Tango with Cows gives particular attention to this topsy-turvy world not only by displaying pages of zaum poetry, but also by providing the visitor with recorded declamations of this “nonsense” as well as valiant, but inevitably inadequate, translations into “English.” Indeed, as the Getty exhibition confirms, the early book productions of the Russian avant-garde such as the second edition of Igra v adu in 1914, with illustrations by Malevich and Rozanova, deviated radically from the traditional principles of composition, pagination, and format. On the other hand, it should be emphasized that this interdependence of image and text was not new in the history of book design, for there were similar concordances in the Persian miniature, the Mediaeval Book of Hours, and the 18th and 19th century Russian lubok (handcolored broadside), and how fortunate that Tango with Cows was paralleled by the superb exhibition of the illuminated manuscript The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry in the Getty Museum at the same time.
It was precisely because the book held such a central position in traditional Russian culture that the artists and writers of the avant-garde gave marked attention to it, attacking and displacing its strong conventions of propriety and inventing new concepts of reading, writing, and printing. Indeed, one of the strangest conditions governing the Western appreciation of the Russian avant-garde books—and one certainly true of the Getty exhibition—is that they tend not to be “read.” They are often acquired by collectors who cannot read Cyrillic and who value the books as material objects to be seen and touched and not as sources of narrative, intimate colloquy or enunciation; critics marvel at the textures, typefaces, illustrations, and grades of paper, but not, unless they know Russian, at the “meaning” of the text. On one level, this is exactly what the avant-garde desired, i.e. for the reader to stop reading and start looking, a dramatic shift of priorities in the reception of the book as a literary entity. Furthermore, the books themselves (sometimes printed, sometimes handmade, sometimes issued by a publishing-house, sometimes distributed by hand) are now very rare owing to their fragility and limited editions (not uncommonly in a press run of three hundred copies) and there are often discrepancies in pagination and illustration between one copy and the next.
For all their ebullience, artists such as Burliuk and Goncharova were no less esoteric and élitist than their Symbolist predecessors; they may have censured the fin de siècle, but paradoxically they assured continuity by repeating many esthetic and thematic parallels. Like the Symbolists, the avant-garde artists also issued books in limited editions, wrote cryptic and oblique poetry, appealed to the linguistic registers of children and animals and dreamed of the marriage of word and image. On the other hand, the Cubo-Futurists did not sympathize with the theocratic interests of the preceding generation, they had little patience with “beauty” and “measure,” and they tended to regard the reader as a guinea pig rather than as a respectable ally. In the context of actual book production, too, the avant-garde followed a very different approach, something immediately manifest from the choice of shocking titles for their societies and books such as “Jack of Diamonds,” Moloko kobylits (Milk of Mares by Khlebnikov et al. with illustrations by the Burliuks and Alexandra Exter, 1914) and, of course, Tango s korovami.
As is clear from Tango with Cows, a strong aspiration on the part of the avant-garde book designers was not only to replace “high” with “low,” but also to reconsider the book as a physical, tactile thing. Items such as Tango s korovami and Zaumnaia gniga (Transrational Boog, 1916) by Kruchenykh and Roman Yakobson are, indeed, substances not only because they are spatial entities, but also because the ways in which they are “built” (with varying kinds of papers, collages, bindings, etc.) reinforces the sense of material facture. By now certain key monuments to this esthetic are widely known and, quite rightly, they take pride of place in the Getty show, including Goncharova’s and Larionov’s collaborations with Kruchenykh, e.g. Igra v adu and Rozanova’s and Kruchenykh’s bellicose collages called Vselenskaia voina (Universal War, 1916).
The designers of the avant-garde book rejected the esthetic position of the late Victorian tome with its retrospective sentimentalism and Art Nouveau covers, its serpentine illustrations, and parchment paper, and returned the book, the poster, and the postcard to the status of the lubok. Often the poets and painters relied on handwritten script and rude illustrations, incorporating mistakes in spelling and grammar. They cultivated the art of the “absurd” in transrational combinations of the casual and the spontaneous, including children’s poems and drawings, or played with derivations of naughty words. The conscious mystification of authorship, as in the multifarious poetical experiments of Larionov’s and Goncharova’s collection called Oslinyi khvost i mishen (Donkey’s Tail and Target, 1913), is very different from the disciplined elegance of the Symbolist and World of Art artists such as Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois and Konstantin Somov.