Bringing ‘Art into Life’
Modern art inhabits a space that blurs the line between the finer things and everyday life. Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life, an Art Institute of Chicago exhibit, brings to the public eye the origins of this concept. Featuring the works of influential European artist-designers John Heartfield, Gustav Klutsis, El Lissitzky, Ladislav Sutnar, Karel Teige, and Piet Zwart, this exhibit pursues a cross-discipline trajectory through art forms as varied as book design, photography, photomontage, and even household objects.
In the early 20th century, members of the artistic vanguard spearheaded a movement to rescue the artist from the perception of art as reserved for the elite. Bringing the experience of art to the here and now was a purpose they took on as their own personal crusade, and thus began the movement towards artistic expression as mass media. With a role as a signifier, directing the public consciousness to deeper meanings and messages, photography, photomontage and even chinaware became media for propaganda and entered a politico-cultural sphere, a greater purpose than mere aesthetic pleasure.
Czech artist Ladislav Sutnar, head of a publishing and distribution guild, created books, furniture, housewares and even clothing, much of which the members of the guild designed themselves. Sutnar was a Bauhaus-inspired industrial designer, bringing the idea of company brand identity to his work. In 1931, Sutnar designed and created the cover for the inaugural issue of Zijeme, the flagship publication of the Druzstevni Prace (Cooperative Work). An apt representation of Sutnar’s work and his stance on the political and economic climate of the time, the cover depicts two industrially dressed men, looking into the distance — presumably at utopian times to come – as two anachronistically dressed men in bowler hats stand partially obscured in the background, symbolic of the past being left behind. The entire cover is arranged in Sutnar’s trademark diagonal configuration, askew and almost rakish. Such dynamic and unusual arrangements became symbolic of Sutnar himself.
Stasis, whether in art, life, economics or political culture, was distasteful and to be done away with. Having spent much of the 1920’s doing typographic and book design as well as designing toys and puppets, Sutnar was well-placed to bring his left-of-center, democracy-inspired radicalism to everything from porcelain to book covers. Particularly striking are his green-tinged clear glass tea sets. Minimalistic, geometric, and unembellished, these tea sets bring to the student’s attention the presence of the industrial ethic in the household, and this migration as a signifier of a new artistic model.
This model is further highlighted in Sutnar’s photographs advertising porcelain and silverware. Both subscribe to the diagonal school of thought, incorporating the “white revolution” and leaving significant portions of white space in photographs otherwise occupied by seemingly haphazard arrangements of silverware or porcelain laid out in precariously perched configurations. Thus bringing technology and industrialism into middle class households, Sutnar embeds a politico-economic movement into the objects themselves.
Similarly, Piet Zwart, the Dutch industrial designer, worked towards the ideas of company identity through design. A fierce iconoclast, Zwart shied away from anything that remotely indicated a loyalty to a preclusive aesthetic. Lesser known than the other artists in the exhibit, Zwart would have been mortified to even be called an artist by posterity. He shunned not only decorative art but any aesthetic at all, considering it to detract from his primary goal of visual objectivity and transparency. He identified himself as an architect rather than an artist or designer of any kind, in spite of the fact that he had received little to no formal architectural training.
Of all of his work displayed in the exhibit, two pieces are particularly striking. One is a piercing green pressed glass breakfast set, the lurid color coming from the uranium used in its production. Stackable and interchangeable, the crockery is a testament to the persistent intrusion of industrialism into the household. Mass production of highly functional equipment being the driving force behind Zwart’s work, he made the shift from blown glass, which was an artistic endeavor, to pressed glass, which made form a direct expression and result of function.
The other is his advertising cards, a testament to Zwart’s talent as an architect of form. The graphic compression and severe configurations of the cards highlight Zwart’s fascination with austere modernism.
Meanwhile in Russia, El Lissitzky was at the forefront of the Constructivist movement, bringing its essential character into all forms of art and media, including but certainly not limited to, typography, architecture, exhibition designs, and even critical essays. Anti-utilitarian in his artistic approach, Lissitzky embodied the Constructivist ideas of composition, the best example by far being his series of abstract paintings he called prouns an acronym for proekt utverzhdeniia novogoand (project for the affirmation of the new). Revolutionary in the transcendental nature of his art, Lissitzky hoped to further the ideals of the transformation of everyday life. Graphic design was a large part of the corpus of Lissitzky’s work, lending a great deal to his typography and book production.
