Victory over the sun
Russian books and prints 1912–1935
14 April 1995 – 29 May 1995
El Lissitzky 'Neuer [New man]' 1923 colour lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
One December evening in 1913, an extraordinary event took place in St Petersburg. A 'futurist opera' called Victory over the sun was performed in the theatre at Luna Park. Sets and costumes were designed by the painter Kasimir Malevich, the music was written by composer and painter Mikhail Matyushin and the libretto by poet and painter Aleksei Kruchënykh. This performance encapsulated much of the avant-garde artistic activity of pre-war Russia: the form was shocking, the presentation anarchic, and the message nihilist.
The first decades of our century were marked by political, social and cultural upheaval around the world. In Russia, the autocratic Tsar ruled an empire which spread over much of Europe and a large part of Asia. At the turn of the century Russia was attempting to modernise, to transform an agrarian society into an industrial, manufacturing economy.
From the tumult and destruction of the First World War arose a successful revolutionary movement, which wanted to sweep away the old conservative structures of church and nobility in order to replace them with new, socialist ways of thinking, culminating in the two Revolutions of 1917. The following fifteen years in Russia saw an explosion of artistic and cultural energy, which was then suppressed.
Artists were in the forefront of the movement for change. Inventive and idealistic, the revolutionary artists of Russia expressed themselves in the idiom of European modernist art and design. One field in which they excelled was the book – books of avant garde poetry, art books, novels and magazines, propaganda, catalogues for trade fairs – all were made in a new way. Wassily Kandinsky, Natalya Goncharova, Kasimir Malevich, Olga Rozanova, El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova were among the outstanding artists who produced new, different, illustrated books.
Like the Italian Futurists and the German Expressionists, modernist Russian writers and artists wrote many manifestos, formed rival factions, grouped and regrouped, and sometimes tried to shock the bourgeoisie. In 1912 David and Vladimir Burlyuk, with the poets Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aleksei Kruchënykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, published a book of essays and verse called A slap in the face of public taste. It was a call to arms against the refined sweetness of contemporary Russian style. The authors signalled their intention not just by the title, but by the appearance of the volume: it was covered in burlap, or sackcloth, a plebeian material which asserted that art was a matter for all, not just the cultivated upper-class few.
Mikhail Larionov, Aleksei Kruchenykh 'Starinnaya lyubov [Old-fashioned love]' 1912 lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
Wassily Kandinsky, the great Russian painter then living in Germany, contributed to A slap in the face. In Munich that same year, 1912, Kandinsky published his own prose-poems and woodcuts in a beautiful book called Klänge [Sounds]. He included lyrical figurative images as well as riveting abstracts, opposite pages of plain printed text. The sans serif lettering looks spare, almost bald, having none of the hooks and decorations of traditional typefaces.
The pictures are based on Kandinsky's belief that visual language is analogous to music — abstract, harmonious, not needing direct reference to the natural world. Indeed, he thought that colours and shapes had equivalent sounds. The artist could experiment by using the elements of colour and form to evoke responses in the viewer, as a composer might with combinations of notes. Kandinsky's transition from figurative to abstract art can be seen in the illustrations to Sounds, the effect strengthened by the reverberating sounds in his words. The result, in this book, is breathtaking.
1912 was also the year in which Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov made their first books. Partners in life as well as in art, Goncharova and Larionov contributed lithographic illustrations to accompany handwritten verse by Kruchënykh and Khlebnikov in Worldbackwards. At this time Larionov was developing his own form of abstraction, called Luchizm, translated as Rayonnism (or Rayism). His drawings for Kruchënykh's poems in Old-time love are bursts of radiating lines, rays suggesting light and movement in a manner similar to Italian Futurist artists.
Goncharova's imps enliven a tale of devils and sinners playing cards in A game in hell 1912. Her pictures were combined on the page with Kruchënykh's and Khlebnikov's text. Olga Rozanova and Kasimir Malevich illustrated several books for Aleksei Kruchënykh, including Piglets, Explodity and Let's grumble, all published in 1913. At first their single lithographs, printed in black on green paper, were tipped in as frontispieces or arbitrarily between pages. But, learning from Goncharova's experiments, their 1914 collaboration on a second version of A game in hell intertwined words and pictures in a similarly playful and dynamic way. Pavel Filonov made letters into images in his picturings on orange paper of Khlebnikov's poetry in Miscellany 1914.
