The Avant-Garde Applied (18901950) opens in Madrid on 30 March at the Fundación Juan March
. Featuring almost 700 works ranging from original designs to photomontages, books, magazines, posters, postcards, leaflets, preparatory sketches and models, the exhibition aims to offer an overview of the way that avant-garde ideas were applied to politics and ideology, advertising, the media, architecture, urban and interior design, exhibitions, the theatre, film and photography, from the last decade of the 19th century, in the years just prior to the rise of the avant-garde movements, and throughout the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition will be on show at the Fundación Juan March until 1 July.
Prior to the formulation of modern aesthetics in the 18th century that brought about a new autonomy of the fine arts, it could be said that all art was originally design in the sense of art applied to a function. Traditionally, the arts have in fact been applied to the widest range of religious, political and social functions from the celebration of the mass to the representation of power, religious and wealth, decoration and leisure.
Later on, a number of movements that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Viennese Succession, the Arts and Crafts movement and above all the early avant-garde movements, from Futurism and Bauhaus to Neo-plasticism, Dada and Constructivism, resulted in an increased emphasis on the new autonomy of art. They also, however, involved a widespread and radical attempt to bring art into all fields of life, not so much in order to depict it or ornament it but rather to transform it and redesign it from the starting point of the ideal of the new. In numerous different parts of the world, but almost at the same time and with the same end, the avant-garde movements aimed to reinstate art and its transformative powers in the political and social realms, domestic life and the world of interior decoration, publishing and the dissemination of ideas. Of course, this socially transformative aspect of art had never totally abandoned these spheres but it had been displaced by the aesthetics of pure art, aestheticism and the concept of art for arts sake.
The works in the present exhibition have been loaned from two important international collections specialised in design and avant-garde typography, namely the collection of Merrill C. Berman in the USA and that of José María Lafuente in Santander, Spain. Their size and the rigour with which the works in these collections have been selected means that they can be considered of museum quality. The selection of works from the two collections has followed historical criteria but has also adopted a transversal approach to the transformative spirit of the avant-garde movements and to the axis created by the articulation of forms and signs in avant-garde graphic design and the resulting typographical revolution.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published in English and Spanish. It includes the work of 250 artists from 28 countries who together constitute a long list of artists, typographers and avant-garde designers. Among them are pioneers such as Max Bill (1908-1994), Fortunato Depero (1892-1960), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), Lászlò Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Liubov Popova (1889-1924), Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), Jan Tschichold (1902-1974) and Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931), to name just a few.
The catalogue includes a text by Manuel Fontán del Junco entitled Applying the Avant-garde, 1890-1950 (operating instructions) in which the author details the working process undertaken over the past two years; a fascinating and complex endeavour that has resulted in both the present exhibition and its accompanying catalogue. The author explains the curatorial decisions adopted in the different phases of the project and the conception and organisation of the exhibition. Among its distinctive features has been the close collaboration between the collectors, authors and organisers, a situation that gave rise to a type of joint curatorship team responsible for the entire project.
Manuel Fontán del Junco writes that: This exhibition aims to present if not exhaustively at least in a highly comprehensive, concentrated and intensive manner an excellent representation of examples of one aspect of the early avant-garde movements that is generally relegated to a secondary position. This aspect is simultaneously the least artistic (in the modern sense of the word art) and the most innovative with regard to the avant-garde legacy. It is, in effect, the historical consequence of the application to a number of different areas within human life and through specific media of a series of ideas (the same ones that filled their manifestoes with proclamations and ambitious, radical slogans) that determined the activity of the historical avant-gardes within the strictly defined terrain of art and the tradition of pure art inherited from the modern tradition.
The spaces in which the historical avant-garde movements applied their ideas were, in effect, all those that constituted life structured in society: the domestic realm, that of social organisation in all its aspects (notably urbanism and architecture, from private dwellings to public buildings and spaces), politics and ideology, educational institutions, religion, the market, the dissemination of ideas, entertainment, leisure and sport [...], overall, all those areas that, connected together, constituted the network of human life. In order to apply its ideals of social transformation the avant-garde also made use of all media (of representation, communication and dissemination) traditionally considered secondary in relation to the superior, privileged medium of representation constituted by the classic genres of the great arts: painting and sculpture. The media to which the avant-garde fruitfully and innovatively applied itself were the poster and pamphlet, the newspaper and magazine, the book, the photographic image, the fragmented and manipulated photographic image (the photomontage) and the photographic image in movement (film). That process of application resulted in a vast number of works, a true apotheosis of an interplay of forms and signs to be found in areas previously remote from artistic practice; most strikingly and certainly not by chance, in the realm of written language or text. Alongside their activities within the context of art in the traditional sense, the early avant-gardes applied themselves to all those fields using those media, and this is perhaps the most innovative and determining aspect within the profound conceptual change that came about in the early years of the 20th century in the understanding of art and the meaning of artistic activity that had been inherited from modern art.
In addition to the text quoted above, the catalogue contains conversations with the two collectors (The collector as curator), alphabetical, chronological and geographical indexes of the artists included, and a select bibliography. Finally, it contains three essays, by Richard Hollis (The Avant-garde and Graphic Design), Maurizio Scudiero (Avant-garde and Typography: a transversal reading), and Bruno Tonini (Avant-garde Typography (1900-1945). Theories and Characters).
These essays provide the exhibition and the catalogue with the essential tools for a complete understanding of the body of work on display, which is both numerous and widely varied. Of remarkable visual and textual richness, this body of work is not always easy to understand due to a range of diverse factors. Many of the works, for example, have not been easily accessible to the general public and are therefore little known, nor are their creators. Furthermore, they were produced across an extremely extensive geographical area over a period of more than half a century, in addition to the linguistic barriers sometimes involved, the complexity of the articulation of forms and signs, and in many cases the revolutionary mise-en-page of the textual language, which is in fact the fundamental vehicle for communication and comprehension.
Within this complex context the enlightening texts on the historical sources of avant-garde typography by Bruno Tonini, the chronologically and geographically ordered survey of avant-garde graphic design by Richard Hollis, and the transversal discussion of avant-garde typography by Maurizio Scudiero together order this apparently heterogeneous and disparate material. This sustained effort on the part of the three authors has provided the enormous body of visual and textual material on display in the exhibition with interpretative tools that as are effective as they are infrequently encountered.