Nearly one century ago, progressive artists in central and eastern Europe demanded that true art revolutionize the objects and habits of daily life. Their new ideas responded to the innovative rhythms and images of the industrial marketplace, the nascent mass media, and urban popular culture. For the first time in the museum’s history, this vibrant and critically important moment in east-central European modernism is comprehensively explored in this exhibition of nearly 300 works of photography, photomontage, and photographically illustrated posters and books, as well as rare examples of porcelain and glassware by six of the period’s most highly influential international artists.
John Heartfield, Gustav Klutsis, El Lissitzky, Ladislav Sutnar, Karel Teige, and Piet Zwart are among the exceptional artists who quickly grasped the changing possibilities for creative work. Piet Zwart (Dutch) and Ladislav Sutnar (Czech, later American) helped invent the position of industrial designer, creating brand identity for companies by applying principles of standardization, serial production, and eye-catching clarity to advertising and domestic products. Karel Teige, the leader of the Czech avant-garde, and the immensely influential Russian artist Lazar (El) Lissitzky developed the language of Constructivism in typography, architecture, exhibition designs, and critical essays. John Heartfield, a native German who took an English name, and Latvian-born Gustav Klutsis, who worked in Soviet Russia, mastered the persuasive rhetoric of word-image combinations in photomontage, creating posters and magazines that were seen by tens of thousands at a time.
The hundreds of objects featured in the exhibition come almost entirely from a recent acquisition by the Art Institute that is shared among the departments of Architecture and Design, Photography, Prints and Drawings, and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries. It is the first show in the museum’s history to focus on the international Constructivist movement. A beautifully designed exhibition catalogue contains essays by Matthew S. Witkovsky, curator and chair of the Department of Photography, and a team of specialists writing on these six artists and their attraction to the dynamic realm of “everyday life.”