Instead of being an object of discernment and esteem, the avant-garde book now became a joke (cf. Porosiata [Piglets] by Kruchenykh and Zina V., 1913); instead of being a source of solace, it now upset the reader’s peace of mind, demanding an active, creative involvement; instead of being a symbol of truth and permanence, it was now a throwaway item; and instead of being a production of reason, its language, as Kruchenykh asserted in his Deklaratsiia slova kak takovogo (Declaration of the Word as Such) of 1913, “has no definite meaning.” Just as the old lubki parodied important personages and social foibles, rendering them accessible to an often illiterate public, so the Cubo-Futurist booklets used analogous methods, relying on handwritten script and rude illustrations, spelling and grammatical mistakes, and cheap, “unartistic” paper. (The first issue of Sadok sudei [A Trap for Judges] by Vasilii Kamenskii et al.  was printed on wallpaper just as Tango s korovami was.)
In their quest for new concepts and systems, painters such as Goncharova, Larionov, and Malevich gave pride of place to the indigenous arts and crafts such as the toy, the icon, the lubok, the distaff, embroidery, and urban folklore, borrowing motifs and devices which they transferred to their own artistic repertoire. Neo-Primitivism was the direct consequence of this: for example, Malevich rendered ordinary scenes of the peasant life that he knew so well as book illustrations (cf. his sturdy peasant woman on the cover of Troe [Threesome] by Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, and Elena Guro ); Goncharova expressed her interest in religious folklore in her illustrations to Misticheskie obrazy voiny (Mystical Images of the War, 1914); while Larionov, on the other hand, looked to the city with its graffiti, whorehouses, and taverns for inspiration (cf. his illustrations for Kruchenykh’s Poluzivoi [Half-Alive] of 1913).
Goncharova and Larionov prepared the way for other audacious designers, especially Malevich, who, in his paintings and illustrations, owed a great deal to the Neo-Primitivist esthetic. Malevich even paraphrased some of Goncharova’s themes: his lithograph called Simultaneous Death of a Man in an Airplane and on the Railroad (1913), which appeared in Vzorval (Explodity), parallels Goncharova’s canvas entitled Airplane above a Train of the same year (State Art Museum, Kazan), while his untitled lithograph of a carriage in motion in Troe brings to mind Goncharova’s Cyclist of 1912-13 (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg).
Perhaps Filonov also studied the book experiments of Goncharova and Larionov before arriving at his own idiosyncratic conclusions, for his interest in motifs from Russian mythology and his emphasis on the pictographic quality of the written word find precedents in Goncharova’s conception of Igra vadu and Larionov’s “Letters at liberty” in Mirskontsa (Worldbackwards). An especially striking conjunction of aural and visual devices is to be found in Filonov’s designs for Khlebnikov’s poem “Dereviannye idoly” (“Wooden Idols”) in Izbornik stikhov (Miscellany of Verse, 1914), where he matched the poet’s often abstruse and archaic vocabulary with a more accessible visual entertainment in the form of ideograms. For example, he drew the first letter of the word rusalka as a bare-breasted mermaid and suspended the middle letter of the verb “uletat” (“to fly away”) above the rest of the word, playing a sophisticated calligraphic game with the reader-cum-viewer.
Like Filonov, Rozanova, too, owed much to the Neo-Primitivist discoveries and her designs for the second edition of Igra v adu are clearly inspired by Goncharova’s drawings for the first. At the same time, as we see at Tango with Cows, Rozanova experienced the influence of Italian Futurism, exploring the themes of speed and modern technology in both her paintings and her prints. Her cover for Vzorval, for example, indicates that it was a short step to her elaboration of an abstract art dependent upon the integration of its internal components, and her illustrations (with Kruchenykh) for Vselenskaia voina functioned with what she called “purely artistic achievements”: using a sequence of twelve non-figurative colored paper collages, Rozanova and Kruchenykh “illustrated” a book that had no text. The fact that the artists and writers of the Russian avant-garde concentrated on the book and that they exploited it deliberately as a primary method of communication demonstrates that, for all their scandalous behavior, they still retained a traditional respect and passion for the book as a unique and special artifact—and they were among the last to do so. In this respect, Tango with Cows pays homage not only to a radical reinvention of the book, but also to the very procedure of reading and writing the book which, with the contemporary imposition of electronic media, are under ever stronger attack.
John E. Bowlt is a Professor of Russian art at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where he is also Director of the Institute of Modern Russian Culture. Among his recent publications is the book Moscow, St. Petersburg, 1910-1930. The Silver Age.
Unless stated otherwise, all titles mentioned are on display at the Getty exhibition.