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Piet Zwart, American Film Art (Ameri kaansche Film-kunst), cover for C. J. Graadt van Roggen, editor, Film: Serie monografieën over filmkunst (Film: A Series of Monographs on the Art of Film), Rotterdam, 1931.

Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life at the Art Institute of Chicago

20th-century designers El Lissitzky, John Heartfield, Piet Zwart, Ladislav Sutnar, Karel Teige and Gustav Klutsis were decades ahead of their time.


Vladimir Lenin keeps popping up in Gustav Klutsis’s nine Postcards Commemorating the Russian All-Union Spartakiada (1928). As a robust woman gets ready to throw a discus, the Communist leader hovers approvingly in the background. In another lithograph, his incongruous head looms over the athletes practicing for the USSR’s alternative to the Olympics.

Lenin was never really in the same place as his young comrades, who were in turn far from the rallies filling the postcards’ margins. Klutsis created these dynamic compositions by fusing elements of different photographs. His montages, organized by blocks of eye-catching color and bold text, evoke the action we associate with film. To Klutsis and this exhibition’s other early-20th-century artists and designers, film and photography were the modern media that would bring a new, classless world into being. Ladislav Sutnar’s 1931 cover for a Czech edition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle sports a black-and-white photo of hanging carcasses, horrifying in its immediacy.

“Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life” fascinates because most of its dazzling books, journals, posters and other objects attempted—decades before IKEA—to democratize good design, making useful things, including information, accessible to all.

The show doesn’t gloss over the fact that brilliant artists such as Klutsis, John Heartfield and El Lissitzky were producing propaganda for a totalitarian regime, which would eventually kill some of them. But one can still appreciate the forward-thinking of a proto-punk like El Lissitzky, who tells readers to put down his book and build something themselves.

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