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

London, The British Library, from 9 November 2007 to 30 March 2008

1. Kunst - ism-us 1914-1924 :
Cover jacket

Not many exhibitions offer such a wide selection of truly international works as the one assembled currently at the British Library by its curator Stephen Bury, who has been gently chided for taking the risk of bewildering the British public in presenting a great number of these in a foreign language. To those who may have joined in the skepticism, let us reassure them that visitors are thronging to the show. Nor was this aim at internationalism thought to be an obvious choice by the French who usually consider the British elite of this period as an insular and conservative circle wary of any experimentation, seen as outrageous, by Continental intellectuals. A mural text does an excellent job of explaining why this stereotype is in fact unfounded : recalling that at the beginning of the XXth century London was the undisputed economic capital of the world, it emphasizes that many members of the wealthy upper class had the means of following vibrant artistic events throughout Europe and did not hesitate to do so. The British intelligentsia then imported the tendencies and techniques discovered on their frequent trips to the continent as needed. In other words, London has always been involved in varying degrees with the European avant-garde and the collections inherited from the former British Museum thus make up the vast majority of the display.

2. Blast N° 2 : Cover jacket

Although the choice of periods, or “periodization” as termed by historians today, seems perfectly clear for the end of the period studied here (the Nazi “autodafes” in 1937 which burned all the publications related to “degenerate art”), it is a bit less obvious for its beginning. Why “precisely” 1900 ? The exact founding document, shown here seems to be the “Manifeste technique de la littérature futuriste” by the Italian (and fluent French speaker) Marinetti (1876-1944), which appeared on 20 February 1909 on the front page of Le Figaro in Paris. The exhibition devotes an important section to the “manifeste”, as does the catalogue, either explicitly with Marinetti’s text and the Sept manifestes dada by Tristan Tzara [1], or implicitly with Kunst-ism-us 1914-1924, including its remarkable graphics by El Lissitzky and Hans Arp [2] (ill. 1) and the famous Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme ? by Breton accompanied by a reproduction of Magritte’s Viol on the cover [3]. It would be impossible to quote here all of the “militant” magazines that in fact also constitute “manifestes” against bourgeois oppression : let us simply point out N* 3 (1930) of Le surréalisme au service de la revolution, open to a page with a particularly provocative photo from Bunuel’s L’age d’or, where the bishop’s hand is seen wandering over the young actress’s breast, as well as the second and last issue, “War Number” (July 1915), of the magazine Blast which unfortunately is virtually unknown in France (ill. 2).

Blast leads us to the discussion of the “vorticist” movement (a word apparently coined by Ezra Pound in 1913), created by dissidents of the Omega Workshop (itself associated with the Bloomsbury Group, notably Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Clive and Vanessa Bell), foremost of which Percy Wyndham Lewis, artist and man of letters who did the superb xylographic work for the cover of “War Number”. There is an obvious determination to present a “vorticist” fusion, entirely founded on the dynamics (cf. Latin vortex) of the machine era, somewhere between Futurism and Cubism. Blast renews with the model of the antinomic series enumerated by Apollinaire starting in 1913 in L’antitradition futuriste (“MER….DE…aux Critiques – Essayistes – Pédagogues – Professeurs [etc.]/ ROSE aux Marinetti Picasso Boccioni Apollinaire Paul Fort [etc.]”) and expresses in a phonetic pun on the English vowels a/e the rejection (blast) of the Bloomsbury Group, English weather, etc. to better laud (blessed), for example, Shakespeare (blacklisted by Apollinaire). A display case entitled “Legacy” shows how popular this antinomic technique would become, with a copy of Counterblast by Marshall McLuhan [4] and a T-shirt bearing the Sex Pistols’ manifesto (1974-76).

3. La Prose du Transsibérien (ending)

The father of the term “surrealism” is omnipresent — who could blame him after all — in the first display cases. His “Lettre-ocean [5]” and its “calligrams” (we can see “Il pleut”, published in Sic N°12, December 1916) seem to summarize the theme of the exhibition, the rest being only variations on it. Just as he himself “breaks the rules” of typography in the works he exhibits, all around him he encourages “l’esprit nouveau” as Chris Michaelides very rightly points out in the catalogue, by keeping the French expression adopted by the review of the same name [6] that appeared on an irregular basis between 1920 and 1925. What could be more representative of this “esprit nouveau” than “Guillaume Apollinaire par Pablo Picasso”, Cubist front cover of Alcools [7] ?

The fusion between typographic and colorist art seems to be complete by the pre-war years with La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France, a poem by Blaise Cendrars with a stenciled decoration and “bound” by Sonia Delaunay [8] (ill. 3). It is in fact assembled like an accordion, a format still found sometimes for postcards today, which when fully opened (as under the display case) measures over two meters. The ink colors, the margins and the lines vary according to the paragraph, whereas the “blanks” are done in watercolors, the whole suggesting in a way the bumps experienced by a traveler on the train as it speeds through the landscapes that change from one extreme to the next over this endless route.

Tango with Cows

In the meantime, in Germany, “l’esprit nouveau” was also blowing in Munich, led by the impetus of the Russian Kandinsky, first with the Neue Künstlervereinigung München – where the revered adjective appears – founded in 1909, but more especially after December 1911 with Der Blaue Ritter, important avant-garde group which in May 1912 published an “almanach” of the same name which will go down in history, with a remarkable cover. But the movement that was to hold the brightest future sprung up around Tzara in Zurich. Annemarie Goodridge reminds us in the catalogue that during the war, one could run into Hugo Ball, James Joyce and Lenin as well as Tzara (having arrived from Romania where he was born in 1896) all at the same time there. The “Dada” poster by Marcel Janco on display (“Mardi le 13 juillet [1918] Tristan Tzara lira de ses oeuvres et un manifeste Dada”) does not invite the public to the famous Cabaret Voltaire but rather to the Zur Meise hall. The display case, however, presents a copy of the only issue to appear of the Cabaret Voltaire, the first Dada journal ever published (June 1916). There is also a very interesting manuscript (or rather typescript) of the declaration-manifesto by Hugo Ball made during the Dada evening at the Salle Wang in July 1916, with the following formula which could not help but rile the pro-war bourgeois on all sides : “ Dada Weltkrieg und kein Ende, Dada Revolution und kein Anfang”.

5. Cover jacket by the constructivist
Solomon Telingater

The exhibition also offers visitors something which is probably unfamiliar to most of them : the pre-Revolution Russian avant-garde [9]. Besides Mayakovski, well-known, at the crossroads of Russian Cubo-Futurism and ego-Futurism, two big names that the public has generally never heard of appear repeatedly, Aleksei Krutchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov – especially the first, with his invention of a “transrational language”, the “zaum”. Next to their publications, often illustrated by Olga Rozanova, there is the remarkable collection of poems by Vassili Kamenskii, Tango with Cows, veritably “staged” by the Burliuk brothers, David and Vladimir, who shatter the traditional concept of a book (1914, ill. 4). Starting in 1912 this whole group of avant-garde artists had outlined their program by collectively publishing Slap in the Face of Public Taste. Sometime later, the Stalin regime was to put an end to all of these “deviations”, but in the years following the Revolution, experimental art had found its place, as attested again in 1930 by the collection devoted to the poet Semion Isaakovich Kirsanov, with its magnificently decorated cover by the Constructivist Solomon Telingater (ill. 5). The case of the Kamenski “journal” [10] is less convincing (ill. 6) and lasted only for one issue.

