When Advertising was Revolutionary

Abstraction was being invented, monarchies were falling, wars were raging, and modern 20th century artists decided to turn advertising on its head, too. Artists left studios in droves and began making posters, brochures, billboards, traveling agit-prop theater wagons, and new-fangled telecommunications towers.

1-11 Engineers Agitators Reconstructors at MoMA
Modernist Russian billboards and works from Rodchenko and Mayakovsky’s 1923-1925 Advertising-Constructor agency

That’s just the first gallery of Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, on view at MoMA through April 10 – a show that investigates how artists change their focus to meet the moment of social, technical, commercial, and political change.

The focus is the period between WWI and WWII, when the avant-garde began mixing it up to bring about a whole new world for consumers, city planners, publishers, and the proletariat. Take a look at our favorite works in our Flickr album.

The first gallery provides a broad view of how other avant-garde abstractionists first inspired by Malevich’s Suprematism experimented now used pure, kinetic shapes to dance across children’s books, pavilions, costumes, and posters in the earliest days after the Russian Revolution.

El Lissitzky’s 1922 book About Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale of Two Squares in Six Constructions

The 300 works in the show are principally works on paper, collected by and donated to MoMA by Merrill Berman – a treasure trove that includes particularly rare and unique items that the curators use to tell quite a story.

A 1922 costume design by Popova, inspired by workers’ uniforms

One entire wall is dedicated to Ms. Popova, where you can stroll by paintings, covers for sheet music, and prints – all the ways she applied her genius. Another long wall displays dynamic work by Rodchenko and Mayakovsky, whose Advertising-Constructor agency mixed poetry and innovative, angled constructivist style to sell chocolate and other consumer products.

Mixed-media plays a major role in the exhibition, with several galleries showing how European artists embraced collage and photomontage both in their personal studio work and in graphic designs that shook up the look of mass market publications, industrial marketing, postcards, and political posters.

Dynamic photo montage 1928 postcards by Gustav Klutsis to promote the All-Union Spartaklada Sporting Event

Another section of the show provides an introduction to innovative Polish, Hungarian, and Dutch indie zines shared, collected, and treasured by cutting-edge writers and designers excited by possibilities of the early 20th century.

Creative European magazines published in the late Twenties

Angled, geometric, and loaded with innovative typography, these rare magazines share the space with paintings by Mondrian, sculpture by Moholy-Nagy, and other geometric shape-shifters.

1924 photo of Henryk Berlewi and his exhibition at a Warsaw Austro-Daimler showroom with works from his Mechano Facture series, inspired by industrial technology

Women are prominently showcased in every gallery of the exhibition, including the massive wall of Soviet posters by female designers whose images celebrate the contributions of women to the industrial workforce.

1931 poster by Natalia Pinus acknowledging female farmers and other collective workers

Visionary drawings, watercolors, and poster posters are around every corner – and most are never-before-seen surprises. Before WWII brought it all to an end, the curators show the modern innovations that these creatives had in mind – new architecture, advertising constructions, and modern furniture fairs.

Walter Dexel’s 1928 design combines an airshaft, ad kiosk, and telephone booth. Herbert Bayer’s design for an electrified ad tower for an electricity company, done when he was just a student at the Bauhaus. Willi Baumeister’s 1927 poster that directly declares interior designs of the past are over.

Elena Semenova’s 1926 design sketch for a Russian worker’s lounge looks like a precursor to WeWork.

1927 poster by Willi Baumeister promoting a modern furniture exhibition in Stuttgart
Vision for model communal space: Elena Semenova’s 1926 design watercolor for a Russian worker’s club lounge

Enjoy this special program with Ellen Lupton and curator Jodi Hauptman in a fascinating discussion about work by several revolutionary designers and how so many intermingled careers in graphic and fine arts during tumultuous times:

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