Typographic Experiment and Visual Poetry in the Interwar Avant-Gardes of Central Europe
When we observe the response in Europe today to global unrest—as ever more restrictions are placed on travel within the European Union, and the citizens of the United Kingdom have voted to remove themselves from the EU entirely—it is perhaps hard to imagine the fluidity in the movement of bodies and ideas across the European continent that followed directly from the ire and violence of World War I. The artistic production of a group of leftist artists, poets, and editors in Central Europe in the interwar period, especially in the earliest years of the 1920s, reflects an optimism for a “new Europe” at far remove from our current moment.
Between the two world wars, artists in Europe enjoyed an unprecedented level of exchange, and often worked together across borders to create a non-national, universal response to the shattering absurdity of war. The networks of the avant-garde were established and intensified through travel and correspondence, as well as the distribution of the material products of an art that boldly envisioned a new Europe: namely, the magazines. In the magazines, we can see editors, artists, poets, architects, and theorists grappling with the devastation wrought of mechanized warfare, and seeking to wrestle new technologies to wholly different aims: it was a common theme across the leftist avant-gardes to find something utilitarian and revolutionary in art-making. What this meant was by no means stable across the region; however, there was a common interest in getting out of the gallery and adapting technological advances toward experimentation in graphic design, especially in Central Europe. The Ukrainian–born, Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg had proclaimed, “The new art is no longer art,” and this was a slogan picked up by avant-garde practitioners as a nonviolent call to arms.
Editors and artists working in various languages and cities became comrades in a united struggle for social revolution through the adaptation of the conventions of New Typography. Conceived as a method by which textual and graphic elements were meant to obtain equal stature so that information was conveyed not only through literal meaning, but also via visual cues, New Typography was to be a universal and international mode of art and knowledge production. The central goals of the unadorned, functionalist style were “clarity” and “visual communication,” oft repeated terms. The Berlin–based, Russian artist El Lissitzky laid this out explicitly in his famous ten-point treatise, “Topography of Typography,” which was printed in the magazine Merz, published by the Hannover-based Dadaist Kurt Schwitters: “economy of expression—optic, not phonetic.” Though the origin of New Typography is ostensibly German, its emphasis on conveying meaning visually was especially appealing in other Central European countries whose artists were active in a trans-European avant-garde practice, but whose magazines would be produced largely in languages not necessarily legible to those beyond their national-linguistic borders. By adopting and adapting the conventions of New Typography to design in contemporaneous Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, and Hungarian magazines, editors made their aesthetic and even political affinities identifiable on first glance.
And yet, while the artists of Central Europe enjoyed much visibility and interest from peers across Europe in their own day, our Cold War canon has largely excluded their legacy from histories of the interwar period. Far better known are the early examples of visual poetry and typographic innovation coming from France and Italy. The French Symbolist Stephane Mallarmé, working in the second half of the nineteenth century, is often cited as the forefather of the typographic experiment in poetry and art that was to come. And it is well-known and oft repeated that with the explosion of Italian Futurism onto the scene in 1909, F. T. Marinetti and his Words in Freedom would ultimately set loose the letter on the printed page, to move about untethered from the standard, linear grid inherent to the printing press. And concurrent with Marinetti, the Italian–born, French–residing poet of the Polish aristocracy, Guillaume Apollinaire, was creating his “Calligrammes,” the most famous one being “Il pleut” (“It’s Raining”), printed in SIC in December 1916, in which letters drip down the page in streaks of rain. The artists of the interwar avant-garde were the direct recipients of this legacy, and they simultaneously looked to the innovations of their forebears, and situated their work as a rejection of all that had come before (a contradiction itself adapted from their predecessors). In one Czech magazine, for instance, Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice,” is wedged between two more current commentaries on visual experiment in literature, Oskar Poskočil’s “new typographic tendencies” and Karel Teige’s “new typography” (both retaining the lowercase orthography popular in the period).
