Sunday, February 21, 2010

Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde - an exhibition in Tate Modern

Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde

© 2006 Kurt Schwitters / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The topic of the exhibition begs the question: what is avant-garde? Why are all these objects, produced by such diverse strands of artistic ideology such as the The Stijl movement, the Bauhaus, Dadaism, or the "Today" ("MA") of Lajos Kassák, displayed side-by-side, apart from the ostensible fact that they had something to do with Doesburg? After viewing the exhibition, do we get any closer to understanding the concept of avant-garde if we think of understanding as arriving at the set of defining characteristics?

Contrary to the categorization efforts of the exhibition booklet, the answer is a definite no. The commonalities on the surface - the conscious use of geometric abstraction, the ideals of clean composition - break down when you realize that despite the strictly formulated manifestos and self-imposed rules, the very same people moved back and forth between the completely opposed camps of Neo-Plasticism, Cubism, Constructivism, Dadaism and Surrealism without worrying much about compromising their integrity. The ideologies of these movements were so different - in fact, they often defined themselves by negating the previous - that thinking of them even as a family resemblance is a stretch.

Luckily enough, making distinctions and drawing boundaries is not the primary aim of this exhibition. Rather, it invites you to an erudite game of tracing the flow of ideas through the international network that was forged by this new generation of artists. It's almost certain that you will find an artwork which has a special meaning to you, an object to which you can relate to, from where you can follow the links and approach what is remote and alien. For me it was the displayed works of László Moholy-Nagy, Sándor Bortnyik and Marcell Breuer through which I was able to situate Duisburg, but for you it might be something completely different.

The focus of the exhibition is clearly the network and not the individual, the transition rather than the steady state, the creative process and the history of reception instead of the object of art. To me, this is exactly what captures the dynamic of avant-garde-ness. Enabled by the technological advancements in mass communication, situated in the pre-totalitarian period of free cross-border movement of ideas, and financed by an emerging industrial middle class, the mission of the avant-garde is to influence and to be influenced. These artists were restless experimenters, networked, politically active revolutionists, driven by a Nietzchean will to assert themselves.

It's worth looking at the original pages of the The Stijl to get a glimpse into how these people thought. (My comments are bulleted.)
Number 1, 1st year, page 1
Dit tijdschriftje wil zijn eene bijdrage tot the ontwikkeling van het nieuwe schoonheitsbewustzijn. [...] Het wil tegenover de archaistische verwarring - het "moderne barok" - de logische beginselen stellen van een rijpenden stijl, gebaseerd op zuivere verhouding van tijdgeest en uitdrukkingsmiddelen.

This magazine will be a contribution to the development of the new consciousness of beauty. [...] Contrary to the archaistic confusion, it will lay out the logical principles of an emerging style, a "modern baroque", which is based on a clear understanding of the zeitgeist and the media of expression.
  • Self-conscious, logical principles (the classical rationalistic ideals of the Enlightenment).
  • Characterized by keen awareness of the technical-social context, and conscious use of contemporary technology.
  • Herioc phraseology of a new awakening, new consciousness, etc.
De Redactie zal het hierboven omschreven doel trachten te bereiken door den werkelijk modernen kunstenaar, die iets kan bijdragen tot de hervorming van het aestetisch besef en de bewustwording der beeldende kunst aan het woord te laten. Waar het publiek nog niet aan de nieuwe beeldingsschoonheid toe ist, wordt het de taak van den vakman het schoonheitsbewustzijn bij den leek wakker te maken. De werkelijk moderne, - d.i. bewuste, - kustenaar heeft een dubbele roeping. Ten eerste: het rein-beeldende kunstwerk vort the brengen; ten tweede: het publiek voor de schonheid der reine beeldende kunst ontvankelijk te maken.
The Redactors shall achieve the above described goal through the real modern art, which now can contribute something to the formation of the concept of the aesthetic and to keep the "beeldende kunst" honest to its name ["beeldende kunst" in general means "fine art", but literally it means "educative art" or the "art of spiritual formation" as in the German concept of "Bildungsroman"]. Until the public is not yet open to the new concept of beauty, the task of the skilled workman is to awake the beauty-consciousness of the layman. The real modern - that is, the conscious - artist has a twofold mission. The first: bringing forth the pure work of fine art; the second: making the public receptive for the beauty of pure fine art."
  • The role of the artist is the "educator", what we would call a "propagandist" today.
  • The artist is viewed as a "skilled workman" ("vakman"), he shares the platform with the factory worker. This is completely contrary to the 19th-century images of the artist as a romantic escapist or the Art Nouveau ideal of the craftsman.
Het zal blijken, dat het nieuwe kustwerk niet voorktkomt uit a priori aangenomen theorieën, maar juist andersom, dat de beginselen voortvloeien uit de beeldende arbeid.

It shall be proven, that the new object of art is not a result of a priori accepted theories, but on the contrary, it is the outcome of the educative ("beeldende") work.
  • Note that the glaring contradiction (it's not mere theory - it's the product of propaganda) to them didn't look like a contradiction at all.
The artists in the diverse fields of arts should recognize that in principle they're all alike, that they must speak a common language, and that they should not hang scrupulously onto their individuality. All sides of their individuality should serve the common principle. By serving the common principle they should bring forth an organic style from themselves. For the propaganda of the beauty it is necessary to have a spiritual community, rather than a social.
A spiritual community cannot be realized without sacrificing all ambitious individuality.
  • Universalism is fundamental to this ideology, akin to the totalitarian ideologies of the time.
This brings us to my main point of criticism regarding the exhibition. I made this translation because I found that despite the exhibited copies of De Stijl, the translations - and in general, the presentation of the ideological foundations - were sorely lacking. For it was Duisburg himself who declared that the production of artwork is only one of the two missions of the artist, why is it then that the objects of the more important mission, the pamphlets and magazines (the conveyors of the new consciousness of beauty) are exhibited only in their Dutch and Hungarian originals? Without understanding the ideologies which produced these objects, the whole game of who-influenced-who remains a pointless trivia.

No comments: