Czech Book Covers of the 1920's and 1930's

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During the period between the two World Wars, the Czechoslovak Republic was an important and prolific center for avant-garde book design. Signed, limited editions showcased experimental design techniques, high-quality materials, and specially commissioned graphics. Book design for the general public, although mass-produced and much more affordable, was similarly innovative and attentive to questions of design. Not recognized as an important focus for academic inquiry until the mid-1970s, Czech book design has recently been the subject of several exhibitions and publications, including "The Czech avant-garde and Czech book design: the 1920s and 1930s" at the Florham-Madison Campus Library, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, New Jersey. Drawn from the Emma Linen Dana collection, the books in that exhibition, many of them now in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library through the facilitation of Dr. James Fraser, comprise the foundation from which this essay explores Czech book design.

Avant-garde Czech book design sprang from the Devetsil Artistic Union, a highly influential group of avant-garde poets, writers, artists, and designers active from 1920 to 1931. ReD [1927-31], the most important of Devetsil 's journals, published work by leading names in the fields of writing, art, and architecture, among them poetry by Mallarmé and Apollinaire; prose by James Joyce; reproductions of art by Arp, Chagall, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Mondrian and El Lissitzky; and articles on the architecture of Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Czech designers were also in direct contact with a range of artistic activity in Europe, especially France and Russia, and collaborated on projects with several important journals, including Merz, the publication of German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters. The Devetsil group encompassed, if at times uncomfortably, Czech artists working in two major styles, Poetism and Constructivism. Czech avant-garde book design separates broadly into four major movements: Poetism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and Socialist Realism. Each approach developed and utilized its own unique philosophy and aesthetic vocabulary.

During the earlier years of the Devetsil group, Poetism dominated the discourse of the Czech avant-garde. Poetism stressed the personal vision of the individual artist, reveled in the imagination, and encouraged self-expression. Like Artificialism, essentially a later form of Poetism which explored the beauty of new technologies, Poetism was a uniquely Czech innovation. Artist Karel Teige and poet Vítezslav Nezval introduced Poetism in 1923; artists Jindrich Štyrsky and Toyen (Marie Cermínová) pioneered Artificialism between 1926 and 1931. Poetism lent itself to expression through poetry, drama, and painting, and these were the main areas in which the style was used. Karel Teige (typographer) and Jindrich Štyrsky (photographer) designed Vítezslav Nezval's Pantomimi.Verše 1922-1924 [1924], which beautifully illustrates the approach of Poetism. The arrangement of the photographs echoes the content of the poems, functioning as visual verse. Often, letterforms express the mood or form of a poem. The visual design of the book is as much an artistic expression as the poetry itself.

In direct contrast to Poetism, Constructivism stressed objectivity and machine production. Optimistic and sometimes even utopian, Constructivist design celebrated technology, progress, and the future. Bauhaus and de Stijl influences can be seen in Czech Constructivist book design, which was particularly dominant in the mid- to late 1920s. Photography, typography, and theater sets provided rich areas of activity for Constructivist designers, and architecture was also an important source of inspiration. Ladislav Sutnar's design for a 1932 translation of George Bernard Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion [1932] utilizes many devices characteristic of Constructivism: photomontage; functional, sanserif typography; a strong grid structure with diagonal orientation; and the presence of a circle, an important iconic element for many Constructivist designers and a characteristic of all book designs for Devetsil by Odeon Press, their publisher from 1925.

As the European and Soviet political and economic climate deteriorated in the 1930s, the playfulness of Poetism and the technologically-centered optimism of Constructivism became less plausible as aesthetic strategies for Czech book designers. Surrealism, with its strong undercurrents of anxiety, dark eroticism, and the unconscious, provided a much more accurate reflection of the cultural climate. Teige, always an important figure in the Devetsil group, was active in forming an association with the French Surrealists, and Surrealism became the dominant influence in Czech book design. Jindrich Štyrsky's design for a Czech translation of French Surrealist poet Paul Eluard's La Rose publique [1936] exhibits the dreamlike qualities of Surrealism, creating a fantastical landscape for unreal, disturbing occurrences. Artists like the German painter Max Ernst (see, for example, The Forest, 1927-8) influenced Štyrsky and other Czech avant-garde designers working in the Surrealist style.

By the end of the 1930s, functionalism dominated Czech book design. Social Realism inspired the design of books that were legible, practical, and affordable. Mass produced, the books were often intended as a vehicle for social critique. Zdenek Rossmann's design for Civilisovaná žena (The civilized woman) [1939] utilizes the communicative properties of photography to reinforce the book's message about the need for reform in women's clothing. Bauhaus-inspired typography contributes to the functionalism of the design.

All of the works discussed here, as well as many other important examples of Czech avant-garde book design, are available for online viewing. Representing a broad selection of designers and styles, the online collection highlights the avant-garde Czech books in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum library's rare books collection. To experience Czech book design, browse through the online collection, and for further reading, consult the bibliography.

Stephen H. Van Dyk, Librarian
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library
Dori Griffin, Summer Intern
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library
Sarah Eigen, Volunteer
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library

August 2004