Hostile times don’t automatically engender great art. Let’s put to rest that chestnut, which resurfaced during and after the 2016 election — and which, as the presidency of Donald J. Trump draws to a close, is looking pretty deflated. A crisis can inspire your vision, but just as easily it can wash you out. And rising to the challenges of an anxious age takes ambition, stamina and not a little bravery.
That’s the conclusion of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented,” a momentous new show that papers the walls of the Museum of Modern Art with posters, magazines, advertisements and brochures from an earlier age of upheaval. Exactly a century ago, a cross-section of artists from Moscow to Amsterdam opened their eyes in a continent reshaped by war and revolution. Rapid advances in media technology made their old academic training feel useless. They were living through a political and social earthquake.
And when the earthquake hit, what did these artists do? They rethought everything. They disclaimed the autonomy that modern art usually assigned to itself. They plunged their work into dialogue with politics, economics, transport, commerce. Nothing was automatic for these artistic pioneers, who took it upon themselves to recast painting, photography and design as a kind of public works job.
“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” debuts the acquisition of more than 300 works from Merrill C. Berman, a financial adviser who has spent the last 50 years assembling probably the finest private collection of graphic arts from the 1920s and ’30s. With a stroke, this addition makes MoMA (alongside the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) the world’s premier repository of European graphics from between the wars. It also introduces into the collection a host of female artists, including the bold Soviet poster artists Anna Borovskaya and Maria Bri-Bein, the Polish polymath Teresa Zarnower and the Dutch designer Fré Cohen. Almost a third of the works here are by women, which, for a show of historical avant-gardes, counts as a lot.
The exhibition moves, roughly speaking, from east to west. We start in the Soviet Union, the uncontested champion of artistic innovation after World War I — where Constructivist artists caught up in a revolution rebranded themselves as organizers, propagandists, fomenters of change. Then the show migrates to Poland and Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Austria, then Germany and the Netherlands. French design is a soft spot, represented only by some welding brochures. A more notable weak point is Italy; we’ll get to why.
But for now, imagine you are a young artist in imperial Russia, brought up on a visual diet of portraiture, religious painting, pretty pictures of gardens. Then, in 1917, the czar is overthrown. A provisional republic is established, which Lenin topples before the year is out. Russia has tumbled into a civil war. It feels like the fate of not just your country but all humanity is on the line.
Of course you jump in. You join a collective — Unovis, “Champions of the New Art” — where you make posters and signs and clothing as a joint enterprise, like workers in a factory. You embrace new abstract forms, meant to construct a whole new society. Two unsigned Unovis posters here (probably done by Wladyslaw Strzeminski, a young Polish expat in Russia) reroute the abstract geometric forms Kazimir Malevich conceived just before the Russian Revolution into high-volume agitprop, papered on buildings all over town. Red circles and black squares appear on the walls of the telegraph office and the sides of streetcars. And this baffling new syntax has a meaning: workers of the world, unite.
When revolution comes an artist can’t be precious. You have to be “a public person, a specialist in political and cultural work with the masses,” in the words of Gustav Klutsis, perhaps the greatest designer of the Soviet era, though he’d have bridled at being called an individual artist at all. Klutsis, from rural Latvia, joined Unovis after the revolution, and would become Europe’s most fearless practitioner of photomontage, pasting pictures of soldiers, sportsmen and Stalin at wildly discordant scales and against high-contrast backgrounds.
Surely the most stunning item in MoMA’s Berman acquisition is the cut-and-paste original of “Electrification of the Entire Country,” one of Klutsis’s earliest photomontages. If you look closely, you’ll see that the artist pasted Lenin’s head onto a totally different body, to make him look larger than life. Lenin struts across a perfect gray circle, overlaid by a red square, radiating radio waves: a new man walking into a new world.
This show includes 16 works by Klutsis, though it’s a thrill to discover here lesser-known photomonteurs, including Klutsis’s wife, Valentina Kulagina. In one of her pieces from 1929, a gray-clad welder, which Kulagina draws at a dynamic 40 degrees, lets sparks fly in front of a skyscraper (actually a photo of Detroit!) and a grid of white and gray struts stretching to the sky. At the welder’s feet are white housing blocks, like some dream of an infinite city. “STROIM,” shouts a red-lettered caption. We are building.
