Socialist Worker

Avant-garde revolution that swept the art world

by Mark Brown
Issue No. 1924

Avant-Garde Graphics 1918-1934

On tour in Glasgow, Swansea and London

In the early 20th century Europe witnessed an explosion in avant-garde graphic design. Excited by technological advance, the growth of cities and often by the prospect of revolution, a new generation of artists created prints, montages and collages which gave people a glimpse into a future of hope and change.

The abstract use of shape and colour pioneered by the Russian Constructivists spread across the continent. It informed new art movements, such as Dadaism in Switzerland and the Bauhaus in Germany.

This exhibition traces the development of the visual avant-garde from its origins in the work of the Bolshevik artists Lissitzky and Rodchenko.

There are Russian cinema posters from the 1920s, such as Lavinsky’s brilliant image for Eisenstein’s film Strike, which is startlingly modern.

One of the most fascinating pieces is a poster demanding a seven-hour working day, from the Dutch workers’ movement. A huge, red “7” is superimposed over a black and white photograph of a workers’ demonstration.

More powerful still are John Heartfield’s famous election posters for the German Communist Party. One has the image of an outstretched hand over a slogan urging a vote for the Communist “List Five” in the 1928 elections. The slogan reads “The hand has five fingers. With five you grab the enemy!”

The exhibition also shows the ways in which the avant-garde movement was co-opted by capitalism and Stalinism. Adverts for a Swiss furniture store and a Dutch estate agency show how the new visuals were applied to commercial purposes.

The appalling images from 1930s Russia, exhorting workers to work harder and women, pictured beside small children, to be more “productive”, mark the end of the free expression of Constructivism and the beginning of Stalinism’s destructive period of so called “Socialist Realism”.

Ultimately, however, the show reflects the excitement of artists who believed then—as millions believe now—that another world is possible.

On show at the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, until 27 November; the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, from 4 December until 13 February 2005; and the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, from 23 March to 5 June.

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Sat 23 Oct 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1924
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