Alexei Kruchenykh and Aliagrov (Roman Jakobson),
Zaumnaia gniga (Transrational Boog), Cover: Olga Rozanova
Moscow, 1915

The Art and Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde Book

Alexei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikhov, Igra v adu: Poema (A Game in Hell: A Poem), Cover: Natalia Goncharova, Moscow, 1912.

Alexei Kruchenykh, Mirskontsa (Worldbackwards), Cover: Natalia Goncharova, Moscow, 1912.

Alexei Kruchenykh, Pustynniki; Pustynnitsa: Dve poemy (Hermits; Hermitess: Two Poems), Cover: Mikhail Larionov, Moscow, 1913.

Alexei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikhov, Igra v adu, (A Game in Hell), Cover: Kazimir Malevich, Moscow, 1914.

Alexei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov, Te li le (Te li le), Cover: Olga Rozanova, St. Petersburg, 1914.

Alexei Kruchenykh, Starinnaia liubov' (Old-Fashioned Love), Cover: Mikhail Larionov, Moscow, 1912.

Alexei Kruchenykh, Pomada (Pomade), Cover: Mikhail Larionov, Moscow, 1913.


J. Paul Getty Museum
Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles
Tango with Cows, Book Art
of the Russian Avant-Garde,
November 18, 2008-
April 19, 2009


Between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Russia was in spiritual, social, and cultural crisis. The moral devastation of the failed 1905 revolution, the famines of 1911, the rapid influx of modern technologies, and the outbreak of World War I led to disillusionment with urban expansion and a presentiment of apocalypse. Russian avant-garde poets and artists responded to this crisis with mixed emotions. Like Italian Futurists, they embraced urban entertainment and the speed and cacophony of city life. Fear of potential destructiveness of urbanism and new technology colored their anticipation of the future. This apprehension led them back to their Slavic roots, on which they based their newly-invented book art.

This exhibition takes its title from a book and poem by Vasily Kamensky. The absurd image of farm animals dancing the tango evokes the clash between a primarily rural culture and a growing urban life. In addition, it mirrors the nonsensical word combinations that Russian poets explored in their sonic language called zaum’—an invented term meaning transrational or “beyon-sense.” Working collaboratively, poets and artists designed pages in which rubber-stamped zaum’ poetry shared space with archaic and modern scripts, as well as with primitive and abstract imagery. The Russian avant-garde utilized these verbal and visual disruptions to convey humor, parody, and an ambivalence about Russia’s past, present, and future.

This exhibition explores the way Russian avant-garde poets and artists responded to this crisis through their book art. Often working collaboratively, poets and artists designed pages in which rubber-stamped zaum' or "transrational" poetry shared space with archaic and modern scripts, as well as with primitive and abstract imagery. The Russian avant-garde utilized such verbal and visual disruptions to convey humor, parody and an ambivalence about Russia's past, present, and future.

The image of St. George the Dragonslayer opens the lithographic portfolio Mystical Images of War, which Natalia Goncharova completed soon after the outbreak of World War I. Goncharova weaves symbols from the bible, folk mythology, and history into her imagery of contemporary warfare. Representing Christ's victory over the Antichrist, the image of St. George sets the stage for the cycle's dualities of sacred and secular, past and present, and good and evil, which Goncharova accentuates by contrasting the white tones of the untreated paper with black inking. The Russian avant-garde's perception of the primitive as the "magic fable of the old East" signified a loyalty to non-Western values. The East-West duality became a duality of time in which a rural past rich in ancient Christian and pagan traditions vied with a modern, urban present tainted by the materialism and decay of the West. This temporal anxiety is captured in the title of the book, Worldbackwards.

