Avant-Garde in Everyday Life

 

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The anothology Avant-Garde In Everyday Life, edited by Matthew Witkovsky, outlines the lives and works of Avant-Garde artists in the 1920s and 30s. The Six artists described include John Heartfield, El Lissitzky, Gustav Klutis, Ladislav Sutnar, Karel Teige, and Piet Zwart. The book begins with an introduction that eases the reader into the subject by briefly explaining the Avant-Garde artist’s goal to transform the daily life of average people. The remainder of the chapters each feature a short overview and biography of a specific artist, followed by an in-depth description of their artistic experiences and impact. There is an extensive assortment of images included to help reader to visualize the work and environment of the artist. The artists featured in this book participated in a variety of Avant-Garde movements, such as Dadaism, Constructivism, New Typography, and more. The specificity of subject matter and amount of text written about each artist makes the book an ideal subject for scholarly studies. The chapters are each written by a different artist, all who clearly did extensive research on their respective artist, including minute details and specific analyses. Although the book is successful in conveying a large amount of knowledge through these specialized authors, the title infers a desired purpose which remains unfulfilled. The editor clearly wanted to discuss the impact of these artists’ works on “everyday life”, but it turned into something more encyclopedic, a collection of six individual Avant-Garde biographies.

Despite differences in style, location, and language, all six artists have one thing in common: at one point or another in their careers, they used their art for political activism. This connection is relatively vague when considering that political polemics were hard to avoid because of WWI. All the artists were either German, Czech, or Russian, each artists dealing with different frustrations in each of their WWI environments. The German Artist John Heartfield was a radical leftist against the war, so he used his art to protest the violence, turning to Dada and photomontage. During the German revolution he teamed up with the KPD to create “inescapable” propaganda, such as posters, magazine covers, and even children’s books. Guztav Klutis also supported a communist Russian state and believed that “artists had [responsibility] in shaping the new Soviet society”(p.57). Klutis used Vladimir Lenin as a prominent subject in many of his propaganda posters, believing that artists were necessary to agitate the citizens and help promote socialism. An interesting parallel could have been made here, comparing today’s artists’s political efforts to those made back during WWII. The topic of socialism is a very controversial one, however it remains popular in creative communities, just as it was back during the times of Klutis and Lenin. Despite detailed  historical recollection, the authors failed to take advantage of the opportunity to relate these artists and their work to our everyday lives, or anything else for that matter, besides the past environments which their artistry occurred.

This book is packed full of information about each of the six featured artists, however the title and appearance are both very misleading. When reading the title Avant-garde in Everyday Life, one expects a book that focuses on the presence of the Avant-Garde influence in today’s daily life. On the contrary, the book focuses much more on biographies of individual artists, and only mentions their pertinence to everyday life during the era which they were alive. A better title would instead describe the Avant-Garde artist’s role in spreading socialist values, which is what a much greater portion of the book is about. Themes of utilitarianism and anti-capitalism are mentioned a great deal more throughout the book than themes of everyday life transformation. In fact, only one artists, Ladislav Sutnar was shown to have made household items that would truly be of everyday use. Most of the artists mentioned exclusively created posters or magazine covers, which while may have transformed the appearance of urban areas, did not actually invade the daily domestic area of the average person. A true to title version of this book would have focused on the Avant-Garde style itself, rather than the artists themselves, relating and comparing the designs created back then to the designs we see in Everyday Life now. Although this was a successful series of biographies, it was not a successful analysis of Avant-Garde’s role in any era’s daily life.

 

Resources

Witkovsky, Matthew S., and Jared Ash. Avant-garde Art in Everyday Life: Early-twentieth-century European Modernism. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2011. Print.

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