Rhythmical Typography

During World War I Dada emerged as an anti-war art movement. Much of the early work from artists associated with Dada takes the form of a protest against the collective madness of war. Collage, confrontational performance art, guerrilla theatre were part of those who resisted the war. In an age of war-mongering artists had to find a means of being heard. Their work was created in order to confront the viewer or listener, to force interaction, to shatter expectations and well-established traditions. One of the means available to the poet was the use of experimental typography. To some authors (the case of Futurism is a different issue entirely) typography became synonymous with the battle against war, violence and intolerance.

Antwerp has been a centre of avant-garde experimentalism in the Low Countries, both in the pictorial arts and in literature. Paul van Ostaijen was a multi-talented artist who wrote poetry, prose pieces and literary criticism. He described poetry as word-painting. In his manifesto-like statements, he declared to search for a complete poverty of content. The mind should not be distracted by anything secondary. Poetry should work in the same way as music, without the deviousness of semantics. Words are not chosen for their meaning, but for their musicality. However, with every collection of his poetry there appeared another view on literature, new themes, and a different way of treating language. In proper avant-garde tradition, the experiment seemed the ultimate challenge, not the result. In 1916, Van Ostaijen published Music-Hall, a first collection of metropolitan poems that describe the nightlife of Antwerp. Two years later, his poetics had changed drastically. Het Sienjaal (‘The Signal’) shows him as a humanitarian expressionist. The poet acts as prophet. By the means of words he brings people closer together. With the publication of Bezette Stad in 1921 (‘Occupied City’) the tone of his poetry has become black and pessimistic. The poem evokes the capture and occupation of Antwerp during the First World War.

Written in Berlin, Bezette Stad is Van Ostaijen’s best known collection. It was here that he fulfilled the typographical and formal experiment that gives him a special place in literature, making full use of what he called ‘rhythmical typography’. Words are printed bold, in italics, in waves or vertically. The form supports the content. The word Zeppelin is printed in the form of a Zeppelin, an orchestra evokes a bombardment. Bezette Stad is one of the highlights of European avant-garde poetry. Yet, this collection has gone beyond the experimental. The typographical means were largely inspired by Dada and however stimulating they may be in themselves, they serve the purpose of highlighting meaning. The ‘message’ is the madness of war.

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