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  • The 20th Century - The Century Of Avant-Garde
    The 20th Century - The Century Of Avant-Garde
    The year 1900. Europe’s countries are divided on the question: does the 20th century begin in 1900 or in 1901? Some opt for 1900, by virtue of the change in the figure of the hundreds. Others are partisans of 1901, for reasons of more sophisticated arithmetic. Particular sign: the 20th century has birth troubles – Europe is still living under the sway...

The 20th Century - The Century Of Avant-Garde

The year 1900. Europe’s countries are divided on the question: does the 20th century begin in 1900 or in 1901? Some opt for 1900, by virtue of the change in the figure of the hundreds. Others are partisans of 1901, for reasons of more sophisticated arithmetic. Particular sign: the 20th century has birth troubles – Europe is still living under the sway of the 19th. Politically, it extends to the aftermath of the Great War. Only then will the process that led to the formation of nation-states be completed, for the better or for the worse.

In 1900, electricity and electric lighting, the automobile, the telegraph, cinema and psychoanalysis had been already discovered. In Paris, the world exhibition (filmed by Méliès and Lumière) was opening, and the young turbulent Alfred Jarry was publishing his Ubu Bound. A few years earlier, professor Pierre Janet had delivered Psychic Automatism and his conclusions on the Mental Accidents of the Hysterics. Several years later, Einstein would publish the “5 memos”, among which the one dedicated to limited relativity, which would revolutionize physics and, on the whole, science and the approach to the universe. Also in 1900, when the Viennese Sigmund Freud, aged 44, published The Interpretation of Dreams, Tristan Tzara and André Breton were four years old. Paul Eluard, Salvador Dali, Victor Brauner were not born yet. Later on, all these youngsters would symbolically sacrifice the father (the father of psychoanalysis included), while still depending on his work. The revolt of the sons went against the world of fathers, against its values, injustice, social inequities, taboos. Their aim was to “change life and transform the world”. Art and literature as well.

The spirit of the century begins to take shape during the first two decades. Its dominants – several pairs of contraries: the reign of logic, of absolute rationalism, and the rehabilitation of dreams, imagination, the miraculous, the unknown; industrialization and ecology; the focus on the individual and his inner life, on the unconscious, and terrible collectivist experiments; rhetoric obduracy in negation and deconstruction, and a “mystique” of progress; hedonism and neurosis, etc.

Among the specific phenomena of the early 20th century, perhaps best explaining its spirit, the avant-garde movements remain unquestionable. The emergence and development of the avant-garde in Europe is not the outcome of imitation, but of a sort of spontaneous contagion. Before the appearance of surrealism, a French phenomenon, there had been several beacons of the avant-garde on the continent: Paris, with Alfred Jarry, Apollinaire, the impressionists, the Fauves, etc. Paris again, where Marinetti was launching his Futurist Manifesto, but also Craiova, a Romanian city, where the same Manifesto by Marinetti was published in Romanian in the local newspaper, on the very same day (20th February 1909) as in the Parisian Le Figaro; Dresden, with the group Die Brücke; Bucharest, with Tristan Tzara, Ion Vinea, Marcel Iancu/Janco, reunited around the Simbolul magazine (1912), and with Urmuz, whose writings were revealed in the 20s; Moscow, and Mikhail Larionov’s rayonnism (1913); London, and the vorticism of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (1914); Budapest, with Lajos Kassak’s Ma magazine; Saint Petersburg and the suprematism of Kasimir Malevich (1915); Zurich, the Cabaret Voltaire and Dada (1916), with Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Iancu and Tristan Tzara; in addition to Barcelona, with Picabia’s 391 magazine (1917), Madrid and ultraism (1918), Lisbon, where Pessoa, Almada-Negreiros and Santa Rita produce the unique issue of Portugal futurista.

The movement expands to the New Continent with the first exhibition of modern art, known as Armory Show (New York, 1913), where the American public had the opportunity to see, beside works signed Delacroix, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, Seurat, others that went so far beyond the conventions of art that they posed an enormous challenge. The latter were produced by artists who were very little or not at all known then, but would leave enduring traces throughout the century: their names are Matisse, Braque, Archipenko and Brancusi. The exhibition was later presented in Chicago, then in Boston. In Chicago, the students of The Law and Order league burned the effigies of Matisse, Brancusi and Walter Pach. Whatever came to pass, the spirit of the avant-garde began to win out in the USA, and the following years witnessed the arrival of numerous “pre-dada” publications, such as Rogue and 291, in 1915, 391, The Blind Man, Rongwrong, in 1917, TNT, in 1919, culminating in 1921 with the unique issue of New York Dada. The presence of the new art movements became even stronger during the World Wars, when a good many European artists came to the United States. Also, it is worth mentioning Borges’ return to Buenos Aires in 1921 (with ultraism in his luggage), as well as the constant hostility against futurism manifested by the modernists of Chile and Brazil. In 1914, Vincente Huidobro announced creationism in Santiago de Chile, and a few years later, in 1922, the Mexican stridentist group was established.


In the chronology of the artistic movements of the 20th century, there already exists a frontier separating the before and the after Dada. The spirit of the age arrives from Switzerland. War (the First) worked as a developer of the evil from which the good old world suffered. And it was on neutral soil that it could be best perceived. This peaceful, self-assured country, a kind of huge sanatorium for the rich, with the industrious nonchalance of its inhabitants and its safe deposit boxes, was the very image of hedonism. Consequently, it was not mere chance that reunited, in the middle of this flat tranquillity, as a butterfly-killer flame, the subversive spirits coming from other corners of Europe to prepare two revolutions that were to shake this century. Lenin playing chess with Tristan Tzara, in 1916-1917, in a café in Zurich, is an image whose veracity was never confirmed, yet an emblematic image of the 20th century.


Magadino, 7 June 1917. Strange incidents: while we were attending to the Cabaret in Zurich, at 1 Spiegelgasse, right across the street, at no. 6 if I remember well, used to live Mr. Ulyanov-Lenin. He must have heard our music and our tirades every evening, although I do not know if he derived any profit or pleasure therefrom. And, while we were busy opening the Gallery on Bahnhofstrasse, the Russians were leaving for Saint Petersburg to prepare the revolution. Is it possible that dadaism, as a sign and gesture, might be the counterpart of bolshevism? Does it oppose to destruction and to systematic calculation this other face of the world, absolutely quixotic, deprived of goals and unfathomable? It would be interesting to watch what will happen there as well as here.

Hugo Ball, La fuite hors du temps, Journal 1913-1921 (The Escape from Time, Diary 1913-1921), Paris, Editions du Rocher, p. 221.


At last, you got tired of this ancient world.

Apollinaire, Zone, 1912.


Is there a definition of the avant-garde? First of all, the word itself. It was coined in French and can be found, with minimal variations, in all the other neo-Latin languages: vanguardia in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, avangarda in Romanian, in both senses of the term: military and relative to the intellectual, artistic, scientific domains respectively, “ being in the forefront of one’s time by one’s audacity”, as the Larousse dictionary informs. The latter meaning entered the German (Avantgarde) and English (vanguard) languages.

A host of critics has been repeatedly trying to give the avant-garde a definition. […] That is a good reason for us not to come up with yet another definition which may only paraphrase those already existing. Everybody agrees with the existence of several constants in this matter: negation; the presence of a group and a manifesto; the revolution in language; the jocose penchant. In this respect, Tristan Tzara said, “Art must become again entertainment, there is nothing in it but simple, natural joy.”[i]

“Changing life, transforming the world”, the watchword that bands Rimbaud and Marx together, is in itself a program trying to reconcile a whole series of contraries apparently irreconcilable: poetry and action, dream and practice, psychoanalysis and historical materialism. Wherever it manifests itself, the avant-garde takes the form of a revolt against the father. It is a revolt more profound than the mere negation of literary predecessors. More than any other movement, Dada turned the negation and destruction of all forms of art and of every social, cultural or psychological acquisition into its own program.


The eagerness to live was great, disgust regarded all the forms of so-called modern civilization, its very foundation, logic, language, and revolt was taking forms wherein the grotesque and the absurd thoroughly prevailed over esthetic values. One must remember that, in literature, pervading sentimentality was masking whatever was human, and bad taste, cloaked in lofty pretensions and displayed in each and every province of art, characterized the force of the bourgeoisie at its most despicable.

Tristan Tzara, in an interview with Ribemont-Dessaignes at the French Radiodiffusion, in 1950 (Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Déjà jadis (Already Gone By), Paris, Julliard, 1958, p. 55)


Later on, in 1924, the group that had been active for a few years in the Littérature magazine – Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, André Breton, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Antonin Artaud, Max Ernst, Pierre Naville, Joan Miro, Michel Leiris, etc. – published A Corpse, a lampoon directed against Anatole France, the then literary star of France. Evincing unprecedented violence, the text scourged “the corpse” of the person who then represented the very image of the national writer, replete with honors, admitted to the French Academy, and crowned with the Nobel Prize. In this very text surrealism, formed as a group and “ideology” with Breton’s first Manifesto (1924), invents a most aristocratic lineage for itself, a spiritual family running from Swift to Raymond Roussel and comprising, among others, Sade, “surrealist in sadism”, Chateaubriand, “surrealist in exoticism”, Benjamin Constant, “surrealist in politics”, Edgar Allan Poe, “surrealist in adventure”, Baudelaire, “surrealist in morals”, Alfred Jarry, “surrealist in absinthe”, etc. This descent to origins, this search for ancestors or peers may seem at odds with the destructive rage of the avant-garde. In fact, all these movements are imbued with both negation and admiration. We owe to surrealists the discovery or rediscovery of several writers who have evolved into steady reference points ever since: Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Sade. Negation, indeed, is part of the avant-garde arsenal; however, the avant-garde evinced – and how remarkably! – a far from easy use of admiration as well.

The great discovery of the Romanian avant-garde is Urmuz[ii], whose writings, revealed after his death, place him among the precursors of the literature of the Absurd, with Kafka and Jarry.

On the other hillside, however moderate it might have been, the Romanian avant-garde made its debut by slamming authors whose celebrity was great in the epoch. In its second issue (June 10th, 1922), the Contimporanul magazine gives a full-page portrait of Camil Petrescu (1894-1957), one of the most important writers between the two World Wars, with the following legend: “Mr. Camil Petrescu, inventor of the Mannlicher rifle the 1893 model and automatic hat (which takes itself off). Discoverer of the thread for cutting cornmeal mush and of the match that must be struck at the other end. At present he is working on the development of the left-hand-handle beer mug.” Ten years later, the same Camil Petrescu, together with the poets Tudor Arghezi[iii] and Ion Barbu[iv], and Mircea Eliade, became the targets of Eugene Ionesco’s denial exercises in Nu (No, 1934)[v]. The author declared himself to be provoked by the avowed “cosmic admiration” of his contemporaries for the writers cited above. Even though Ionesco never joined the avant-garde movement, he gave a radically avant-garde signal in his essays: the ritual sacrifice of the father. In that case, the “fathers” of modern Romanian literature. But that was not the end of the story. In 1933, the very young founders of the Alge[vi] (Algae) magazine published the unique issue of the explosive Muci (Snot), which purported to be, in the eyes of the four accomplices, an epitome of boldness and non-conformity. They saw to the distribution of several scores of copies themselves. Their privileged addressee was Nicolae Iorga, historian, the author of Byzantium after Byzantium, former prime minister, a sort of national prophet and guardian of old cultural traditions originated in rural civilization, who, from the height of his authority, was waging in the press a merciless war against “corrupting” modernism. The move of the unfledged youngsters was highly symbolic: they were assailing the very effigy of the father of a whole nation.

Surrealism, an ideology of deliverance, had undertaken as its main objective the liberation of man from all constraints, thus its interest in psychoanalysis is understandable, as it found therein not only the elements of a poetic art, but also a means of knowledge and questioning of the human being and the universe. By one of the coincidences which only history can answer for (the surrealists, as far as they were concerned, preferred the term objective hazard), the two co-founders of the Romanian Surrealist Group, Gellu Naum and Gherasim Luca, born on the eve of World War I and during it, respectively, had never met their fathers, both killed on the battlefront. And while Gellu Naum plays on an ambiguity (presence/absence, identification/differentiation) prolific in poetry, Luca embarks upon the construction, in his own terms, of a “non-oedipal stand”. His goal is to efface “the castrating relics of birth trauma” in order to achieve the complete deliverance of man. Seen from such a perspective, Gherasim Luca’s work has a perfect, deadly coherence. The chapter dedicated to Romanian surrealism takes a closer look at the subject. Let us notice for now that, for the better or for the worse, the avant-garde shook the world of fathers (and everything implied therein: the authoritarianism that commands over relations in society, the conventions that rule in art, etc.), in order to instate “the reign” of brothers.


The avant-garde has decisively changed, at least in this century, the way of thinking art and creation on the whole. Art sees its sacred aura being removed. It finds itself deprived of mystery, closer to the industries of this century and their productive logic than to consecrated knowledge. Since their inception, new movements equip themselves with watchwords sprung from spontaneity – such as “thinking is done in the mouth”, by Tzara –, or from an expressed will to democratize creation: “Poetry shall be made by all, not by one.” Lautréamont’s sentence would accompany the avant-garde all along its adventurous trail.

The desacralization of art had been initiated by the futurists, with their “words at liberty” and their faith in the new “religion” of technical progress, of the machine, and of speed. The process is completed by Dada, the realm of the “joy of doubt” where “the void can only beget void”.[vii] Those who come after do nothing but deepen it, by the introduction of objective hazard which Breton had irrefutably assigned to surrealism. Objective hazard, random encounters of words, images and concepts, which nevertheless cannot escape a certain control of reason. The new method of creation is a sort of lottery that produces texts or images: words from a hat, as the extreme solution preached by Tzara, or collective games such as the delectable corpse, which radically modify the nature of the creative act, since from now on it is being achieved “in the absence of any control by reason, outside any esthetic or moral concern” (André Breton, Surrealist Manifesto, 1924). A sort of delirium that is capable of multiplying ad infinitum, as actually defined by the Romanian poet Ion Vinea: “Poetic art: to impose one’s delirium onto one’s neighbor”.

The trivialization of art is equally observable in the materials employed. A far cry from classical marble, the artists’ works are now often collages made from most humble materials: newspaper, thread, scrap fabric, fragments of objects, etc. This is bound to create a mythology of the derisory. As late as 1963, Dali extolled yellowed newspaper, as it had been used by Picasso and Braque. As for himself, he became elated at the artistic possibilities offered by newspaper “quantified” by “fly shits”:

Today, in upside-down newspapers I see divine things in such a sweeping movement that, in an élan of sublime Dalinian pop art, I decide to have the pieces of newspaper, which contain such treasures worth a Phidias, repainted. I shall have those excessively enlarged newspapers quantified by fly shits… This idea struck me after having observed the beauty of some pasted yellowed newspapers (a bit shat on by flies) by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Salvador Dali, Journal d’un génie (Diary of a Genius), Paris, Gallimard, Coll. L’Imaginaire, 1994, p. 237.

The “ready-made” go the same way as the trivialization of art – or, at least, that of a new status. Ever since Marcel Duchamp installed his bottle-holder or exhibited a urinal renamed Fountain, art was dragged into a vertiginous process without return. Objects erupt into life and art, they move from the realm of the utilitarian to the realm of the spiritual. The paradox lies in the fact that the aforementioned change in the status of objects is the beginning of a symptomatic process that spans the 20th century: the gradual expansion of the derisory.

The return to a species of “profane holy”, if one may say so, would be carried out by surrealism: with Breton’s esoteric preoccupations, already present in Nadja (1928) or in the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), and developed in a more resolute manner in Key to the Fields (1952); with Robert Desnos’ hypnotic sleeps, during which the poet traveled to the boundaries of language, and whose fruit was reaped by Breton in his accounts of the seances – Entreé des médiums (Enter the Mediums); with Pierre Mabille’s writings – La Conscience lumineuse (The Luminous Conscience, a paper contributed in 1937 to Minotaure and reprised in a book the same year), or Miroir du Merveilleux (Mirror of the Miraculous, 1940); with Victor Brauner’s paintings, and their strange premonition confirmed in 1938 when, during a brawl among surrealist fellow painters, he lost his left eye; with the Marseilles Game, the new tarot cards designed by the surrealists during their wartime stay in the South of France; with Gellu Naum’s mediumistic experience, as it emanates from all his books; or with Gherasim Luca, whose discovery – objectively offered object (OOO) – enables him to get into a mediumistic relation with others and predict certain important events (Le Vampire passifThe Passive Vampire). Finally, with the search for a mythology undertaken by André Breton, who thought he was seeing it in the myth of the “Great Transparent”. But Breton did not have the time to fulfill this last wish. Surrealism scattered into a multitude of small movements, such as – among others – lettrism[viii], COBRA[ix], and situationism[x], which had neither the scope, nor the coherence, and certainly not the taste for depth of their genitor.

After graduating from the University of Bucharest (Romanian literature and French literature), Petre Raileanu (born in 1951) worked as a book editor. In France since 1992. In 1993 he received a doctor’s degree in French literature and civilization from the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris III. At the same University he continues his work on a doctoral thesis dedicated to the Romanian literary avant-garde in the European context. Studies and articles on Romanian and compared literature. The Ship of Gilgamesh, 1990, is an essay on the hero and the game of literary conventions. THE DEMONIAC DIALECTIC. Gherasim Luca’s Romanian Course, in Mélusine, XV, Paris, L’Age d’Homme, 1995. In collaboration with Michel Carassou, Fundoianu/Fondane et l’avant-garde (Fundoianu/Fondane and the Avant-garde), the Romanian Cultural Foundation/Paris-Méditerranée, Paris, 1999. Présent (Present) in Le surréalisme et l’amour (Surrealism and Love).

[i] Conference on Dada at the Club du Faubourg,  unpublished, February 7, 1920, in Tristan Tzara, Oeuvres complètes (Complete Works). The text was established, presented and annotated by Henri Béhar, vol. 1 (1912-1924), Paris, Flammarion, 1975, p. 571.

[ii] Demetru Demetrescu-Buzau, 1883-1923, see Index.

[iii] Tudor Arghezi, 1880-1967, poet.

[iv] Ion Barbu (Dan Barbilian), 1895-1961, poet and mathematician.

[v] Eugen Ionescu, Nu, Bucharest, 1934, considered by the author to be a “false treatise of literary criticism”.

[vi] Alge, Romanian avant-garde magazine, 1930-1933, founded by Aureliu Baranga, Gherasim Luca, Paul Paun, S. Perahim, see Index.

[vii] Benjamin Fondane, Signification de Dada, in Le voyageur n’a pas fini de voyager, texts and documents compiled and presented by Patrice Beray and Michel Carassou, Paris, Paris-Méditerranée/L’Ether Vague-Patrice Thierry, 1966, pp. 32-37.

[viii] Lettrism, a movement founded in 1946 by Isidore ISOU, pseudonym of Jean Isidore Goldstein, born in Romania; it defined itself as an act of “radical decomposition of the phonetic structures of language” while also perpetuating some futurist and dadaist efforts. Members of the initial group: Maurice Lemaître, Gabriel Pomerand, François Dufrêne, Gil J. Wolman.

[ix] COBRA, COpenhagen/BRuxelles/Amsterdam, movement that grouped Danish, Belgian and Dutch artists and writers, founded in Paris, 1948. Its members (Asger Jorn, Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille, Pol Bury, Alechinsky, Pedersen, Jacobsen, Atlan and Belgian novelist Hugo Klaus) elaborated a project of escape from the tutelage of both surrealism and abstraction.

[x] Situationism was founded in 1957 by Guy-Ernest Debord, a former member of the lettrist International. It reunited a number of “Cobras” and was situated on the fringe of the very surrealism its members endeavored to surpass – which they ultimately did, as far as provocation and intransigence were concerned. Guy Debord is the author of a best-selling book, La Société du spectacle (Show Society, 1967).

by Petre Răileanu

Miercuri, 16 aprilie 2014 20:56
 Română |  Česky


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