ISBN 0-262-02522-1
448 pp., 480 illus., 360 color
After World War II and under Soviet rule, much of the art and expression of Central Europe from early in the 20th Century had been forgotten, overshadowed, lost and ignored by the rest of the world. Over a decade after the fall of the wall, Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, 1910-1930, edited by Timothy O. Benson provides a wealth of intricate interpretations on the complex interaction between artists and intellectuals, cultural changes and political transformations of early 20th Century Central Europe. Many of the revolutions and transformations that occurred in Central Europe in those three decades are still being felt, interpreted and realized today.
       During a period that contains the collapse of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires; the rise of Socialism in Russia and Europe; the rise of Modernization and Mechanization; and the rumblings of Fascism—these three decades of the early 20th Century produced a turmoil of culture clashes, revitalizations, reexaminations, political upheavals, artistic triumphs and experimentation in Eastern and Central Europe that are unrivaled in regards to sheer compactness of time and location. The avant-garde ideas of Cubism, Dada, Expressionism, and Futurism pouring in from the rest of the West to these newly born nations were used to express not only unity and utopian visions, but also nationalistic and religious themes mixed with various reemerging folk ideas which many in the Western veins of the avant-garde considered somewhat reactionary.
        Central European Avant-Gardes presents key stylistic transformations of the period from Expressionism to Constructivism; against this background of history, artists and writers attempted to create new worlds through their works. Many of the works in this collection, which had not been seen before in the West, were on display in a traveling exhibition that is currently at the Matin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin until February. The exhibition, as well as much of the book, features hundreds of color plates and reproductions of documents, visual arts, photographs, films, architectural designs and poems; as well as explainations of how they intersected during those thirty years. There are also discussions of movements from Artificialism to Zenitism, essays on the artists and writers, various publications that showcased their works, and examples of exhibitions of the period.
        Particularly enjoyable for a history and geography buff is how Benson traces the transformations in Central European art through such lesser studied countries as Estonia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Latvia, and Hungary, as well as the major centers of art in the region like Prague, Vienna and Berlin. City views of Belgrade, Bucharest, Budapest, Cracow, Dessau, Ljubljana, £ódz, Poznañ, Warsaw, Weimar, and Zagreb provide a web of historical, cultural and artistic interaction.
        Peter Nadas, one of Hungary’s most renowned contemporary authors, prefaces the volume with a careful definition of ‘the local’ focusing on the transformation of a pear tree through various seasons and years and how it is looked upon by the people who are also changed through those periods.
        Although very accessible, this is not a lay person’s book, or a coffee table volume. The pictures are often overwhelmed by text, but are still numerous and worthy. That aside however, this fascinating study is well worth a look for writers, artists and intellectuals interested in the transformation of art aside society. I is a gem of a collection on an important and understudied period of the art of the modern era.