The consonance of word and image was a vital issue in European art at this time, and it is important to remember that Russia was then an integral part of Western culture, not yet cut off by war and revolution. Russian artists travelled to France, Germany and Italy: they saw recent paintings by Matisse and Picasso in great private collections in Moscow; reproductions of contemporary works were also to be seen in Russian and foreign publications.
Sonia Delaunay emigrated from Russia to France in 1905. In Prose of the Trans-Siberian, a remarkable book which unfolds to be two metres high, her colour stencils run parallel with a column of colour typography. The artist added watercolour by hand, infiltrating the spaces between Blaise Cendrars's printed words. Published in Paris in 1913, the poem depicts a train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, taken by the writer and his mistress, Jehanne. The artistic centre of the day was Paris, and Jehanne constantly asks 'How far are we from Montmartre?' Delaunay's brilliantly-coloured arcs, rectangles and triangles include a red Eiffel Tower. Although she never returned to live in Russia, Delaunay's work was known and appreciated there. A copy of the Prose of the Trans-Siberian was shown at the Stray Dog cabaret in St Petersburg in December 1913.
Kazimir Malevich 'Shel avstriets v Radzivily... [When the Austrians came to Radzivilov...]' 1915 colour lithograph Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. CMG 1993 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
Experimental graphic art played an important role in the years before the First World War, during the turmoil of the European war, the Russian Revolutions and the Civil War, into the first decades of constructing the new Communist society. As well as radical attempts at book design and illustration, artists such as Goncharova, Malevich, Rozanova, Rodchenko, Gustav Klucis and Valentina Kulagina made original prints, photographs and posters to explore new ideas about art and its role in society, from Tsarist recruiting lithographs to anti-war linocuts, from Constructivist photo-collages to documentary images, and then to celebrations of Soviet advances.
One reason for concentrating on graphic art, rather than the more traditional media of painting and sculpture, was that such multiplied images were seen to be more democratic. Books, prints and posters could be produced in editions of hundreds, or even thousands, and thus reach a much wider audience. After the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, visual culture was seen as a vital tool to reach a largely illiterate population.
The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 saw Russia allied with Britain and France. The enemy was the barbarous Hun, reincarnated in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That year Natalya Goncharova produced a portfolio of patriotic lithographs called War, with the subtitle Mystical images of war. It is an extraordinarily concentrated litany of images of contemporary nationalist mythology – the same stories that had led to the carnage in Europe.
As well as symbols such as the English lion and the French rooster, Goncharova shows another dimension of war. She depicts the effect of the conflict on urban society. Angels and aeroplanes conveys an odd combination of beliefs: the old faith in spirits and a new religion, technology. The two are compressed in the composition, revealing a tension which was to characterise the twentieth century.
At the same time, radical modernist artists and writers lent their efforts to the Tsarist military campaign. In 1915 Kasimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky collaborated on a set of posters based on the colourful folk imagery of the lubok, or traditional illustrated broadsheet. Malevich shows peasant men and women sweeping out the invading soldiers with pitchforks. Mayakovsky provided crude, amusing, rhymed captions, as well as designing similar posters himself.
In War, a 1915 collection of Olga Rozanova's linocuts with poems by her partner Aleksei Kruchënykh, a sense of doubt emerges. Despite the patriotic purpose, the seemingly limitless nature of this futile and destructive conflict becomes clear. In Extract from the news I, for example, Rozanova quotes the words from a newspaper report of German atrocities: 'In horror he recalls personally seeing people crucified upside down by the Germans.' The image of a falling figure, however, becomes universal rather than specific. In Russia, it was the sense of meaningless mass sacrifice of ordinary soldiers and civilians which led to the March Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the Tsar. Kerensky's liberal government could not end the war, and this failure triggered the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the victory of Lenin's Communist regime.
Experiment and invention were the paramount artistic values for Russian modernists – they might use collage, print on wallpaper, perhaps pentagonal pages, try concrete poetry or the invented 'transrational' language Zaum, even reduce form to the geometric purity of Suprematist squares and rectangles. All these were artistic strategies used in Russia in the exciting years before and during the upheavals of the second decade of the century. Between 1910 and 1920, cultural innovation was the raison d'etre of the upcoming generation of artists. The possibilities seemed limitless.
Olga Rozanova 'Zaumnaya gniga [Transrational book]' by Aleksei Kruchënykh and Alyagrov 1915 collage, colour linocut Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
In 1915 (1916 is wrongly printed as the publication date) Rozanova attached a white button to the red paper heart pasted onto each cover of Zaumnaya gniga [Transrational book]. Kruchënykh wrote short lines of verse which were rubber-stamped at random across otherwise blank pages. These alternate with Rozanova's linocuts derived from playing cards. Jacks, queens, kings and aces are printed in yellow ink on blue paper, or in dark red or blue on white. Forms are squared to suit the shape of the page, and captioned with words inside each image.
Concrete poetry, made famous by Apollinaire in France, implies shaping a poem visually, usually experimenting with typefaces and printing. David Burlyuk played with typography in Vladimir Mayakovsky: A tragedy 1914, using different sized letters, unusual spacing, and printing in bold; but it is still conventional reading. Vasily Kamensky's Ferro-concrete poem was re-printed in Futurists, the first journal of the Russian Futurists published in 1914. Iliazd's efforts in Le Dantyu as a beacon of 1923 are spectacular abstract designs, although the extra puzzle of experimental zaum language make them all but unreadable.
Collage, usually of textured or coloured paper or cloth, was often used by modern artists, especially the Cubists in France and the Futurists in Italy. Russian artists also used the technique, aiming to disrupt the normal illusion of a three-dimensional composition. Goncharova's collage covers for Worldbackwards were abstract forms based on plants. She seems to have made many different covers for the edition of 220, which appeared in 1912. The National Gallery's copy has a bold, tilted shape cut from silver wrapping paper self-textured with stripes and embossed leaves and flowers. It is pasted onto yellow card, with a white label showing the book's title and the authors' names.
Rozanova was a brilliant exponent of the art of collage, as seen in the cover of the Transrational book 1915. After her premature death, Kruchënykh used a similar technique in his frontispiece to Transrationals in 1922. Simple, striking shapes of red and yellow cloth combine with jagged, cut white paper, pasted onto blue paper.
The writer and artist Iliazd provided a foldout page of a concrete poem with collage for the anthology To Sofia Georgievna Melnikova, published in the Georgian city of Tiflis (now Tbilisi) in 1919. In the work called Zokhna and her suitors, free-form words and symbols are printed in black over bold, flat areas of red and orange ink, with a third biomorphic shape cut from decorative blue and gold paper. Iliazd employed a fellow emigré, Naum Granovsky, to make the collage cover for his transrational zaum plays, Le Dantyu as a beacon, published in Paris in 1923. The artist used imitation leather and cork, as well as silver and gold paper.
A feature of modern Russian art which seems striking today is the number and importance of female artists. Goncharova, Rozanova, Popova, Delaunay, Stepanova, amongst others, were in the forefront of the new visual culture. Both before and after the Revolution, in Russia or in exile in France, Russian women fuelled advances in art. It is a pointer to the Stalinist smothering of radical thought that very little work by Soviet women artists or designers was seen after 1930.
The years from 1917 to the mid-1920s were a time of upheaval and constraint in the newly-established Soviet Union, with the Civil War of 1918 to 1920 and invasions by the armies of Great Britain and allies, later trade blockades by the West, and the immediate exigencies of epidemics such as influenza, typhus and typhoid which killed millions of Russians. There were shortages of materials, esoecially paper, and artistic resources were concentrated on urgent priorities such as health and literacy campaigns, and the collectivisation of land and agriculture.
It seems extraordinary today, in an age inured to various kinds of propaganda, how few images of the events of the Bolshevik Revolution were printed before Lenin's death in 1924. The poetic depiction of this great change occurred, perhaps appropriately, in the new medium of Sergei Eisenstein's cinema rather than in traditional plastic arts. Visual artists seemed to be more interested in exploring the limits of two-dimensional invention, or in applying cultural tools towards the goal of ensuring victory for the new social and political order.
detail: El Lissitzky 'Union der Sozialistischen Sowjet-Republiken: Katalog des Sowjet-Pavillons auf der internationalen Presse - Ausstellung Koln' 1928 colour photolithography Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. CMG Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
Two rare exceptions are the portfolio October 1917–1918 of about 1918, and a book of poetry called Reality which appeared in 1919. October was subtitled Heroes and victims of the Revolution, and portraits of them were accompanied by wry couplets written by Vladimir Mayakovsky. The heroes, naturally, were workers, peasants and Red Army Soldiers, while the villains included Tsarist bureaucrats, priests and factory owners. On the cover of Reality Aristarkh Lentulov showed an uprising at a factory, complete with red flags. Lentulov's style, influenced by Cubism and Futurism, would later come under the diktat forbidding artistic styles not readily understood by the masses, which was to lead to the banal verities of 'Socialist Realism'.
When war was declared in 1914, Russian artists living in Europe were expelled from allied and enemy countries alike – Kandinsky returned from Germany, Marc Chagall from France. In the first heady months of Communist revolution, radicals were appointed to positions of power in the reorganised art organisations. Kandinsky organised the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture and worked for IZO Narkompros (Visual Arts department of the Commission for Enlightening), Rozanova directed the Industrial Arts section of IZO Narkompros, Chagall was made head of the art school in Vitebsk, later replaced by Malevich.
After the initial euphoria of establishing the Soviet Union, however, priorities changed. For those most committed to political and social change, the Revolution implied serving the people and the new state. Oil painting was considered individualist and bourgeois, and art meant culture for the masses – later, it meant only art that was comprehensible to the masses.
El (Eliezer) Lissitzky was a young artist enthused by the revival of Russian Jewish art in 1917 and 1918, originally a disciple of Chagall. He taught at the Vitebsk art school with Chagall and Malevich, eventually siding with the Suprematist theories of Malevich. These were extremely seductive ideas, purist and almost mystical in nature, which interpreted the universe as a geometric harmony of rectangles, circles and squares, mostly using the primary colours of red, blue and yellow. Malevich's logic led eventually to the ultimate reductions – first a black square, then a white square on a white ground. His Suprematism: 34 drawings was published in Vitebsk in 1920.
Lissitzky embraced the powerful symbolic language of the black square and the red square. He was chosen to represent the Soviet Union at the first Soviet Art Exhibition in Berlin in 1921, an early, tentative, gesture towards the West,. He worked in Germany and the Netherlands for several years, moving to Switzerland in 1924 for tuberculosis treatment. Lissitzky's contacts with like-minded Western artists, those such as Hans Arp and Theo van Doesburg interested in geometric abstraction and photographic representation, were important in the following decades of Russian graphic design.
It is characteristic, somehow, of the experimental and hopelessly idealistic nature of the Communist artists that Lissitzky designed an abstract children's book. It was published in 1922 in Berlin, and later that year by Theo van Doesburg as an issue of De Stijl, the Dutch art magazine. Of two squares is a typographical adventure, the tale of a black and a red square who come to earth as harbingers of the energy of the fourth dimension.
Vladimir Mayakovsky, El Lissitsky 'Dlya golosa [For the voice]' 1923 colour lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
Like the book Of two squares, Lissitzky's designs for a mechanical staging of the futurist opera Victory over the sun were developed when he was in Vitebsk. The portfolio of ten large colour lithographs showing the main characters was published in Hanover in 1923. The story seems almost prescient: a man of the future challenges nature, captures the sun and subdues it as a rival source of power. The 'new man' is brave, arrogant, heedless, optimistic, in love with arms, technology and progress – an ancestor of Yuri Gagarin and the engineers of Chernobyl. Lissitzky depicts him as a striding figure, his body a red square, his head and limbs at once mechanical and almost transparent.
For the voice shows a new kind of overall book design. Mayakovsky's poems were meant to be read aloud, and Lissitzky conceived his illustrations using only the types and symbols available to commercial letterpress printers. He printed the book in black and red, with index notches along the edge of the page, like an address book. It was published by the Russian State publishing house in Berlin in 1923.
Many of the artists whom we now identify as Russian came from the Ukraine, Georgia, or the Baltic countries. Chagall was born in Belarus (White Russia) into a Jewish culture divided from Orthodox Christian Russia. Kasimir Malevich was born in the Ukraine, of Polish origins. Gustav Klucis was murdered by the secret police simply because he was Latvian, and therefore suspect in Stalin's paranoid view.
