"The New York Times" - October 13, 2007 - Art Review
(above photo by Damon Winter, "The New York Times")
"From World War I, a New Visual Language and Many Dialects" By KAREN ROSENBERG
After World War I, the fledgling nations of Eastern and Central Europe needed a new visual language to go along with their brand-new map. Modernism offered a rallying cry for diverse populations, a calling card with which to impress the West and, most of all, a fresh start.
Much as the Museum of Modern Art’s recent Dada exhibition partitioned an international movement into separate cities, the New York Public Library’s “Graphic Modernism From the Baltic to the Balkans, 1910-1935” gives a nationalist spin to a continentwide phenomenon. One of several recent shows to mine the library’s extensive Slavic holdings, it is smaller and quieter than the debutante ball that was the library’s “Russia Engages the World” show.
The curators, S. A. Mansbach and Wojciech Jan Siemaszkiewicz, have pulled rare books, journals and ephemera from the library’s Slavic and Baltic division. Tattered, date-stamped and marked with the names of immigrant readers, these materials show new and reconstituted countries embracing the aesthetics of Modern art and design (though not always the radical politics.)
The exhibition recasts the tiny and stuffy Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery into a red-and-black theater of literature and propaganda, with a soundtrack of Bartok, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The Soviet-inspired design is echoed in the catalog, which includes a lengthy essay on the development of the library’s Slavic division. As an organizing principle, geography can be confusing, as movements like Constructivism, Expressionism and Surrealism did not respect national boundaries. A large wall map of Eastern Europe, from about 1930, is a helpful primer. World War I dissolved the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and made independent states of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. Russia lost Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and became the Soviet Union.
The library’s grand tour of Eastern Europe (which moves, roughly, from West to East) begins in Berlin. That city had absorbed more than 300,000 Russians, in addition to other east-central European refugees, and its relative political freedom and low cost of living made it a hub of avant-garde activity.
Visually, this is the show’s strongest segment, with works by the graphic designer El Lissitzky, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Bauhaus instructor Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Included are classic examples of suprematist design by Lissitzky, who served as a Russian cultural ambassador. His children’s book “Pro Dva Kvadrata” (“About Two Squares”) pits the Red Square of Communism against the Black Square of convention; “Dlia Golosa” (“For the Voice”), a collaboration with Mayakovsky, features an unusual thumb index and striking title pages for each poem.
The new and re-established nations of Czechoslovakia and Poland, which encompassed multiple ethnic groups, were home to competing visions of Modernism. The Western Polish literary periodical Zdroj modeled itself after German Expressionism, as shown by a Kandinsky-inspired cover from 1918. The Warsaw-based journal Grafika, meanwhile, emphasized the functional, commercial possibilities of Modern design.
Over in Prague, the artist and writer Karel Teige combined elements of Cubism and Constructivism into the mystical, utopian Devetsil movement. His rhythmic compositions, celebrated in a 2001 exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery, glorify city life with mazes of thin lines over floating rectangles.
In the Southern Balkans, Modern did not necessarily mean abstract. The Bulgarian Sirak Skitnik designed a book cover featuring a graphic procession of nuns in a stylized landscape. Religious and folkloric tradition had less of a hold in ethnically diverse Yugoslavia and Slovenia, where the journals Zenit and Tank paid homage to Constructivist geometry and Dada typography. A copy of Tank shows a bold red triangle (echoes of Lissitzky’s red wedge) and repeats the title in tiers of successively smaller type.
The avant-garde played a marginal role in Hungary and Romania, which emerged from the war with strong national identities and conservative royalist governments intact. In Budapest Modernism had a champion in the poet and editor Lajos Kassak; his face appears on the cover of his book “35 Vers” (“35 Poems”), overlaid with large, red sans-serif type on a diagonal slant.
Romania had a group of energetic young Dadaists (the show’s catalog goes so far as to assert that Dada originated in Bucharest), including Victor Brauner, who would go on to become a Surrealist based in France.
Then as now, advertisers cashed in on the counterculture. The cigarette rolling-paper company Modiano established relationships with Hungarian artists, publishing a multivolume survey of its favorites. On the cover of Volume 4, created by Janos Tabor, the letter O has been enlarged to accommodate the figure of a smoking man. As a suavely commercial use of Modernist design, it stands out in this literary context.
The Baltic republics kept their distance from revolutionary politics, using Expressionism to describe the horrors of war and a more generic Modernist vocabulary to bolster their newfound governments. Modernism in this region also took on an erotic charge; the Latvian graphic artist Eriks Kalis created a book cover for a romance novel set on an urban bus that featured a triangle penetrating a sphere.
Other graphic artists were more explicit: Sigmunds Vidbergs drew a female nude reclining on geometric forms, while Ferdynand Ruszczyc used the negative space between two heads of wheat to convey an image of agrarian fertility.
For a brief period in East and Central Europe, Modernism was unusually organic. Artists sampled its various strains, blended it with figurative styles and injected it with local folklore. Everywhere, it went hand in hand with a progressive, optimistic outlook — until the next war redrew the map yet again.
“Graphic Modernism From the Baltic to the Balkans, 1910-1935” continues through Jan. 27 at the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street; (212) 592-7730, nyp.org.