6. « My Newspaper » by Kamenski : Cover jacket

It is well known that the Great War only served to widen the gap between intellectuals and idealistic artists on the one hand and the immobile and unimaginative bourgeois on the other. Some of the avant-garde works in the exhibition reflect the gloomy outlook in store for humanity as seen through the eyes of graphic artists. There is for example the somber xylographic cover by Kirchner for the reedition of Georges Heym’s poems [11], but also the chilling monochrome project for Tumbe by Branko Ve Poljanski, published in Belgrade as part of the Collection des Zenitistes internationaux (N*10, 1926). The height of pessimism is seemingly attained by N*3 of the Bulletin international du surréalisme (August 1935) which reproduces on its cover Magritte’s Gâcheuse – a skull stuck onto a woman’s torso, in case we had forgotten. As early as December 1918, Dada N° 3 had set the tone by reproducing on a diagonal across the cover a quote from Descartes which took on a new sense for survivors of the slaughter in the trenches : “Je ne veux pas savoir s’il y a eu des hommes avant moi” [12].

7. La fin du monde by Cendrars : beginning

Naturally, others turned to humour to express their reactions. Chronologically, let us quote the mischievous first double page : “C’est le 31 décembre. Dieu le père est à son bureau américain. […]”, with its extraordinary graphic and typographic activity designed by Léger for La fin du monde by Cendrars [13] (ill. 7). That same year, the only issue (N*1, February 1919) of what was supposed to be an illustrated bimonthly magazine : “Jedermann sein eigner Fussball” appeared at Malik-Verlag ed. The publication, with the cover showing a series of photos of government members surrounding president Ebert, carried the provocative question, “Wer is der Schönste ??”, and was immediately taken off the newsstands. In a different vein, but just as shocking for the bourgeois, there is the layout in the “zaum” language by Iliazd (Ilia Zdanevitch) of his “unreadable” prank-book, Ledentu the Beacon [14].

The display case devoted to artists’ books published in Paris contains the complete series of five sketchbooks by Max Ernst covering the seven days of his “week of goodness” [15]. The story goes that there were not enough funds to complete the project and that instead of the seven books originally planned, only five appeared. A perfectly preserved copy of volume 3 (“La cour du dragon”) is open to a double page illustrating in a superb manner the technique of photomechanical setting, which makes it look like a “real” engraving.

8. Paris de nuit : double page. Notice the spiral binding, recently introduced,
which allows for juxtapositioning without losing space in the
inside margins

Leaving the realm of humor, black or otherwise, we move on to documents on inner monologues (not in the catalogue) : the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses [16], accompanied by a 78rpm record from 1924 with a passage recorded by the author [17] ; one of the nineteen notebooks that make up the manuscript of Finnegan’s Wake (published in 1939) and the second printing of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller [18]. The transition from the experimental novel to experimental photography shifts smoothly to Man Ray’s “rayogrammes” [19], Moi Ver and his superimposed factory chimneys over the row of columns at the church of the Madeleine in Paris [20], and to a lesser degree Brassai, with his juxtaposition of marginless prints [21] (ill. 8) or Ilya Ehrenburg and “Mon Paris” [22].

The most didactic (though not the least interesting) section of the exhibition on the search for the Gesamtkunstwerk, highlights László Moholy-Nagy, who is rarely given fair credit for his role in developing the Bauhaus movement. Next to Die Farblichtmusik [23], the museum goer can see the remarkable cover for N*4 of the Bauhausbücher to which he contributed work [24], as well as the proofs for N° 8, Malerei, Photographie, Film which he co-directed with Gropius [25] Another display case on Weimar and Dessau recalls the strained relations between the people of these two cities, both extremely conservative, and the avant-garde elite of the Bauhaus.

9. Modeles for the costumes of a ballet
by Anatol Petrytzky

Other display cases illustrating this vast Mitteleuropa with its barely defined intellectual borders hold highly interesting works. We will mention only the surprising models by Anatole Petritzki for the costumes of a ballet produced in 1922 [26] (ill. 9) and the cover of the first Danish surrealist magazine, Linien (N* 1, 15 January 1934) which, among other fascinating aspects, as it only serves to underscore even further the very real European dimension of this movement, carries an advertisement for the Minotaure, of which the exhibition presents a superb copy (N* 6, 1934) including a striking montage of “Corolles” by Marcel Duchamp. Vienna is represented mainly with atonal and dodecaphonic music : the case devoted to the imperial city shows the manuscript of Six Orchestral Pieces by Anton Webern (1909) given to Arnold Schonberg in 1911, as well as the opera Lulu by Alban Berg presented to Arnold Schonberg in 1934 on his sixtieth birthday (not included in the catalogue).

