David Senior, the bibliographer for the Museum of Modern Art Library, organized THE ELECTRO-LIBRARY, a small show at MoMA right now on European Avant-Garde magazines from the 1920s. It is in the Education building in the mezzanine (11 W. 53rd St.). Senior’s selection resonates with me because my own book Merz to Emigre: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century is one of my favorites. I asked Senior to talk more about the significance of these journals.
What do these Avant Garde magazines tell us about art, culture, politics?
Partly, these magazines were manifestos for revolutionary discourses related to the radical politics of the left in 1920s Europe. They transmitted aesthetic programs or methods of image-making, which theorized proletarian art, or what it would mean for art to be integrated in the new organization of life within communist or other socialist propositions. So in terms of your question, these magazines were centrally focused on an inextricable connection between art, culture and politics that could be traced from ideas trickling out of Moscow art circles of the Constructivists, Suprematists, etc., and found a great emissary in the figure of El Lissitzsky. In this context, the design of the printed page, its changing structure and the new possibilities of typography were part of this revolutionary project and were loaded with a utopian promise of the New in this very specific historical moment in Europe.
The title THE ELECTRO-LIBRARY was gleaned from a quote in a brief manifesto by Lissitzky from 1923 called “Topography of Typography,” and seemed like a fun, descriptive term to summarize this rethinking of the possibilities of print and the Avant-Garde’s creation of communication networks through these little magazines.
Why did you select the ones you did? Are they the most important documents or do they have the most exceptional graphics?
One of the consistent features of magazines of the historical Avant-Garde was the presence of charts in the front or back matter of the issues which listed other magazines—it was a literal mapping of affinity, of showing comrades. I was really interested in these lists as one way to create a grouping of this material, and used them as a curatorial premise. Because of some space limitations with the show, I particularly focused on titles from Eastern and Central Europe that expressed how Constructivist aesthetics and the new typography spread across this particular geographical area and to highlight designers and titles from places like Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
In terms of the presentation, I definitely chose to show pages from the magazines that had exceptional graphics, that were expressive of new ways of structuring a page or some particularly bold typographic element. A deeper look into these texts within the runs of these magazines though does reveal a full documentation of the artists’ networks in Europe at the time. You see translations of key texts, reproductions of images of new paintings, sculpture, architecture, theater, film—lots of Charlie Chaplin!—from this network of new art and design. These images were often collaged together with images of new industrial objects and tools. So yes—they are important documents with exceptional graphics.
Are there magazines that are still emerging, that somehow have been lost?
There has been so much great scholarship in this area in the fields of art and design history that I really leaned on in my own research. So I don’t think I discovered anything in this pretty well-worn path. I can speak of our own collection at MoMA Library. One title that I uncovered was a Czech one called Pasmo (The Zone) that had been tucked away in our flat files in our Long Island City location. It is a large tabloid format publication that focused on popular film as well as Avant-Garde art and architecture. The design of the magazine is often credited to Zdenek Rossman and was a publication of Brno branch of the Devetsil artists association. It’s one of my favorite publications in the show. It definitely hadn’t been pulled out in many years.
How many are in MoMA’s holdings?
All of the materials in the show are from the MoMA Library collection. Many had been in the collection for some time and some others had come in more recently, from donations or acquisitions. This exhibition was a good opportunity to survey what we had in the collection from this significant moment of Avant-Garde magazines.
I had been posting a lot of images of the magazines as I was scanning them for research in the lead up to the show. You can check the images out at our library tumblr site and also on the exhibition page at MoMA.org.
When these materials aren’t in this exhibition, eager researchers can view them in our reading room. Our library is open to the public and we like to make sure everyone knows that the collection is readily accessible.
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