We live surrounded by rectangles enclosing the printed word. They attempt to catch our eye conventionally—a slanted typeface here, a photo bled-to-edge there, everything blurred together with the E-Z F/X of Photoshop. We get used to looking past the print to the message it contains.
But once upon a revolution there lived a tribe of artist-poets who upheld the artistic autonomy of the book, the word, even the single letter, who took the familiar rectangles and cut, pasted, stenciled, mimeographed, folded, spindled, and mutilated them beyond all recognition. Zaum (za = beyond, trans; um = mind, sense, rationality) was their invented watchword. Their exploits are collected in blazing color in the engrossing, if ultimately unsatisfying, The Russian Avant-Garde Book: 1910-1934.
The book accompanies a recent MOMA exhibit drawn from the world’s most comprehensive collection of Russian illustrated books, amassed in “a two and one-half year juggernaut of collecting” by Harvey S. Shipley Miller of the Judith Rothschild Foundation, a New York institution that gives grants for the acquisition and exhibition of deceased, underappreciated artists’ work. Neither the nearly 200 pages of color plates nor the five brief critical essays quite duplicate what the first essay calls “the most intimate of art experiences,” flipping through the pages of these books. But you see nothing less than a visual history of early-20th-century Russia.
The books’ titles alone tell the story: A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, Transrational Boog (Zaumnaia gniga), A Game in Hell, Worldbackwards, Universal War, Beyonsensualists/Transrationalists (Zaumniki), The Soviet Alphabet. Recognizable names include artist Kazimir Malevich, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, graphic designer Aleksandr Rodchenko (who had his own show at MOMA four years ago), and even Marc Chagall.
The explosion of Russian creativity in the teens and ’20s, just before the concrete blocks of Stalinism submerged a civilization, is a familiar irony. The illustrated book put irony and paradox between two covers, making it the perfect expression of the avant-zeitgeist.
The earliest, produced by the Russian futurists beginning in the teens, are, as Russian art specialist Nina Gurianova writes in the book’s most engaging essay, “small, rough, loud inside and out, and cheap.” Lithographed sketches, crude cutouts, and primary-colored illustrations merge with often punning or obscene poetic texts by writers like Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov, creating a new form: “colorpoetry.” Aleksei Kruchenykh used supplies stolen from his job as a draftsman to create books violating all the principles of Gutenberg: Pages were inserted in varying orders or omitted altogether, rubber-stamped texts changed from copy to copy, typeset text was paired with handmade collages. Later on, these same artists and poets were improbably put to work creating mass-produced children’s books and tracts.
Meanwhile, during the ’20s, the suprematists, led by Malevich and El Lissitzky, and the constructivists, foremost among them Rodchenko, were creating an entirely different aesthetic, based on geometric, “architectural” abstractions and individually designed fonts in black, white, and red. With the addition of the more “factual” medium of photomontage, this became the Soviet style, used for everything from poetry books to economic reports and still influential in design today.
The exhibit and the book, divided chronologically, raise many unanswered questions. Should the avant-garde books be considered mechanically reproduced objects with variations or unique works with duplications? If the latter, they call into question our assumptions about the form “book,” a useful thought in an age of infinitely malleable digital content. Were they subversive of or submissive to the emerging socialist ideology? And why, of all things, in a 75 percent illiterate country, was the art book championed as a way of reaching the masses, first by a populist avant-garde and then by the socialist machinery?
The answers to the latter questions would require a more in-depth history of the artists behind the art books. The establishment of a thriving genre of art based on interdisciplinary collaboration begs the presence of a close-knit artistic community populated by multimedia talents. The Russian Avant-Garde Book, with its focus on historical classification and various theoretical issues, is sadly missing insight into the personalities that created these works. Great collaborations like those between Rodchenko, a hardworking designer, and Mayakovsky, a political prisoner at the age of 13 who later lived in a ménage à trois, or Kruchenykh, important as a publisher and collector as well as a designer, and Khlebnikov, a vagabond who wrote experimental poetry in an idiolect, deserve their own books.
“They ask us about the ideal, about pathos?” wrote Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov in their manifesto, The Word as Such. “It’s not a question of hooliganism, or of heroic deeds, or of being a fanatic or a monk. All Talmuds are equally destructive to the wordwright, what constantly remains with him is only the word as (such) itself.” The Russian Avant-Garde Book definitively demonstrates that the Russian avant-garde possessed all the collegiality, raw talent, and zaniness of their better-known cohorts, the surrealists and Dadaists, with a difference: They held something—the word—sacred.