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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John Heartfield

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Self Portrait, 1919. Intended to shock viewers in post WWI Germany. The non-conventional portraiture read as “anti-art” at the time, intended for reproduction in an unrealized Dada anthology.

 

John Heartfield was a photomontage artist active during several eras and movements in Germany. He was active in the Dada community during WWI, created radical leftist media after the war, and churned out many anti-Nazi posters during the rise of Hitler. Originally named Helmut Herzfelde, the artist changed his name to the English sounding “John Heartfield” in protest to WWI German nationalism. A large majority of his work has political connotations aligned with the interests of the German Communist Party (KPD). Influenced by both Dada and the Geman object-poster trend Sachplakat, many of Heartfield’s creations were photomontages presented within a distraction-free composition, allowing him to communicate a clear message. His jarring juxtapositions were both eye catching, as well as thought provoking, making him an ideal designer for the KPD’s propaganda department.

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One of Heartfield’s most striking pieces, in my opinion, is pictured above, named “The Hand Has Five Fingers”. This poster was produced in 1928 while Heartfield was working in the agitation-propaganda department in the KPD. The purpose of the department was to gain supporters and illustrate the treachery of capitalism. The photo cut-out of a worker’s open hand displays both photomontage characteristics of Dada and the bold minimalism of Sachplakat. The hand, weathered by capitalist industry, appears to be reaching out at the viewer, demanding attention and urgently requesting support. A red number 5 is printed twice, once to symbolize the five fingers of the worker’s hand, and once to represent the five political candidates that the KPD endorsed. The poster suggests that workers have the power to rise up and overthrow the rich bourgeois industrialists, if only they band together and support this party’s candidates.

Heartfield’s impact on Germany, especially the Communist community, was powerful and impossible to escape. His KPD propaganda was seen everywhere, from posters and magazines, to leftist novels and children’s books. His “Five Fingers” poster sparked the creation of a mutual gesture of recognition among KPD supporters, in which they would greet each other with an open hand as seen in the photograph. In his work during the rise of the Nazi regime, he used photomontage to scrutinize photography, highlighting the misleading nature of photographs as documentary tools. Through the creation of obvious nonsensical pseudo-photos, he forced viewers to realize how photography had the potential to obscure as much as it revealed, questioning the reputation of Nazi propaganda.  Heartfield should be remembered for challenging both political and artistic convention, and for his persistent dedication to spreading a message he believed in. His political photomontages may have not ended the war, but they inspired free and critical thinking among a confused and troubled population.

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A. “Millions Stand Behind Me” transforms Hitler’s statement into a visual pun, criticizing his greed and indicting the German industrialists who are funding his regime.

 

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B. “Hurrah there’s no more Butter!” shows a family eating government subsidized military equipment instead of food, questioning the normality of Nazi military and propaganda being present in people’s private lives.

Resources

Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.  

Zervigon, Andres. “John Heartfield.” Avant-garde Art in Everyday Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.

         

 

William Morris’ and Gustav Stickley’s Unique Approaches to the Arts and Crafts Movement

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Left: Gustav Stickley; Right: William Morris.

          During the latter half of the 19th century, the arts and crafts movement developed in response to the growing industrialization of fine art production. Introduction of factories to English and American society made it possible to produce more art products faster and at a lower cost than a traditional hands-on craftsmen was able. The role of the craftsman had diminished from a creator of unique pieces to over-worked assembler of cheap copies. The movement shunned the mass production and mindless consumerism created by factories and praised calculated quality crafting and true artistic enjoyment by the dedicated individual. The ideal Arts and Crafts society would create factory-free designs that transformed the mundane surroundings of everyday, working people into beautiful, meaningful art. Although the movement ideally wanted to improve the lives of the working class people and free the craftsmen stuck in cruel factory settings, impractical high standards of hand-craftsmanship held the movement back from reaching out to less privileged people.

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William Morris Sussex chairs and wallpaper designs: lavish details, expensively priced.

           The interior designer William Morris was an Arts and Crafts movement supporter who put hand-craftsmanship at the upmost importance. Morris abandoned industrial production completely, calling factories “dark satanic mills”. His small collaborative interior design firm produced hand-made designs without the aid of mass production technology and without the influence of the salesman or advertiser. The artists in his firm full creative control over their craft, resulting in intricate decorative pieces that were no longer restricted by a factory drive to lower production costs. Although the furniture designs were unique and beautiful, the strict dissention away from factory technology increased the selling prices, created an exclusive market accessible only to the wealthy. The exorbitant adherence to pure hand-craftsmanship and anti-industrialization that manifested in Morris’ firm ended up causing his execution of the Arts and Crafts movement to fail the working class. While the factory setting may have “tainted” the relationship between skilled craftsman and unique art, it also made art affordable and available to a larger range of socio-economic classes. Morris’s total rejection of industrial innovations was a luxury only the privileged could afford to participate in, and did absolutely nothing to improve the lives of those that were still being a­ffected by industrial mass production culture.

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Stickley desk design: quality construction, functional and affordable.

          Gustav Stickley was another furniture maker who subscribed to some of the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement. In contrast to Morris, his willingness to compromise some of the more impractical purist ideals of the movement helped make his crafted art more widely available. Stickley, an admirer of Morris, also believed the factory era furniture production was inhumane to the workers, and that the pieces produced this way were devoid of quality. Instead of hand crafting every single piece, like Morris, Stickley increased efficiency by utilizing factory methods for producing basic furniture components. He integrated the movement’s need for hands-on involvement by hiring skilled craftsmen to carefully assemble the components and add decorative details by hand. This hybrid method saved the craftsman from wasted effort on menial processes, while still allowing for a meaningful relationship between craftsman and craft. Because of the cost-cutting use of limited factory methods, every day people could actually afford Stickley’s high-quality, hand crafted furniture. Stickley started a new trend in the factory production culture that improved the lives of many working class people, by treating his workers to an enjoyable working environment and emphasizing quality construction over quantity. Even today, the quality and superior craft of his furniture has stood the test of time, and what was once an affordable investment now sells online to collectors for thousands.

While Morris sold his art for a select few, and Stickley was able to sell his art for many, both artists placed an emphasis on hand-crafted quality. It is ironic that in the pursuit of creating unique work, the artists’ designs have been copied over and over by furniture companies throughout the last century. What is great is that many of these designs are available online for people to execute themselves, so while the uniqueness has been compromised, the designers have certainly influenced many to see the value of creating by hand over buying cheap mass produced products.

References:

Jirousek, Charlotte. “The Arts and Crafts Movement.” The Arts and Crafts Movement. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2016. <http://www.char.txa.cornell.edu/art/decart/artcraft/artcraft.htm&gt;.

Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2012. Print.

“Arts and Crafts Movement.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2016. <https://www.britannica.com/art/Arts-and-Crafts-movement&gt;.

Cathers, David. “The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms :: Stickley and A&C.” The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms :: Stickley and A&C. The Stickley Museum, 29 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2016. <http://stickleymuseum.org/learn-more/stickley-and-aac.html&gt;.

(I tried really hard to indent each reference after the first line, but this website just won’t let me indent one line without indenting them all. I am so sorry.)