The old guard Avant-Garde

Mike Dempsey views an exhibition of rare posters by some of the international pioneers of graphic design

An elegant Georgian house nestled in the corner of a leafy square, in the heart of fashionable Islington houses one of London’s hidden treasures, the Estorick Collection. While set up to house Italian Futurist art, it also mounts regular ‘special exhibitions’. Avant-Garde Graphics is such an exhibition, and very special it is.

The travelling exhibition brings together over 140 rare posters, book designs and photomontages created between 1918 and 1934. Political campaign posters and commercial advertising are shown alongside film posters and books. It is rare to see such an array of original posters by key pioneers of modern graphic design – the only other being David King’s wonderful collection of Russian posters at Tate Modern.

On display is the work of artists including Jean Arp, Herbert Bayer, Willi Baumeister, Theo van Doesburg, John Heartfield, Hannah Hoch, El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Alexandr Rodchenko, Oskar Schlemmer, Kurt Schwitters and Piet Zwart.

Such a distinguished array makes it compulsory for every serious graphic designer to attend. What you are presented with is the genesis of the graphic world we now inhabit.

This critical 16-year period between 1918 to 1934 was a time of enormous political upheaval in Europe and Russia and one that spawned a new order in virtually every creative endeavour. The sheer visual dynamism of the works displayed is breathtaking. It also made me realise the profound influence of this pioneering period on my mid-20th century design heroes.

To see original pieces from the Bauhaus – in particular Moholy-Nagy’s letterpress catalogue design for Bauhaus Books 14 – is a real joy. You can see here the vital emphasis being given to words by a new design structure and a limited typographic palette. John Heartfield’s startling photomontage Hurray! The Battle Cruiser has Arrived! made me ponder the impact this work must have had at the time and the changes these people would effect on 20th century design. While the exhibition touches the past, in it we see the future.

Mike Dempsey is founding partner of CDT Design.

Avant-Garde Graphics runs from 9 March to 5 June 2005 at Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1. Telephone: 020 7704 9522

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