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Between revolutions

Karel Teige: L'Enfant Terrible of the Czech Modernist Avant-Garde by Eric Dluhosch and Rostislav Svacha. MIT Press, 1999. 420pp. £29.95

Karel Teige was a seminal figure in the development of the Modern Movement in Europe: the politically engaged artist-agitator. His graphic design, picture poems and collages from the late 1920s and 1930s moved effortlessly between Constructivism and Surrealism, the twin revolutionary ideologies of the time. Greatly influenced by Soviet Constructivism and its followers, including Mart Stam, Hans Wittwer and Hannes Meyer, Teige translated their articles for Stavba and his own review ReD (see right). His photomontage poster, 'Study at the Bauhaus', looks more like an invitation to a jam session than a course in committed design.

Teige's attack on the monumental formalism of Le Corbusier's Mundaneum project in a 1929 issue of Stavba prompted the elegant reply, 'In Defence of Architecture'.With the benefit of hindsight, a synthesis of the two positions might seem the answer; though most would give the verdict to Le Corbusier on points.What remains hard to understand, given Teige's poetic imagination and the beauty of his graphic work, is the doctrinaire functionalist line of his polemic.Yet his key assertion that architects should create 'instruments' rather than monuments surely remains valid.

The Stalinist regime that took control after the war bore little resemblance to the socialism Teige had campaigned for; his radical credentials only marginalised him the more. As the first major work in English, then, this book is welcome, even at almost half-a-century after Teige's death.Clearly this was an extraordinary man.

Seemingly aware of MIT Press' ability to douse any revolutionary spark with buckets of academicism, co-author Eric Dluhosch says: 'The aim was to produce . . . a kind of multi-theme tapestry, in which all aspects of Teige's accomplishments are composed into a rich and tightly interwoven intellectual (as well as pictorial) pattern.'Weighing in at 1.85 kilos, complete with introduction by Kenneth Frampton, it is worth the effort to pick up for the insight into this neglected body of work.

Chapter eight, 'Teige's minimum dwelling as a critique of modern architecture', is especially interesting: his observations on Le Corbusier's work in this field are razor sharp.Teige's own apartment, with its bilateral arrangement of individual rooms and single beds was seen as part of the sexual equality that would form part of the new socialist lifestyle.

Teige's concluding thoughts, on a restored balance between human beings and nature through the merging of technical culture with the poetic idea, is illustrated by his retelling of the landscape painter Tao-Be, who disappeared into his own mural. This seems to prefigure current ecological concerns - though, for me, disturbing images of the Teletubbies keep bobbing to the surface.

Far more disturbing, for all the talk of Surrealism and 'oneiric pictures', are the later collages featuring cut-up female nudes.Seen en masse they suggest something more like a morbid breast fixation, and remind me of Shelly Duvall's immortal line to the Woody Allen character in Annie Hall - that sex with him was 'a truly Kafka-esque experience'.

In spite of all the material, and with a meagre eight pages of colour, this is in the end a very dull tapestry. Its poor pastiche of Constructivist typography on the cover distances it still further from the spirit of its subject.

David Wild is an architect in London

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