After abandoning university studies, Karel Teige helped in 1920 to found the group Devětsil, the core of the internationally oriented avant-garde in Czechoslovakia from then until the early 1930s. The group came to include architects, painters, writers, theater directors, and a photographer—several dozen members in all—and as such was, along with Italian Futurism, the only truly pan-creative “-ism” in Europe. In numerous essays and editorials, Teige became their spokesperson, advocating strict functionality in utilitarian fields (urbanism, industrial creation) and lyrical fantasy in the fine arts. In the perfectly modern world, function and fantasy would advance in tandem—a coupling that Teige achieved in his practice as a graphic designer from 1924.
Teige responded to John Heartfield and El Lissitzky in his own work and commented on those artists in writing; he corresponded with Piet Zwart and counted Ladislav Sutnar among his close colleagues in Prague. Teige thus serves as a central character in the network of artists traced in this exhibition. He demonstrated—for example, in the photomontage book Alphabet and a series of contemporaneous postcards commemorating the Soviet Revolution—that a new formal language could serve poetic invention and political activism in equal measure. And Teige used his stewardship of the monthly journal ReD to survey contemporary creativity in all domains—including jazz, cinema, and vaudeville theater—making it clear that new art was not to be isolated by discipline or walled off from popular expression. An enduring figure of the avant-garde and leftist politics, Teige’s life was cut short in the purges that followed the Stalinist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, when police interrogators contributed to his death from heart failure.
Karel Teige. Cover for Zivot II (Life II. An Anthology of the New Beauty), 1922. On extended loan from Robert and June Leibowits.