“They rejected brushes and pencils in favor of drafting tools and photography”

The Art Institute of Chicago is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life” which follows six artists working in Eastern Europe primarily from the 1920’s and 1930’s in the world of design. As the exhibition overview tells, these artists “rejected brushes and pencils in favor of drafting tools and photography,” choosing not to create fine art, but to bring their work to the people through posters, books, magazines, and even office supplies and stationary. The six artists are similar and at times their work overlaps in space, style and intent, but I found the second half of the exhibit – that focusing on the work of Latvian Gustav Klutsis, Russian El Lissitzky and German John Heartfield – to be the more interesting.

Working at the intersection of Constructivism, Bauhaus and Dada, some common themes develop among the work. Much of it is propagandist and populist — heralding “worker as hero” — and much of it relies on repetition — a sort of play on strength in numbers and in a shared commonality. There are many large format posters and the text — usually short rally cries or slogans — is done in visually appealing and uncommon (at least to this viewer) Cyrillic and German fonts; almost all the work falls under the category of “blickfang,” a great term which roughly means “eye-catching.”

Take, for example, two lithographs by Gustav Klutsis from 1930. We Will Repay the Country’s Coal Debt features three stolid miners in large scale and was designed to be hung three or more abreast to create the impression of a wall of workers. Another poster, Worker Men and Women: Everyone Vote in the Soviet Elections uses repetition within the work by overlaying many copies of the same raised hand. Both use a red, black and white palette typical of Klutsis’ work and they are striking in their straightforward, yet grand imposition.

Gustav Klutsis

Gustav Klutsis, We Will Repay the Country's Coal Debt, 1930 (left) and Worker Men and Women: Everyone Vote in the Soviet Elections, 1930 (right)

Working primarily with photography and photomontage, John Heartfield carried these same ideas along designing a number of covers for AIZ (Workers’ Illustrated Magazine) throughout the 1930’s and his arresting poster The Hand Has Five Fingers (1928). My personal favorite from Heartfield, however, is his 1920 Self Portrait. The small-ish photo had been cut from a larger one and shows tape residue from when it was previously mounted in another setting for use as a book illustration. Such small details really accentuate how these guys worked on the practical (instead of fine) side of the art world.

John Heartfield

John Heartfield, The Hand Has Five Fingers, 1928 (left) and Self Portrait, 1920 (right)

Perhaps conceptualizing their role as “designer” over “artist” more than any other work is El Lissitzsky’s The Constructor. (1925) A double exposure photomontage, the work is a self-portrait of the artist combined with a drafter’s compass and designer’s type. The work could be seen as reflective of all the men featured here.

El Lissitzsky, The Constructor, 1925

El Lissitzsky, The Constructor, 1925

The exhibition presents a style of art I don’t know much about from from a time and place pretty different from my own. In some ways it was this freshness and unfamiliarity that initially pulled me in, but because the artists are placing themselves firmly among their audience, the work in other ways comes off as quite familiar. Two seemingly competing ideas that, like the combinations of photos the artists assembled, can actually come together in a powerful and persuasive way.

The exhibition runs through October 9, 2011.


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Filed under Art, Exhibitions

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