Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art

Nancy Perloff, Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2016), 208 pp.

In 1910, artists and writers in Russia gathered around the painter David Burliuk and the poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Vasily Kamensky to form the literary group Hylaea, one of the earliest iterations of Russian Futurism. Resistant to tradition and to ideological compromise, the Russian Futurists questioned the aesthetic focus on Western Europe and advocated a movement built on distinctly Russian sources. The group embraced chance, intuition, the irrational, and the unexpected, exploring an anarchic-revolutionary mode that celebrated art without rules. At the heart of the Russian Futurist movement was an insistence on the poetics of the absurd, of non-language and non-sense, and of alogism. Transcending linguistic barriers and structures, Alexei Kruchenykh invented zaum (meaning “beyond sense”), a language constructed of Slavic roots upon which future Russian art could be based. Russian Futurism saw itself as an aesthetic philosophy that could revolutionize art and life, transforming our understanding of the world through the unexpected and new.

At the core of this rejection of the traditional and the absolute lies the Futurist book, a model for deconstructing language and exploring the irrational foundations of the spoken and written word. The plethora of Futurist books produced during the period 1910-1915 reveal an artistic reaction against the perception of art as being homogeneous. Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Burliuk, and Elena Guro, among others, embraced zaum as a means of upending poetry and appealing to intuition. It is this Futurist book art which Nancy Perloff takes as her subject in Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art. Evolving from her 2008-2009 exhibition at the Getty Museum titled Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910-1917 and further research at institutions in Russia, Explodity explores, over six chapters, the impact of these artists’ books in terms of a fundamental reorientation of our perception of language. Following an introduction centered around Malevich’s relationship to nonobjective painting and the West, Chapter 1 addresses the lives of the poets and painters who collaborated on the book Mirskontsa, arguing that their origins in the provinces were critical to the development of their Futurist texts. Chapter 2 investigates the importance of sound in these texts and the Futurist principles laid out in multiple manifestos, informed by Russian Formalism. Chapters 3 and 4 offer detailed analyses of Mirskontsa and Vzorval’, respectively, and Chapter Five concludes with a consideration of the global afterlife of these texts throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

Perloff’s thesis centers around one crucial point: that Futurist books uniquely fuse the verbal, the visual, and the auditory, which necessitates that they “be listened to as well as seen and read” (p. vii). The author lends her expertise in musicology to build a detailed and thorough reading of two books in particular, Mirskontsa (Worldbackwards) and Vzorval’ (Explodity). The result is a valuable consideration of the interaction between modernist music and the visual arts in Russia during the heady avant-garde period of 1910-1915. From the start of her study, Perloff emphasizes the important commonalities between the Futurist books of the period under consideration. In all of them, poets and painters collaborated to produce a dialogue between transrational sound poetry and imagery that tended towards abstraction. It is this interaction of sound, written word, and image that makes Futurist books so distinct. Having established this compelling premise for the book, however, Perloff engages with her subject more obliquely, focusing in the introduction on a comparison of Russian and Western European paintings.

Perloff’s reason for engaging with the topic in this manner is that pre-war Russian avant-garde painting “conveys the same polarities that characterize the interdisciplinarybook” (p. 3). What follows is a juxtaposition of Malevich’s painting Morning in the Village after a Snowstorm (19120 with Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower (1888) and Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Women (1891). The comparison serves Perloff to celebrate Malevich’s invention of a new visual language: she notes the artist’s use of “colorful, steely trapezoids with conical heads” and “monumental, machinelike” forms with “stiff and heavy torsos, heightened volume and mass, and quixotic sexuality” (p. 3). In Malevich’s paintings of the pre-Revolution years, Perloff argues, we observe a simultaneous naturalism and mechanization that foreshadows similar dichotomies in Futurist books. Investigating the roots of Malevich’s, Picasso’s and van Gogh’s painterly abstraction, according to the author, provides a framework for understanding the visual vocabulary considered later in the text.

However, Perloff’s choice to ground her study of Futurist books in an analysis of these paintings does not feel particularly successful, and the productivity of the aforementioned juxtapositions is unclear. Malevich’s paintings are, as Perloff accurately observes, “a far cry from the romanticized peasants of Vincent van Gogh and the exotic Tahitians of Paul Gauguin” (p. 5), but the paintings were created twenty-odd years apart, during a period when radical innovation occurred on a yearly basis. Is a comparison between these artists, spanning decades of turmoil and innovation, truly productive? What of Fernand Léger, for example, whose paintings from the same year share, at least superficially, a correlative visual vocabulary to those by Malevich? Does the comparison bolster Perloff’s thesis regarding the fusion of the verbal, visual, and auditory? I would argue not. Given Perloff’s insistence, early in the following chapter, that Futurist books posed completely different challenges to paintings, her prolonged focus on Malevich’s painterly relationship to artists like van Gogh, Picasso, and Gauguin seems tangential.

Perhaps the two most important points established in the book’s introduction are those focused on the dichotomy of East and West and on the nonlinearity of zaum. Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Malevich, among others, felt a deep connection to Russia, its roots and traditions, and became preoccupied with Slavic primitivism. These artists drew on a wide range of “primitive” art forms in Russia for inspiration, included kamennye baby (stone women), old Russian illuminated manuscripts, miniatures, wood carvings, icons, hand-painted religious woodcuts, lubki (woodcuts), folk art, and embroidery. In their denunciation and rejection of Western culture, the Russian Futurists envisioned themselves as legendary leaders, channeling the mythic Russian past. Perloff explains how the illustrated book became the ideal framework within which to examine this primitivist impulse, allowing artists to be provocative and iconoclastic while simultaneously looking to Russia’s history for a source of identity. For Khlebnikov, the Futurist poet, the ancient Slavic roots of the Russian language became the means by which to return to the origins of language more generally, adapting modern Russian to a universal language. Perloff’s elucidation of these points and her emphasis on the artists’ ties to the provinces, Russian folklore, and the country’s “primitive” roots serves as an important foundation for the rest of her book. Understanding the reason for this deconstruction of archaic myth and language provides clarity for Perloff’s later analysis of Mirskontsa and Vzorval’ and underscores her thesis that these texts rely on the auditory dimension of language.

The determined break of the Russian Futurists from Western models generated a series of innovations that redefined our relationship to language and sound. Perloff carefully explicates how zaum, a neologism built from the preposition za(beyond) and the noun um (the mind), became a language where sound took precedence over the written word. Sentence structures were dismantled, their linearity broken, and the word itself became self-referential – “A work of art is the art of the word,” as Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov declared in their manifesto “The Word as Such” in 1913. In these books, the word became the main “event of art,” an object of creation rather than a means of communication. By emphasizing the visual and phonetic properties of words, the poets demonstrated words’ existence as objects with their own intrinsic value. Kruchenykh’s and Khlebnikov’s books radically disrupted linearity (both in space and time), determined sound as being a signifier, and introduced readers to P.D. Ouspensky’s theories regarding hyperspace and the fourth dimension. These poets introduced nonlinearity to their poems (in which narrative had already been dismantled), allowing for free movement backwards and forwards in time. Shifting temporality created unpredictability and stripped words of their signifying function. Thus, the concept of “worldbackwards” became a key principle of Futurist aesthetics. These aspects of Russian Futurism are, by now, well-known, but Perloff’s purpose in reintroducing them is to lay the foundation for a detailed analysis of the individual words, sentences, and pages in the two texts central to Explodity.

The introduction and first chapter of Explodity are perhaps the weakest in the book, lacking the focus and detailed analysis of Chapters Two and Three. Also, at times, the introduction feels only tangentially related to the central thesis of the book, as it moves from a discussion of Futurist book art to a comparison of paintings spanning the turn of the twentieth century. Explodity takes time to gain speed, providing ununiform and partial biographies of some of the artists and poets that do little to bolster Perloff’s later argument. The author argues that the backgrounds of the artists were important; that their working-class origins in the provinces of the Russian empire informed their Futurist ideology. However, some of the artists involved in Russian Futurism grew up in urban areas, supported by successful middle-class families. Those biographies which do not fit this argument seem rather conveniently relegated to the margins.

Perloff argues her thesis most successfully in the two central chapters, which investigate, respectively, the radical plays on language in Mirskontsa and Vzorval’. Mirskontsa, commonly translated as “worldbackwards,” is a neologism composed of three words: mir (world), s (from), and konets (the end): “world from the end.” The book was published in Moscow in November 1912, and was a collaborative project between Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Goncharova, and Larionov. Through close, detailed analysis of individual pages, investigating the relationship between image, text, and sound, Perloff elucidates the  visual, verbal, and auditory multiplicity of the Futurist project, borrowing the term “verbivocovisual”(The term “verbivocovisual” was introduced by James Joyce in his book Finnegan’s Wake, published in 1939. The concept was later adopted by the Brazilian concrete poets, considered in the final chapter of this book.) to define this central element of the texts. “Verbivocovisual,” a term introduced in Chapter Two but not fully defined until Chapter Five, describes a text’s “adherence to intermedia” (p. 51) and the totality of juxtaposing text with imagery and the auditory. The lack of clarification about the meaning of this concept creates confusion initially, but Perloff chooses to demonstrate its meaning through her analysis of Mirskontsa and Vzorval’, slowly revealing a complete picture of its meaning. Mirskontsa is a collage text in which the page itself becomes the site of action, upon which text, prose, zaum, and primitivist drawing integrate. The handcrafted quality of these books was significant; thus, every single copy of Mirskontsa had its variations both in the cover design and the contents, with new poems, drawings, and typographic designs changing between iterations. The book is thus a living, changing work of art; not concretized, but fluid in its meaning and impact. Perloff notes that, as a result, “no copy of Mirskontsa is final” (p. 100); the artists involved subverted the standard multiple of a book to create individual expressions of Futurist ideology.

Perloff’s thoughtful analysis of the impact of words, both nonsensical and real, in Mirskontsa, and their interaction with the imagery surrounding them, demonstrates the inaccessibility of these artworks to those not familiar with the sounds of the Russian language’s roots, and thus underscores the important contribution Perloff makes to scholarship. Perloff opens up these texts for a general audience, unpacking Futurist words and analyzing their roots on the reader’s behalf. Her analysis of the language brings to life the absurdity and comic element of the book for novice readers, while grounding the document contextually. Lines such as “Let us all be heads of lettuce/Let us not let knives upset us” are situated within the context of Khlebnikov’s experimentation with Russian Formalism. Perloff convincingly discusses elements of the text as “evocations of the materiality of sound” (p.109) and demonstrates precisely how the Futurists created “the word made strange.” Perloff’s emphasis on the sound quality of these works is perhaps her biggest contribution to the scholarship on the Futurist book. She argues persuasively that Futurist books must be heard as well as read and that they are thus early examples of sound poetry. Given the centrality of sound to Perloff’s thesis, and her emphasis on the verbivocovisual, the inclusion in the book of online links to audio recordings of numerous poems from both Mirskontsa and Vzorval’, including “Spasi nozhnitsy rezhut,” “Nash kochen,” “Zabyl povesit’sia,” and “Vzorval’ ognia,”  all recorded by Vladimir Paperny, is of enormous value.

