Download Russian Futurist Book Art (1910–1915): The Aesthetic Revolution Before the Political Revolution

Giv­en the image of Com­mu­nist Rus­sia we’ve most­ly inher­it­ed from Cold War Hol­ly­wood pro­pa­gan­da and cher­ry-picked TV doc­u­men­taries, we tend to think of Com­mu­nist art as ster­ile, bru­tal­ist, devoid of expres­sive emo­tion and exper­i­ment. But this has nev­er been entire­ly so. While Par­ty-approved social real­ism dom­i­nat­ed in cer­tain decades, exper­i­men­tal Russ­ian ani­ma­tion, film, design, and lit­er­a­ture flour­ished, even under extreme­ly harsh con­di­tions one wouldn’t wish on any artist.

In the ear­ly days of the Rev­o­lu­tion, one of the most influ­en­tial forms of expres­sion, Russ­ian Futur­ism, brought its avant-gardism to the mass­es, and praised the Rev­o­lu­tion while for­mal­ly chal­leng­ing every received idea or doc­trine. Begin­ning in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry and work­ing until the Sovi­et Union was formed and Trot­sky ban­ished, Futur­ist poets and artists like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Kaz­imir Male­vich, Nalia Gon­charo­va, and Velimir Khleb­nikov con­tributed to a style called “Zaum,” a word, as we not­ed in a pre­vi­ous post, that can mean “tran­srea­son” or “beyond sense.” (A very unsci­en­tif­ic, bour­geois approach, it would lat­er be alleged by the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee.)

Like mod­ernist move­ments all over Europe, Russ­ian Futur­ism took risks in every medi­um, but took a much more Dadaist approach than the Ital­ian Futur­ists who had part­ly inspired them. They pub­lished prolifically—creating hun­dreds of books and jour­nals between 1910 and 1930. A new book from Get­ty Research Insti­tute cura­tor Nan­cy Perloff, Explodi­ty: Sound, Image, and Word in Russ­ian Futur­ist Book Art, cov­ers the first five years of that period—pre-Revolutionary but no more nor less rad­i­cal. Her book is accom­pa­nied by an “inter­ac­tive com­pan­ion,” a site that allows users to see the pub­li­ca­tions and poems Perloff exam­ines. If you scroll down to the bot­tom of the page, you’ll find a link to “dig­i­tized Russ­ian avant-garde books from the Get­ty Research Insti­tute.”

This archive con­tains about four dozen books by artist/poets like Khleb­nikov whose 1914 Old-Fash­ioned Love; Forest­ly Boom, you can see pages from at the top of the post. Fur­ther up and just above, we see excerpts from Alex­ei Kruchenykh’s 1913 Vzor­val’ (Explodi­ty), a most­ly hand-let­tered pub­li­ca­tion with whim­si­cal, dynam­ic draw­ings alter­nat­ing with and sur­round­ing the text. You’ll find over four dozen of these books at the Get­ty Research Insti­tute. As you browse or search their cat­a­logue, then click on an entry, you’ll want to click on the “View Online” but­ton to see scanned images.

Each of these books—like Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1913 play, Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy, above and below—makes a force­ful visu­al impres­sion even if we can­not under­stand the text. But in many ways, this is beside the point. Zaum poet­ry was meant to be heard as sound, not sense, and looked at as a phys­i­cal arti­fact. Perloff’s book, writes the Get­ty, “uncov­ers a wide-rang­ing lega­cy in the mid­cen­tu­ry glob­al move­ment of sound and con­crete poet­ry (the Brazil­ian Noigan­dres group, Ian Hamil­ton Fin­lay, and Hen­ri Chopin), con­tem­po­rary West­ern con­cep­tu­al art, and the artist’s book.” In many ways, these artists rep­re­sent a par­al­lel tra­di­tion in mod­ernism to the one we gen­er­al­ly learn of in West­ern Europe and the U.S., and one just as rich and fas­ci­nat­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 144 Beau­ti­ful Books of Russ­ian Futur­ism: Mayakovsky, Male­vich, Khleb­nikov & More (1910–30)

Hear Russ­ian Futur­ist Vladimir Mayakovsky Read His Strange & Vis­cer­al Poet­ry

Hear the Exper­i­men­tal Music of the Dada Move­ment: Avant-Garde Sounds from a Cen­tu­ry Ago

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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  • Bill W. says:

    Judg­ing upon the intro­duc­tion to this arti­cle, one would believe the author thinks Com­mu­nism is the most AWESOME thing since unsliced bread (which you have to wait in line all day for, until sup­plies run-out)!

  • Augusta L. says:

    No. The author says, “In the ear­ly days of the Rev­o­lu­tion, one of the most influ­en­tial forms of expres­sion, Russ­ian Futur­ism, brought its avant-gardism to the mass­es, and praised the Rev­o­lu­tion while for­mal­ly chal­leng­ing every received idea or doc­trine.”

    Obvi­ous­ly it’s not the pol­i­tics but the bold­ness and scope of the art and cre­ativ­i­ty in these books that are the AWESOME things.

    It’s quite pos­si­ble to ignore the Com­mu­nist pro­pa­gan­da they might con­tain and still be in awe of their beau­ty. It’s like look­ing at a 1000-year-old Koran, or an illus­trat­ed Bible from the same peri­od. You can appre­ci­ate the beau­ty of how it is pre­sent­ed and con­struct­ed with­out hav­ing to buy into the reli­gious per­spec­tive.

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