THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

19 July 2019

Love, Art and Rejection: Mayakovsky’s Pro eto

Today marks the birthday of the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. To celebrate, we’ve dug into the history behind our edition of his poem Pro eto. Ei i mne (‘About This. To Her and to Me’). Completed in early 1923, Pro eto is a lyric love poem dedicated to the poet’s lover Lilya Brik, a writer, actor, artist and the wife of his publisher, Osip Brik, following a two-month separation. Their relationship was tumultuous to say the least, and the poem expresses Mayakovsky’s feelings of jealousy and emotional insecurities. It also has a political slant and can be viewed as ‘a reflection on life in conditions of revolutionary transformation’ (Day, 328). 

Cover of Pro eto featuring a portrait of Lilya Brik

Cover of Pro eto (Moscow, 1923). C.131.k.12.

Pro eto was initially published in LEF, the journal of Levy Front Iskusstv (‘Left Front of the Arts’), an association of avant-garde writers, photographers, critics and designers, in March 1923. Shortly after, it appeared as a separate edition and was accompanied by photomontages (often featuring Mayakovsky and Lilya) by the artist and central figure in Russian Constructivism Aleksandr Rodchenko. The image of the telephone features throughout and can be viewed as a metaphor for their separation and the complexity of their relationship. The cover also features a striking shot of Lilya’s face with staring eyes.

Page from Pro eto with a photomontage by Rodchenko. This includes a dinosaur, telephone and a portrait of Mayakovsky

Page from Mayakovsky’s Pro eto with photomontage by Rodchenko

Page from Pro eto with a photomontage by Rodchenko. This includes portraits of Lilya Brik and a telephone

Photomontage by Rodchenko from Pro eto (Moscow, 1923)

The edition held by the British Library was dedicated to Aleksandr Halpern, a Russian politician and lawyer, by Lilya Brik in Paris in 1924 (both Lilya and Mayakovsky spent time in Paris during this period). Halpern, who served as Kerensky’s private secretary in 1917, left Russia after the October Revolution, living first Paris and then Britain. From 1925 he was married to Salomea Andronikova, a Georgian princess who was an influential figure in literary and artistic circles in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg and later in emigration in Paris and Britain. During the Second World War Halpern allegedly worked as an MI6 agent in America as part of the British Government Mission. He returned to Britain after the war, where he counted Isaiah Berlin among his acquaintances, and died in 1956.

Title page of the British Library’s copy of Pro eto with a dedication from Lilya Brik to Aleksandr Halpern

Title page of the British Library’s copy of Pro eto with a dedication from Lilya Brik to Aleksandr Halpern

The British Museum Library acquired this copy of Mayakovsky’s poem from Halpern’s Russian collection in 1958, along with a number of other works including the 1923 book Lidantiu faram (‘Lidantiu as a Beacon’; C.145.b.15. and Mic.F.224) by Iliazd (Il'ia Zdanevich) and Naum Granovskii (which warrants a separate blog post!). While Pro eto is written from Mayakovsky’s perspective, it provides an important insight into the complicated relationship between the pair and Lilya’s influence on his work. So much so, that the Barbican Art Gallery borrowed the British Library’s copy for their recent exhibition ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

References and further reading

Vladimir Mayakovsky, Pro eto – That's what, trans. by Larisa Gureyeva & George Hyde (Todmorden, 2009). YC.2010.a.11273

LEF: zhurnal levogo fronta iskusstv (Moscow; Petrograd, 1923-1925). C.104.dd.51. Digitised copies of the journal are also available via the British Library’s electronic resources (reading rooms only).

Iliazd, LidantIU fAram (Paris, 1923). C.145.b.15. and Mic.F.224

Gail Day, ‘Art, love and social emancipation: the concept 'avant-garde' and the interwar avant-gardes’ in Art of the Avant-gardes, ed. by Edwards S and Wood P (New Haven, Conn.; London, 2004), 307-337. YC.2006.b.696 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde, ed. by Jane Alison and Coralie Malissard (Munich, 2018). LC.31.b.20507