G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926 - Reviews - Domus
G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926
 

G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926

This restoration and critical analysis revives the forgotten but influential avant-garde journal.

 

Reviews / Gideon Fink Shapiro

G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926 Detlef Mertins, Michael W. Jennings (Eds.). Getty Research Institute, 2010 (280 pp., US $40)

The European avant-gardes of the 1920s, eager to revolutionize making and thinking for the modern world, yet lacking the means to test their ideas in practice, presented their work in numerous small but influential international journals. Contemporaneous with better-known periodicals such as De Stijl and L'esprit nouveau was the Berlin-based journal G: Materialen zur Elementaren Gestaltung [G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation], which until now had been all but forgotten. A new volume edited by the late Detlef Mertins and Michael W. Jennings, two distinguished scholars of Weimar-era culture, restores G to international circulation while arguing for its historical importance as channel of avant-garde discourse.

G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926 binds three interdependent projects in one bright-red volume. It is simultaneously a meticulous restoration, a modern translation, and a critical history. If today's readers are to appreciate G as "one of the earliest journals of modern visual culture," as Edward Dimendberg suggests, then we must have access to its look and feel as well as to its content. And to our great satisfaction, we do. Through exacting graphic and typographical reconstruction executed by Chris Rowat Design, the newly translated text is presented to the English-language reader much as it originally appeared in German, including long-lost typefaces and intricate layouts. The first two issues are faithfully reproduced in the form of fold-out tabloids tucked inside the book's back cover. The editors exercised restraint in not attempting to correct or annotate the errors and inconsistencies in the original, allowing the reader to encounter these problems directly. Instead, the critical force is centered in the scholarly essays by Mertins, Jennings, Dimendberg, and Maria Gough, plus a foreword from Barry Bergdoll, which interrogate G while illuminating its place and time.

Title page spread from <i>G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926</i>.

Title page spread from G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926.


After almost 90 years, the original five journal editions remain provocative as they probe the basis of form-making and culture in the machine age. Not only the future of art and architecture was at stake, the protagonists of G insisted, but the future of civilization. The ruins of the old order, still smoldering from the cataclysm of the Great War, seemed to demand new approaches to all aspects of life. In an atmosphere aflame with constant transformation and debate, multiple futures beckoned like factory-fresh airplanes ready to fly in different directions. Which one would take off first, who would be its pilot, and how far would it go? Hans Richter, the formerly Dadaist artist and filmmaker who founded G and published it from his Berlin apartment, sought to circumvent the various avant-garde stylistic movements. Together with a rotating cabinet of collaborators including El Lissitzky, Theo van Doesburg, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Raoul Hausmann, Tristan Tzara, and Werner Graeff, Richter championed elementare Gestaltung, a term which Mertins and Jennings translate as "elemental form-creation."

From Mies van der Rohe's 'Industrial Building,' published in <i>G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 3 (1924). </i>

From Mies van der Rohe's "Industrial Building," published in G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 3 (1924).

Elemental form-creation was more of a process than a product. It was driven by a search for common building-blocks, whether in painting, sculpture, architecture, film, or industrial design, that could be wielded with utter clarity and transparency of purpose. As Mies van der Rohe put it in the first issue, "Maximum effect with minimum expenditure of means." Art and design should merge with the forces of production, G urged, obliterating the elitist hierarchies separating artist from worker, genius from technician, and culture from economy. Yet the authors of G frequently opposed the kind of logico-technical materialism embraced by contemporaries such as Hannes Meyer's ABC Group. "Always remain conscious of the poverty of rationalistic knowing," reads a posthumous essay by the filmmaker Viking Eggeling in G4. As Mertins and Jennings observe, the journal's "modern materialism and emphasis on process…stand page after page in tension with an idealist allegiance to a mandarin Geistigkeit—that admixture of the spiritual and the intellectual that has been the stuff of German humanism since the Enlightenment." Just as a spiritual yearning permeates the hands-on pragmatism of Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus program of 1919, so the contributors to G sought something beyond the naked instrumentality of the means they promoted. By establishing a universal and functional creative tool kit, so to speak, Richter et al strived towards "the possibility of a culture in the utter chaos of our days" that was neither nostalgic for the past nor insensitive to the human psyche.

 
The ruins of the old order, still smoldering from the cataclysm of the Great War, seemed to demand new approaches to all aspects of life. In an atmosphere aflame with constant transformation and debate, multiple futures beckoned like factory-fresh airplanes ready to fly in different directions.
 
From G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, nos. 5/6 (1926).

From G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, nos. 5/6 (1926).


Some of the most interesting contributions to G trace the evolving experiments and theories of film, still a novel medium in the 1920s. The writings of Richter and Hausmann, among others, foreground Walter Benjamin's canonical writings on film, modernity, and politics from the 1930s. The advent of film required a new aesthetics of movement and a new politics of collective production and viewing. Richter in this period understood film primarily as rhythm, but he was also interested in exploring its relationship to other media. As described by Mertins and Jennings, the inner spread of G1 "presents an extraordinary and unprecedented constellation of images, encouraging readers to explore correspondences" among a full-width filmstrip by Richter, an office building proposal by Mies van der Rohe, diagrams by Theo van Doesburg, and the Constructivist typographic layout by Lissitzky.

A sleeve on the inside back cover of <i>G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926</i> contains fold-out facsimile inserts.

A sleeve on the inside back cover of G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923–1926 contains fold-out facsimile inserts.


The new G, published by the Getty Research Institute, is so robustly constructed that it is difficult to criticize, either in its presentation of historic material or its analytic framework. Like a Mies building, the seemingly axiomatic final expression arises from intensive planning and inspired execution that often requires complex detailing. Of course, in its historiographic capacity the work raises more questions than it could possibly answer within its own pages. More research will be required to find out, for example, how G was received in its time, and how it may have influenced various designers not directly affiliated with it. Given the prominence and subsequent exodus of Weimar-era avant-gardes, a seed planted in the cultural hotbed of Berlin could spread far and wide. Therefore how can G be understood not only as a cultural product, but a cultural producer? Another question concerns the subsequent legacy of the idea of elementare Gestaltung, the quest for primary creative processes that are at once ideal, practical, and democratic. As architects today continue to rethink the origins of form and form-making with digital tools, we must continue to ask, What are the architect's responsibilities with regard to culture? To economy and technology? To other creative disciplines?

In its dual character as a primary and secondary resource, together with its readiness to segue into present-day debates on visual culture, the new G provides the reader with uncommonly rich means to actively engage with an historic document. Indeed it comes about as close as a scholarly resource can come to achieving the "two-way" communication that Maria Gough ascribes to the pioneering work of Bertolt Brecht and El Lissitzky.

Folded inserts, <i>G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation.</i>

Folded inserts, G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation.


Postscript: Detlef Mertins, who passed away in January 2011, is remembered by his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and beyond as a visionary educator and a rigorous scholar who challenged historical assumptions in the field and addressed architecture's uncertain future in a time of rapidly shifting technology. Following the publication of G, two additional works authored by Mertins are due for release in 2011: Architecture Words 7: Modernity Unbound, a selection of essays published by the Architectural Association London; and a comprehensive monograph on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Gideon Fink Shapiro is a doctoral student in architecture at PennDesign, the University of Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in DomusWeb, Architect Magazine, Abitare, Crit, Gothamist, and Streetsblog.

Full-size insert, <i>G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 1 (1923).</i>

Full-size insert, G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 1 (1923).


Full-size insert, <i>G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 1 (1923).</i>

Full-size insert, G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 1 (1923).


Full-size insert, <i>G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 2 (1923).</i>

Full-size insert, G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 2 (1923).


Full-size insert, <i>G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 2 (1923).

Full-size insert, G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation, no. 2 (1923).