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A poetic revolution in Russia

March 1, 2009 |  9:00 am

'Portrait of Akhmet' by Mikhail Larionov in 'Worldbackwards (Mirskontsa)'

Russian artist Vasily Kamensky’s poem about the clash between rural culture and urban growth conjures an absurd image of farm animals dancing the tango. Originating from this image is the title of the Russian poetry exhibit “Tango With Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant Garde, 1910-1917” at the Getty Research Institute.

On display are 36 books of poetry and a variety of interactive materials that explore the little-known period in Russian history that predates the Russian Revolution of 1917.

This particular era encompasses a time of flux and upheaval in Russia, marred by social and spiritual crisis brought on by the failed 1905 revolution, the 1911 famine and the outbreak of World War I. In response to these events, a small group of poets and artists came together to invent a new form of book art. One example: “Arithmetic,” a lithograph in the book “Let’s Grumble,” in which artist Kazimir Malevich’s Cubo-Futurist lines evoke a character that could be in one of Alexei Kruchenykh’s plays.

Zaum (meaning beyond sense) poetry experimented with the definition of language and what a book should be, employing discarded syntax and punctuation, disjointed and nonsensical syllables and unintelligible sounds.

“They chose sound of the words over meaning,” said Nancy Perloff, curator of modern and contemporary collections. “It was part of their interest in moving away from logic and clarity into something more chaotic, disorderly and illegible.”

These artists, who frequently published their own work, deliberately used crude materials such as burlap and rubber-stamping to produce books and illustrations. The placement of words is off-center, read from bottom up or in a collage format. The works are heavy on juxtaposition of ideas and thoughts of a world in flux, with religious images of the devil or the Virgin Mary alongside futurist ideas of aviation and technology; humor, ambivalence and tongue-in-cheek parody are common. For example, Kruchenykh’s book “Explodity” opens with the line “Forgot to hang myself” in a satirical reference to a rash of suicides during this time.

Original books, some dating to 1910, are in cases, while four kiosks present replicas of the pocket-sized, hand-lithographed books made with brittle paper, unevenly cut pages and staple binding that visitors can touch and flip through. Performances in Russian can be heard at audio stations while visitors page through the English translation and view corresponding images.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the institute launched a website with 21 digitized avant-garde books from the collection. Online visitors can listen to poems as well as page through selected books.
Except for two pieces on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, all are drawn from the Getty’s collection of Russian modernist books. The exhibit is on display through April 19.

-- Liesl Bradner

Photo:  "Portrait of Akhmet" by Mikhail Larionov (1912), in "Worldbackwards (Mirskontsa)," poetry by Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh, imagery by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Nikolai Rogovin and Vladimir Tatlin (Moscow, 1912), lithography. Credit: Research Library, The Getty Research Institute