The Russian avant-garde challenged the lavish journals of Russian Symbolism by creating diminutive books such as A Trap for Judges, an anthology printed on the reverse side of cheap wallpaper. Its comical, provocative title points to the Futurist contempt for literary critics and the press. In 1912, Alexei Kruchenykh and Mikhail Larionov produced the first Russian avant-garde book, Old-Fashioned Love. It is a primitive booklet daringly printed on cheap paper in a pocket-sized format. With this publication, Alexei Kruchenykh achieved a new unity of poetry and imagery by using the same lithographic process for both. His partnership with Mikhail Larionov yielded a remarkable cover in which a diamond-shaped vase containing a female form divides the title word liubov' (love) in half, and Cyrillic letters take on the triangular shapes of the vase, flowers, and butterflies. In the book's poetry, intentional misspellings coupled with images of provocative nudes lightly parody romantic love poetry.

From the Orthodox icon and popular lubok to Symbolist poetry and painting, the image of the devil was ubiquitous in Russian art and literature. The narrative poem in A Game in Hell, concerns a card game between devils and sinners. The fixed stare and full-page presence of Goncharova's devil on the cover refers blasphemously to religious icons of Christ. Her sinister and absurd devils within play with multiple cultural types, including the archaic devil of Russian icons that pulls sinners to hell, and the parodic secular devil of the lubok, who is outwitted by man. By celebrating these shifting identities, the Futurists playfully conflate the worlds of the sacred and the secular. On page after page, whether silly, sinister, or grotesque, the Futurist devil assumes an ironic and provocative stance.

Threesome was published nearly a year after the appearance in 1912 of A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, the first manifesto of the Russian Futurists. The title Threesome refers to Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov, and Elena Guro. In the book we find Kruchenykh's manifesto New Ways of the Word (the language of the future, death to Symbolism) in which he uses the adjective zaumny (transrational) for the first time. According to Kruchenykh, "The word (and its components, the sounds) is not simply a truncated thought, not simply logic, it is first of all transrational." By moving beyond the mind, poets discovered the possibility of "totally new words." In Kazimir Malevich's cover for the book the past confronts the future. He builds the bulky, black figure of a peasant worker out of triangles and cones that evoke a robot and transforms the Old-Church Slavonic lettering of his title into dynamic, triangular shapes.

Russian avant-garde poets and artists applied the bold proclamations of their manifestos to books, such as Te li le, which explores the independent aural and graphic attributes of what they called the "word as such." Here, Olga Rozanova achieved a synthesis of painting, poetry, and sound. The rhyming sonorities of "te" and "le," highlighted in purple ink on the cover, draw us into her blend of handwritten words and decorative forms. Tango with Cows offers a tour of Moscow's urban entertainment. In his "ferro-concrete" (reinforced concrete) poems, Vasily Kamensky replaced grammar and syntax with a spatial arrangement of words that celebrates concrete as a dynamic force in the invention of the modern city. The artists discarded customary book materials and printed Tango on cheap wallpaper as a parody of urban bourgeois taste. By juxtaposing the urban tango — an erotic Argentine dance that arrived in Russia in 1913 via Paris — with the cows of rural Russia, Kamensky captured the tension poets and artists felt between the recovery of a rural past and the allure of an urban present in creating their art of the future.

Curator's Essay
The formal beginnings of what came to be called Russian Futurism date to December 1911, when David Burliuk invited a young law student and aspiring poet named Benedikt Livshits to spend the Christmas holidays with his family in Chernianka, near the Black Sea. Here Livshits, Burliuk, and Burliuk's brothers, Vladimir and Nikolai, formed an association they called Hylaea, the ancient Greek name for Chernianka. Soon after, the poets Velimir Khlebnikov, Alexei Kruchenykh, and Vladimir Mayakovsky joined the association.

In his memoirs, Livshits recalls that while traveling to Chernianka, David Burliuk showed him and Vladimir a photograph of Pablo Picasso's latest painting, unidentified by Livshits, but possibly Ma Jolie (1911–1912). The photograph, brought from Paris by the Russian painter Alexandra Exter, marked Livshits' and the Burliuks' first encounter with French Cubism. They shared the belief that Cubist methods of depicting space and volume through multiple viewpoints and shifting planes could potentially alter one's vision of the world. In describing his early days in Chernianka, Livshits also writes vividly of another influence: Khlebnikov's new form of poetry, which he discovered for the first time in the manuscripts that Khlebnikov had left during his summer stay in 1910 with Larionov. Livshits contrasts the "limits of a language already constituted," already fixed in its planetary sphere, with Khlebnikov's poetry, which broke loose from the sphere and "overcame the law of gravity": "I saw language come alive with my very own eyes. The breath of the primordial word wafted into my face." Livshits marvels at Khlebnikov's exposure of the Slavic roots of words and of dormant meanings that give rise to new ones. As he recalls, the "wisdom of the East" thus multiplied "the experience of the West," and Chernianka became, in retrospect, "the intersection of coordinates [East and West, ancient and modern, word and image] which brought forth the movement in Russian poetry and painting called Futurism."
Notwithstanding their common absorption of Cubism, the Russian Futurists' allegiance to primitive Slavic forms and traditions highlights important differences between their art and that of the Italian Futurists. The poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of Italian Futurism, wrote in 1909 about deep changes in technology, science, and concepts of time and space, and called for the reinvention of all the arts. The Russian Futurists shared Marinetti's interest in new verbal and visual genres, but they were more inclined to "create new things, grown on the magnificent traditions of Russian antiquity." In 1922, a Russian critic noted that the neologism budetlianstvo — coined from the Russian word for "will be" and translated as "future-ness" or "will-be-ness" — described the Russian movement more accurately than Futurism, because it replaced the borrowed Western term with a word formed from Slavic roots.

The painterly component of Russian Futurism, called "Cubo-Futurism," drew upon the Cubist dissolution of the body into geometric planes and upon the Hylaean poets' reawakening of ancient primitive and sacred traditions. Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov introduced Neoprimitivism in December 1909, when they displayed their paintings alongside folk, primitive, and religious objects, including ancient Scythian sculpture of the southern Russian Steppes (kammenye baby), lubki (popular prints), icon paintings, and embroidery. Their parodic recasting of archaic forms and their secular representations of Orthodox imagery paralleled Khlebnikov's transformations of Russian words and Alexei Kruchenykh's crude and nonsensical word combinations. Poets and painters thus sought to express the dialogue between the ancient and modern, past and present, and sacred and secular that characterized modern Russian culture.
During the seven years before the Russian Revolution, these dualities played out in the medium of the book. In contrast to luxurious Symbolist book art, the Russian Futurist poets were often their own publishers and used the thin, brittle, wood-pulp paper they could afford. They cultivated a handcrafted quality through the use of unevenly cut, stapled, and pocket-sized pages that were written, drawn, or rubber-stamped rather than printed. The unpretentious results constituted an anti-establishment gesture.

Russian Futurism, or budetliantsvo, thus encompassed Neoprimitivism, Cubo-Futurism, and a new discourse about past and future. During the war years, poets and artists dispersed. A few, including Kruchenykh, Vasily Kamensky, Ilia Zdanevich, and his brother Kirill, established a Futurist artists' colony in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia. They continued to experiment with the transrational language they called zaum', or "beyonsense," based on the autonomous nature of words. Other Futurists, such as Kazimir Malevich, abandoned the world of representation for painterly Suprematism. Despite the brief life of the Futurist movement, zaum' poetry and Russian avant-garde book art live on to the present day in Fluxus books and event scores, contemporary sound and visual poetry, artists' books, and most recently digital books. These draw, in different ways, upon ephemerality, materials, and the relation of word-image-sound to reimagine the book as an autonomous, non-referential and experimental art form.

— Nancy Perloff is Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Collections, Getty Research Institute.


Vasily Kamensky,Tango s korovami: zhelezobetonnyia poemy (Tango with Cows: Ferro-concrete Poems), Cover: Vasily Kamensky, Moscow, 1914.