Back to Carmen figuratum or forward to Concrete Poetry? Velimir Xlebnikov's Pushkin Portrait

Andrea Hacker, University of California, Los Angeles

Among the manuscript material belonging to Velimir Xlebnikov's late work Doski sud'by, located in the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art in Moscow, is a complex of texts, which is closely related to two printed poems by the Budetljanin: "Ot Kaira do Kal'kutty" and "B." One of the texts in this complex surprises with its unusual form: On list 39 of file 80 Xlebnikov laid out a poem in such a way that it depicts Alexander Pushkin's famous auto portrait. Although the graphic aspect of written texts were important to the avant-garde and the lines between text and visual arts were deliberately blurred by both poets and fine artists (e.g., Majakovskij's Iz ulicy v ulitsu, or design works by Rodchenko and Lisickij), Xlebnikov's Pushkin portrait does not quite fit in with the abstractions of his Russian contemporaries. However, the portrait may have an immediate French predecessor, for example Apollinaire's Calligrammes of 1914. Two genres from the tradition of graphic literature come to mind: on the one hand, the text is close to carmina figurata particularly from the Baroque. But carmina figurata feature a very close tie between content and form (e.g., the long tradition of visual poems on the crucified Saviour in cross form). In the Pushkin portrait such a clear unity of meaning and visual representation is not apparent. On the other hand, the lack of clarity as far as the contents is concerned (some words are illegible, others abbreviated) suggests a generic proximity with works from movements, where the artistic emphasis was shifted from the textual towards the graphic message (e.g., the works of artists such as Jiri Kolar, Jerome Peignot, John Furnival). Most of these works came years after Xlebnikov's death in 1922.

The meaning of the poem and how it is related to Pushkin becomes clear only when the rest of the texts in the complex (manuscript and printed) are taken into consideration. For example: Xlebnikov experiments with Pushkin's name (e.g., pushka) and ties it into the text's topic of violent revolution spreading from Russia throughout the European and Asian world. This distinguishes the portrait from both traditions: neither carmina figurata nor Concrete Poetry relies on a surrounding complex of texts to make it's meaning accessible.

My talk will offer the visual materials: Pushkin's auto portrait, Xlebnikov's version of it, contemporary relatives and comparable works from the tradition of visual poetry. It will introduce the archival material surrounding the portrait as well as the printed poems, and discuss in finer detail its generic peculiarity.