Karel Teige was born in 1900. He was a modern man but not just because of his birthday. The Czech critic, designer, poet, theorist, graphic artist, and agitator showed symptoms, through his work and politics, of that twentieth-century malaise, the condition of constant crisis, guilt, and cynicism that colored the achievements of the avant-garde. Teige was eighteen years old when he witnessed the birth of his own nation, Czechoslovakia. By the year of his untimely death in 1951, he had experienced the idealism and ravages of socialism, World Wars I and II, and the beginnings of the cold war era.
Teige is unique even contemplated among similar controversial leaders of the early avant-garde (Marinetti, Tzara, and Breton). Although his zeal -- sometimes bordering on dogmatism -- caused him to miss the bigger picture in crucial points and earned him some virulent enemies, Teige relentlessly followed his heart. Much to his disappointment, he wasn't blind to Stalin's totalitarianism (though he sympathized with the Russian revolution) and even became vocal against it. With a pro-Soviet government installed in Czechoslovakia after the war, Teige paid dearly for his convictions. Humiliated, coerced, and persecuted by a system he championed, he died a broken man.
This complex state of ambivalence is conveyed by the show "Dreams and Disillusion: Karel Teige and the Czech Avant-Garde,"cocurated by Eric Dluhosch, Wendy Kaplan, and James Wechsler, at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum in Miami Beach. This first U.S. exhibition of Teige's work illustrates the Czech artist's development from the Twenties until the late Thirties, when the Sudetenland crisis with Nazi Germany provoked Hitler's annexation of all of Czechoslovakia. The show is successful because it manages to portray the spirit of the age. We see Teige's evolution from his early work with the group D evtsil, his collaborations with the journal ReD (short for Revue D evtsil), and his contribution to graphic design and typography with the Czech publishing house Odeon.
It's important to put Teige's work in historical context. By 1914 Czech architecture was coming out from under Art Nouveau influences and quickly adapting to the aesthetics of Cubism. Prague, like Vienna, was a cauldron of daring experimentation. Architects such as Josef Chochol and Otakar Novotny incorporated Cubism with nationalist influences, creating an original Czech style. After 1918 younger artists, painters, and poets also felt the need to improvise while dealing with the emergent problems of the new nation.
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But the art world was moving fast. By the Twenties the Czech avant-garde and Teige in particular had to cope with the injection of nihilism expressed by Dada and the functionalist political idea of Constructivism, just out of the Soviet Union. The latter had more appeal for Czech youth than the former. Dada, and even Surrealism, didn't seem politically committed. Though rich with inventiveness, they were viewed more as forms of amorphous anarchism.
Russian constructivism was an important force in the Soviet Union and Germany. It meant order, something not far from the discovery of logical positivism, which simultaneously took place in Vienna -- and was not unfamiliar to Teige. Constructivism brought with it, if tensely, a pan-Slavic utopian ideal uncontaminated by capitalist values. (It also helps explain the attraction pseudoanarchism had for Russian abstract artists such as Malevich and Kandinsky.) From this perspective aesthetic issues of contention for Teige during the Thirties, such as ornamentation, monumentalism, and urban planning for the proletariat, become much clearer.
It was at this juncture that young Teige began his collaboration with the D evtsil group. In 1922 he traveled to Paris, and two years after this crucial trip he published Poetismus, a seminal essay ambivalently combining German proto-Dada with stricter constructivist ideals. (The exhibition shows a typographical poem from 1924, for the periodical Pásmo, which quirkily portrays Teige himself as a revolutionary model.) Poetism remains a significant contribution of the European avant-garde. It blends constructivism with a vital atmosphere. Echoing a sense of national optimism, Teige and the poet Nezval (both of whom coined the term) considered poetism a creative practice, calling it: "nonchalant, exuberant, playful, nonheroic, and erotic.... Not a profession, but a universal need ... an art of living and enjoying." These happier times would soon disappear, after the radicalization of eastern European politics, the Stalinization of art in the Soviet Union, and the market crash of 1929.
The show at the Wolfsonian-FIU displays examples of Teige's designs for several publications. Teige, for whom print type was a visual phenomenon, made an important contribution by expanding on the Bauhaus movement. In his essay Modern Typography, he elaborated on basic principles of typography: Avoid decoration, keep lines simple, use image plus print ("typophoto"), and stress a closer collaboration between designer and printer.
Don't miss the video Abeceda, inspired by Teige's book of the same title, and a fine example of Teige's typophoto. Produced by the Wolfsonian-FIU for this exhibition, the charming short showcases the talent of dancer/choreographer Elaine Wright and the voice of actor Jiÿi Lamberk. Abeceda is Teige and Nezval's synthesis of poetry, dance, and graphic design, where poetry becomes typography. Also exquisite are Teige's quasimusical ideogrammatic illustrations for Konstantin Biebl's Zlom (Break), published by Odeon.
Finally we have Teige as a theorist of architecture, committed to the socialist/constructivist vision that architecture should be driven by social concerns and provide the working class with a dignified living environment. The problem for Teige was how to implement this ideal. His view was functionalist, dictated by communist sociology and technique alone. While he rejected modern architecture (as exemplified by Le Corbusier and Gropius) as monumental and "bourgeois," his own functionalism in a sense imitated the "Western" industrialization's dehumanizing effects. To boot, Teige's rejection of marriage as a "bourgeois" institution reduced his own view of a dwelling to a minimal communal space, devoid of family cohesion. At the Wolfsonian-FIU you can walk into a full-scale model of one such functional Teige apartment.
Karel Teige's final embrace of Surrealism reveals his political disillusionment. His collage series hung within a circular black wall (right before the show's exit) is poignant. It aptly expresses Teige's last days. These headless images, disjointed torsos, and breast arrangements fixed amid boundless landscapes conjoin past and present with an abstruse sense of apathy and cynicism. The female figure mixed with emblems of modernity such as the airplane, the locomotive, and the steamship, represents the fate of that lost utopia thrown in with the byproducts of a lost civilization.
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