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Russian avant-garde books in the British Library

The British Library has an extensive collection of Russian avant-garde books of the early 20th century. Although all are listed in the Library's general catalogues, these often contain no reference to the books' designers, and many masterpieces, by Rodchenko and Lisitskii for example, have only recently come to light.

The British Library's collection embraces two major Russian artistic movements: futurism of the 1910s and constructivism of the 1920s. The aims and aspirations of these of these movements diverge sharply: whereas the futurist manifestos - A Slap in the Face of Public Taste and The Word as Such - express the aim of seeking forms which would go beyond rational expression and stress the supremacy of the word ; the constructivists' key documents state that their prime aim is to communicate on a mass scale and to connect art with everyday life. However both have in common the search for new forms and are committed to experimentation.

The strength of the British Library's collection is in its sheer range. The most significant items from the futurist period are 15 tiny handwritten and lithographed miscellanies of 1912 to 1917, which are the result of collaboration between a diverse range of artists and poets including Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Kamenskii, Maiakovskii, the Burliuks, Larionov, Goncharova, Malevich and Filonov. These masterpieces reflect the diverse influences on Russian Futurism which include pre-Petrine Russian folk art, medieval manuscripts and "primitive art". They also reveal much experimentation in format: in addition to handwriting, which produced the unity of text and illustration found in medieval manuscripts, there is use of rubber stamping and innovative typography as in Kamenskii's Tango with Cows, a book of rectangular shape, printed on flowered wallpaper of primary colours. The use of rough materials was characteristic of all futurist books and the more conventionally printed ones often had lithographs tipped in.

In addition to the pre-revolutionary futurist books produced in Moscow or St. Petersburg the British Library also possesses a small but important number of publications made in the years 1917-19 in the capital of Georgia, Tiflis. Here the author/artist Kruchenykh, having moved to Georgia in 1916 joined forces with the Zdanevich brothers and, in 1919, formed a futurist group called Forty-One Degrees. Books from this period include Kruchenykh's Obesity of Roses, Lacquered tights and Tsotsa (with the Declaration of zaum language tipped in), Teren'tev's Fakt (with a striking typographical cover by Il'ia Zdanevich), and the profusely illustrated miscellany To Sofia Grigorieva Melnikova.

After his return to Moscow, Kruchenykh continued to be the most prolific of the futurists and his publications from the 20s and 30s are widely represented in the British Library collections. In their number are several numbered printed books (Itchician and Aseev's Books) and further lithograph editions (Tournament of Poets, Maiakovskii's Alive and Unpublished Khlebnikov).

The writer/artist with the largest number of works in the Russian Avant-Garde collection is Maiakovskii. It is in Maiakovskii's books of the 20s that the two techniques that characterise the experiments of the constructivists - innovative typography and photomontage - find supreme expression. The two most famous examples are Lisitskii's design for Maiakovskii's revolutionary poems For the Voice and Rodchenko's series of montages which illustrate the poem About This. Lisitskii's masterpiece differs from other constructivist books, in that the whole book is part of the design. However it is generally the case that most constructivist books are of interest for their covers only.

Rodchenko and Lisitskii are widely represented in the collection, and there are also examples of designs by other notable constructivist artists of the period such as Al'tman, Telingater, Stepanova, Klutsis, Kulagina and Kliun, as well as the architectural fantasies of Chernikhov. In the late 20s the influence of constructivism is still reflected in the covers and layout of such journals as Contemporary Architecture.

Although the influence of constructivism was to be seen in book design throughout the Soviet period, the break in the futurist tradition was more definitive. It was only in the 60s and 70s that writers and artists continued to try and re-establish links with past futurists. The samizdat journal Transponans, produced between 1978 and 1986 in Eisk, had the aim of re-establishing the concept of zaum (transrationalism). Its main contributors, Ry Nikonova and Sergei Sigei made their own handmade books, featuring collages, cut-outs, hand-lettering and visual poetry. It was in the glasnost period that the futurist influence burst into the open with a flowering of the literary and artistic avant-garde, based mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, but also in provincial towns such as Eisk, Pskov, Samara and Cheliabinsk. The Library has a growing collection of these neo-avant-garde books from the late eighties and early nineties. Notable amongst these are the limited edition "artists' books" of the graphic artist Mikhail Karasik (with texts by writers of the 20s) and five limited edition books written and illustrated by Leonid Tishkov. In his Dabloids, Tishkov's use of comic strip layout maintains the futurist tradition of unity of text and illustration.

Electronic and microfilm resources

The most comprehensive collection of Russian Literary Avant-garde Online was recently subscribed to by the British Library. This collection includes works by all Russian literary avant-garde schools. It comprises almost 800 books, periodicals and almanacs, mostly published between 1910 and 1940 and thus offers an exceptionally varied and balanced overview of one of the most versatile movements in Russian literature. The online database is accessible for British Library Reader Pass holders, from the PCs in our Reading Rooms at Electronic resources by subject - Slavonic and East European.

The British Library also has a CD-ROM entitled "Futuristy v kollektsii GPIB" (Moskva: Gosudarstvennaia publichnaia istoricheskaia biblioteka, 2002). Please search our Integrated Catalogue for the shelfmark.

A microform collection "Russian Futurism, 1910-1916: poetry, manifestos, journals and miscellanies" - 77 microfiches (Cambridge : Chadwyck-Healey, 1976-1977) [Mic.F.124] is also available for consultation.

Catalogue of the avant-garde collection in the British Library

  • A catalogue of Russian avant-garde books 1912-1934 / edited by Peter Hellyer (London: The British Library, 1994) [2725.g.1780]
  • A catalogue of Russian avant-garde books 1912-1934 and 1969-2003. [2nd ed.] / compiled and edited by Peter Hellyer (London: The British Library, 2006) [HLR 741.64] ; [YC.2006.b.2068] ; [m06/.17238]
  • Russian Avant-Garde Artists’ Books 1969-2010 in the British Library (pdf) / compiled and edited by Peter Hellyer. Includes a name index of artists and author/artists.

The 1st edition of this catalogue was the first to provide direct and easy access to the British Library's extensive collection of Russian avant-garde books of the early twentieth century, as well as Russian artists' books from the late 1960s to the present. Although all are included in the Library's catalogue, these often contain no reference to the books' designers and many masterpieces have only recently come to light. With over 600 entries recording works by author or title, and indexes of personal names (authors/artists), Russian titles, English titles, places and subjects, the Avant-garde Catalogue will enable researchers, particularly those who do not read Russian, to explore the artistic riches of a period of experimentation in Russian book design. It is not a catalogue of the literary avant-garde. Visual interest has been the main criterion for inclusion and the majority of books listed are of interest as artefacts, as examples of avant-garde book design. Exceptions have been made for some of the leading figures of futurism and constructivism (for example, Khlebnikov and Maiakovskii); all contemporary editions of their works have been included. Also included are some books which are conservative in form but which chronicle the avant-garde artistic movements of the period and their influence on painting, architecture and theatre design - exhibition catalogues, monographs on individual artists or theatrical productions, and manifestos.

The Catalogue has since become a standard reference tool, with nearly 400 additional entries included in the 2nd edition.

Contact

Peter W. Hellyer, Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7582

E-mail: peter.hellyer@bl.uk

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7587

E-mail: katya.rogatchevskaia@bl.uk