When books and exhibitions explore the early years of Modernism, they tend to focus on a few key cities: Paris, Moscow, Vienna, Berlin. So it’s instructive to see a new show at the British Library, ‘Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937’, because it takes such a broad view of the period. Those familiar cities are there, but so are Bucharest, Belgrade, Kracow, Copenhagen and others, with exhibits that include manifestos, pamphlets, deluxe artist’s books and a host of ‘little magazines’: some, like the Czechoslovakian Telehor, which had only one (rather beautiful) issue; others, like the Bucharest-based review Contimpuranal (The Contemporary), which ran for a decade. And alongside such central figures as the Futurist Filippo Marinetti, with his innovative treatment of words on a page (pictured below), and the painter/photographer Laszlo Moholy- Nagy, are some now obscure artists who were equally committed to experiment – for instance, the group that congregated at the wonderfully named Fantastic Tavern in Tbilisi.
Despite some odd omissions (no copy of Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau), this show really does shed new light on the subject. If only it was bathed in a little more light itself. Of course such items have to be treated with care, but too many of them are lost in gloom and don’t have the visual impact they should. You only have to visit Tate Britain and see how Turner’s watercolours are currently displayed to know this needn’t be the case (www.bl.uk)