Of the many things to be said about the exhibition called The Russian Avant-Garde Book: 1910-1934 , which Deborah Wye and Margit Rowell have organized at the Museum of Modern Art, the first is that it is not to be missed by anyone who has an interest either in the history of 20th-century modernism or the history of modern Russia. This exhibition has a lot to tell us about both. No matter how many earlier exhibitions of the Russian avant-garde you may have seen-and over the past three or four decades there have been many-you will see plenty of things in this exhibition you have not seen before.
The only thing the show lacks is an appropriate subtitle, which should be something along the lines of “The Rise and Fall of Russian Modernism” or “The Life and Death of an Avant-Garde.” For the historical narrative that is traced in this exhibition is one that begins with a high-spirited flowering of robust talent and ends in the black hole of the Soviet terror. Not all of the villains are commissars, either. Artists, too, played a key role in the destruction of this Russian avant-garde.
It has long been recognized that the illustrated book, on which poets and other writers often collaborated with painters, occupied a more important place in the early history of Russian modernism than in avant-garde movements elsewhere in Europe. Sometimes handmade and flimsy, sometimes elaborately produced, these artists’ books encompassed virtually every phase of the fast pace that made the Russian avant-garde one of the most radical developments in the early history of 20th-century modernism.
Yet these artists’ books have rarely been exhibited, and almost never in significant numbers-until now. My own first encounter with them was in the great Paris/Moscow 1900-1930 exhibition, which Pontus Hulten organized at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1979. Even in that mammoth exhibition, however, illustrated books were assigned a marginal role, and it was rarely possible to see anything more than their front covers or a couple of inside pages. For obvious reasons, such books are difficult to exhibit in a museum setting. If you doubt it, take a look at the way books are exhibited in the current Surrealism show at the Met.
What has made it possible for MoMA to mount this large and truly rare exhibition is the extraordinary gift it has lately received from the Judith Rothschild Foundation-a gift of over 1,100 Russian avant-garde illustrated books, plus what are said to be 100 related works. The late Judith Rothschild, as readers may recall from a recent column, was herself an accomplished abstract painter and an ardent collector. The foundation she established has funded many exhibitions and museum acquisitions.
From the foundation’s bounteous gift, a team of curators-including Jared Ash, the curator of the Rothschild Foundation-has assisted Deborah Wye and Margit Rowell in selecting some 300 books for the current show. And in responding to this bonanza, MoMA’s staff has devised an installation that affords the public a copious view of the insides as well as the covers of these books. According to the museum’s own statement about this ingenious installation, “Custom-built vitrines and special mounts provide the opportunity to see both front and back covers and/or interior layouts. Multiple copies allow various pages of a single title to be shown. And, finally, some books can be perused in their entirety through computer animations and facsimile editions.” As a means of exhibiting illustrated books, it doesn’t get any better than this.
But it is owing to its sheer variety, vitality and multiplicity of audacious graphic styles that this exhibition proves to be such a sensation. The range of invention in these books, sometimes inspired by the zany poems they are meant to illustrate, is, if anything, even more daring than that of the avant-garde paintings and sculpture of the period that are more familiar to us. As the public for such books was expected to be minuscule-if, indeed, there was a public beyond the circle of the artists and writers who were collaborating on them-they were largely created under an anything-goes imperative, and at times they went well beyond what was comprehensible.
There have been many attempts to describe the sometimes frenzied, hurly-burly character of the early Russian avant-garde, but none, I think, is better at conveying the spirit in which these artists’ books were conceived than some observations made in 1913 by Sergei Diaghilev, the celebrated founder of the Ballets Russes, who was also a connoisseur of Russian painting in the period preceding the 1917 Revolution. “Twenty new schools of art are born within a month,” Diaghilev wrote. “Futurism, Cubism-they are already prehistory. One needs but three days to become pompier . Motoism overcomes Automatism, which yields to Trepidism and Vibrism and they in turn to Planism, Serenism, Omnism and Neism. Exhibitions are arranged in palaces and hovels. In garrets lit by three candles, princesses grow ecstatic over paintings by the masters of Neo-airism. Big landowners take private lessons in Metachromism.” Particularly in the first section of the exhibition, devoted to “Futurist Poets and Painters 1910-1916,” you feel something of this crazy momentum in every page that meets the eye.
With the section devoted to “The Theme of War 1914-1916,” the temper of the exhibition is inevitably grimmer, but there is no loss of creative invention and variety. Kazimir Malevich, who is represented in a later section of the exhibition with a book of 34 abstract drawings in his trademark Suprematist style, also turns up in the “War” section with a surprising series of patriotic propaganda postcards featuring cartoons that ridicule Russia’s enemies-particularly the Germans. The captions are satirical patriotic verses by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poet laureate of the Futurist movement in Russia.
Far more serious, however, are Natalia Goncharova’s Mystical Images of War: Fourteen Lithographs in a Neo-Primitivist style; Olga Rozanova’s book of prints, titled War , that combines some of the features of both the Neo-Primitivist and Suprematist styles; and Aleksei Kruchenykh’s book of collages called Universal War , which are curiously playful-more in the vein of Jean Arp’s Dada collages-for such a somber theme.
In the wake of the revolution of 1917, the Russian avant-garde suddenly found itself elevated to the status of official artists of the new Soviet regime. This official status didn’t last very long-by 1922 it was gone. But while they were in effect the masters of Russian abstraction, Malevich, Tatlin, Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Rozanova et al. created some of their best work, and this is inevitably reflected in their illustrated books as well.
The first signs of future trouble came in the early 1920’s, when the aesthetics of abstraction-“pure art,” as it was sometimes called-came under attack as too elitist. The key figure here was Aleksandr Rodchenko, perhaps the most gifted, multitalented figure in the entire Russian avant-garde. To virtually every field of the visual arts-painting, sculpture, photography, industrial design as well as film and theater design, and, of course, book design-Rodchenko contributed major work. He had a particular genius for the photographic book, and is inevitably one of the stars of the current exhibition.
Yet politically, Rodchenko was a somewhat sinister figure. As early as 1921, he led the way in publicly denouncing the achievements of the Russian avant-garde-including his own-as “purposeless.” The visual arts were now to be solely devoted to propaganda and utilitarian projects. Thus, years before Stalin’s crackdown on modernist art in the 1930’s, Rodchenko was calling for the demise of the fine arts as the enemy of socialism.
He had the courage of his political convictions, too, devoting his talents as a photographer and designer to work that glorified some of Stalin’s most horrendous slave-labor building programs. This is one of the reasons why the last section of the exhibition, “Building Socialism,” is bound to be pretty chilling for anyone who is aware of what this aspect of Rodchenko’s genius signified.
The Russian Avant-Garde Book: 1910-1934 remains on view at the Museum of Modern Art through May 21. It is accompanied by a huge hardcover book ($45) that, in both words and pictures, is a virtual encyclopedia of the subject and the period encompassed in the exhibition.