Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation 1910-1930 Edited by Timothy O Benson.MIT Press, 2002. 448pp. £41.50
A fascination with the European avantgarde of the revolutionary era continues to be reflected in current American academic publications, with Central European AvantGardes the most comprehensive so far. It serves as a catalogue to an amazing exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which travels this summer to Munich - ironically to the Haus der Kunst, scene of the Nazis' infamous 'Decadent Art' exhibition in 1937 - and in late autumn to Berlin.
From Weimar to Warsaw, Berlin to Bucharest, and taking in Prague, Vienna and Ljubljana, the book explores the moment when (says the foreword) 'new relationships between regional traditions and the cosmopolitan utopianism of the international avant-garde' were being forged. It examines work in many different media 'to follow the artists' ennobling search for a common language for all of humanity'.
The design and layout of the book reflect the period beautifully and put it head and shoulders above the MIT Press norm. A preface by the great Hungarian writer Péter Nádas sets an appropriate poetic tone, and then the lead essay by curator Timothy O Benson is followed by a dozen contributions - from the central question of nationalism and Modernity to city-by-city studies, commencing with Prague. Fragments of antique maps grace the pages, adding to the sense of place.
In Prague, the Bretons and Paul Eluard meet Karel Teige and Jindrich Styrsk'yTeige's work has been well documented by MIT Press (AJ 16.3.00), and his formulation of the relationship of Constructivism and Surrealism, which he termed 'Poetism', is still inspiring.
In Budapest, Constructivism remained the dominant ideology among the avantgarde, most famously Laszlo Moholy-Nagy;
but it was the self-educated proletarian Lajas Kassák who saw himself as the true leader.
Kassák's magazine, Ma (Today), founded in 1916, became the focus for artists and writers, notably Sándor Bortnyik's colour stencils, Bela Uitz's linocuts, and the theoretical writings of Ernö Kallai.
Christina Lodder's essay, 'Art into Life', opens with that beautifully posed photograph of the participants in the 1922 Congress of Constructivists and Dadaists at Weimar - a cloth-capped El Lissitzky at the centre. How extraordinarily well dressed they all are, hats and walking sticks included!
Essays on Berlin, Weimar and Dessau deal with relatively familiar material, but Krisztina Passuth uncovers neglected territory with her piece on avant-garde exhibitions - Devetsil in Prague, Zenitism in Zagreb, the Blok group in Warsaw, and Contimporanul in Bucharest. Marcel Janco, pictured in this chapter, enjoyed great success during the extraordinary building boom in 1930s Bucharest, producing posters, collages and illustrations as well as architecture.
Writing about Zagreb, Zelimir Koscevic points out that the now familiar term 'global village' first appeared in print there in 1924. The story of Ljubomir Micic, who founded the Zentitist movement in Zagreb in 1921, charts his eclectic path, which eventually inclined to Constructivism following his move to Belgrade, where he died, forgotten, at a home for the destitute in 1971 - a not untypical fate, it seems, for Zenit contributors.
The journey ends with Poland. Poznan, home of the Bunt (Revolt) artists, saw a definite leaning towards Expressionism, while Warsaw, at the crossroads, was more receptive to abstraction. Monika Krol's essay reminds us of the contributions of women artists in these circles: Katarzyna Kobro's painted steel sculptures still look extraordinarily fresh.
In the closing essay, Andrzej Turowski makes an excellent observation: 'The discovery of Central Europe by America reminds one of the discovery of America by Columbus. As in that case, people discovered here the part of the whole that they felt they lacked.' This fascination with the 'other' can lead either to exclusion or hospitality; the marginalised have a history, he suggests, 'simultaneously at the table and under it' - but the history of marginalised artists is essential to the greater picture.
The burgeoning interest in this area is surely not just a nostalgia for a future lost in the past; being America, material interests cannot be far behind. Apart from the fact that the expanding museum culture constantly needs to bring new material to view, there is the wealthy American collector who will pay huge prices even for ephemera.
Residues of the 'ennobling search for a common language for all of humanity' end up enmeshed in the ongoing global drama of the 'free market'.
David Wild is an architect in London. MIT Press is due to publish a companion volume of original texts from the period, A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes