In his last major poem, 'At the Top of My Voice' (1930), Vladimir Mayakovsky pleaded with comrades of the distant future: 'When in mounds of books/ where verse lies buried,/ you discover by chance the iron filings of lines,/ touch them/ with respect,/as you would/some antique/ yet awesome weapon.' Mayakovsky's suicide the same year may have been inevitable - the fruit of a long obsession with death - but it headed off the persecution that probably would have occurred instead of his posthumous canonization by Josef Stalin. Before his disillusionment with party bureaucrats, his violent death and his funeral - at which his coffin was laid with a wreath of hammers, flywheels and screws - Mayakovsky's 'iron filings of lines' were published alongside his own caricature-like illustrations and glorious designs by artists such as Aleksandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky. Far from being buried, some of these publications were on display in MoMA's exhibition 'The Russian Avant-Garde Book, 1910-1934', which celebrated a gift by the Judith Rothschild Foundation of over 1,100 rarely exhibited books.
'There are few movements in the history of art which boasted such vitality and such a tragic ending', Susan Compton wrote in Russian Avant-Garde Books, 1917-34 (1993). Addressing the pre- as well as the post-revolutionary eras, MoMA's exhibition evoked the unbridled optimism, co-operative (and competitive) spirit, dazzling invention and looming catastrophe to which Compton referred. Futurism sprang to life in books that were lithographed, cyclostyled, carbon-copied or rubber-stamped, or which incorporated wallpaper. After the revolution books provided the ideal vehicle for disseminating ideas about social change; they were also fertile ground for collaborations between artists, poets, architects and playwrights. In the real world Utopia may have been broken off at the root, but on paper it blossomed like a Modernist garden of Eden.
The show benefited from a straightforward treatment of this diverse material, and divided the roughly 300 works into sections: 'A Slap in the Face of Public Taste' (1910-24), 'Transform the World' (1916-33) and 'Building Socialism' (1924-34). It opened with explosive Futurist experiments with language, typography and neo-Primitivist illustration. Surprises included Alexei Kruchenych's Universal War (1916), a book of collages whose visceral abstractions - made of crude shapes that suggest penises, helmets or guns arranged on mostly midnight blue backgrounds, and given titles such as 'Futurists' Battle with the Ocean' - anticipate Henri Matisse's more rarefied Jazz cut-outs. (Universal War appeared at the same time as Jean Arp's first collage pieces, and decades before Jazz.) Another was a trove of Judaica incorporating Modernist ideas, created after a ban on Jewish books was lifted in 1917, including Lissitzky's charmingly stylized The Tale of a Goat (1919), peopled by idiosyncratic animals akin to those of Marc Chagall.
Popular propaganda images and children's book design, which flowered after 1917, presented an interesting contrast. Artists lovingly rendered circus animals, cut-out toys and alphabets with the goal of promoting universal literacy. (By 1934 average print runs for children's books had reached 100,000.) But at the same time propaganda materials meant for an adult audience were also strikingly designed, partly with the intention of fostering literacy. Vladimir Lebedov, for example, designed both children's books and such graphically arresting but cheerfully sinister revolutionary placards as 'A Workman Sweeping the Criminal Elements out of the Republic' (from Russian Placards, 1917-1922).
Then, of course, there were brilliant Constructivist designs, such as Lissitzky's illustrations for Mayakovsky's For the Voice (1923), with its tab index providing easy access to poems. When photography and photomontage became more desirable than abstraction, developments were equally striking. Berlin Dada had an impact: Mayakovsky had visited Germany and brought back collages by George Grosz, Raoul Haussmann and John Heartfield (Gustav Klutsis was especially impressed by Heartfield). Lissitzky, who travelled in the West, also influenced the Bauhaus. Russian photomontage, however, was distinguished from Western examples by the effect of artists' involvement with filmmakers - such as Alexander Rodchenko's with Dziga Vertov - and by a treatment of political material that was necessarily positive and unambiguous.
The show closed miles from where it began, with monumental designs in which formal invention was less important than dramatically framing factual information, some glorifying Stalinist-era public works projects by artists including Klutsis, Varvara Stepanova and Rodchenko. These strident works juxtaposing imposing photography with red and black graphics represent a last gasp of innovation in printed materials: after the Five Year Plan was launched an implacable series of steps led to Stalin's enshrinement of Socialist Realism as official doctrine in 1934. By the mid-1930s Rodchenko felt pressured to renounce the pursuit of originality.
What might we learn from these bright and energetic works, which prick at the soul like Mayakovsky's iron filings? For one thing, they remind us that it's possible successfully to combine aesthetic invention and social agendas, albeit only when the artist's passion and vision remain paramount. One hopes a better use can still be found for these 'antique yet awesome weapons' than to provide inspiration for Western advertising campaigns.
First published in Issue 70