Relaunching the European Avant-Gardes

By Jan Baetens


The publisher calls it an “introduction” to the works, the authors, the currents, and the contexts of the European avant-gardes in the period 1905-1935 (three decades that in Anglo-Saxon criticism are often called “High Modernism”, a powerful streamlining of the exceptional dynamism and diversity of these years). But this is really not the best word to qualify the “portable guide” proposed by one of the leading voices in the field. Granted, the book offers more than everything one would like to know about both the so-called historical avant-garde and the many –isms that have come to illustrate it. But reducing the book to its encyclopedic or toolkit function would definitely neglect the real stakes of an intellectual that goes beyond the careful and lavishly illustrated presentation of its material.

First of all, one should welcome the refreshing and innovative way of organizing the currently available knowledge of the European avant-gardes. The book finds the perfect balance between familiar and new ways of structuring the information: on the one hand, it does not reject the classification in –isms (it is important however to mention that each of them is systematically described in the plural: not “expressionism” but “expressionisms”, etc.); on the other hand, it succeeds in building a new architecture or intellectual design, easy to unpack as well as stimulating surprising montage effects, which foregrounds three major perspectives: first that of the concept (the relationship or tension between art and avant-garde), second that of the places where avant-gardes appeared or that were created or reinvented by them (this section makes us travel from the café to globalized cultures), third that of time, for past, present and future do no longer mean the same after the avant-gardes have revisited these traditional frameworks.

Second, the book does not only showcase the ambitions and failures as well as the meaning and importance of the European avant-gardes. It also reshapes our idea of the avant-garde. Key in this regard is the systematic use of the plural, which also makes room for the “non-avant garde” aspects of the avant-gardes, often much closer to the core of European culture than we generally assume. But also the properly European dimension is rightly underlined as a factor of diversity: linguistic plurality, context-sensitivity, unequal development in time and place appear to be at the heart of the various avant-gardes, which cannot be understood in homogeneous or teleological perspectives.

Third (but of course not finally), this book is not just a suitcase that one opens to find answers to specific queries (the very detailed index will prove dramatically useful in this regard), it is also a door that one can open to discover new or never thought-of questions, less known or never disclosed examples (and here the exceptional iconography is vital), and simply enjoy the writing, a perfect mix of intellectual sympathy and critical distance.

Homepage of the book:

Homepage of the European network for Avant-Garde and Modernism studies: