Feeling riotous? Bladderball on Elm Street is for amateurs — real actions of civil disobedience are on display between the translucent walls of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The title of the current exhibition, “The Postwar Avant-Garde & the Culture of Protest, 1945 to 1968 and Beyond,” may suggest a dense history lecture in the form of a museum display, but don’t fret: going to Beinecke has never been this insurrectionary.
The exhibition, curated by Yale History lecturer Kevin Repp and Beinecke Archivist Timothy Young, showcases numerous pamphlets, manuscripts, fliers, posters and pretty much every other (in most cases) written form of communication, all produced in the decades following the Second World War.
I had the opportunity to tour the exhibit with Repp himself, a man who first struck me as the scholarly, younger version of Richard Griffiths as Harry Potter’s uncle, Vernon Dursley. But I was soon — unexpectedly — convinced otherwise.
The sweet aura of tobacco around him and the zeal of his speech throughout our meeting had an entrancing effect — Repp talked about “La Société du Spectacle” as though he himself had been there, hanging out with an inebriated Guy Debord as he scribbled the famous essay on social criticism in one of the three original notebooks currently on display.
The setting of the exhibit is very Franco-centrist and, as Repp pointed out several times, it reflects a time when many different radical worldviews, from Anarchy to Marxism, met, clashed and mutated.
The exhibition presents the most extensive compilation of post-WWII avant-garde material in America, Repp said, but also comments on the influence of related artistic movements, such as those that sprouted from Surrealism and Dadaism. The array of publications on display — from magazines filled with a mixture of text and pictograms to journals of rigorous formatting — also looks to contemporaneous political happenings around Europe up until the 1980s.
Inside the library, the visitor becomes immersed in the characteristically dense, warm dimension of the Beinecke’s interior. However, even the most easily distracted passerby would notice that this semester something is different.
“Most of the material [in this exhibition] is ephemeral,” Repp said as he fixed an unruly curl. “Let’s face it: this is not the Gutenberg Bible.”
Indeed, the glass walls surrounding the library’s permanent collection of ancient manuscripts defiantly display brightly colored signs of protest, subversive messages in different languages and fists calling for revolution.
“I just saw the opportunity to investigate this, an area that is not yet considered history per se,” Repp added. “But that is worth keeping intact for the future.”
Beginning on the southern half of the library’s first floor, the exhibition effectively depicts the living situations of artists in Paris, and elsewhere in Europe, after the city’s liberation from the Nazi regime in 1945.
But “effective,” in this case, doesn’t mean “intense.” It also doesn’t mean boring. In “The Postwar Avant-Garde,” “effective” feels more like “real,” or “private.”
Allow me to illustrate:
The first item of the exhibition, a notebook, reveals receipts from Adrienne Monnier’s Parisian bookstore “La Maison des Amis des Livres.”
But it was not books she was selling; it was food and other products coming from Argentina. According to these records, George Bataille once got “1 Kg. of green coffee, 1 bottle of oil, 1 Kg. of dried fruit” from Monnier. The beauty of Repp’s work is that it allows the visitor to understand its subjects (artists, dissidents, or both) and relate to them on an intimate level.
Moving along chronologically, the north half of Beinecke moves into a period of time marked by the foundation of the revolutionary group “Situationist International” in 1957. It was at this clear landmark in the exhibition that Repp paused to compose himself and adjust his tie out of respect.
At this point, the exhibition traces the origins and development of avant-garde political ideals in Europe that led up to the May 1968 protests in Paris, the second pivotal landmark along the timeline of the exhibit.
The main tool for all these currents of thought quickly becomes evident to the visitor. Graphic, easy to reproduce and distribute, journals stand as the means of communication used, sometimes illegitimately, by different factions with the key purpose of spreading a voice of insurgence.
Many original and rare works are on display — Beinecke boasts a complete collection of “Potlatch,” the informational bulletin published by 1950s Lettrists and one of Repp’s top-five favorite finds.
The mezzanine level showcases the period from 1968 until the early 1980s. Here, the subversion and passion behind the making and use of art for political purposes finally comes across. The initially anonymous posters calling for action among students and unions in Europe now convey the crude statement of an entire generation — they are not dorm decoration anymore. Black-and-white photographs by Tano D’Amico provide a tangible sensation of Italian riots and protests during the 1970s.
Finally, the exhibit introduces the worldwide collaboration of 1970s subversive publications known as “Underground Press” — “a loose alliance of counter-culture magazines,” Repp writes in his lush manifesto-style brochure. To the curator’s surprise, the press counted even the New Haven Advocate as an affiliate member in its day.
“Postwar Avant-Garde” is not a textbook by John Gaddis. It is a primary source of contemporary history, a mosaic narration where the people involved and the reasoning behind their actions are included alongside the presentation of their work. A work that consists on the coherent assembly of media ranging from Lettrist ping-pong balls that defy the value of language to lithographic prints used to inspire revolution.
The exhibit, overall, gives a feeling of efficiency. The visitor arrives with little idea of what he’s going to find: a far-reaching presentation of the avant-garde movement, in a collection that digs deeply into the artistic core of European politics after the Second World War.
Art and conflict from 40 years ago, “The Postwar Avant-Garde & the Culture of Protest, 1945 to 1968 & Beyond” will be shedding lux until the end of the fall semester.