A Modernist Revision of Manuscript Art: Aleksej Remizov’s Illustrated Albums

Julia Friedman, Brown University

Aleksej Remizov’s belief that the “letter art” of books was a legitimate art form is crucial for understanding why a writer of considerable talent would devote some eighteen years of his life to making hand-written editions of his texts. From 1931 to 1949 Remizov produced hundreds of albums, illustrating them with watercolor and India ink drawings and color paper collages. Why albums? Although their production may have been prompted by material necessity, it was conditioned by far loftier motives. Remizov was well aware of the contemporary controversy surrounding the standardization of printing. This controversy that began with the routing of Russia’s first publishing house and subsequent rejection of printed books by Archbishop Avvakum seemed to have all but subsided by the nineteenth century. Yet, the twentieth century began with a resurgence of complaints against printing. By then, it was not the pre-modern xenophobia of the earlier days when printing was seen as “cunning foreign” innovation (Kašin, 56), but, rather, the fear of the uniform: printing had come to be seen as a faceless, mass-produced, despiritualized and unanimated means of text dissemination. Vasilij Rozanov eloquently vented the renewed resentment towards the printed book: “It is as if this cursed Gutenberg had licked all writers with his copper tongue, and all of them lost their souls ‘in print,’ lost their face, [their] character; my ‘I’ exists only in manuscripts, like the ‘I’ of any other writer.” (5) The same sentiment, prevalent among Russian bibliophiles, was repeated by P. P. Vejner at an artist conference in Kiev in 1912, where he declared the old handwritten book to be infinitely superior to its printed counterpart: “factory production can hardly be combined with artistry. That which gains in quantity looses in quality.” (Sidorov, 51) Remizov joined in this apprehension towards the printed book. He prided himself in that the “idiosyncrasies” of his visual experiments continued the tradition of the “live Russian book.” (Gracheva, 1992:2-43)

Using as examples the illustrated albums from the Harvard University Houghton Library, I will suggest what place Remizov intended for his albums. I will argue that he chose the form of the illustrated album for his art in an attempt to revive the book-or, as he saw it, the manuscript-tradition. It would be, however, a mistake to assume that Remizov simply wanted to recreate faithfully the appearance of manuscript editions of centuries past. His albums are clearly the work of a Modernist – a Modernist’s version of the illuminated manuscript because they include an element that was not acceptable for the medieval scribes: the artist’s creative self-consciousness. In The Dancing Demon Remizov presents this constructed mythic persona who could return to the dark reaches of Russia’s past in printing and then move freely through history along with the evolving form of the book. The second half of the book, tellingly entitled “The Crow-Plume Scribe,” mixes fiction with accurate paleographic and historical information. Here Remizov, through his disconcertingly shape-shifting narrator, describes a series of his own imagined transformations. Remizov’s identification with these transformations proved to be so strong that he retold one of them in a chapter of his autobiography. Such amalgamation of life and fiction in The Dancing Demon places the issue of Remizov as a “modernist scribe” not only into the broader context of his work, but also that of his life.


Gracheva, A. M. ed. The Magic World of Aleksej Remizov: Exhibition Catalogue. Sankt-Peterburg: Chronograph, 1992.

Кашин, Н. П. «Значение книги в древней Руси (Древнерусская рукописная книга)». Русская книга от начала письменности до 1800 года. Ред. В. Я. Адарюков и А. А. Сидоров. Москва: Государственное издательство, 1924, 34-61.

Ремизов, А. Пляшущий демон. Paris: Navarre, 1949.

_____. Подстриженными глазами. Paris: YMCA, 1951.

Розанов, В. Избранное. Munich: A. Neimanis Buchvertrieb und Verlag, 1970.

Сидоров, А. А. «Книга как объект изучения». Русская книга от начала письменности до 1800 года. Ред. В. Я. Адарюков и А. А. Сидоров. Москва: Государственное издательство, 1924, 10-32.