In Chapter Four, Perloff extends her analysis to a close reading of Vzorval’ (Explodity), published (in two editions) in June and December 1913 and including visual elements by Olga Rozanova. The author focuses on the relation of sound and image and the manner in which the verbivocovisual exists partway between abstraction and figuration. She argues that in Vzorval’, Kruchenykh purposely defamiliarized words, neologisms, and morphemes by placing them in unfamiliar and strange contexts, thereby producing a book that embraces nonreferentiality to an even greater degree than Mirskontsa. Through the author’s close analysis of written words, phonic rhymes, and semantic differences, the reader understands how “sound as such” becomes the content of the work, liberating language from meaning and logic. In Vzorval’, zaumembraces indeterminacy and relinquishes any connection to meaning, leaving the reader free to experiment with the interpretation of sound. Again, the necessity of being able to hear the audio recordings becomes clear: if sound takes primacy over text or illustration, the reader can only appreciate the “abstract, sonic materiality” (p. 124) of the zaum words through hearing them. Perloff’s emphasis on the phonic quality of Mirskontsa and Vzorval’ raises questions about the longevity of these works, however. If the verbivocovisual is so important, are the texts inaccessible to those not conversant in Russian linguistics?

Having established the innovation and singularity of Russian Futurist books, Perloff argues that the works establish a benchmark from which to consider the afterlife of the Futurist book and the impact (or lack thereof) of Mirskontsa worldwide. The supposed answers to these questions form the subject of her final chapter, in which she addresses the works of El Lissitzky, the OBERIU poets, the Brazilian concrete poet Augusto de Campos, the Scottish poet and visual artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, and the French sound poet Henri Chopin in order to find in them echoes of Russian Futurism. The strength of these tentative connections is variable; the associations with El Lissitzky’s book Dlia golosa seem tenuous, while Ian Hamilton Finlay’s exploration of the verbivocovisual reveals a clear dialogue across time. Perloff argues that in these examples one observes shared traditions: live reading, the destruction of connections between words and their meaning, the celebration of hybrid media on the borders of poetry, books, visual language, and sound. Perloff establishes Lissitzky, the OBERIU poets, Augusto de Compos, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Henri Chopin as heirs to Russian Futurism, carrying on aspects of its experiment across time.

However, the productivity of Perloff’s analysis of these multiple artists spanning decades and continents is questionable, and it remains unclear if her investigation bolsters the central argument of the book. While the experiments of the OBERIU poets can be seen as a direct legacy of Russian Futurism, the Brazilian concretists formulated a poetry based on the phonic dimension of transrational words without having knowledge of the Futurists. Furthermore, Perloff herself admits that the distinctive element of Futurist book art –with sound as an integral component – is not present in Lissitzky’s work. What, then, is the outcome of this analysis? Perloff argues that the lack of similarity in later art movements demonstrates the distinctness and originality of the Russian Futurist idea; in combining the visual, physical, and auditory through their verbivocovisual experimentation, they achieved something that has never since been created. This final idea seems to contradict much of her argumentation in the chapter, though, concluding the chapter on a note of confusion and diminishing the strength of her earlier chapters.

Explodity’s strengths lie in its detailed exploration of the relationship between zaum and visual material in Mirskontsa and Vzorval’. Its weaknesses are in the discussions outside of those central focal points. In the chapters bookending Perloff’s main discussion, detailed consideration of secondary points sometimes seems tangential and serves as a distraction from the (persuasive) central argument. The book is slow to build momentum and the contrast between the muddled introduction and the compelling content of Chapters Two and Three indicate where the strengths of Perloff’s thesis lie. In Chapter Five, Perloff seems undecided on her own conclusions regarding the afterlife of Futurist book art and this indecision shapes a sometimes-contradictory argument.

Despite these strictures, Perloff has produced an important analytical book that will serve as a valuable resource for future scholars of the subject. Her study breaks new ground in examining the multiplicity of connections between the physical, linguistic, and visual in Russian Futurist books and underscores the autonomy of the word as self-sufficient for the generation of meaning. Explodity is thus a valuable contribution to the field, elucidating the specific means by which Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh liberated language and focused on the process of creation as a goal in itself. Through this study, Perloff brings to life the eccentricity and radicality of the Russian Futurist aesthetic and encourages the reader to consider more closely the interaction between sound and word in Futurist art.

Eleanor Stoltzfus
Eleanor Stoltzfus received her Ph.D. in the History of Art from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2019. Her dissertation reconsidered the photography of Lucia Moholy within the context of Weimar modernism. She is an independent curator and editor currently based in London.