Between 1910 and 1915, Russian painters and poets invented an experimental language called zaum, which emphasizes sound and is characterized by indeterminacy in meaning. These artists used zaum to create handmade artists’ books that are meant to be read, seen, and heard. Nancy Perloff, author of Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art, takes us to the archives at the Getty Research Institute to examine two fascinating zaum futurist books and to discuss a number of the visual and literary artists of this period.
More to Explore
Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art book information
Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space exhibition information
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
NANCY PERLOFF: The words almost look gay and merry because they’re played or danced, is the way I describe it. They dance on the page in a way that looks quite lovely.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Nancy Perloff, curator of modern and contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute, about her recent book titled Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art.
The Getty Research Institute’s Russian Modernism collection comprises rare books, periodicals, lithographs, and other archival holdings documenting pivotal moments in the history of Russian and Soviet art. This past fall, the Getty published a book focused on a unique and significant subset of this collection: Russian futurist artists’ books. Titled Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art, this volume explores artists’ books made in Russia between 1910 and 1915.
In Explodity, author Nancy Perloff relates the history of how visual and literary avant-garde artists collaborated to create handmade books that combine the verbal, visual, and the sonic. These artists invented their own experimental language, called zaum, which they used to write poetry that was juxtaposed with lithographed, drawn, and collaged images. The resulting books are meant to be read, seen, and heard. The text and imagery are both narrative and abstract, suggestive of the familiar but ultimately elusive in meaning. Their radical approach was powerful, expressive, and utterly unique.
I met with Nancy one afternoon at the Getty Research Institute to look at several of these books, to hear recordings of zaum poetry, and to discuss the cultural and historical milieu of their creation.
CUNO: And so Nancy, you begin your book by situating the history of avant-garde Russian book art in the context of modern Russian art and its relationship to advanced European painting, from van Gogh to Gauguin and Picasso. How much did the Russian artists know about those paintings and those artists, and how did they know it?
PERLOFF: That’s a really important question. There were two great collections in Moscow. Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. Sergei Shchukin was a cloth merchant in Moscow, and he began to assemble his collection in 1897. It was a collection of French painting. That was the focus, painting. Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso.
CUNO: So these collections were private collections and these pictures were in private residences. How did the artists see them? Or what connection was made between the artists and the collectors?
PERLOFF: Yeah. So I haven’t read any particular descriptions by the visual artists of visiting either collections. I do know from reading that they were open to the public at certain hours. It was possible to visit. Now, whether in fact Malevich, Goncharova, Larionov actually did visit the collections, I can’t verify that. What I can verify is Jakobson talks about visiting the two.
CUNO: Roman Jakobson, yeah.
PERLOFF: Roman Jakobson, the formalist, the linguist, talks about visiting the Tretyakov Gallery, which is the famous gallery in Moscow. And so we know for sure that the work at the Tretyakov was accessible. One other points that’s just a nice story is that Benedikt Livshits, who was both a poet and a lawyer, and a very close friend of David and Vladimir Burliuk, he describes how Burliuk received from Alexandra Exter, a postcard that she had brought back from Paris, of a Picasso, either painting or collage. So there are avenues like that as well for learning about French art particularly.
CUNO: [over Perloff] And we know at some point, might be in the early teens, Goncharova, Natalia Goncharova, and Mikhail Larionov, maybe the both of them, went to Paris. And I don’t know if Malevich went to Paris or not, [Perloff: Malevich, yeah] but there were some artists who did go to Paris and brought back some memories of and some descriptions of what they saw. Do you think that the visual impact of the modern artists in Paris on the Russian artists was significant? Or was it more the kind of just freedom and liberty that provided them? The sense of independence or inventiveness that they could take art in another direction, and that there was license to do so?
PERLOFF: I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. I think there were important manifestos on Primitivism and Neo-Primitivism. Shevchenko, I believe, was the author of the most important one. And in that manifesto, he talks about European art, French art, and he talks about diverging, moving away towards the primitive. And so there’s this dichotomy that I analyze a bit in the introduction to the book, between East and West, even as when we look at the Picasso paintings that I illustrate there and compare them to what Malevich was doing, say in 1913, you certainly see the influence of Cubism. I mean, Cubism was crucial for all—Malevich, Goncharova and Larionov. But maybe even most, for Malevich.
CUNO: Yeah, and they certainly were aware—at least some of them were aware—of the relationship that van Gogh and Gaugin had with the primitive and the kind of license that the primitive impulse gave modern artists to break from the constraints of a kind of conventional manner of painting. So at some point, the embrace of the primitive was not only an embrace of Eastern values—that is, the kind of character of the Russians—and it was also just a way to break from the formal restrictions of conventional art theory and art practice.
PERLOFF: But of course, the crucial difference is that van Gogh and Gauguin, particularly Gauguin, had to leave to find the primitive. Whereas for the Russians—and they took this with great pride—the “primitive,” in quotes, was right there. The peasants, the Georgian steppes. I mean, these were all sources. The kamennaia baba, which was, you know, an ancient Scythian sculpture that proved very influential and inspirational for someone like Goncharova. So the primitive wasn’t getting away to the exotic, but rather looking inward at one’s own country and one’s own past. That’s what was so important for the Russians.
CUNO: Okay, we’ll come back to that in a second, but I want to get to the Russian avant-garde itself in 1913, because you characterize it for us with the reference to Victory Over the Sun, the great opera, avant-garde opera, we should say, by Malevich and the composer Mikhail Matyushin, and the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh. So it was a collaboration between those three artists. By coincidence, I suppose, 1913 was also the year of the debut of Stravinsky’s ballet of Rite of Spring, in Paris, which caused a near riot when it was performed. [Perloff: Mm-hm] How was Victory Over the Sun, that same year, 1913, received? And I guess it was in St. Petersburg?
PERLOFF: St. Petersburg at the Luna Park.
CUNO: So how was it received? How was its reception comparable to that of The Rite of Spring’s in Paris?
PERLOFF: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to know how to rate which one was—had a more, you know, outrageous reception. Reading a bit from reviews of the time for the Victory Over the Sun opera, you do read that for instance, the composer who participated in Victory Over the Sun, Mikhail Matyushin, recalls, quote, “There was terrible continuous uproar in the auditorium. The spectators were sharply divided into the sympathetic and the indignant.” And then he also talks about how, “critics could not conceal our success among young people.” It sounds, if you read more about Luna Park and about that theater, that this was a theater that drew a wide swath of people, from the theater-going society people, theater critics, you know, to students, younger people, artist, poet.
So it sounds like it had quite a range, in terms of its appeal. Apparently, at the premiere, there was a lot of heckling, a lot of laughter, a lot of whistling. And then at the end, the crowd called for the poet to come out. “Aleksei Kruchenykh, we want to see Aleksei Kruchenykh.” And he was supposed to appear, which I think he did. But you can see this was, indeed, maybe a practice, almost, of the time. Now, Rite of Spring was a little bit of a different situation, just because you had dancers. And therefore, you had choreography. And while Victory Over the Sun certainly had its own strange kind of topsy-turvy plot and did have its characters—the strong man, the fat man, the two announcers at the beginning. Rite of Spring, Nijinsky did the choreography. And the crowd erupted, literally, from the very beginning.
And the dancers couldn’t hear the instructions for their choreography, so they were not able to dance the piece. And interestingly, The Rite of Spring has almost never recovered from that. I mean, it’s never done, [Cuno: Yeah, yeah] the dance.
CUNO: Well, take us back to Luna Park, the theater itself. Describe the theater a bit to us and tell us about what Victory Over the Sun looked like.
PERLOFF: Yeah. So Luna Park Theater was constructed in 1882. It was, if you know St. Petersburg at all, or are familiar with the Mariinsky Theater, which was the great theater for dance, it was a few minute’s walk. It was one of the first theaters intended for mass entertainment. So that’s interesting. And it was ideally situated to attract, as I said, this broad swath of public workers, bourgeoisie, intelligentsia.
CUNO: So if I were going to Luna Park Theater and I didn’t really know what Victory Over the Sun was all about, would I go to expect a kind of conventional performance? Did it have that kind of a reputation or was it an avant-garde space?
PERLOFF: Both Victory Over the Sun, as an opera libretto, if you want to call it that, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, a tragedy, which was performed on opposite nights—so one night in 1913, you had Victory Over the Sun, and then the next night it was Vladimir Mayakovsky, a tragedy by Mayakovsky, of course. Both the script for the Mayakovsky play and Victory Over the Sun libretto were published before the premiere.
So people in the intelligentsia, let’s say, certainly, and anybody else, had access to the publications and could’ve read before. That would have certainly helped people, in terms of anticipating what they were going to see. And of course, you know, Victory Over the Sun opens with this famous prologue about, you know, we are beginning at the beginning. This isn’t direct quotation, but—and then the other announcer says, “But what about the end?” And the first announcer says, “There will be no end.” And that’s the way it starts. So it has this completely nonsensical message, you could say. Very zaum. By the end of Victory Over the Sun, the text really breaks down, so you just have syllables, then single letters. There’s an airplane crash and it’s kind of—they couldn’t defeat the sun. They’re all in blackness.
CUNO: So we have this well-established avant-garde tradition and its relationship to the primitive, as we’ve discussed. Also this introduction, kind of fragmenting of the forms and so forth, and the beginnings of the edge of this Cubism leading to something else. So for a couple of decades, there’s some solid activity. But you make a point in the books and the book arts of the second decade of the twentieth century, that there’s something very special going on in the kind of formalist examination of the text of the books. And you introduce a very important figure, and that is Roman Jakobson. You mentioned him, I think, already once. And that is he’s a literary critic and a linguist, and he works closely with the poets of the avant-garde. Tell us about the relationship between this literary theorist and this linguist, Roman Jakobson, and the poets, and about what drew a linguist, after all, a kind of academic of the highest kind, what drew him to the poetic experiments of the Russian avant-garde?
PERLOFF: He was extremely precocious, born in 1896. He was only fifteen years old when he met Mayakovsky. So that was 1911. He was only sixteen when he first attended the Stray Dog Cabaret.
So by age sixteen, he is meeting poets, visual artists, members of Bohemia in St. Petersburg at this small cabaret, which was in a tavern. You know, a small building, very different from the Luna Park presence. From the beginning, Jakobson was fascinated not only by poetry, but by the visual arts. And he writes a lot in his memoirs about 1912, 1913 being these critical years of interdisciplinarity. He doesn’t use that word; he talks about relationships between poetry, sound, and the visual arts. And he’s very, very, very focused on that.
Now, with Malevich—and I think in answer to your question, Malevich may be the most important artist to link Jakobson to because they shared this incredible aesthetic together. They first met in Moscow, in 1913. And we know that they shared ideas, because Malevich published letters in the yearbook of the Pushkin House, which are based on his earliest conversations with Jakobson. And I wanna just read a couple of incredible quotes, to help you keep in mind this idea of theories of verbal and visual abstraction that interested Jakobson, and that he shared with Malevich.
So for example, in a letter of June, 1916 to his close friend Matyushin, Malevich argued that, quote, “The new poets waged a battle with thought, which enslaved the free letter and tried to bring the letter closer to the idea of sound, not music. From this came mad or zaum; that is, transrational, poetry.” So what Malevich calls the new painterly realism, which is what we think of as Suprematism. He felt it was directly connected to the verbal and the vocal, so that there was this analogy. And the presence of the verbal and the vocal in zaum. So you have the painterly, abstraction, and the idea of sound as abstract. The verbal as abstract. So that comes together in those analogies.
There’s a second quote following the Malevich quote. This is a summary by Roman Jakobson, of the verbal-vocal-visual line of thought, which shows his shared aesthetic with Malevich. And keep in mind, with Malevich, abstraction and painterly realism. Quote, Jakobson: “The theme was that the verbal sound could have more in common with nonrepresentational painting than with music. This topic vividly interested me, both then and much later; the question of the relation of word and sound; the extent to which the sound retains its kinship with the word; and the extent to which the word breaks down for us into sounds. And further, the question of the relation between poetic sounds and the notation for those sounds; that is, letters.”
CUNO: So we’ve got a theoretician, we’ve got visual artists, we’ve got sound artists—that is, musicians like Matyushin—and we have poets. And the poets are a motley crew who come from different parts of Russian and make their way to the capital cities. Tell us about them; in particular, about Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, and Mayakovsky.
PERLOFF: The stories of the different artists are—and poets; in this case, poets—are quite fascinating.
So Khlebnikov was born in 1885. Velimir Khlebnikov is his name. He was born, actually, Viktor Khlebnikov. And I’ll mention something about his name in a minute. But he was born [in] the Eastern part of the Russian Empire; the northern tip of the Caspian Sea, below the Ural Mountains. So quite, quite far. His family moved frequently over great distances, and finally settled more permanently in the city of Kazan. And Kazan is not even so far from where he started. And that’s where he enrolls, not in the visual arts or in poetry, but in mathematics, while also studying drawing.
CUNO: At a local school?
PERLOFF: A local school, yeah. This was University of Kazan, which, according to literature, was a very prestigious university. And that’s where he studied. There are many highlights for his career. Let me just mention some of this early background, because it’s so interesting. In 1905, he and his brother embarked on an expedition to the northern Urals, so back towards the eastern side, to record birdsongs. Influenced by their father, they wrote an essay, which they later published, in 1911, containing detailed descriptions of birdcalls. And this description of the birdcalls anticipates zaum, the transrational.
So he’ll describe the P-E-E-T or ca—you know, the, these various kind of syllabic-seeming sounds that already start to suggest a kind of zaum. And his first poem, the first poem he ever wrote, was called A Bird in Captivity, and was about a bird and kind of the birdsong idea. And also, Khlebnikov’s sensitivity to animals that were held captive, that was something that he was interested in and that influenced the book that he gave a title to, which was called Sadok Sudei, A Trap for Judges. And it’s an invented—both words are invented.
Khlebnikov had a bent for neologism. His name, Viktor Khlebnikov, he changed to Velimir, at a certain point. Vel meaning hero or heroic, and mir meaning world. And so when you put them together, it’s kind of heroic world or commanding the world. And so he announced very formally to his family, in letters, that he was actually changing his name. Now, Khlebnikov ultimately ends up St. Petersburg, where he meets the Symbolists, where he tries to become part of their world, finds he’s not recognized by them, not understood by them. He then meets the Burliuks. He died at age thirty-six, in 1922, of typhus, as he tried to make his way back to Moscow, from trips out to the external parts of the empire. And so he died very, very young, but had already a huge impact on fellow poets, particularly, during his lifetime.
CUNO: So let’s get to another poet, then. [Perloff: Yeah] Let’s get to Aleksei Kruchenykh.
PERLOFF: So Aleksei Kruchenykh had a very different kind of background from Khlebnikov. Khlebnikov came from a very educated family. Kruchenykh was born in 1886, into a poor peasant family in the Kherson Province. So that’s located closer to the Black Sea, just north of the Black Sea. He did enter Odessa Art College, studied art, graduated, and then worked as a village schoolmaster, so as a teacher. And his main form of art was caricatures. And let me just say that it’s very interesting that Mayakovsky, Kruchenykh, and Khlebnikov began their careers with an interest in art. In the case of Mayakovsky, he formally studied art. And so did Kruchenykh, as I just mentioned. And Khlebnikov, maybe less formally, also studied drawing. So you have poets beginning as visual artists and then moving into poetry. And that certainly helps us understand how they collaborated with visual artists on the Futurist books.
CUNO: So let’s get to third poet, with Mayakovsky. And he’s a big personality. And where does he come from and where does he meet the other two?
PERLOFF: Okay. So Mayakovsky is born, also, in a peasant family, outside of Moscow.
He is very interested in the visual arts and in drawing and painting. And he was quite remarkable. I mean, if you look at some of the early little sketches that he did, also sketches of other artistic figures, they’re really quite remarkable. He also wrote poetry from a very young age, and was generally known as an incredibly difficult man who had many loves, but turned very, very early to the Briks, Lili and Osip Brik. Very wealthy, Osip Brik, very wealthy. Mayakovsky never had a dime. But he was taken in by the Briks, fell passionately in love with Lili Brik. And that affair, that romance—yeah, it was an affair, really, really, a ménage à trois—lasted through his death. And the suicide, in the late twenties, was due to his sorrow, his lack of reciprocity from Lili Brik. But Mayakovsky was voluminous in his writings. And I’ll make one just point: Whereas Malevich scarcely ventured abroad, only to Berlin once, never anywhere else; Kruchenykh never went abroad; Khlebnikov only through the Russian Empire, in the Russian Empire—he went to Persia and then came back; Mayakovsky traveled all the time. Paris, he’d spend weeks in Paris. And Lili Brik would host him there and—so a very, very different kind of situation. But Mayakovsky never learned a word of any language but Russian. [Cuno: Yeah] Also interesting.
CUNO: So we had these three poets, and we’ve got a theoretician, we’ve got painters—Malevich, Larionov, Goncharova—and we get a book. Mirskontsa, 1912, the title of which, I gather, is made up, a neologism. Which must in some way be a word for “world from the end.” Or as it’s sometimes translated, “world backwards.” Tell us about the title.
PERLOFF: Yeah. You have three words: mir, s, kontsa. Mir, world; s, from, preposition; kontsa, end.
When you string them together, what happens, is there’s a stress shift. Rather than it being kontsa, you have mirskontsa. That’s in the nature of Russian that there’s this stress shift. So you then have a neologism that also has an accent on a part of kontsa that would never normally take place. Mirskontsa is the sound. And “world from the end” is the literal and most accurate translation; but generally, people translate it as “world backwards,” to show that it’s words strung together. This is Velimir Khlebnikov’s invention, this neologism. Khlebnikov, I would say, was the master, maybe, of neologisms.
Mirskontsa contains on the cover what may be the first appearance of a collage on an artist book. Very radical, in that respect. Natalia Goncharova is the artist, and she glues this leaf onto the cover. And—
CUNO: Made of cut paper.
PERLOFF: Yeah, made of cut paper. In this case, a green cut paper. And she also handwrites the title of the book and the two authors. So A. Kruchenykh and V. Khlebnikov. And you’ll notice how there’s a mixture of capital letters and low-case letters. And what she’s doing is already acting out, in a way, this idea of mirskontsa, which means not only reversibility, but the idea of moving away from the linear, moving away from the legible, into something that breaks the strictures of time with reversal. So she’s making this hard to read. And that idea of the illegible courses through the entire book.
CUNO: You’ve mentioned or used the word zaum once or twice before. Tell us about that and how it plays itself in the text itself.
PERLOFF: Yes. So the idea of zaum—za means beyond. We have, just the way I explained mirskontsa, za, beyond; um, the mind. So beyond the mind. Again, it’s a neologism. You’re bringing together a preposition and a noun that don’t go together. And it’s translated maybe most effectively as beyond sense. Also transrational, beyond the mind.
CUNO: Is it thought to be somehow like a primitive language, or is it thought to be a kind of supernatural language?
PERLOFF: I’d say more a primitive language. And also a language that epitomizes moving away from syntax, which really goes with linearity, if you think about it; and moving into a world that yes, I’d say can be primitive, but also can be spiritual or mystical, because sound plays such a role. So for example, if we look at this page. Now, we’re looking at a page inside the book Mirskontsa. This is a page that is done by Goncharova. Which means she handwrites the text and she handwrites down here. However, Kruchenykh, who does the poetry, and Khlebnikov called artists like Goncharova “handwriting artists,” because they were the ones who actually handwrote the poem. But this is a collaboration, and we really need to emphasize that.
CUNO: Well, and in the middle of the page is a image of some kind. Looks almost flowery-like [Perloff: Yes] or something. Is that hand drawn or is that lithograph?
PERLOFF: This is lithographed. Everything—all the actual handwritten and drawn-looking pages, are run through a press and are lithographed. What isn’t lithographed—and I’m getting ahead of myself, but I’ll mention it—are pages that are rubberstamped, of course. And I’ll talk about the rubberstamping in a moment. But if we look at this page, we can really see how collaboration works. At the bottom of the page, you have a word that’s repeated. And you can see that the letters are—
CUNO: What is the word? How would you pronounce it?
CUNO: Does it have a meaning [Perloff: It does have a meaning] that’s a conventional meaning, or is it a made-up word?
PERLOFF: [over Cuno] No, it is a real word. It means gaiety or merriment. And the words almost look gay and merry, because they’re played or danced, is the way I describe it. They dance on the page, in a way that looks quite lovely and gay and merry.
CUNO: Well, let’s hear what it sounds like.
PERLOFF: Okay, let’s hear what it sounds like.
Recording: spasi nozhnitsy rezhut / rodnyia plemianisty podgliady- / vaiut bolen ne vylezt’ / streliaiutsia khorosho / lish’ raz
CUNO: And if I were in the audience on the evening in which that’s read for the first time, would I be able to make sense of that? Or would it be just abstract sounds?
PERLOFF: You mean if you were a Russian?
CUNO: If I were a Russian, yeah. Right.
PERLOFF: [over Cuno] If you were a member of the Russian audience? I think you might be able to make out what some of the words mean, because they are—there are words in there, as you can see from the English translation. But where zaum goes a little crazy is in lack of connection between words. So sometimes you have a nonsensical syllable or word. Other times, spasi nozhnitsy, you know, you have save scissors are cutting. But you can even see from the translation, it doesn’t go together. The words are juxtaposed or collaged in such a way that it’s not completely comprehensible.
CUNO: You’ve talked about the sound of the words themselves, sounds of the letters and so forth. But is there an obvious rhythm to it?
PERLOFF: We have a couple of options. There are books, or there are poems even in this book, that do really follow Russian meter. And Russian meter had a very clear organization. There was a whole division of different patterns of stresses and nonstresses. And so I can show that also with Vzorval’, the other book. But here, there is some meters: spasi nozhnitsy rezhut / rodnyia plemianisty podgliady. But what I argue in my book is that the zaum poets will give you some meter, but then just when you think there is a meter that you’re gonna follow, they do something different. They add another stress, they take out a stress. So, spasi nozhnitsy rezhut / rodnyia plemianisty podgliady, you have three stresses in both of those lines. But then vaiut bolen ne vylezt’, suddenly you’re short a syllable, and you’re not sure what’s coming next. And that’s part of the play. And it is play. It is playful. The unexpected.
CUNO: So there’s a value to this book, in the aural sense; that is, that one would hear it read aloud, or incanted aloud, let’s say. There’s a visual value, when one sees it. There’s the literate value of one reading it and so forth. And in the same respect, it’s a handmade book. Do we have any sense of the edition size of the book and how many there would be?
PERLOFF: Yeah, there were 220 copies of Mirskontsa. And each copy was different.
CUNO: Different in what way?
PERLOFF: The cover, for example. A green collaged leaf that we see here. If I had with me, a version or a copy, I should say, held by the Mayakovsky Museum, instead, you have a gold cover. Gold collage.
CUNO: [over Perloff] Looks like it’s cut from wallpaper.
PERLOFF: Yeah. Hard to say. Yeah, maybe. Or just some kind of gold leaf or fake gold leaf that they found. But this is the same book.
CUNO: The image looks to be a flower or vegetable form of some kind. Is there some relationship between that image and the content of the book inside?
PERLOFF: Yes. Absolutely. Because if we look at this, what’s so really remarkable about this page is Goncharova connects her collage-like drawing, which looks a bit like a leaf or a flower, has a folk-like quality to it, just as viselie, viselie has a folk quality. At the same time, the drawing is about cutting, ’cause you see the cuts going through. And this is about scissors, cutting. So you’ve got Goncharova—
CUNO: The text is about scissors?
PERLOFF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you’ve got this really remarkable relationship between image, word, and sound.
Let me read you the English of the text that’s above the drawing, so that you can see how it relates to this zaum nature and to this idea of cut flowers. So, “Save scissors are cutting. Nieces peep. Sick not to crawl out. Shooting well. Only once.” And let me just add that word choice in zaum is based on sound, much more than it’s based on meaning. Sound is primary.
CUNO: Now, the image that we’re looking at, and even the language as we’ve heard it read both in English and in Russian, seems to be fractured and exploded, as if something had exploded in the room, and sound is everywhere and image is everywhere. The title of your book comes from the title of a Russian book in this series or in this group of books, called Explodity. Tell us about that book and let’s hear some of the Russian.
PERLOFF: Okay. We’re looking now at the book Vzorval’, which is translated loosely as “explodity.” And just to explain that, vzorval’ is the past tense of the verb to explode, in Russian. Vzorvat. And what Kruchenykh did—and he is the poet of this book—is he took the past tense, male tense, he exploded, vzorval, and he added a soft sign. So when you see Vzorval’ written in English, you’ll see there’s a diacritic, which represents the soft sign. By doing that, he turns it into a noun. So you have he exploded turned into a noun, translated loosely, explodity, a neologism.
Two editions of Vzorval’. So again, we’re talking about very, very small editions, maybe 400 roughly. The first edition has a different cover. This—
CUNO: Looks like a courtroom of some kind, or a church with a priest at the pulpit, and crowds are screaming and yelling and running in different directions.
PERLOFF: And this is actually a cover by Nikolai Kulbin. Kulbin was a doctor, a poet, a kind of entrepreneur. Got people together, organized exhibitions, and so forth. He, you can see, was quite a skilled draftsman. I like to think of this—but I think it can be anything—as one of these public debates, these Futurist debates, where there was cacophony and they were yelling poems and manifestos and the crowd is screaming. But it can be whatever, I think, one wants to make of it.
But do pay attention, too, to what he does with the handwriting. It’s Aleksei Kruchenykh here, the poet, Vzorval’, and that’s the soft sign I was referring to. So Explodity.
CUNO: And the cover image on the second edition book looks to be a kind of factory or an urban scene in which the explosion is the just kind of fractured light forms across the surface of the architecture.
PERLOFF: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I see it as a kind of urban apocalypse, with towers seeming to bend, windows curving, the chimney smoke still going up, and this kind of chaotic lettering, which is a little bit like what Kulbin does. The artist of this cover is Olga Rozanova. And she was an incredibly important figure, also died in her thirties, so extraordinarily young, helping Malevich put up posters for Suprematism.
This book differs from the first edition in the lithographs. So if you go through this book, where you have rubberstamping in the first edition—
CUNO: Which is to say that the text is printed by rubberstamping.
PERLOFF: Exactly. And it was basically like a child’s kit. So these are the exact same poem.
CUNO: So one is a rubberstamping and one is actually lithographed, handwritten and lithographed.
PERLOFF: Yes, exactly. And we can actually listen to these. I just wanted to draw that distinction between the rubberstamping—the rubberstamping was something that Kruchenykh specialized in. And I wanna mention this poem first, and I’ll have you hear it. Because even without illustration, this is a very striking poem that sets the tone for this book.
So we are now listening to the first poem in the second edition of Vzorval’.
Reading: zabyl povesit’sia / lechu k amerikam / na korable polez li / kto / xot’ byl pred nosom
CUNO: Tell us what the English is.
PERLOFF: “Forgot to hang myself. I’m flying to the Americas. On the ship did crawl someone. Although he was right under my nose.” So you’ve got a poem that starts with meaning, understandable. It also has a prosody to it: zabyl povesit’sia / lechu k amerikam. So you have a prosody there that is then completely gone against by the rest of the text: na korable polez li / kto / xot’ byl pred nosom. And just as the prosody or the metric flow goes away, so does the meaning.
CUNO: So the books that we’re looking at, all produced in the teens, have this handmade look to it, as you say. And they’re in small editions of 200 to 400 or so, and they’re put together by handwriting and rubberstamping and lithographs and so forth. Things begin to change in the 1920s with regard to the radical book arts. The revolution comes in 1917. The Soviet Union comes in the 1920s. A different kind book production is made at that time. So this is an extremely important example of a moment in the history of Russian artistic production that will be lost a few years after they’ve been produced.
PERLOFF: Yeah. Yeah. And Malevich, early in the twenties, does produce books. Not books of poetry, books of imagery—The Black Square, The Circle, The Cross, books on Suprematism—and he is active through the twenties. But by the early thirties, he is only producing those kind of terrifying paintings with the head—
CUNO: Figurative paintings, yeah.
PERLOFF: Yeah, with the—figurative paintings with [Cuno: Yeah] faceless peasants.
CUNO: Yeah. So it’s an extraordinary collection of the avant-garde in Russia. And it’s an important collection, because it’s so rich in examples. How did the Getty Research Institute come to acquire this collection?
PERLOFF: We acquired this collection in the eighties from a Parisian bookseller named Marc-Martin Malburet. And he sold his collection to Ars Libri. And they were in touch with the Getty, the GR—well, not the GRI then, the Getty Center for the Arts and Humanities. And we purchased this collection, which we call the Malburet Collection.
CUNO: So how can we access these poems? How can the listeners to this podcast, for example, who’ll be interested in seeing and hearing more of these poems and these books, how can they access them?
PERLOFF: I think the best way is to start with the online interactive, because—
CUNO: What is the web address for that?
PERLOFF: The web address is www.getty.edu/zaum—Z-A-U-M—poetry. One word.
CUNO: Okay, Nancy. Thanks so much for the time you’ve given us this morning. This is rich and interesting material, complex, profound, confounding, and we appreciate all the time you’ve given us this morning. So thank you.
PERLOFF: Thank you.
CUNO: As Nancy noted, you can visit the online interactive at www.getty.edu/zaumpoetry—that’s Z – A – U – M poetry—to see images and to listen to the poetry in Mirskontsa, Vzorval’, and two other Russian futurist artists’ books. And if you happen to be in Los Angeles, stop by the Getty Research Institute to see the exhibition Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space, which explores the visual, verbal, and sonic experiments of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. The exhibition is up through July 30, 2017.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
NANCY PERLOFF: The words almost look gay and merry because they’re played or danced, is the wa...