Broken promise

Print was a radical tool in the hands of the Modernist, Futurist avant-garde, but its anti-establishment potential withered with the arrival of an affluent consumer society. Rick Poynor examines the movement’s graphic expressions on the eve of a new exhib

The first four decades of the 20th century witnessed a fabulous eruption of boundless invention in the visual arts. The force of this avant-garde explosion was so tremendous that its shockwaves were still defining the cultural landscape decades later. Even today, we remain fascinated by the creations and philosophy of these Modernist artists and designers, constantly referring back to them in an attempt to define our own cultural values.

The avant-garde has its origins in the writings of the French social theorist Henri de Saint-Simon. ‘We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde/ for among all the arms at our disposal, the power of the arts is the swiftest and most expeditious,’ he wrote in 1825. The best way to spread new ideas, Saint-Simon argued, was to use art forms such as literature, music, painting and sculpture. Like the advance guard of an army breaking into new territory, enlightened artists would spread the word to the rest of the population.

By the early years of the 20th century, print had become a vital medium for disseminating the avant-garde’s utopian socialist thinking about art, politics and society. The variegated fruits of this revolutionary art-making can be seen at the British Library’s Breaking the Rules exhibition, which gathers manifestos, artists’ books, avant-garde magazines and photobooks produced between 1900 and 1937 in cities across Europe – places like Copenhagen and Cracow, as well as familiar centres of Modernist aesthetic agitation such as Paris, Berlin, Zurich and Prague. Much of this material has come from the library’s own collections.

In graphic terms, the most remarkable of the avant-garde’s innovations was its treatment of language. These radical Modernists proposed to smash conventional syntax to pieces. For the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the most effective way of achieving what he called ‘words in freedom’ was by designing in a completely new way. ‘My revolution is aimed at the so-called typographical harmony of the page, which is contrary to the flux and reflux, the leaps and bursts of style that run through the page,’ he wrote. To amplify the expressive force of words, he would use 20 different typefaces at once, if necessary.

Ardengo Soffici and Max Ernst both led visual experiments, using typography and imagery respectively (see boxes, right). But what these examples show is how accustomed we have become to the techniques of the avant-garde movement. In its day, it might have scandalised some viewers with its disregard of propriety and its rejection of accepted standards of beauty. The avant-garde was so far in advance of ordinary taste that it was inherently shocking. Today, we can admire the historical originality and imaginative intensity of these works, but we cannot experience the cognitive dissonance they provoked, the sense that an alternative reality has been revealed.

While the term ‘avant-garde’ is still used in a casual way to describe art that is difficult or extreme, by the 1960s the avant-garde movement was finished. Art had joined the establishment, and few artists believed any longer that it was their noble task to liberate the public into a utopian future. Yet, the visual strategies of the avant-garde hung around as empty quotations drained of the social and political meanings they once expressed.

Some of the Modernists’ idealism lived on in graphic design, but the discipline’s rapid growth as a commercial practice coincided with the artistic avant-garde’s demise. By the 1980s and the coming of desktop technology, design was ready for its own Postmodern re-enactment of avant-garde rebellion. The experimental typography of the early 1990s, much of it American, looked like digitally reprocessed Dadaism or Futurism. Everything was hyperactive and unstable, with type in a jumble of sizes and styles shooting off at crazy angles. Seen in purely formal terms, this was a period of great invention, but what was this controversial work for? It soon became clear that there was no broader critique. As David Carson said at the time, ‘Graphic design will save the world right after rock and roll does.’ These graphic designers weren’t out to transform society. They were asserting what they regarded as their right to do whatever they liked – a message entirely consistent with the values of an affluent consumer society.

Socially and economically, we remain in much the same place. The idea of an avant-garde graphic design that expresses its political radicalism through formal experimentation has few takers now – one exception is Jonathan Barnbrook. Yet, to look back at the early 20th-century avant-garde is to be inspired, all over again, by their uncompromising sense of artistic and social purpose. The Dutch design group Experimental Jetset often muses on Modernism’s legacy. Three bus shelter posters it created for the Terminal Five exhibition at New York’s JFK Airport, each one based on a quotation from an avant-garde luminary, offer an ambiguous commentary.

‘The splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty, the beauty of speed,’ declares Marinetti on one poster. But, Experimental Jetset’s Helvetica-based design, which could be mistaken for airline branding, is no different in style from the bland Helvetica communications produced by corporate America in the past 50 years. It called the project Modernism Un/Fulfilled. It is as though a wildly stimulating mix of visual languages has been reduced to a single dialect, delivered in a monotone.

‘We are more or less asking ourselves whether Modernism in such a commodified and corrupted form still has a critical or utopian dimension,’ says Experimental Jetset. It is an awkward, but unavoidable, question, as you admire the marvels in Breaking the Rules. l

Rick Poynor’s books include No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism; and Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (both Laurence King Publishing)
Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 runs from 9 November until 30 March 2008 at the British Library, Euston Road, London NW1


Futurist creations such as Ardengo Soffici’s 1915 book BÏF&ZF+18 Simultaneità e Chimismi Lirici (Simultaneity and Lyrical Chemistry) at the time offered an assault on bourgeois conceptions of reason and logic. It had a seductive energy and a new kind of jerking, clashing harmony that the 20th-century eye would soon learn to appreciate.Max Ernst’s forerunner to the graphic novel (1934)


Max Ernst’s 1934 collage novel Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness) offered a similar affront to traditional sensibility. Ernst took his source material from illustrated magazines, department store catalogues and the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s study of patients suffering from hysteria. If books often provide a comfortable refuge from the cares of everyday life, Ernst flings the reader into a disturbing parallel universe of violence, perversity and bodily mutation.


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