Today we are looking at Czech Avant Garde – Poetism. In the period between the two world wars, artistic movements in Czechoslovakia produced outstanding examples of avant-garde book cover design, layout, and typography. Czech artists, designers, and architects adopted and developed trends from the avant-garde in other parts of Europe and created what they saw as a new approach to book cover design and typography.
Rejecting the bibliophile tradition of book design, these artists sought instead to use avant-garde aesthetics to create simply produced books that could be made available to all. This was not merely an attempt to put modern art on a book cover but rather to rethink the entire aesthetics and so produce a modern book and book cover.
Poetism dominated the discourse of the Czech avant-garde movement, especially during the earlier years of the Devetsil group. Poetism reveled in the imagination, stressed the personal vision of the individual artist, and encouraged self-expression. Like Artificialism, essentially a later form of Poetism which explored the beauty of new technologies, Poetism was a uniquely Czech innovation.
Artist Karel Teige and poet Vítezslav Nezval introduced Poetism in 1923; artists Jindrich Štyrsky and Toyen (Marie Cermínová) pioneered Artificialism between 1926 and 1931. Poetism lent itself to expression through poetry, drama, and painting, and these were the main areas in which the style was used. Karel Teige (typographer) and Jindrich Štyrsky (photographer) designed Vítezslav Nezval’s Pantomimi.Verše 1922-1924, which beautifully illustrates the approach of Poetism.
The arrangement of the photographs echoes the content of the poems, functioning as visual verse.
Often, letterforms express the mood or form of a poem. The visual design of the book is as much an artistic expression as the poetry itself.
1. Poetism. Book cover design by Karel Bedrna for Satirické verše. Z roku 1924 (Satirical Poems, 1924) by Karel Bedrna. Praha, V. Vortel and R. Rejman, 1925.
2. Poetism. Book cover design and linocuts by Josef Čapek for Zlatymi řetězy (With Golden Chains) by Konstantin Biebl. Praha, Čin, 1926.
3. Poetism. Book cover design and typography by Karel Teige for Moderní ruské divadlo (The Modern Russian Theater) by Jindřich Honzl. Praha, Odeon, 1928.
4. Poetism. Book cover design by Karel Teige for Mořsky půrvan(Sea Breeze) by Vladimir Germanovich Lidin. Praha, Aventinum, 1925.
5. Poetism. Book illustrations by Josef Šíma, typography by Vrastislav Hugo Brunner for Venuše s červenou parukou. Mysterium-revue o čtrnácti zastavenich (Venus with a Red Wig. A Mystery-Revue on the Fourteen Detainees). Praha, Aventinum, 1925.
6. Poetism. Cover design and six drawing by and Jindřich Štyrsky; typography by Karel Teige for Pantomima Verše 1922 – 1924 (Pantomine: Poems 1922-1924) by Vitězslav Nezval. Praha, Ustřední studentské nakladatelství a knihkupectví, 1924.
7. Poetism. Book cover design and typography by Karel Teige for Film by Karel Teige, volume 1 of the series “Radosti ze života” (The Joys of Life). Praha, Václav Petr, 1925.
8. Poetism. Book cover design by J. Don for Karneval. Romaneto (Carnival: a Novella) by Vítězslav Nezval. Praha, Odeon, 1926.
9. Poetism. Book cover design by Karel Šourek for Jazz by Emil František Burian. Praha, Aventinum, 1928.
10. Poetism. Book cover design by Jiŕí Kroha for Nová Oresteia. Tragedie o třech dějstvích (The New Oresteia. A Tragedy in Three Acts) by A. Dvořák. Praha, Čin, 1923.
11. Poetism. Book cover design by Josef Šíma for Cholera by Joseph Deltaile. Praha, Jan Fromek; Odeon, 1926.
12. Poetism. Illustrations by Václav Mašek for 150,000.00 Revoluční epos (150,000.00: A Revolutionary Epic) by Vladimir Maiakovskii. Praha, Vaclav Petr, 1925.
13. Poetism. Book cover design by Václav Mašek for Ulice noci (Streets of Night) by John Dos Passos. Praha, Čin, 1925.
14. Poetism. Book cover design by Petr Pistelka (?) for Sborník Literární skupiny (Miscellany of the Literary Group) edited by Lev Blatny, et. al. Vyškov na Moravĕ, Fr. Obzina, 1923.
15. Poetism. Book cover design by Jiří Landa for Růžové víry by Vanek and Votava Praha, 1927.
Avant-garde is French for “vanguard”. The term is commonly used in French, English, and German to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art and culture.
Avant-garde art can be said to begin in the 1850s with the realism of Gustave Courbet, who was strongly influenced by early socialist ideas. This was followed by the successive movements of modern art, and the term avant-garde is more or less synonymous with modern.
Although the term avant-garde was originally applied to innovative approaches to art making in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is applicable to all art that pushes the boundaries of ideas and creativity, and is still used today to describe art that is radical or reflects originality of vision.
Avant-garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. The notion of the existence of the avant-garde is considered by some to be a hallmark of modernism, as distinct from postmodernism. Postmodernism posits that the age of the constant pushing of boundaries is no longer with us and that avant-garde has little to no applicability in the age of Postmodern art.
Finally, because of its radical nature and the fact that it challenges existing ideas, processes and forms; avant-garde artists and artworks often go hand-in-hand with controversy.
The Devětsil was an association of Czech avant-garde artists, founded in 1920 in Prague. From 1923 on there was also an active group in Brno. The movement discontinued its activities in 1930 (1927 in Brno).
Founded as U. S. Devětsil (Umělecký Svaz Devětsil – Devětsil Artistic Federation), its name was changed several times. From 1925, it was called the Svaz moderní kultury Devětsil (the Devětsil Union of Modern Culture).
The artistic output of its members was varied, but typically focused on magic realism, proletkult, and, beginning in 1923, Poetism, an artistic program formulated by Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige.
The group was very active in organizing the Czech art scene of the period. Members published several art magazines – ReD (Revue Devětsilu), Disk and Pásmo, as well as occasional anthologies (most importantly Devětsil and Život) and organized several exhibitions.
For the most part, Devětsil artists produced poetry and illustration, but they also made contributions to many other art forms, including sculpture, film and even calligraphy.