Visions of Avant-Garde Film: Polish Cinematic Experiments from Expressionism to Constructivism

By Kamila Kuc | Go to book overview

Introduction

Avant-Garde Film: Definitions

Much has been written on the avant-gardes in general.1 When applied to film, the term “avant-garde” remains contested. This is perhaps because experimental film history has always been located between art and film history.2 For Fernand Léger, avant-garde film was a direct reaction against films that had “scenarios and stars”; it was “the painters’ and poets’ revenge.”3 The Cahiers du Cinéma critic André Bazin believed that avant-garde film in the 1920s and 1930s had a straightforward and unambiguous aim of refusing to comply with the requirements of commercial cinema. Instead, it was aimed at a restricted audience, “which it tried to make accept the cinematic experiences that were in more than one aspect comparable with the experiments with painting and literature of the time.”4

Similarly, the leading theorists and filmmakers of Polish avant-garde film in the 1930s, Zygmunt Tonecki and Jalu Kurek, believed that avant-garde film should move away from commercial films to “artistic” films. Both theorists underlined the importance of discovering those elements of film that were purely cinematic. Avant-garde film, they argued, should be considered successful not by assessing the profit it made, or the popularity it gained, but by judging whether it fulfilled satisfactory artistic conditions.5 Avant-garde films were often created on a small scale, using artisanal, personal methods, which, in the case of Poland, can first be observed in the work of Feliks Kuczkowski in 1917. In its attempt to separate itself from the practices of popular cinema, avant-garde film enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the other arts. The 1920s was the first truly interdisciplinary period in which dance, design, fashion, music, painting, theatre, and film interacted to produce new art. It was the theory and practice of avant-garde artists that brought film into the world of arts.6 Avant-garde artists saw film as art and recognized its impact on contemporary popular culture. Besides, film was an ideal candidate for avant-garde art, because it had no long-standing ties to highart tradition, unlike painting and sculpture.

As Peter Bürger explains in his book Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), art in the eighteenth century was considered an autonomous structure, pure and beautiful in comparison to real society. This is embodied in the art for art’s sake movement of the nineteenth century: “The insights formulated in Kant’s and Schiller’s aesthetic writings presuppose the complete evolution of art as a sphere that is detached from the praxis of life.”7 So understood, the institution

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