A 21st Century

The Role of the Magazines

The writer Simon Mawer argues that it was within the realms of architecture and design that van Doesburg and artists from the International Avant-Garde had their greatest influence.1 They took the flat, geometric paintings of the De Stijl group and burst them out, not just into the third but also into the fourth dimension. Yet it was also the De Stijl Magazine itself, and its influential role as a distributor and promoter of ideas, which was to have huge historical significance.

During the 1920s, the speed and potential of the printing press was increasing exponentially. As a result, intellectual and artistic thinking was evolving simultaneously at a pace never previously experienced. In the hundred year period between 1850 and 1950, advances in the technology behind the printing press took its capability from 1,000 impressions per hour up to 3,000. This leap in speed was matched by a corresponding tumble in cost. During the same timespan, particularly the interwar years from 1918 to 1930, there was an explosion in the number of independent magazines being shared between artists representing the various virtues and beliefs of the emerging International Avant-Garde.

When applied to art, the term ‘avant-garde’ literally means art that is innovative, exploratory or introducing new forms or subject matter.2 After the long cultural drought brought about by WWI, these artistic groups were sprouting across Europe with all the vitality of a new spring, and they were all eager to make contact with each other, often swapping collections of journals they had exhausted in exchange for the promise of new material. Communication and the open sharing of ideas were as crucial to them ‘as their daily bread.’3

Before the magazines, artists would write to each other in personal correspondence to exchange their thoughts and opinions, which was of course a slow, laborious and private process. This new period was notable because by sharing their ideas directly within the printed format, it was the first mainstream example of what could be considered an open public forum for these artists. Collections of these magazines grew in great piles on the visitor tables of artist’s studios across Europe. An article published one month encouraged a counter-article published the next – a bit like today’s comments streams below online articles (before they became so polluted).

This new communication platform was therefore vital to the oxygenation of ideas coming from this new generation of artists. Newspaper editors, painters, writers, architects and cinematographers were crucially being exposed to new theories, ideas, exhibitions and time-bending cultural manifestos. As a result, various avant-garde groups were emerging with what the art historian Krisztina Passuth calls ‘unprecedented speed and dynamism.’4

For the artists of the International Avant-Garde, the printing press wasn’t so much churning out pamphlets as lighting fireworks directly inside the minds of a new generation of creative thinkers. Some of the more politicised pinned their hopes on revolution, whilst the Dutch De Stijl remained politically neutral, choosing instead to focus on tangible actions that every artist could commit to. Arguably it was this deliberate political neutrality, and a focus instead on evolving theories of style and composition, that secured its place in history as one of the primary catalysts for Modernism itself.

The historian Gladys Fabre confirms: ‘These avant-garde magazines were, almost without exception, the work of individuals: the person who acted as editor and publisher also corresponded with authors, wrote and designed the material, found financial resources and organised the circulation. Great personal dedication or even obsession was required from anyone who undertook such a job.’5

Sometimes self-funded and often self-propelled, the parallels between this explosion in independent magazine culture a century ago and the recent explosion in independent digital publishing are all too apparent. These days it is social content platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Wordpress, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, Vimeo, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, Reddit and even an explosion in audio podcasts that dominate the information exchange landscape.

Whilst advances in communication technology tend to be adopted first by innovators, they soon show themselves vulnerable to hijack by more polemical sides following their own counter-agendas. Some of the most visited websites today are spreading more malicious ideas than those concerned with the arts. Likewise during the 1930s it was the political bile of Joseph Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry that took full advantage of a more efficient printing press, and ushered in a 15-year period of lost progression.

Indeed, these interwar years were a time of great friction, especially following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, after which workers had much less sympathy for ‘revolutionary art’. The tensions mounted as it was the more politicised artistic journals which provoked the strongest backlash from the right. The Nazis took full advantage of this growing trend in public opinion, venting their hatred of the avant-garde and their international exhibitions, calling it ‘degenerate art.’

Despite the best intentions of both the Bauhaus school and the De Stijl magazine founders, new forms of creative expression were yet to be fully harmonised with either the machine or complex human and societal interactions, particularly when placed under economic duress. Conversely, perhaps particular layers within society were yet to catch up with the entirely revolutionary new creative ideas of the arts.

Whichever it was, closed minds have a tendency to struggle with the notion that everything is always changing, just as more open minds can struggle with the challenge of finding effective ways to bring enough people with them, especially when unexpected external factors come into play. Lurking within the shadows there will always be a third set of players working to exploit the void somewhere between the two. Here, when this darker third set emerges in populism, is precisely the time when action and mediation are desperately needed to close the widening gap.

We could continue with stark comparisons between how human attitudes have been skewed by new communication platforms at the beginnings of both this century and the last. Yet perhaps most importantly, the Bauhaus and De Stijl attempted to bridge these gaps through neutrality, open collaboration and a return to the basics. One of impartiality's strengths lies in its ability to rise above the bullshit and talk directly about the matters which people really care about. In fact, whenever stuck, and regardless of the scenario, taking a step back like this and circumventing the points of friction is generally a good place to start.

Credits & Notes

Simon Mawer
‘Theo van Doesburg:
Forgotten artist
of the Avant Garde’
The Guardian (23 Jan 2010)

Tate Online
Art Terms – Avant-Garde

3 – 4
Krisztina Passuth
Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World Tate Publishing (2009)

Gladys Fabre
Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World
Tate Publishing (2009)


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