The four examples from the interwar magazines that have been translated here for Words without Borders evidence this legacy, but also exemplify the networks forged across the avant-gardes of Central Europe. These pieces illustrate a textual-visual conversation conducted in print in the 1920s that ought not to have been rendered silent since.
In the selection from the Polish magazine Blok included here, we have a manual of sorts for New Typography. Signed simply as “Eds.,” the work can be seen as an artist’s statement of the magazine’s editors, who are credited in this issue from July 1924 as Mieczysław Szczuka and Teresa Żarnowerówna. (Blok was not only a magazine, but a group, composed of Cubists, Constructivists, and Suprematists, which remained active from 1924 through 1926.) “Printing: On Layout” illustrates with strong visual dynamism the dos and don’ts of modern graphic design. It singles out for ridicule the old-fashioned, “museum-like” conventions employed in printed matter from the era before innovations in printing technology allowed for the wood engraving to be replaced by photogravure, for instance. Instead, the editors recommend, and simultaneously model, a layout that shows off their grasp of contemporary innovations in graphic design, which is intended to maximize clarity and hold the reader’s interest. Examples of good and bad design are rendered with letterforms combined in such a way that no meaning can be derived from them. These nonsense phrasings have been upgraded with a nod to our own modern, digital age by translator Paulina Duda, so that, for instance, wwwwyw in the original becomes www.com in her translation, an arrangement of letters that would indeed have meant nothing in 1924, but today carry their own universal meaning. And Wojtek Kwiecień-Janikowski, in his visual rendering of the piece, carefully adheres to the original authors’ stern instructions. He maintains the dynamism of the printed version in his digital layout, but again with a clever nod to our temporal remove from the original. For instance, a hand pointing with two fingers is used to illustrate an example number two, though such a dingbat would not have been readily accessible to the 1920s typographer to print from.
From the Brno-based Czech magazine, Pásmo, also published in 1924, we have a somewhat different approach to similar concerns of how new technologies (and also, in this case, social systems) can be applied to art production. Bedřich Václavek, a Czech editor, critic, and typographer, with an inclination toward both Dadaism and Communism, attempts to outline in a short treatise, “New Art,” the ways in which developments in engineering and socialized labor practices are integral models for contemporary art practice. The text, which only minimally plays with graphic innovation itself (in minor variation in font size, boxed text, and the bold lines that are the signature of New Typography), is set up as two columns of word fragments that describe the characteristics and problems of labor and collectivism on one side, and engineering and Constructivism on the other, in language that is simultaneously scientific and metaphysical. Václavek imagines a “new cosmogenic consciousness” in the modern person, and a form of Communism that maintains a “consciousness of human autonomy.” If these are not central tenants of Communism as we understand it today, they were well in line with its conception as propagated by Václavek and other members of the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil. Led by Karel Teige in Prague, Devětsil outlined the project of “Poetism,” a particular blend of the more functionalist and utilitarian aspects of Communism, alongside an embrace of Sunday picnics, cocktails, and sailboats (pastimes and products more often associated with bourgeois pleasures than Marxism). Poetism, in which Václavek’s two columns ultimately synthesize, was the “the art of living and enjoying” and thus “the crown of life;” these exact phrases also appear around the same time in Poetism’s first manifesto, written by Teige and published in the magazine Host. In homage to the materiality of the period in which these magazines were created, the translation of Václavek’s text is the only example in this feature that resists a more modern, digital design: it was in fact reproduced largely on a Czech Consul typewriter, manufactured in the same city in which Pásmo was published, Brno. While this would not have been a practical means in the 1920s for creating multiple copies of a magazine—text would instead have been set as type and printed on a press—our digital age allows for the single, typewritten original to be scanned and made widely visible online.
