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The Avantgarde

The Avantagarde

Avant-garde in French means front guard, advance guard, or vanguard. People often use the term in French and English to refer to people or works that are experimental or novel, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics. According to its champions, the avant-garde pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm within definitions of art/culture/reality. The origin of the application of this French term to art can be fixed at May 17, 1863, the opening of the Salon des Refusés in Paris, organised by painters whose work was rejected for the annual Paris Salon of officially sanctioned academic art. Salons des Refusés were held in 1874, 1875, and 1886.

The vanguard, a small troop of highly skilled soldiers, explores the terrain ahead of a large advancing army and plots a course for the army to follow. This concept is applied to the work done by small bands of intellectuals and artists as they open pathways through new cultural or political terrain for society to follow. Due to implied meanings stemming from the military terminology, some people feel the avant-garde implies elitism, especially when used to describe cultural movements. The term may also refer to the promotion of radical social reforms, the aims of its various movements presented in public declarations called manifestos.

Over time, avant-garde became associated with movements concerned with art for art's sake, focusing primarily on expanding the frontiers of aesthetic experience, rather than with wider social reform. In our context the avantgarde will cover the avantgardeist movements of the early 20th century that specifically focused on visual communication design and/or implemented it as a modus operandi: The Constructivists, Futurism, Dada, Bauhaus and De Stijl.

The Russian Avantgarde


Kazimir Malevich (1879 – 1935) was a Russian avant-garde artist and art theorist, whose pioneering work and writing influenced the development of abstract art in the 20th century. His concept of Suprematism sought to develop a form of expression that moved as far as possible from the world of natural forms (objectivity) and subject matter in order to access "the supremacy of pure feeling" and spirituality.

The Russian avant-garde was a large, influential wave of avant-garde modern art that flourished in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, approximately from 1890 to 1930—although some have placed its beginning as early as 1850 and its end as late as 1960. The term covers many separate, but inextricably related, art movements that flourished at the time; including Suprematism and Constructivism.

The Russian avant-garde reached its creative and popular height in the period between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and 1932, at which point the ideas of the avant-garde clashed with the newly emerged state-sponsored direction of Socialist Realism. Thus, the Soviet Union during the 1920s became home to a major avant-garde design movement, one that was committed to socialism’s promise of equality, modernity, abundance and individual liberation. The enormity of the goal of the Bolshevik project was, as Trotsky hoped, to amuse, educate, strike the imagination, and liberate the Russian people, all at the same time and all at once.

Art in the service of the Revolution

Constructivism is an early twentieth-century art movement founded in 1915 by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. Abstract and austere, constructivist art aimed to reflect modern industrial society and urban space.[1] The movement rejected decorative stylization in favor of the industrial assemblage of materials. Constructivists were in favour of art for propaganda and social purposes, and were associated with Soviet socialism, the Bolsheviks and the Russian avant-garde.

Constructivist architecture and art had a great effect on modern art movements of the 20th century, influencing major trends such as the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements. Its influence was widespread, with major effects upon architecture, sculpture, graphic design, industrial design, theatre, film, dance, fashion and, to some extent, music.

As a part of the early Soviet youth movement, the Constructivists took an artistic outlook aimed to encompass cognitive, material activity, and the whole of spirituality of mankind. The artists tried to create art that would take the viewer out of the traditional setting and make them an active viewer of the artwork. Most of the designs were a fusion of art and political commitment, and reflected the revolutionary times.

The Constructivist culture, from fashion to theater.

Two Graphic Design Giants

The Constructivist era that flourished before, during and after the 1917 Russian Revolution and continued until the ascent of Stalin in 1925 brought forth a very long list of extraordinary artists, designers, architects, dramaturgists, musicians who influended not only their own times but all times between now and then: Tatlin, Meyerhold, Popova, Kandinsky, Stravinsky, Stepanova, Eisentsein are just a few of the names who worked in a range of different fields from cinema to theater arts to architecture. However, since our specific area is the history of graphic design, here we will show the works of the 2 designers who specifically focused on graphic design in their outputs - Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky.

El Lissitzky

Lazar Markovich Lissitzky (1890 – 1941), better known as El Lissitzky, was a Russian artist, designer, photographer, teacher, typographer, and architect. He was one of the most important figures of the Russian avant garde, helping develop Suprematism with his friend and mentor, Kazimir Malevich.

Lissitzky's entire career was laced with the belief that the artist could be an agent for change. A Jew, he began his career illustrating Yiddish children's books in an effort to promote Jewish culture in Russia, a country that was undergoing massive change at the time and had just repealed its anti-semitic laws. Starting at the age of 15, he began teaching; a duty he would stay with for the vast majority of his life. Over the years, he taught in a variety of positions, schools, and artistic mediums, spreading and exchanging ideas at a rapid pace. He took this ethic with him when he worked with Malevich in heading the suprematist art group UNOVIS, when he developed a variant suprematist series of his own, Proun, and further still in 1921, when he took up a job as the Russian cultural ambassador in Weimar Germany, working with and influencing important figures of the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements during his stay. In his remaining years he brought significant innovation and change to the fields of typography, exhibition design, photomontage, and book design, producing critically respected works and winning international acclaim for his exhibition design. This continued until his deathbed, where in 1941 he produced one of his last known works — a Soviet propaganda poster rallying the people to construct more tanks for the fight against Nazi Germany.

El Lissitzky's typographic work involving concrete poetry: Page spreads for a book of poems by Mayakovsky.

"The story of the little red square". Book design by El Lissitzky.

The Proun drawings. This was years before the invention of digital 3D...


Alexander Rodchenko (1891 - 1956), was one of the most versatile Constructivist artist/designers to emerge after the Russian Revolution. He worked as a painter and graphic designer before turning to photomontage and photography. His photography was socially engaged, formally innovative, and opposed to a painterly aesthetic. Concerned with the need for analytical-documentary photo series, he often shot his subjects from odd angles - usually high above or below - to shock the viewer and to postpone recognition. He wrote: "One has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same key-hole again and again."


Russian Movie Posters

Russian Movie Poster
Russian Movie Poster
Russian Movie Poster
Russian Movie Poster
Russian Movie Poster
Russian Movie Poster

In July 1923, Leon Trotsky published an article in Pravda, Russia’s main, state-run newspaper, titled “Vodka, the Church, and the Cinema.” In it, he argued that cinema and movie-going culture would do for post-revolutionary Russia what taverns and churches did for Imperial Russia, only better. Like the tavern, the cinema would provide patrons with intoxicating, light-hearted amusement. Like the Orthodox Church, films screened in the cinemas of the future would teach the laity about morality and universal truths, all tailored according to new socialist norms.

Yet the cinema, Trotsky wrote, was a much more natural and “democratic” institution than the bar rooms and churches of the old regime, much more in tune with the diverse intellectual needs of the people, and workers in particular. “In church, only one drama is performed year in and year out,” he noted, “while the cinema next door shows pagan, Jewish, and Christian Easters.” Whereas taverns and churches served to distract and dull one’s conscience, the cinema, according to Trotsky, “amuses, educates, strikes the imagination with images, and liberates you from the need of crossing the church door.”


One of the most important avant-garde art movements of the 20th century, Futurism developed in Italy between 1909 and continued into the early 1920s, although many of the movements most celebrated artists perished during World War 1 - an irony in and of itself since the movement celebrated war, violence, speed, advanced technology and urban modernity. Committed to the new, its members wished to destroy older forms of culture and to demonstrate the beauty of modern life - the beauty of the machine, speed, violence and change. The Futurists were fascinated by the problems of representing modern experience, and through this interest they explored every medium of art, including painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre, music, architecture and even gastronomy.

The Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was the first among them to produce a manifesto of their artistic philosophy in his Manifesto of Futurism (1909), first released in Milan and published in the French paper Le Figaro (February 20). Marinetti summed up the major principles of the Futurists, including a passionate loathing of ideas from the past, especially political and artistic traditions. He and others also espoused a love of speed, technology and violence. The car, the plane, the industrial town were all legendary for the Futurists, because they represented the technological triumph of man over nature.

Marinetti's impassioned polemic immediately attracted the support of the young Milanese painters —Boccioni, Carrà, and Russolo—who wanted to extend Marinetti's ideas to the visual arts (Russolo was also a composer, and introduced Futurist ideas into his compositions). The painters Balla and Severini met Marinetti in 1910 and together these artists represented Futurism's first phase.

As an early days "concrete" poet Marinetti's interests were especially concentrated on typography, which makes the Futurist movement highly relevant to Graphic Design history. In what has come to be known as his Typographic manifesto of May 11, 1913, the title of which was translated into English as Destruction of Syntax—Radio Imagination—Words-in-Freedom, first published as an independent leaflet in Italian, Marinetti wrote in a section entitled "Typographical Revolution":

"I have initiated a typographical revolution directed against the bestial, nauseating sort of book that contains passéist poetry or verse à la D'Annunzio—handmade paper that imitates models of the seventeenth century, festooned with helmets, Minervas, Apollos, decorative capitals in red ink with loops and squiggles, vegetables, mythological ribbons from missals, epigraphs, and Roman numerals. The book must be the Futurist expression of Futurist thought. Not only that. My revolution is directed against the so-called typographical harmony of the page, which is contrary to the flux and reflux, the leaps and bursts of style that run through the page itself. For that reason we will use, in the very same page, three or four different colors of ink, and as many as twenty different tpographical fonts if necessary. For examples: italics for a series of swift or similar sensations, boldface for violent onomatopoeias, etc. The typographical revolution and the multicolored variety in the letters will mean that I can double the expressive force of words.

And so I shall realize the fourth principle contained in my "First Manifesto of Futurism" (20 February 1909): 'We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed' "

(Rainy, Poggi & Wittman eds., Futurism: An Anthology [2009] 149-50).

Surrealism and Dada. Futurism as a coherent and organized artistic movement is now regarded as extinct, having died out in the 1944 with the death of his leader Marinetti, and Futurism was, like science fiction, in part overtaken by 'the future.' Nonetheless the ideals of futurism remain as significant components of modern Western culture; the emphasis on youth, speed, power and technology finding expression in much of modern commercial cinema and culture. Ridley Scott consciously evoked the designs of Sant'Elia in Blade Runner. Echoes of Marinetti's thought, especially his "dreamt-of metallization of the human body", are still strongly prevalent in Japanese culture, and surface in manga/anime and the works of artists such as Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the "Tetsuo" (lit. "Ironman") films.


Further reading: The typographic revolution




Dada periodicals. Page layouts and typography: "391". Publisher and designer: Francis Picabia.

Dada or Dadaism is a cultural movement that began in neutral Zürich, Switzerland, during World War I and peaked from 1916 to 1920. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature (poetry, art manifestos, art theory), theater, and graphic design, which concentrated its anti war politic through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works.

Given their strong conceptual underpinnings and their interest in conveying messages that attacked the bourgeois establishment and the State systems that had brought forth the catastrophe of World War 1, the Dadaists were very interested in the power and influence of the written word. To this end they produced a series of magazines, that were also influenced by Marinetti's thoughts on the usage of typography as a discrete tool for conveying strong messages and that held mixtures of text and image which can be said to be precursors of the poetry school called "concrete poetry" that came into full force during the second half of the 20th century. (Concrete poems are objects composed of words, letters, colors, and typefaces, in which graphic space plays a central role in both design and meaning. Concrete poets experimented boldly with language, incorporating visual, verbal, kinetic, and sonic elements.) 

"Dada". Publisher and designer: Tristan Tzara.

One of the most beautiful periodicals ever designed, Merz was published and designed by Kurt Schwitters. Above are pages from the first issue.

Merz. Issue 2.

Merz. Issue 4.

Merz. Issues 6 and 7.

Merz. Issues 8 and 21. Issue 8 was designed by El Lissitzky.

According to its proponents, Dada was not art — it was "anti-art". Dada sought to fight art with art. For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art were to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strove to have no meaning — interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. If art is to appeal to sensibilities, Dada is to offend. It is perhaps then ironic that Dada became an influential movement in modern art. Dada became a commentary on order and the carnage they believed it wreaked. Through this rejection of traditional culture and aesthetics they hoped to destroy traditional culture and aesthetics. Art historians have described Dada as being, in large part, "in reaction to what many of these artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide." Years later, Dada artists described the movement as "a phenomenon bursting forth in the midst of the postwar economic and moral crisis, a savior, a monster, which would lay waste to everything in its path. [It was] a systematic work of destruction and demoralization...In the end it became nothing but an act of sacrilege." Reason and logic had led people into the horrors of war; the only route to salvation was to reject logic and embrace anarchy and the irrational.

Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971).

John Heartfield / Helmut Herzfeld (1891-1968).



Bauhaus is the common term for the Staatliches Bauhaus, an art and architecture school in Germany that operated from 1919 to 1933 and briefly in the United States from 1937-1938 and for the approach to design that it developed and taught. The most natural meaning for its name (related to the German verb for "build") is Architecture House. Bauhaus style became one of the most influential currents in Modernist architecture. The foundation of the Bauhaus occurred at a time of crisis and turmoil in Europe as a whole and particularly in Germany. Its establishment resulted from a confluence of a diverse set of political, social, educational and artistic shifts in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Art nouveau had broken the preoccupation with revivalist historical styles that had characterized the 19th century. In the first decade of the new century however, the movement was receiving criticism; impelled by rationalist ideas requiring practical justification for formal effects. Nonetheless, the movement had opened up a language of abstraction which was to have a profound importance during the 20th century.

One of the main objectives of the Bauhaus was to unify art, craft, and technology. The machine was considered a positive element, and therefore industrial and product design were important components. Vorkurs ("initial course") was taught; this is the modern day Basic Design course that has become one of the key foundational courses offered in architectural schools across the globe. There was no teaching of history in the school because everything was supposed to be designed and created according to first principles rather than by following precedent.

Graphic Design and Typography of the Bauhaus school.

The Bauhaus school had a major impact on art and architecture trends in Western Europe, the United States and Israel in the decades following its demise, as many of the artists involved fled or were exiled by the Nazi regime. Both Gropius and Breuer went to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and worked together before their professional split in 1941. The Harvard School was enormously influential in the late 1940s and early 1950s, producing such students as Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Lawrence Halprin and Paul Rudolph, among many others.

While very active in areas of design such as interior design, textiles, ceramics, glassware, metal-ware and furniture design, it has to be acknowledged that the Bauhaus school produced relatively few graphic designers. However, those that did come out of the movement were fundamental in setting the principles of 20th century graphic design, especially after some of them moved to the USA during the 1930s, where they quickly became key figures in editorial and advertising design.


Paul Renner's first drawings for Futura.

Futura is a sans serif typeface designed by Paul Renner between 1924 and 1926. It is based on geometric shapes which became representative visual elements of the Bauhaus design style of 1919-1933. Futura became a cornerstone of the ‘New Typography’ classified as Geometrical Modernism. Form follows function became the key words and careful reasoning constrained all the character shapes to their utmost functional simplicity. With Futura, in typographical terms, the industrial revolution had reached its logical conclusion.

Herbert Bayer (1900-1985) was an Austrian graphic designer, painter, photographer, and architect. In the spirit of clean simplification, Bayer developed a crisp visual style and adopted an all-lowercase and sans serif typeface for all Bauhaus publications. Bayer is also credited with designing the custom geometric sans-serif font, universal. In 1928, Bayer left the Bauhaus to become art director of Vogue magazine's Berlin office. Ten years later, he settled in New York City where he had a long and distinguished career in nearly every aspect of the graphic arts.

László Moholy-Nagy (1895 – 1946) was a Hungarian painter and photographer as well as a professor at the Bauhaus school. He was highly influenced by constructivism. He was a strong advocate of the integration of technology and industry into the arts. In 1923, he replaced Johannes Itten as the instructor of the preliminary course at the Bauhaus. This effectively marked the end of the school's expressionistic leanings and moved it closer towards its original aims as a school of design and industrial integration. The Bauhaus became known for the versatility of its artist and Moholy-Nagy was no exception. Throughout his career he became proficient and innovative in the fields of photography, typography, sculpture, painting, and industrial design. One of his main focuses was on photography. He coined the term "the New Vision", for his belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not. His theory of art and teaching was summed up in the book The New Vision, from Material to Architecture.

De Stijl

De Stijl also known as neoplasticism, was a Dutch artistic movement, founded in 1917. In a narrower sense, the term De Stijl is used to refer to a body of work created by a group of Dutch artists, from 1917 to 1931. De Stijl is also the name of a journal which was published by the painter and critic Theo van Doesburg, propagating the group's theories. Next to Van Doesburg, the group's principal members were the painters Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck, and the architects Gerrit Rietveld and J.J.P. Oud. The artistic philosophy that formed a basis for the group's work is known as neoplasticism — the new plastic art. Proponents of De Stijl sought to express a new utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and order. They advocated pure abstraction and universality by a reduction to the essentials of form and colour — they simplified visual compositions to the vertical and horizontal directions, and used only primary colors along with black and white.

Posters and flyers by Paul Schuitema, 1920's.

Paul Schuitema (1897 - 1973 ) was a Dutch graphic artist who was active during the De Stijl period. He also designed furniture and expositions and worked as photographer, film director, painter and teacher for publicity design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Schuitema studied at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Rotterdam. In the 1920s, he began to work on graphic design, applying the principles of De Stijl and constructivism to commercial advertising. Along with Gerard Kiljan and his famous colleague Piet Zwart, he followed ideas pioneered in the Soviet Union by El Lissitzky and Rodchenko, in Poland by Henryk Berlewi and in Germany by Kurt Schwitters. During his employment at the NV Maatschappij Van Berkel Patent scale company in Rotterdam, Schuitema gained recognition for his original designs of stationery and publicity material, often using only the colors black, red and white and bold sans serif fonts. From 1926 on, he started working with photomontages, becoming one of the pioneers of this technique in the field of industrial design. Even though he was a convinced socialist and often designed leftist publications directed at industrial workers, Schuitema also worked for major companies, such as Philips.


Further Reading

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