10. « Livre-machine boulonné »
Note the word « dinamo », still not old-fashioned in 1927

Visitors for whom the art of books includes binding will not be disappointed : besides the experiments already mentioned, the exhibition offers a copy of Depero futurista, “libro imbullonato” or “libro-macchina bullonato” commissioned by the Milanese publisher Fedele Azari to set down Fortunato Depero’s typographical innovations with the pages assembled by means of two thick bolts with the nuts roughly screwed on and sticking out through the cover (1927 ; ill. 10). The Italian avant-garde is in fact well represented by the Florentine production surrounding the journal La Voce, with notably Ardengo Soffici, who had known all the great names of the most progressive French artistic circles during his stay in Paris between 1900 and 1907. The exhibition puts forth the cover of his BIF&ZF + 18 : simultaneita e chimismi lirici [27] (ill. 11).

11. B ??F§ZF + 18 : simultaneità e chimismi lirici : Cover Jacket

Indeed, it was an Italian who would come closest to the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk so dear to Wagner, a German : Marinetti, still active even as he grew older, enlisted his daughter’s help in extending his Futurist experiments to the kitchen, a source of satisfaction not only for the sense of taste, but also of hearing, smell and touch [28] (ill. 12).

12. La cucina futurista : Cover Jacket

We formulated the hypothesis that the commissioner of the exhibition chose to close it with the Nazi “autodafes” of 1937. Whether or not it is a coincidence (British intellectuals were becoming more aware every day that their absolute pacifism could only lead to the disappearance, just like in the Germany of the time, of the values they cherished most), 1937 also marks the “definitive” presence of Surrealism in Great Britain, with notably the exhibition “Surrealist Objects and Poems” at the London Gallery, and its accompanying catalogue with a remarkable illustration on the cover [29]. The preface was written by Herbert Read, who had also done the introduction to the catalogue for the international Surrealist exhibition in London the year before, which in turn had been prefaced by André Breton [30]. Read had on that occasion directed Surrealism [31], an illustrated collection of historical importance with a cover designed by Roland Penrose, another great figure in British Surrealism [32]. The real “father” of Surrealism in Great Britain – lest anyone forget, virtually unknown in France, unlike Penrose – seems however to be David Gascoyne [33]. In the exhibition here he is attributed with having published the first Surrealist poem in English, as well as having authored the first official collection of Surrealist texts published in Great Britain [34]. The visitor can see a manuscript containing some of his “ideas for Surrealist images”, such as “Football smoking cigarettes” or “Glass foot full of birds and water”.

In his blog, Stephen Bury estimates, after having completed the visit himself, that it takes over six hours to read all of the notices and watch the films (rarely shown even in France) that are offered to round out the exhibition per se (especially Ballet mécanique [14 minutes], with “Dadaist” music by George Antheil, produced in 1924 by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with the participation of Man Ray, and particularly Henri Sauguet’s sound version in 1967 of Entracte by René Clair [35]). That sounds about right : and so the museum goer has probably understood that several visits are necessary to take in all the wealth of this exceptional panorama encompassing the artistic and intellectual life of the European avant-garde from the time it emerged at the beginning of the XXth century until its metaphorical burning at the stake – in the form of its publications – by barbarians who would not be satisfied with only metaphors for long. The exhibition is an invitation to take a veritable journey through the cultural history of Europe enlivened – and thus rendered fascinating – by its variety, quality and the rareness of some of the works on display. There is no doubt that this exhibition will go down in art history.

Stephen Bury (ed.), Breaking the Rules. The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937, British Library, 2007, 160 p., £ 15,95 (paperback), £ 25 (hardback). ISBN : 978-0-7123-0980-6 (paperback), 978-0-7123-0975-2 (hardback).

Visitor Information : London, British Library, 96, Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB. Phone : + 44 (0) 20 7412 7332. Open daily 9.30 through 18.00, Tuesday 9.30 through 20.00, Saturday 9.30 through 17.00 and Sunday 11.00 through 17 .00. Free entrance.

Website of the British Library

Antoine Capet, samedi 23 février 2008


[1] Paris, E ?ditions du Diorama, 1924.

[2] Die Kunstismen / Les -ismes de l’art / The -isms of art. Trilingual edition. Zürich, E. Rentsch, 1925.

[3] Bruxelles, Henriquez, 1934.

[4] London, Rapp & Whiting, 1970 [original American edition : New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969].

[5] Les soirées de Paris, N° 25, 15 juin 1914.

[6] « L’esprit nouveau : Revue internationale illustre ?e de l’activite ? contemporaine – arts, lettres, science ».

[7] Paris, Mercure de France, 1913.

[8] Paris, Éditions des Hommes nouveaux, 1913.

[9] We are referring here to those too young to have seen the exhibition Paris-Moscou 1900-1930 (Centre Georges Pompidou, 31 May – 5 November 1979).

[10] Moscow, 1922

[11] Umbra Vitae : Nachgelassene Gedichte. Mit Originalholzschnitten von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. München, Kurt Wolff, 1924.

[12] I do not want to know if there were other men before me

[13] La fin du monde, filmée par l’Ange N.-D. : roman. Compositions in color by Fernand Lé ?ger. Paris, E ?ditions de la Sire ?ne, 1919.

[14] Paris, Izdaniia Parij, 1923.

[15] Une semaine de bonté ? : ou les sept éléments capitaux : roman. 5 vol. Paris, Aux Éditions Jeanne Bucher, 1934.

[16] Paris, Shakespeare & Company, 1922.

[17] This recording can be heard uninterruptedly at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. See on h-net.

[18] Paris, Obelisk Press, 1935.

[19] Photographies, 1920-1934. Paris, Cahiers d’Art, 1934.

[20] Paris. Introduction by Fernand Léger. Paris, Éditions Jeanne Walther, 1931.

[21] Morand, Paul. Paris de nuit. 60 unpublished photos by Brassai. Collection Réalités. Paris, Arts & Métiers graphiques, 1933.

[22] Moj Pariž. Moskva, Izogiz, 1933.

[23] Leipzig, Breitkopf & Härtel, 1925.

[24] Oskar Schlemmer, László Moholy-Nagy & Farkas Molnar. Die Bühne im Bauhaus. Nachwort von Walter Gropius. München, Albert Langen, 1925.

[25] Ibid., 1925.

[26] Reproduced in Petrickij, Anatolij [Petryzky, Anatol]. Teatral’ni stroi / Theater-Trachten. Text V. Chmurogo. Charkiv, Deržavne vidavnictvo Ukraini / Charkow, Staatsverlag der Ukraine, 1929.

[27] Firenze, Edizioni Della Voce, 1915.

[28] F.T. Marinetti e Fillia. La cucina futurista. Milano, Sonzogno, 1932.

[29] Surrealist Objects and Poems. London, London Gallery, 1937.

[30] The International Surrealist Exhibition. Catalogue of an exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries, London, June 11-July 4, 1936. Preface by Andre ? Breton, and Introduction by Herbert Read. London, Printed by the Women’s Printing Society, 1936.

[31] Surrealism. Edited with an introduction by Herbert Read. Contributions by André Breton, Hugh Sykes Davies, Paul Éluard, Georges Hugnet. London, Faber & Faber, 1936.

[32] He was Lee Miller’s husband and together they perpetuated the avant-garde ideal after 1945. See our article - in french - on La Tribune de l’Art.

[33] A new work will be helpful in correcting this : Au treizième coup de minuit : Anthologie du surréalisme en Angleterre. Édited, translated and prefaced by Michel Remy. Paris, Éditions Dilecta, 2008.

[34] A Short Survey of Surrealism. With illustrations. London : Cobden-Sanderson, 1935.

[35] Script by Francis Picabia, music by Erik Satie. 1924, 20 minutes.

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