The selection included here from the Serbo-Croatian magazine Dada-Tank, a short lived publication coming out of Zagreb in 1922, is a salient example of how interwar exchange extended across borders in various directions and by a variety of means. Its editor, and the author of the visual poem translated here, Dragan Aleksić, had been studying in Prague since 1920, and hosted a series of Dada evenings there attended by members of both the Czech and Yugoslav avant-gardes. Aleksić’s awareness of and affinity toward Dada (which, in Serbo-Croatian, does not actually mean nothing, as one of its major representatives in Paris, the Romanian Tristan Tzara, liked to insist, but literally means “Yes Yes”) is reflected strongly in this poem. “ButtsLoaDs” is not a didactic exegesis on what New Typography should be, but rather a visual manifestation of its potential power and visual dynamism, with very little emphasis placed on the comprehensibility of the text itself. In its use of nonsense words and enigmatic phrases, and the inclusion of letterforms in multiple fonts and sizes moving in various directions, that conjure the chaos of the stock market, it also anticipates Szczuka and Żarnowerówna’s work, which would come two years later. And there is a sly poke at Italian Futurism: the exclamation “Rorari Torati!” is followed by the parentheses “(Fabrica de Milano),” recalling the “ta-tatatatatatata” and other onomatopoeic words in Marinetti’s Words in Freedom. There is also a direct reference to the Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars, whose poetry was aligned with Orphic Cubism and Apollinaire, and was another great influence on the graphic innovation and visual poetry of the Central European avant-garde. The absurdity of the original has been maintained playfully in a translation by Aleksandar Bošković and Jennifer Zoble, and in its digital rendering by Ian McLellan Davis.
And finally, we come around to a spectacular illustration of the potential for cinematic dynamism when the principles of New Typography are fully applied in László Moholy-Nagy’s visual poem (or, as he called it, “film sketch”), “Dynamic of a Metropolis.” Moholy-Nagy is perhaps the most famous practitioner of New Typography today, though he is more commonly described as a painter and photographer. When he joined the faculty at the Bauhaus in Germany in 1923, he taught typography alongside these other genres, and a year into his tenure there, he published “Dynamic of a Metropolis” in MA, a Hungarian-language magazine based then in Vienna and edited by Lajos Kassák. In its attempt to convey in two-dimensional print the three-dimensional dynamism of film, it is also an opportunity to observe Moholy-Nagy’s development from artist to technician. For MA, “Dynamic of a Metropolis” still exhibits evidence of the artist’s hand, in the linocuts Moholy-Nagy includes to convey the cinematic quality of the piece, meant to suggest film strips. The movement of the piece is further guided by graphic elements familiar to New Typography, such as pointing arrows and thick lines to divide and organize the text, as well as the combination of geometric shapes to suggest train signals. By the time the “film sketch” was reproduced again one year later, in 1925, now in book form and in German, as part of Painting Photography Film and put out by the Bauhaus itself, gone are all vestiges of the hand, with linocuts replaced by photographic reproductions. This is the version of “Dynamic of a Metropolis” best known today (it also appeared in Pásmo, though there with only the most minimal graphic elements added to the text), but a look at the earlier version printed in MA exemplifies how deliberately Moholy-Nagy and others were continuously working to incorporate new technology into typographic experimentation. Its appearance in English here, translated by Irina Denischenko and Bradley Gorski, marks the first time that the Hungarian version of “Dynamic” has been translated with its graphic layout and original linocuts intact.
The selection of visual poetry and graphic experiment included in this feature for Words without Borders is intended to introduce the English-language reader to a side of the interwar avant-garde that has otherwise been neglected. European artists fed off each others’ work with a willingness to share territories and break down national and linguistic distinctions in an active effort to realize a better postwar Europe. Little did they know, however, World War II was just around the corner. And these avant-gardists were somewhat limited in what they could envision for a supposedly radical new future. Female editors like Teresa Żarnowerówna were a rarity, published contributions by other women perhaps rarer still. And the increased audience share that New Typography was meant to achieve still largely confined its scope to reaching other Europeans. A broader survey of magazines from the period might consider how the new world order imagined by these largely white and male avant-gardists maps onto concurrent production in the rest of the world, as it emerged from a global war.
© 2016 by Meghan Forbes. All rights reserved.