avant garde, so we saw lots of pamphlets, posters, books, magazines, manifestos, artist's books and photo books - although there was also film and sound poetry. Much of the exhibition was organised by city, with a concerted attempt to enlarge the avant garde canon beyond Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Vienna to include lesser known centres such as London (featuring, prominently, Wyndham Lewis). Paris did of course occupy pride of place - a huge display right in the middle of the room exhibiting, among other things, a shiver-down-spine-inducing manuscript of Finnegan's Wake, a first edition of Hemmingway's something-I-can't-remember [In Another Country?], something else by Gertrude Stein with a big board telling us about her who's who literary salon [mental note to read Two Lives, recently gifted to me by dear S]. Other memorable exhibits included a cubist map of the world distorting the continents in line with Cubism's preoccupations. Remember that Reagan-era map with its gigantic Cuba and Nicaragua? This one virtually eliminated Britain and North America (except for Alaska and Labrador) and blew up the Easter Islands, reflecting the cubists' interest in native [I suppose the word today would be 'indigenous'] art. The map also shows only two cities in the world, one of which is Paris [damn I can't remember the other, so dazzled was I by the islands].

I missed politics. It was always there, hovering below the surface of everything, but it wasn't easy to discern the specific political allegiances of different exponents of the avant garde from the exhibits on display and the information provided about them. As suggested above, some seemed totalising in their intent (and totalitarian in their effect), others suggested anarchist sympathies, and a not inconsiderable number were fascist. The versatility of the politics of the avant garde is also suggested by the very different sorts of enemies that it made. The Stalinists banned it in the Soviet Union, permitting only socialist realism. The Nazis identified it with Communism and held exhibitions comparing Aryan culture with 'Degenerate' Art and Music before destroying the latter (a pamphlet produced for the music exhibition features an ape-like figure playing a saxophone and appears to posit an equivalent degree of degeneracy between black and Jewish music). Visitors were told all this at the end, but for the most part, you had to read the politics of specific exhibits for yourself. Or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention to the writing.

PS - the fascinating thing about brick kilns is that they are made of the very things that they make. As are libraries.

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