Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910-1917

Getty Research Institute
Los Angeles, CA
John E. Bowlt

Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910-1917, is the arresting title of an intimate, but illuminating, exhibition of Russian avant-garde books at the Getty Research Center. Taking its title from one of the most startling examples of the Modernist book, i.e. Vasilii Kamenskii’s Tango s korovami: Zheleznobetonnye poemy (Tango with Cows: Ferro-concrete Poems, 1914) with its wallpaper covers and fractured form,1 the Getty exhibition presents the Russian avant-garde as a generator not of innovative paintings, constructions, architecture and stage designs, for which it is widely recognized, but of highly experimental books, journals, leaflets, manifestoes and other printed ephemera. Tango with Cows focuses on the climactic moment of the Russian avant-garde—the years just before the October Revolution, when painters, poets and musicians were creating a veritable renaissance of the Russian arts and letters.

Vasilii Kamenskii, <em>Tango with Cows: Ferro-concrete Poems (Tango s korovami: Zhelezobetonnye poemy)</em>, Moscow, 1914.

Vasilii Kamenskii, Tango with Cows: Ferro-concrete Poems (Tango s korovami: Zhelezobetonnye poemy), Moscow, 1914. Cover: Vasilii Kamenskii. Letterpress and wallpaper. Research Library, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California.

Curated by Nancy Perloff and Allison Pultz, who have turned the modest space of the exhibition room of the Research Institute into an avant-garde laboratory, Tango with Cows presents a small sampling of the over one thousand Russian avant-garde books in the Getty collections. Unlike other exhibitions of the Russian avant-garde book in the USA and Europe, Tango with Cows concentrates not only on the often bizarre visual appearance of these books, but also on the elicitation of their poetical sounds, offering liberal transliterations, translations and recitations of often highly complex verbal instrumentations to which the visitor can listen. With lucid didactic information, an extensive chronology and terse comments on individual books, authors and illustrators and their affiliations, Tango with Cows enlivens what is often presented as an exclusively academic and recondite subject. Of particular interest are the perfect facsimiles of some of the more celebrated books, reproducing not only the words and images of the original, but also its dedications, tears, cracks and even mildew stains. These facsimiles, which at first glance pass easily for originals, provide the visitor with the opportunity to see, touch, handle, hold and even smell the materiality of these miniature artifacts, a sensual feast which, of course, is lost in digital duplication.

On many occasions, the stylistic concepts which informed the unruly surface of these books—Neo-Primitivism, Cubo- Futurism, Rayism and Suprematism—and the artists and writers who elaborated them such as David Burliuk, Pavel Filonov, Natalia Goncharova, Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich, and Olga Rozanova anticipated later, more celebrated movements in the West such as Dada, Actionism, and Conceptual Art. Thanks to an introductory section on the Symbolist press, Tango with Cows demonstrates just how revolutionary the avant-garde was in its rejection of the decorative elegance of the fin de siècle, encapsulated in the sumptuous journals Mir iskusstva (World of Art) and Zolotoe runo (Golden Fleece) (both on exhibit). Moreover, the exhibition reminds us that there was not one avant-garde, but many, and that, if Moscow and St. Petersburg were the axes of the movement, regional cities were also active. Tiflis, for example, offers a Georgian interpretation of Cubo-Futurism in Kruchenykhs’s and Kirill Zdanevich’s Uchites, khudogi! (Learn Artists!) of 1917.

Aleksei Kruchenykh, <em>A Game in Hell: A Poem (Igra v adu: Poema)</em>, Moscow, 1912.

Aleksei Kruchenykh, A Game in Hell: A Poem (Igra v adu: Poema), Moscow, 1912. Cover: Natalia Goncharova. Lithography. Research Library, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California.

Practically all the artists of the Russian avant-garde gave their attention to the design, illustration, and manufacture of the book. The Burliuks, Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich, etc. dismissed the preceding canons of good taste and stressed the transient, accidental, and manual aspects of the book, using typographical error, inaccurate pagination, and deliberate ambiguity of letter and picture in order to overcome the conventional barrier between word and image on the page, something that we see again and again in Kruchenykh’s booklets of 1912-14 such as Igra v adu: Peoma (A Game in Hell: A Poem, 1912).

Many of the artists were also poets, and some of their literary colleagues such as Khlebnikov, Kruchenych, and Maiakovsky could draw and paint. The books which they created are exciting and often exasperating, not only because they use word and image to parody and scandalize, but also because they constitute a repertoire of the stylistic and formal ingredients of the avant-garde endeavor—displacement, asymmetry, spontaneity, automatism, parody, shock, incompleteness and so on. Consequently, common aesthetic formulae might inform a painting and a book design simultaneously; sometimes the illustrations themselves anticipate or repeat the subjects of major studio paintings, Filonov’s Propeven o prosroli mirovoi (A Chant of Universal Flowering) (Petrograd, 1915) being a case in point. But occasionally, these renderings may lack any apparent bearing on the poetical message, acting as visual enhancements of, rather than illustrations to, the text—such as Malevich’s “irrelevant” lithograph Arithmetic inserted into Kruchenykh’s poem Vozropshchem (Let’s Grumble) of 1913. Such lithographic addenda may often seem to be meaningless, but, then, zaum (lit. “transrationality”) was an organic component of the avant-garde project and conscious non-sequitur and catachresis were among the weapons with which the avant-garde attacked Victorian common sense and order.

Further Reading