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Book Review: The European Avant-Gardes, 1905-1935: A Portable Guide

Robert Brazeau, University of Alberta

Sascha Bru, The European Avant-Gardes, 1905-1935: A Portable Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

Sascha Bru’s  The European Avant-Gardes, 1905-1935: A Portable Guide offers a highly readable, consistently informative, and, it should be said, unerringly successful description of the rise to prominence (if that is the right word) of an ersatz group of artists and writers who set out to either make sense of, or fundamentally critique, a Europe that was undergoing considerable historical, cultural, geographical, economic, and, perhaps above all, political transformation in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Scholars who are relatively early on in their engagement with the avant-gardes could not ask for a better place to start their research, and those who have been working in and around this field for many years will find much that is new, edifying, and energising in Bru’s eclectic and expansive approach. I cannot imagine a reader of this book who will not learn a considerable amount about the field under consideration, and I cannot imagine a writer better than Bru, whose career to date has been steeped in a critical exposition of the avant-garde, to guide us through this tangled, multi-media, vaguely networked and always arresting field of inquiry.

In his conclusion, Bru himself summarises the project and its methodology in the following way:

The present book was conceived as a portable, Duchampian boîte-en-valise, a miniature museum with multiple points of entry, precisely to illustrate that the avant-gardes are best approached from a variety of angles. To look at them only as a phenomenon in the history of the arts, and an important one at that, as done in the first part of this book, is not quite telling the whole tale. For as shown in the second part of this book, they were also an important counterforce in cultural history more broadly, the lasting impact of which can be felt to this day. As manifested by the third part of this book, the avant-gardes can also be regarded as questioning conventional views of time and history, as a formation ‘outside of time’ that perhaps continues to speak to and question us. For all these reasons the classic or historical European avant-gardes are best studied from multiple perspectives, with each perspective on them unearthing a new facet that often contradicts another. Indeed, only a dialectic approach, that is one that relates all parts to each other and to the whole, allows us to grasp the avant-gardes (p. 239-40).

While humility is an admirable trait, this book is more than a portable guide, more than a rough-and-ready excursion into the archive that it treats: it treats all of the most important aspects of avant-garde work with an enviably capacious understanding and acumen that helps to unite the diverse strands of avant-gardist work into some kind of genealogical clarity.  But the metaphor is a good one nonetheless, since Bru chooses to move laterally within the field, foregrounding, quickly and deftly, different works, concerns, capacities and criticisms of avant-garde art in order to allow a variegated critical collage to develop via the logic of juxtaposition. There is no doubt that Bru, as archivist and author, presides over the narrative that is developed here about an avant-garde that found itself attempting to shift the expressive and rhetorical field of an art practice that it saw as outmoded, doing so in a quickly changing, technologised and industrialised world, but, throughout, Bru shows himself to be more fascinated with these materials than he is bent on establishing a concrete narrative that seeks to answer for them.  Admirably, this book practices a mode of showing over telling that is nevertheless effectively organised and critically informed. Material on the urban dimension of the avant-garde, for example, weaves an original thread through the work of avant-gardists like László Moholy-Nagy, who saw urban modernity in unequivocally positive, even redemptive terms (that is, as a technological utopia) and artists like Eugène Atget and Jakob van Hoddis who were either ambivalent or even fearful about the sociological and technological modernity of urban Europe, especially Paris, which had become a beacon of the avant-garde movement (p. 92-94).

Hovering over the book, and the study of the avant-garde more generally, are the twin notions of critical and historical containment: how do certain expressive modes get included and excluded from what is legitimately avant-garde, and how can we periodize the rise, efflorescence, and ultimate decline of the avant-gardists historically? Bru effectively locates 1905 as (arguable) point of origin because it is at about this time that a genuinely self-conscious critical attitude in the arts emerges with a charged sense of political and historical mission, even destiny. It is also at about this time that the materials and methods of the avant-garde come to dominate in the production, distribution, and consumption of the art object. Bru’s approach is always attentive to the materialist dimension of the avant-garde, construing in the myriad works he examines a through-line by which divergent practices and concerns are animated by a spirit of the transformative, even epoch-making, capacity of new expressive and artistic technologies.  Take, for example, this subtle reading of the avant-gardists who cohered around the Berlin publication Der Dada:

For others, like the impatient Dadaist Johannes Baader, things could not change fast or radically enough. In 1919, on the cover of the first issue of the magazine Der Dada, he announced a new dating system: ‘Die neue Zeit’, the new time, would begin with the year of the death of the ‘Oberdada’ or chief Dada, a nickname Baader had given himself and by which he here mockingly likened himself to a new Christ. Baader’s joke – made in the midst of the November Revolution in Germany – can be read as megalomaniac, but it is also a perfect illustration of the fact that for the avant-gardes history could be rebooted at any time. Moreover, his new ‘calendar’ recalled the French Revolutionary calendar adopted between 1793 and 1805 (and, later, for eighteen days by the Paris Commune in 1871). Hence, even when the avant-gardes set out to change the conventions of time itself, they always put certain traces of the past into new relations, as Mayakovsky had observed (p. 188).

So, while someone like Baader was unerringly committed to the newness of the new and the ‘nowness of the now,’ he nevertheless sought, and found, historical precursors to validate the new social and temporal configurations that he envisioned.  Bru’s real strength as a reader of this material is that he is conversant with the historical and aesthetic dialectics, the fraught engagement with the past, that animated avant-garde practice. In this respect, Bru’s work distinguishes itself from the still dominant work in the field: Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde. It is not possible to do justice to Bru’s excellent critical engagement with Bürger’s work, but suffice it to say that Bru’s chapter, ‘The Futures of Theory’ is among the most important in the book for charting a new course in the study of this material.  Bru’s chief claim is that, while the avant-gardes clearly saw art as a form of praxis that could change society, it does not follow from this that they saw art as anything other than a separate field of critical reflection. Bürger’s thesis, which still holds considerable sway, is that the avant-gardes sought to ‘destroy art’s material autonomy’ (p. 230). Bru’s view, which certainly seems more historically credible, is that the avant-gardes sought to have it both ways in practicing an art that was integrated with social praxis but was still regarded as a specialised, even sacred realm within it.  

This latter claim by Bru opens onto what I suspect may well become a dominant concern of the study of avant-garde work: the relationship between the avant-garde and the emerging mass forms like advertising and the newspaper. Critical discourse in the humanities in general, but in Modernist studies in particular, has taken a turn toward the daily, the middle and low brow, and it is of significant benefit to his readers that Bru takes the energising relationship between mass communicative forms and the new aesthetic practices of the avant-garde as seriously as he takes the lively and sardonic treatment of high art that we find in (what I hesitate to call) canonical avant-gardist works.  Bru’s edited collection Regarding the Popular: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and High and Low Culture took this connection as predominant, and, here, Bru does not so much expand upon, but helpfully continues, the critical examination of how avant-garde works share a kind of visual grammar and cognitive space with middle brow forms. There is little doubt that our understanding of this relationship is going to be brought into greater relief as works like Bru’s expand our evolving understanding of the aims and methods of the avant-garde.

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