Visual arts: The alternative avant-garde

Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstrasse 7, Berlin, until February 9, 2003. Tel: +49-30-254 860.

Think of the early 20th-century avant-garde, and the great names rise up like Poseidon from the waves: Picasso, Tzara, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Le Corbusier. By the 1940s, in western Europe, these pioneers’ work had become a common standard for artists, the new orthodoxy: the shock of the new had mutated into an established order. To challenge it, you had to go further west: to New York. Abstract Expressionism was America’s response to the European avant-garde’s inevitable ossification. This momentous shift of energy across the Atlantic of course carried with it many innovative Europeans: Arshile Gorky, Mies van der Rohe, László Moholy-Nagy. The latter, a Hungarian, featuring prominently in a new exhibition at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, provides a perfect template for this migratory tendency.

Born in 1895, Moholy-Nagy settled in Germany in 1920 and became a leading light in the Bauhaus movement. By the late 1920s, he was in Berlin, embracing the Weimar capital’s vibrant taste for cross-disciplinary experimentation: he was draughtsman, typographer, photographer, stage designer, teacher. As the creativity of old Europe crumbled, Moholy-Nagy moved west, first to Amsterdam, then London – where he designed posters for London Transport and worked for film-maker Alexander Korda – and, in 1937, ended up in Chicago. His attempt to keep the Bauhaus School alive there lasted only a year, but until his death in 1946, he exerted considerable influence on American design. !Avantgarden! gathers together numerous works – furniture, objets, photos, drawings, paintings – from sources hidden in a once closed Europe, the Soviet zone, and shows how fertile, inventive and widespread the interwar avant-garde was.

Famous east Europeans – Moholy-Nagy – and many relatively unknown ones – Sándor Bortnyik (Hungary), Josef Sima (Czechoslovakia), Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Poland) – are stars of the show. What unites them? Berlin, for one: Europe’s most explosive pre-Nazi capital acted as a magnet for many an inquiring mind and febrile talent, above all from the east. The expressionist magazines Der Sturm and Die Aktion played a significant part around the time of the first world war in bringing artists from diverse cultures into contact. One of the virtues of this detailed exhibition is to remind us that Weimar Berlin wasn’t all about Marlene Dietrich, Cabaret and Nazis. Another unifying factor was the group or movement, with, usually, a recondite name: Dada, de Stijl, cubism – these are familiar. Skupina and Devetsil from Prague, the Bunt and formists from Poland, Zenitism from Zagreb and the Vienna Kineticists are not, and again it is one of the great strengths of this exhibition to present a new genealogy of the avant-garde, a new vocabulary – new languages even, in publications and typography.

So what of the art? As so often in the avant-garde, ideas can become top-heavy, with the “thingness” of an object, its physicality, seeming unrealized or elusive. Much of the painting here is second-rate, though it is striking to see how cubism as practiced by a number of Czech artists – Josef Capek, Ottokar Kubn, even a painter called Bohumil Kubista – flourished just as Picasso and Braque were working it out in its most austere form hundreds of kilometers to the west. Indeed, there’d been an important cubist exhibition in Prague in 1912. In Hungary, meanwhile, the Budapest activists were energized by a magazine called Ma (Today), and by artist and writer Lajos Kassák, who propounded something called “picture architecture”, several elegant examples of which are on show here. A Mitteleuropaisch brand of surrealism is suggested by the precise and witty canvasses of Sándor Bortnyik, a kind of Hungarian de Chirico: his “The New Adam” and “The New Eve” of 1924 are amongst the show’s liveliest pictures.

Throughout the eleven rooms, a drive for abstraction is uppermost. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of a fellow-traveler of Moholy-Nagy’s, the Russian El Lissitzky. In the 1920s, the two were hotly competitive – both were in Germany – though in the end El Lissitzky took the route back eastwards, geographically and ideologically the opposite of the Hungarian’s (El Lissitzky died in Moscow in 1940). His adherence to communism was underpinned by utilitarian ideals, a belief that “space is not there only for the eyes one wants to live in it”. El Lissitzky brought Russian constructivism into this middle European artistic dance and gave it a straight back. His work is also very beautiful; no surprise, then, that one of the most visually satisfying things in this show is his “Proun Room” (“Proun” standing for “Project for the Affirmation of the New”), a box whose interior walls are decorated, in 3-D, with his characteristic uncluttered designs and geometric forms. The original structure was lost during the Nazi years, so this is a reconstruction; as indeed, in a sense, is the entire exhibition – a formidable act of archaeology, recovering vanished fragments from an old world that worshipped the new.

By James Woodall