The Polyphonies of the Russian Experimental Book: Vladimir Majakovskij (1923) and Vladimir Druk (1991)

Olga Livshin, Northwestern University

The Russian avant-garde book is a flamboyant manifestation of the Futurist “slap in the face of the public taste.” Designed by the poets in collaboration with Suprematist, Rayonist, and Constructivist artists, this hybrid art form was printed on wallpaper, hand-scribbled, and stitched together. Words acted as visual elements, while some images resembled words. Titles such as Zaumnaja gniga crowned the final product. The avant-garde book followed the Revolution as a propaganda tool thanks to its energetic designs, but was crushed by the officially enforced esthetics of Socialist Realism. Sixty years later, during perestroika, visual poems in the shapes of LP records appeared (Nina Iskrenko), sentimental Soviet postcards adorned book covers (Timur Kibirov), and poems printed on paper airplanes floated down to the audience at poetry readings (Lev Rubinštejn).

Defiant play with the form of a paramount cultural symbol was not lost in the temporal gap.  But were these experimental books fundamentally comparable to the avant-garde books of the 1910s and 1920s? This paper argues that they were, in at least one important way that has been little addressed. Scholars have traditionally focused on the means by which early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde books broke with tradition in both the verbal and visual arts. However, the experimental book in both periods is defined not only by external conflict, but also by the relationship between its disparate media ­ a deliberately tense relationship, in some cases.

In the 1910s and 1920s, this art form’s verbal and visual elements enter in a polyphony, driven by the differences between the competing artistic visions. In the second wave, official documents and utilitarian texts collide with poetry, not only competing but also echoing each other and exchanging properties. These polyphonies are unusual statements in the context of poetry, which is traditionally considered to be an art of one voice and one mode of expression.

Vladimir Majakovskij , the poet of monologues and revolutionary prophesies, collaborated with the artist Aleksandr Rodčenko on a stridently dual project. Rodčenko’s photomontage illustrations to Majakovskij ’s poema “Pro čto” deride the persona of the poet, exercise modernistic techniques that pose a sharp difference to Majakovskij 's Romantic rendering of the poet's love object, seek scandal while Majakovskij  eliminates biographical and political references from early drafts, and interrupt the počma’s spatial and temporal continuities. While Modernist artists blur lines between verbal and visual arts, “Pro čto” stands as a stubbornly dual artpiece. The origins of the divergence in the collaboration, however, lie in the aspects of “Pro čto” that are atypical of most work by Majakovskij . 

In the early 1990s, it is the relationship between poetry and texts based on utilitarian Soviet texts that becomes foregrounded. In Kommutator, the poet Vladimir Druk and the artist Olga Ast juxtapose traditionally versified poetry with the texts, among which are the 1984 Moscow phone directory and instructions for hammering concrete blocks into the ground. Druk’s poetry mocks authorial declamation of poetry written in service of the state, at times parodying Majakovskij . The book’s form, in its turn, encourages dialogue and exchange of properties between poetry and other texts. Poems run on the right-hand pages, while utilitarian texts appear on the facing left-hand pages. Whereas "Pro čto" asserts the artist’s power to compete with the poet, Kommutator suggests a model of intertextuality between literature and other texts.