The Role Of Manifesto Format In Historical Avant-Gardes

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In this essay I am going to use expressionist group, Die Brücke, the Dada movement and futurism to make my argument, which is, the manifestos created by historical avant-gardes should be viewed not as politic texts but as an introduction to the group’s aesthetic and beliefs. The historic avant-gardes are consistent in creating art with political meaning, aiming for social change throughout history and in some cases aiming to shock viewers. However, I feel the art should be viewed separately from the manifestos. In this essay I will argue that the manifestos should be seen as a way for groups to legitimise their art practice and introduce their group to the world. To make my argument we first need to understand what the avant-garde is. I have found that to define the avant-garde is a difficult task, as it has been contested throughout history.

The word itself comes from the French word ‘vanguard’. ‘It was a term in the military to describe a small troop of highly skilled soldiers who went ahead of the rest of the army to explore the terrain and warn of possible danger.’ ( We can see the link here with avant-garde artists as many of them were described as ‘ahead of their time’ when it came to their art practice. It could be said that this group of artists were leading the way for others, as skills and techniques that they created are still being used today, such as the Futurists and audience participation in their futurist evenings. In a very basic way of putting it, avant-garde is exploring new ways of working and experimenting with new techniques. “We, the artists, will serve as avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the arts is the swiftest and most expeditious…we aim for the heart and the imagination and hence our effect is the most vivid and most decisive” (Henri Saint-Simon, 1825)

Different groups such as Dada, expressionism, surrealism and the futurists sought to challenge society through art, these are known as critical avant-gardes. For example, one morning a group of Futurists climbed onto the campanile at St Marks with a trumpet. As the people came out of the church they were greeted with three blasts from a trumpet and a stream of abuse and futurist propaganda. This was intended to provoke the audience and challenge them. Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp used ready mades such as Fountain to challenge society’s idea of what is perceived as art. When the fountain was denied entry to an open exhibition, he created a drama around the non-exhibition of the piece. In Bathers at Moritzburg Die Brücke artist, Kirchner is challenging society by showing an alternate way of living. I have chosen to focus on three critical avant-gardes to explore as they line up with my art practice.


Futurism was created in 1909 by Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The group were fascinated with technology and what it was capable of. Shown here by Marinetti ‘Let us leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!’ (Filippio Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909). He is talking about throwing themselves into the arms of modernity, technical advancement and the unknown which comes with that.

The futurist manifesto is perhaps the most dynamic of the three I have chosen. From the very beginning it is dramatic, dynamic and full of excitement, starting with ‘’We have been up all night, my friends and I’’ (Filippio Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909). This shows us how intensified the futurists and their manifesto was. They were all about fast paced city life, embracing technology and violence. Marinetti’s Manifesto sets up a few principles which give us an insight into how the futurists are going to act in the art world and what type of work they are going to produce. The work that followed the manifesto was dynamic, aggressive and conveyed a sense of disruption and a feel of modernity. Umberto Boccioni’s Simultaneous Visons draws us straight to the vibrant colours and sharp edges, it conveys a feeling of constant movement. We see suggestions of buildings and technological advances such as street lamps. There is a contrast between the nature, in this case trees and technology which takes us back to Marinetti’s manifesto where he is constantly contrasting nature and technology.

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The manifesto itself was published in a newspaper. This shows how the Futurists wanted to spread the word about their art movement. We also see an example of Marinetti embracing modernity and using the newspaper to promote Futurism. Marinetti speaks of ‘movements of aggression’ and ‘The slap and the blow with the fist’, he also states “There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character.” (Filippio Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909) The manifesto is setting a preface about Futurism and aggression. They are not afraid of war or showing aggression and violence. This is shown in many ways throughout the Futurist movement but perhaps most noticeably, the Futurist evenings, they involved members performing in theatres, this included the performance of insults intended to provoke the audience into a riot. If this would happen the evening would be seen as a success. If the riot would spill out onto the streets it would get the press attention, therefor more advertising of futurism.

My argument is not that Futurism had no political connotations and did not engage in politics, but that the manifestos themselves should not be considered political texts. Marinetti created a politic group called The Futurist Political Party in 1918 as a continuance of the futurist art movement (it was absorbed into the Italian fasci of combat a year later). This move shows us that there is a need for separate groups, one for art and one for politics. It would suggest Marinetti did not wish to merge the two. I do not feel like we can view the manifesto as a political text due to, also, the points that Marinetti is making are not original. As James Joll states in his book Three Intellectuals in Politics (cited in Taylor 1979) the idealising of destruction was common at the time when Nietzche’s influence in Italy and Paris was very strong. A group called Campagnons de L’action d’Art created a manifesto two years before the Futurist manifesto, in which they spoke of the necessity of resorting to violence to preserve the dignity of art. Therefore, we can’t understand the manifesto as a political text/agenda. If we compare the manifesto to the work that followed, we can clearly see the link with the aesthetic he was writing about (dynamic, being thrust into the future, aggression, violence, embracing technology). For example, Street Light by Giacomo Balla uses vivid colours against a dark background to create a dramatic painting which shows the intensification of modernisation. The choice of subject speaks to a notion of embracing and celebrating technology. This shows that the manifesto is an introduction to the work the group were going to produce and not a political agenda.

Die Brücke

Die Brücke was an expressionist group founded by four students in Germany in 1905. At a time when Germany was becoming more nationalistic and militarized this group wanted to create a freer society by engaging with more primitive ways of living. “Kirchners text illustrates the birth of the early twentieth century avant-garde of Europe, the clear desire to break with the old and embrace the new, unknown and experimental” (Juda, 2007 p.27). They used jagged lines and acidic colour to articulate an unsettled relationship with society at the time using expressive marks and gestures. The Die Brücke manifesto was written in 1906 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It was unique, unlike the other manifestos produced by avant-garde groups at this time, I believe this one to be a work of art, A wood cut made by hand with font that evokes German tradition really cements the underlining values and aesthetic of the group, we get a primitive, traditional feeling from it.

If we look at the Manifesto and the work that followed we can see a direct correlation. In Bathers at Moritzburg Kirchner Is suggesting an alternate way of living. In this painting we can see society, presumably the bourgeois class, returning to nature. Swimming naked in a lake. They are engaging with each other and with nature because they have overcome society’s older well-established powers. “We intend to obtain freedom of movement and of life for ourselves” (Kirchner, 1905, the Die Brücke Manifesto). In this painting he is showing that they are free. It is almost a continuance of the manifesto as it is echoing the same things, primitive behaviour, nature and freedom. Looking at the manifesto gives us a feel for the aesthetic of Die Brücke straight away. Although there is a feel for social change and getting rid of the ‘older forces’ I don’t believe this is enough to warrant it being viewed as a political text. It also lends itself to the label ‘art’ instead of ‘text’.


Perhaps one of the worthiest groups to be labelled as avant-garde, the Dada movement emerges through World War 1, these artists are critiquing western society and reacting to modernisation. WW1 was made possible with the advancement in technology that came with modernisation, Dada was fighting the moral vacuum that this created. They were against the pretty, as this created an individual way of viewing art. Expressionism was for the individual but Dada wanted to make art for the group.

In 1915 they created Cabaret Voltaire which showed the group rejecting good taste and inviting in everything rationality excluded. These evenings became chaotic, exiting and nonsensical. They performed poetry, dances, readings of Dada texts, plays and songs. They accentuate the aesthetic of Dada. I have chosen to focus on Tristan Tzaras manifesto created in 1918 as I believe it gives a better understanding of Dada. It was the first of many to come from Tzara. Straight away this text shows that it is not political. Tzara states that he does not want anything, he is creating a list of double negatives, talking about how Dada means nothing but also has meaning in different languages. The manifesto also goes on to say, “I oblige no one to follow me and everybody practices art in his own way.” (Tzara,1918) If this was a political text, he would be trying to recruit people into Dada, instead he is talking about what Dada is, even though Dada had been around for 2 years prior to this manifesto, we get a feeling that he is officially introducing Dada to the world.

Raoul Hausmann used found objects to create the Mechanical head. He is critiquing man and modernity; the man has become a machine of used parts and scraps in an attempt to further advance technology. We get a feeling that the artist is poking fun at mankind, there is still that primitive wood but it is being over powered by the ‘scraps’ of technology which have been placed on him. There is a sense of collage which Raoul Hausmann is known for using.

Due to the fact the Dada manifesto speaks of individualism, not wanting anyone to follow Tzara and not trying to recruit anyone into the group the text can be viewed as an instrument meant to legitimize Dadas art practice as a group. This essay has been an attempt to argue that the manifestos produced by historic avant-gardes should not be seen as political text but as a way to legitimize their art practice and introduce their aesthetic to the world. According to Juda the manifesto was used by those who were not aware it could have been political but instead was used by those wanting to legitimise their aesthetic theory. Juda also says the manifesto could be seen as political (Juda, 2007). I disagree with the last statement as I feel it is clear the historical avant-garde manifestos were not intended as a vehicle to push the artists into the political world but were adapted from political manifestos to legitimise art groups. We also need to consider that these manifestos were not used in political environments, they were seen in galleries, performed in theatres, sent out in leaflets. This is not to say that some of the historical avant-gardes were not engaged with politics however I feel the manifestos they produced should be seen as a way for these groups to legitimise their art practice and not a way for them to enter the political world.


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  2. Dickerman, Leah (2005) Dada, National gallery of art, Washington in association with D.A.P/ Distributed Art Publishers, inc. Washington
  3. Elgar, D. (1998) Expressionism, Hungary: Taschen
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  5. Hulten, Pontus (1986) Futurism & Futurisms, Thames and Hudson, London
  6. Joll, Jamies (1960) Three Intellectuals in Politics in Christiana. J. Taylor (1979) Futurism-Politics, Painting and Performance, Umi Research Press, Michigan, pp.7
  7. Juda, K, N. (2007) An Analysis of the Historical Avant-Garde Manifestos, University of Edinburgh
  8. Kordic, A. Silka, P. Natalie, P and Martinique, E. (2016) Understanding The Significance Of The Avant-Garde, widewalls [online]. Available at [Accessed 22 March 2019]
  9. Marinetti, T, Filippio (1909) The Futurist Manifesto in Christiana. J. Taylor (1979) Futurism-Politics, Painting and Performance, Umi Research Press, Michigan, pp.4-6
  10. Martin, Marianne.W (1978) Futurist Art and Theory 1909-1915, Hacker Art Books, New York Tate online, [Accessed 27 March 2019]
  11. Taylor, Christiana, J (1979) Futurism, Politics, Painting and Performance, Umi Research Press, Michigan
  12. Wright, Barbara (1977) Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, John Calder London, London.
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