Lissitzky’s self-portraits are particularly enticing. One positive and one negative print show Lissitzky overlaid on a graph paper-like background; the man blending with the construction of his work.
Also working in Russia, Gustav Klutsis brought industrialism to a new height via the socialist ideals of Soviet propaganda. Considering artistic expression to be an integral part of the arsenal behind organizing and influencing the everyday man, Klutsis pushed a communist agenda in his photomontage works, urging agitation through works like Elektrifikatsiia vsei strany (Electrification of the Entire Country) and Mir staryi i mir vnov’ stroiashchiisia (The Old World and the World Being Built Anew). Having landed in the cradle of the Constructivist movement after leaving his primary identity as a machine gunner behind in Latvia, Klutsis focused on “constructing” art rather than “composing” it.
Ironically, in Klutsis’ anti-art approach, he created a whole armory of artistic ways to reach the masses and to convey his distaste for the ways of the “old world”. Klutsis produced a massive oeuvre of work, including journal illustrations of agitational paraphernalia and tools of wide information dissemination. Klutsis described two distinct directions in photomontage evolution: “advertising/formalist photomontage, which had its origins in American advertising and was promoted in the West by artists associated with Dada and Expressionism”; and “political agitation photomontage, which developed independently on Soviet soil and has its own methods, principles and laws of composition.”
Diverging from his usual artist-revolutionary model, Klutsis designed a series of nine postcards dedicated to various athletic events for the Spartakiada (All- Union Olympiad) held in Moscow in 1928. This allowed him to branch out from his usual style and visual range, creating a new niche for his work to inhabit. One particularly interesting aspect of this genre here, alongside Klutsis’ other work, is the presence of photographic cutouts, all in different sizes and shapes. Considering that these works were created in a pre-Xerox era, different-sized photographs had to be found. The painstaking effort may be lost on the modern viewer.
The work of leftist German John Heartfield, perhaps better described as an anti-fascist, was highly visible in posters and book covers, among various other media. A native-born German who changed his name as a protest against fascism, Heartfield worked exclusively in photomontage, a large proportion of his work being book covers for leftist novels. Wraparound covers became a new fad at the time, almost portraying the physical book itself as sculpture – the signifier transforming into the signified. The most pertinent examples of this are Heartfield’s covers for Upton Sinclair’s jarring 1906 masterpiece, The Jungle, and Oil!, the novel whose impact is felt even today, demonstrated by the recent Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood. Gritty, dark and multidimensional, these covers are works of art in themselves, conveying messages before the books are even opened.
Perhaps Heartfield’s greatest work is the photographic emblem The Hand Has Five Fingers, a powerful depiction of the communist ideal used as an appeal to the electorate to vote for the communist party. Ubiquitous on posters and publicity pamphlets, the emblem calls attention to the communalism and agitational drive present throughout Heartfield’s work.
Last but not least, the exhibit features the work of Karel Teige, the leader of the Czech inter-war avant-garde movement and the creator of a number of stunning book and journal designs. Well-connected and an activist-academic in addition to being an artist, Teige was highly influential as a theorist in Czech modernism. An exponent of Constructivism as well as Poetism, Teige ensured that his work left a lasting impact on the movements in which he so fiercely believed.
Teige’s utilitarian views placed him in the now – the purpose of art produced in the now, disseminated in the now, and experienced in the now informed his entire model. Especially interested in urban spaces and housing reform, Teige brought these topics to the foreground in works such as his Cover for The Minimum Dwelling, which shows tenements as they should be in the Constructivist world – efficient use of space, and allocation of artistic, political and economic resources alike for the common good.
Teige also believed in reproducibility of art as an essential ingredient to producing work that would speak to the masses, readily apparent in work such as his Cover of Disk, 1923.
All six of these internationally influential artists set forth a mission through their work – allowing art to become a medium for politico-cultural expression, and at the same time enabling household items and urban propaganda to become art in and of themselves. This blurring of the line between the signifier and the signified is the essence of Modernism whether in visual art, literature or culture itself.
Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life speaks to minimalist, utopian and utilitarian sensibilities, even in the aesthetic of the gallery itself. Clean lines, minimalist layout and focus on the pieces themselves add to the appeal of the exhibit.
The student, whether of art, history, philosophy or political science, has much to gain from experiencing this innovative exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The cross-media, cross-departmental, cross-discipline nature of this exhibit makes it one of a kind, a macrocosm of art in its cultural and political context.