Kulagina was one of numerous Soviet women who embraced a new role of artist as revolutionary proletarian. Varvara Stepanova designed journal covers with reworked, vigorous photographs of Red Army heroes. Elena Semenova and Lydia Naumova combined bar graphs and clipped photos for informational posters on trade union membership or factory efficiency — a data visualization that should leave today’s spreadsheet geeks agog. Semenova also designed a lounge for a prototype proletarian club, complete with windows spanning the walls and blue-striped deck chairs for chilling out after a day on the factory floor. There’s nothing too good for the working class!
The burst of new visions in the Soviet Union would, by the mid-1930s, give way to authoritarian rigidity. Socialist Realism became the country’s one official artistic style, and Klutsis was executed, on Stalin’s orders, in 1938. But these explosively inventive Soviet artists had counterparts among left-wing German photomonteurs, like John Heartfield, who designed a campaign poster for the Weimar-era Communist Party with a giant, sooty worker’s hand ready to grasp his future or choke a capitalist.
In Warsaw, Teresa Zarnower and Mieczyslaw Szczuka founded Blok, a magazine that showcased a Polish avant-garde with multilingual articles and discordant layouts. An entire gallery here is devoted to Blok and other boldly designed Central and Eastern European magazines of the 1920s, including Ma, a Hungarian publication based in Vienna, and Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet, edited by El Lissitzky and lasting just two issues.
A surprising Dutch discovery is the photomontaged brochures of Fré Cohen, who promoted Schiphol Airport or the Amsterdam harbor with collaged pictures and dynamic, off-center red typography. Cohen is one of numerous Jewish artists of the left in this show, and one who met a terrible end. Arrested by the Nazis in 1943, she committed suicide rather than face deportation to a death camp.
“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” is a feast of interwar innovation, but it has an undercurrent that I don’t like: a suggestion that progress in art and progress in society go naturally together. The curators Jodi Hauptman and Adrian Sudhalter make this point explicit at the show’s entrance, celebrating “profound links between radical art and struggles for social change,” and suggesting that these designers’ bold invention is “paralleled in the works of countless artists today, also facing crisis and turmoil.”
Really, an hour inside a Chelsea gallery and another on Instagram should disabuse you of the notion that today’s artists are breaking boundaries like these ones did. On the contrary: As artists have made louder and louder noise about political relevance, they’ve also become more traditionalist in the images and objects they celebrate. For artists, the Trump years turned out to be a period of individualism and nostalgia. Unovis-style novelty was not on the table; the art form that rose to greatest prominence was probably portrait painting, one of the most conservative genres of all.
But more to the point: to believe only artists with “progressive” politics can innovate is an ahistoric delusion. In the last room is a small painting by the Italian artist Fortunato Depero, a mock-up for a cover for the magazine Twentieth Century, with the red Roman numerals XX looming in space. Depero was an innovator on par with the Soviets, Poles and Dutchmen in this collection. He was also a proud Fascist, whose embrace of new technologies served the aims of a reactionary military dictatorship.
Fascist Italy looms as a gaping hole in this show’s map of European graphic invention. That’s largely because of what Mr. Berman collected; he focused instead on the anarchic photomontages of Bruno Munari, who was not a Fascist party member. Yet the Italian lacuna nourishes a misunderstanding, too common in today’s cultural conversation, that good artists must be good people.
They needn’t be. You can be politically radical and visually doctrinaire, or vice versa, and we shouldn’t ignore that the Pan-European graphic innovations preserved in Mr. Berman’s astounding collection crossed not just borders but ideologies. (Photomontage was well established in Fascist Italy and also in imperial Japan, whose most graphically progressive magazines glorified racial purity and colonial conquest.)
I don’t know, maybe it’s just this current passage in American culture, when right-wing artists are so few, that has led us to some bad assumptions. But the best lesson today’s artists can draw from this earlier avant-garde is that neither ideas nor images are enough on their own. First, picture a new world; then learn to design it.
Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented
Through April 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400; moma.org. Timed tickets are required.