Early 20th Century Avant-Garde in a Spectacular New MoMA Show

Exhibition Reviews

December 29, 2020

The interwar period is marked by the burst of experimentation undertaken by the international avant-garde. Led by the idea to distort and ultimately alter the inherited patterns of art-making, artists also posed a question of what it means to be an artist at all in the era challenged by numerous socio-political shifts as well as a rapid technological advancement.

The vast networks, collaborations beyond the borders, and the introduction of entirely new media characterized the interwar period despite economic crises, revolutions, and the fall of empires. Now, to understand different ideological inclinations and bold visual explorations of the avant-gardists and overview their significance in the current moment of crisis which seems very much the one during the 1930s, The Museum of Modern Art in New York organized an exhibition called Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented.

Left: Herbert Bayer - Exhibition stand for electrical company. 1924. Gouache, ink, pencil, and cut-and- pasted printed paper on board. 26 3/8 × 14 15/16′′ (67 × 38 cm) / Right: Max Burchartz (German, 1887–1961) - Untitled (red square). c. 1928. Cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper on board. 19 11/16 × 13 9/16′′ (50 × 34.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Merrill C. Berman Collection

The Utopian Desires

The current exhibition perfectly emphasizes a new paradigm constructed by the artists who believed in an artistic figure worthy of the society, one that is an active proponent of the social transformation and is no longer solely attached to purely artistic problems. Following the zeitgeist and their own ideological beliefs, they saw themselves as engineers, agitators, and constructors. The traditional media were found too bourgeois, so they started developing artworks in a way similar to technological or architectural projects, as they felt new visual language and modes of presentation interact with mass audiences better than the old ones.

For that reason, Jodi Hauptman (Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Adrian Sudhalter (Consulting Curator) with Jane Cavalier (Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) who curated the exhibition underlined how the innovative strategies that reflected the modern momentum in shocking and subversive fashion criticized the society by reorienting the notion of artwork from painting to production.

John Heartfield - The Hand Has Five Fingers (5 Finger hat die Hand) (Campaign poster for German Communist Party). 1928. Lithograph. Printer: Peuvag- Druckerei, Berlin. 38 1/2 × 29 1/4′′ (97.8 × 74.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Merrill C. Berman Collection

The Works

Engineer, Agitator, Constructor cast a light on the most exploited medium of the all - the photomontage, which enabled artists to establish an entirely new visual language by cutting up and pasting bits of printed photographic and widely circulated images. These powerful images directly reflected the current moment with depictions of crowds and their leaders, cities, workers, factories, and machinery, or in brief the spirit of a new age.

Aside from all the relevant innovations in terms of concept and form, the exhibition pays a special focus on the role women had in the interwar avant-garde movements as the key creators of bold and subversive strategies.

The installment includes astonishing works of Futurism, Dada, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Russian Constructivism, with seminal figures such as Lyubov Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, John Heartfield, and Hannah Höch. Alongside experiments executed in traditional media such as painting, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking, on display are also examples of typography, advertising, propaganda, exhibition display, books, journals, films, photography, and theater design.

Left: Liubov Popova - Production Clothing for Actor No. 7 (Prozodezhda aktera No. 7). 1922 (inscribed 1921). Gouache, cut-and-pasted colored paper, ink, and pencil on paper. 12 15/16 × 9 1/8′′ (32.8 × 23.1 cm) / Right: Valentina Kulagina - Maquette for We Are Building (Stroim). 1929. Cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper, sandpaper, gouache, and 36.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Merrill C. Berman Collection

The Artist Reinvented at MoMa

The current exhibition is an actual representation of MoMA’s recent acquisition of three hundred works from the Merrill C. Berman Collection. It is important as it includes early 20th-century avant-garde art from Soviet Russia; Weimar Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and it demonstrates the inseparable connection between radical art and important social movements active at the time.

The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalog.

Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented will be on display on MoMA’s floor Three, at the Robert B. Menschel Galleries until 10 April 2021.

Engineer, Agitator, Constructor MoMA

Featured image: Hannah Höch - Untitled (Dada). c. 1922. Cut-and- pasted printed and colored paper on board. 9 3/4 × 13′′ (24.8 × 33 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Merrill C. Berman Collection. All images courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.