Ironically, Klucis was one of the few committed Communists of all the artists considered here. He bent his artistic talents to the service of Soviet ideas. His wife, Valentina Kulagina, a talented graphic designer, used one of his woodcuts of 1923 in her design for the cover of Kruchënykh's book Lenin's language 1925.
Like Aleksandr Rodchenko, Klucis invented public broadcasting devices to be used to spread the message of the Revolution. The utilitarian harnessing of modern art to spread Bolshevik ideology was the mainspring of the movement called Constructivism. As well as fantastic architectural constructions, Klucis could design a radical uniform for a factory worker or manual labourer. Rodchenko developed trademarks for aviation (and even sweet wrappers) and Varvara Stepanova simplified sports clothes for the new society. In 1923 the latter were printed in LEF, the magazine published by Rodchenko and Mayakovsky for the Left Front for the Arts.
Photography was the dominant element in design from about this time, and Rodchenko was the dominant figure. A LEF cover of 1923 shows an ape pointing an arrow at an aeroplane, that a fountain-pen back. His photomontages for About this, by the ubiquitous Vladimir Mayakovsky, are fantasies combining popular culture with personal references. Jazz, people-bombs, the poet's muse Lilya Brik, a man balancing on a tower, or silver spoons – all are suitable components of the art of illustration to Rodchenko's playful imagination.
Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aleksandr Rodchenko 'Razgovor s fininspektorom o poezii [Conversation with the finance inspector about poetry]' 1926 colour photolithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
In the mid-1920s Rodchenko designed many photomontage covers, including Mess mend, or A Yankee in Petrograd 1924, a popular novel in ten parts by Jim Dollar (Marietta Shaginian). It ran in editions of up to 50,000 copies. He also collaborated with Mayakovsky in a number of pamphlets, such as a series of poems dedicated to Sergei Esenin, and the wonderfully-titled Conversation with a tax inspector about poetry of 1926. On a field of pink and blue, divided diagonally, the much-photographed writer confronts a bureaucrat across a chasm of misunderstanding. The revived art magazine New LEF of 1927–28 printed only photographs as illustrations – dynamic industrial and urban images suited to the new severity of Stalin's reign.
Many other artists used photographic images; for example, Lyubov Popova in her cover for Uprising of the misanthropes in 1922. Throughout the 1920s film publicity merged the techniques of photomontage with modernist design, as in the anonymous black and red poster for From a spark, the flame 1925. The cover of Poluyanov's tract on The death of the theatre and the victory of the cinema, published the same year, leans heavily on Rodchenko's example, while the images inside refer to the simplification of contemporary graphics and typography. One plate shows a giant ciné-camera stalking through a city of skyscrapers, evoking Dziga Vertov's film milestone, The man with a movie camera of 1924.
Lissitzky recycled his 1924 photomontage portrait of Hans Arp for the cover of Notes of a poet in 1928. He was now working as a designer for trade fairs, and constructed the marvellous staging of the Soviet exhibition at the Cologne Press Fair in 1928. The catalogue was published that year, with a 2.3 metre photomontage foldout by Lissitzky, printed in sepia and red, documenting the exhibit.
Rodchenko continued to make outstanding abstract geometric designs for book covers. Grey and red squares with white borders dominate his catalogue for the Soviet contribution to the Paris Exhibition in 1925, while red, black and white stripes march across the covers of Vocalisations, a book of verse by Sergei Tretyakov published in 1929.
Gustav Klucis became an inventive designer of photomontage posters, which celebrated the deities of Communist thought: the masses and the leader. Ordinary people are shown in crowds, a river of humanity, surging towards a common goal under the leadership of Marx, Lenin or Stalin. The positive side of these advances is shown in Valentina Kulagina's poster for International women workers' day 1930, where a female worker in a textile factory is portrayed as a solid and important figure, her worth underpinned by the demonstration of solidarity in a photomontage march below.
The last gasp of Russian modernism may be seen in the inventive photographic design of Rodchenko's and Stepanova's Soviet cinema of 1935. A foldout photomontage of a movie theatre with a cutout screen is followed on the next page by a silver bust of Stalin. The experiments were over.
Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture