19 July 2023
From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’: An Anti-Book
In March 1914 in St Petersburg, on the cusp of the First World War, the poet Velimir Khlebnikov and the artist Pavel Filonov issued Iz knigi ‘dereviannye idoly’ (From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’). Engaging in experimental collaborations in the book arts was part of a spectrum of activities undertaken by artists and writers in the Russian Empire known as the Futurists. This problematic label covers various individuals and groups operating over many years, who did not refer to themselves as Futurists. Others embraced the label or some variation of it. Over time, there has been a tendency to collapse these individuals and groups under the single label of ‘Russian Futurist’ due to the region’s entangled histories, but also due to an overriding imperial Russian narrative.
Fig. 1. Photograph of Velimir Khlebnikov in 1913. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 2 Photograph of M. Matiushin, A. Kruchenykh, P. Filonov, I. Shkolnik and K. Malevich in 1913 (left to right). Image: Wikimedia Commons
Often referred to as ‘books’, Futurist books have also been called pamphlets, publications, booklets, collections, occasionally artists’ books or even, helpfully, anti-books, a term which points to their revolutionary nature and their participation in the international book experiment. Across Europe, avant-garde writers and artists engaged in the book experiment, as seen for example in the 2007 British Library exhibition: Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937. Notably, the anti-books contain an inherent performativity: Wooden is a publication within a publication entitled Izbornik stikhov s posliesloviem riechiaria: 1907-1914 (Selected Poems with an Afterward by a Wordsmith, 1907-1914). Embedded within Selected Poems, Wooden is a lithographed supplement that stands in stark contrast to its host publication and serves as a vehicle for performance through an interplay of sound, text, image, and materiality.
Fig. 3. Cover of the British Library exhibition catalogue Breaking the Rules: the Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 (London, 2007). YC.2008.b.251.
Fig. 4. Cover of V. Khlebnikov, Izbornik stikhov s posliesloviem riechiaria: 1907-1914 gg ([St Petersburg, 1915]). C.114.mm.39.
Fig. 5. Cover of Iz knigi ‘dereviannye idoly’ (From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’) and first page of ‘To Perun’.
The anti-book collaborations took place over many years in different activity centres in the Russian Empire, instigated by the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh and joined by Khlebnikov and, initially, the painter Mikhail Larionov, along with a select group of secondary collaborators, such as Natalia Goncharova, Ilya Zdanevich (‘Iliazd’), Olga Rozanova, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. During the second half of the 19th century, the printing industry in the Russian Empire developed swiftly ‘from a small artisanal craft closely tied to the state into a relatively large-scale, diversified, and technologically developed industry run by capitalist entrepreneurs and professional managers.’(Steinberg, p. 7) This development led to the publication of luxurious, limited book editions and cultural journals, and technical journals focusing on book arts. The early 20th century also witnessed a flood of collecting centred around these publications, which collectors eagerly sought to obtain (Bowlt, pp. 187-189).
Amidst these developments, Khlebnikov and Filonov released Wooden. With its Slavic folklore themes, related illustrations and pictograms, and archaic-sounding language, Wooden speaks to the period’s pervading artistic focus on the cultures of the East. Two texts were included in Wooden: ‘To Perun’, a poem, and ‘Night in Galicia’, a play in verse. Likely at Kruchenykh’s request, Filonov made 11 illustrations to accompany the texts (Parnis, p. 644). His illustrations impressed Kruchenykh. When Khlebnikov received a copy, he wrote to Kruchenykh: ‘Hats off to Filonov. Thank you for the great drawings.’ (Kruchenykh, ‘O Pavele Filonove’, p. 532) Khlebnikov opens Wooden with a poem addressed to the ancient god of thunder and lightning ‘To Perun’. One way Khlebnikov explores sound is through the creation of new words, e.g., ‘Peru-nepr’ (Perun + Dniper) (fig. 6) (Khlebnikov, Tvorenie, p. 85, footnote 8). The poem includes two illustrations by Filonov. His toy-like idols feature in the headpiece on the front page and the letters in the title ‘To Perun’ consist of a series of illustrations of wooden arrows (fig. 5). In ‘Night in Galicia’, which has nine illustrations, Khlebnikov presents mermaids, witches, and a knight (fig. 7). Filonov’s imagery works in tandem by emitting a sense of ancient art, including wooden sculptures and mythical folk tale characters. As in ‘Perun’, he introduces some letters in pictorial form, e.g., the word ‘mermaid’ (rusalka) begins with a mermaid’s image in place of the ‘r’ (fig. 8).
Fig. 6. Khlebnikov’s new word ‘Peru-nepr’ (Perun + Dniper) in From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’, p.3.
Fig. 7. First page of ‘Night in Galicia’ in From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’, p. 12.
Fig. 8. The word ‘mermaid’ (rusalka) begins with a mermaid’s image in place of the ‘r’ in From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’, p. 12
Throughout Wooden, Filonov emphasises its materiality by employing a hand-drawn font. The font also serves as a demarcation between Selected Poems and Wooden. Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh believed handwriting varied according to the writer’s mood and that the mood would be apparent to the viewer separately from the text. Additionally, they felt that an artist arguably would be better placed to be the text writer, as opposed to the author, noting that: ‘[i]t’s strange that [none of our contemporaries] has ever thought of giving his offspring to an artist instead of a typesetter.’ (Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh, p. 257) Following this principle, Filonov adeptly weaves together his inner vision of the texts with that of Khlebnikov’s. Khlebnikov and Filonov, who seemed to have enjoyed friendly relations at the time, were engaging in a folkloric performativity for viewers by combining these seemingly ethnographic, yet ultimately fanciful elements together, replete with archaic figures and an ancient-looking, hand drawn, lithographed font.
This post was adapted from a conference paper given by the author on 3 December 2021 at the 2021 ASEEES Virtual Convention and is being developed as part of her AHRC-TECHNE funded PhD project, ‘Sound Art and Visual Culture: The Anti-Book Experiment in the Romanov Empire and the USSR, 1881-1932’ at Kingston School of Art, Kingston University.
References and further reading:
K. Bezmenova, ‘Filonov and His Only Lithograph Book’, in Filonov. 125th Anniversary of the Artist’s Birth (1883-1935). Compilation of Articles from the Academic Conference (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, 2007) (St Petersburg, 2008), pp. 61-73.
J. Bowlt, Moscow & St. Petersburg, 1900-1920: Art, Life & Culture (New York, 2008). m08/.35374
N. Gurianova, ‘'A Game in Hell, Hard Work in Heaven: Deconstructing the Canon in Russian Futurist Books', in The Russian Avant-Garde Book, 1910-1934, ed. by D. Wye and M. Rowell (New York, 2002), pp. 24-32. LC.31.a.179
V. Khlebnikov, Tvorenie, eds. V.P. Grivoreva and A. E. Parnis (Moscow, 1986)
V. Khlebnikov and A. Kruchenykh, ‘The Letter as Such (1913)’ in Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov. Volume I: Letters and Theoretical Writings, ed. by C. Douglas and trans. by P. Schmidt (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1987). YC.1988.b.4461
‘Klanyates’ Filonovu. Spasibo za khoroshie risunki.’ A. Kruchenykh, ‘O Pavele Filonove’ in Pavel Filonov: realnost i mify, ed. by L. Pravoverova (Moscow, 2008), pp. 161-167. YF.2009.a.26968
A. Parnis, ‘O metamorfozakh mavy, olenya i voina. K probleme dialoga Khlebnikova i Filonova’ in Mir Velimira Khlebnikova. Statii issledovaniia 1911-1998, ed. by V. Ivanov and others (Moscow, 2000), pp. 637-695. YA.2000.a.28541
Mark Steinberg, Moral Communities. The Culture of Class Relations in the Russian Printing Industry, 1867-1907 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford, 1992). YC.1993.b.2609