20+21 October 2003
Friends of St Bride Printing Library second annual conference | index of proceedings

Jared Ash: arty type

The Letter as such: Aleksei Kruchenykh as closet typographer

It has always been my dream that someone would study the graphic life of letters, this ‘voice from the depths of the grave’ that resounds with a passion for metaphysics. So many signs - musical, mathematical, cartographic, etc. – languish in the dust of libraries. I understand the Cubists when they incorporate numbers in their paintings, but I don’t understand poets’ estrangement from the aesthetic life of all these [those]
∫ ~ + § X _ _ √ = > ∆
and so forth and so on.

Nikolai and David Burliuk, Poetic Principles, 1914

Suggesting Aleksei Kruchenykh as a Russian futurist to whom serious typophiles should direct their attention, may seem odd at first. Why Kruchenykh, rather than those more commonly recognized in typographic surveys and sourcebooks as pioneers of typographic innovation in 1910s Russia, namely: Vladimir and David Burliuk, Vasilii Kamenskii, Igor Terent’ev, and le maitre, Il’ia Zdanevich? Didn’t Kruchenykh denounce mechanical type as incapable of capturing the vitality of a written work, and urge ‘wordwrights’ (poets and writers) to entrust their works to ‘artists, rather than typesetters’, to be copied in longhand and printed lithographically?

As a poet and book artist whose most acclaimed visual works were created as deliberate alternatives to typography and mechanical reproduction, Kruchenykh has languished in obscurity and remained overlooked in studies of avant-garde typography; however, as this essay affirms, Kruchenykh is a figure in whom even the most ardent, hard-hearted typographer and typophile will recognize a kindred spirit, fellow traveler, and true lover of letterforms.

In explaining the initial motivation behind Russian futurist painters’ and poets’ turn to book production in 1910, Vasilii Kamenskii recalls in his autobiography: ‘The success of art exhibitions was far from enough for us; and now, having pooled our strength and organized ourselves into a strong, focused and intimate group, our literary faction decided to throw a bomb into the sleepy, cheerless streets of everyday.’ The bomb took the form of A Trap for Judges (Sadok sudei) (St. Petersburg: Zhurval’, 1910), a literary anthology financed by the artist/composer, Mikhail Matiushin, and his wife, Elena Guro, a poet and painter. Printed by a German newspaper in St. Petersburg, Petersburger Zeitung, since they were the only ones who would do it, A Trap for Judges featured poems and/or prose by Kamenskii, Guro, David Burliuk, Nikolai Burliuk, Velimir Khlebnikov, Sergei Miasoedov, and Ekaterina Nizen (Guro’s sister), and illustrations by Vladimir Burliuk.

Generally recognized by contemporary scholars and the creators themselves as the first literary publication of the Russian futurists, A Trap for Judges was intended to lay a ‘granite’ foundation for the ‘new epoch’ of literature. Among the resolutions that Kamenskii and the group set forth for the collection were:

To destroy the old orthography – to throw out the tiresome letters yat and the hard sign [Ъ]; To print a book on the reverse [non-decorated] side of cheap wallpaper – as a symbol of protest against sumptuous bourgeois publications; […] To select a wallpaper pattern that one would find in a typical, squalid apartment, and to leave the design untouched on the left side of the pages as ornamentation; […] To try to avoid probable persecution, censorship and confiscation of the book by including only lyrical material; […] [and] upon its publication, to show it to as many people as possible […] and propagandize the advent of the futurian [budetlian].

Despite being printed on wallpaper, bound in wallpaper covers, and bearing a letter-press title-piece glued by hand to the front cover, A Trap for Judges failed to elicit the outrage for which its producers had hoped: ‘the Symbolists hardly noticed, taking a bomb for an ordinary little children’s firecracker.’ Nevertheless, the collection remains significant for having brought together poets and painters of the emerging avant-garde, and launching a strong tradition of collaboration and camaraderie; most importantly, it created an outlet for poets like Velimir Khlebnikov – whose neologistic, innovative poems strayed far beyond the bounds of symbolism – to publish their works.

The drive to criticize and challenge accepted conventions and common trends in art persisted: two years later, a second volume of A Trap for Judges appeared (which was also bound within wallpaper covers), in addition to A Slap in the Face of Public Taste: In Defense of Free Art (Poshchechina obshchestvennomu vkusu: v zashchitu svobodnogo iskusstva) (Moscow: G. L. Kuz’min, 1912), a collection of poems, verse and critical essays, that was bound in a coarse, sackcloth cover. While the materials on which these publications were printed were certainly non-conventional, the typography itself remained rather unexceptional.

When Kruchenykh embraced the practice of using lithographically reproduced manuscript text for his self-published books, Old-Time Love (Starinnaia liubov) (Moscow, 1912) (fig. 1), and A Game in Hell (Igra v adu) (co-authored with Khlebnikov; Moscow, 1912), he was motivated by more than merely the desire to perpetuate the assault on traditional book design aesthetics. Recognizing the extraordinarily expressive character of words and letter forms in ancient texts, ideographic writing, and hieroglyphics, Kruchenykh and others devoted themselves to achieving the same degree of expression through the graphic form of their own texts.

In a manifesto entitled The Letter as Such Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov argue that typography lacks the ability to fully realize the dignity and dynamism of words and letterforms. They write:

The word is still not treasured, only tolerated!

Would it still be wearing a convict’s gray garb, otherwise?

You have seen the letters in their [the Symbolists-JA] words – stretched out in a row, sullen, with heads shorn, and all equally colorless and glum – they are not letters, but stains! […] I suppose you would enshroud all your beautiful women in identical government-issue caftans?

No way! They would spit in your eyes; but the word – it keeps quiet. For it is dead (like Boris and Gleb); around you the word is stillborn.

As examples of works in which the energy and vitality of letters are depicted effectively, artists and poets pointed to traditional Russian art forms such as painted shop signs, popular woodcuts, and Old Russian illuminated manuscripts – works in which they recognized ‘the life of letters’ to be particularly well understood, noting that letters and text were ‘embellished and fortified’ with the same ‘great love’ as the illuminations.

The aesthetic value of hand-written text was well established among Russian artists by 1910, and authors’ manuscripts were even included in modern art exhibitions. Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov further affirmed the advantages of text written in longhand over typography in another manifesto entitled The Word as Such. They cited the capacity of hand-written script to convey the emotion and mood of its scribe, and argued that in reproducing the text and illustrations in a manual, rather than mechanical process, the work remained closer to the hand of the author, and that a more direct connection to the reader could be achieved without the depersonalization of typography.

A wealth of innovative achievements and applications of avant-garde aesthetics to the book medium proceeded from these principles. Many of the best known artists of the early Russian avant-garde (including Kazimir Malevich, Natal’ia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Olga Rozanova among others) were drawn to the book by Kruchenykh’s invitation and initiative. Each artist responded to the project in his or her own unique manner, and found a different solution for combining text and imagery and imparting the entire work with energy and dynamism.

One of the best demonstrations of the theory that different hands convey different moods is Worldbackwards (Mirskontsa) (Moscow, 1912), a collection of poems and prose by Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov, transcribed and illustrated by four artists (Larionov, Goncharova, Vladimir Tatlin, and Nikolai Rogovin). Not all of the text in Worldbackwards is manuscript; in fact, in producing this book, Kruchenykh happened upon a type process that at last seemed as novel, innovative, and playful as the poems themselves. Interspersed amongst the lithograph pages are text pages printed by Kruchenykh using a hand-held, children’s type set kit and different color inks.

Kruchenykh defies the dominant designation of typography as a means for utilitarian efficiency and expedience, and explores the expressive potential of letterforms and the process itself. While the text of the stamped pages is identical in each copy of Worldbackwards, the layout varies from one copy to the next. As Gerald Janecek illustrates in his essay, ‘Kruchenykh contra Gutenberg’, a comparison of the ‘same’ page in three different copies of the book reveals variations in the spacing between characters and lines of text, and an arbitrary and inconsistent capitalization system (i.e., a word rendered in one copy with one scheme of upper-case and lower-case letters, and use of spacers and ornamental asterisks, may appear in an entirely different configuration in the corresponding location in another copy), thereby suggesting that during the process of printing the edition’s worth of a particular page (220 copies), Kruchenykh rearranged and reset the type periodically, switching upper-case and lower-case letters (seemingly) arbitrarily. By frequently recomposing the type, Kruchenykh identifies and activates the latent aesthetic potential of the materials, and demonstrates a more creative and artistic approach to typography. Each page of stamped text is as unique as the collage by Goncharova on the book’s cover (fig. 2-3).

An even greater range of variation can be seen in copies in which a certain poem may be rendered entirely in type in one copy, and in a combination of type and hand-drawn, potato-cut letters, in sizes and colors that dominate and contrast sharply with the stamped type. As the reader adjusts to the non-conventional stamped and manuscript texts, a turn of the page throws him or her off balance again: an oversize O calls out from the middle of a word, its form sharply distinguished from its co-letters by its darker color, crude appearance, and diminishing size. Kruchenykh’s techniques elevate the letter to an unprecedented place of prominence, and force the reader to give it more consideration than he or she would otherwise. He asserts the letter’s duality: it is a component of a larger organism (the word), as well as an individual, self-sufficient entity with the ability to capture a reader’s attention on its own.

One of the monuments of Russian avant-garde book design is Kruchenykh’s Universal War: Ъ (Vselenskaia voina. Ъ) (Petrograd: [Andrei Shemshurin], 1916) (fig. 4). Printed in an edition of 100 copies, the album is comprised of letterpress covers, two pages of text, and 12 primarily abstract collages by Kruchenykh. Despite the album’s (relatively) wide renown, mention is rarely made of its subtitle: the Russian letter Ъ (tverdyi znak – hard sign), a silent letter, used only after a consonant to indicate the consonant’s hardness. The hard sign figured significantly in the heated campaign for Russian orthographic reform; it was a letter whose obsolescence or preservation held significant economic, educational, and societal implications.

Even without delving into the possible political or social connotations of the subtitle, the typographic dynamics of the cover are profound. The hard sign’s position on the cover of Universal War is prominent: centered starkly, black against white, in a size three times larger than the main title above it. Kruchenykh presents the sign by itself, even though it has no practical purpose unless preceded by a consonant. Stripped of its utilitarian function and with no sound of its own to be spoken or pronounced, the hard sign that Kruchenykh presents is a purely visual letter, precisely, a ‘letter as such’.

Kruchenykh’s appreciation and reverence for the physical form of the written word is further apparent in the editions he created between 1917 and 1921. He continues to explore letters as visual materials, creating graphic compositions, rather than phonic or literary ones, in books such as Learn Artists! (Uchites khudogi!) (Tiflis, 1917) (fig. 5), and hectographic booklets of hand-drawn poems. The primary aesthetic principles of these editions are the same that served as the foundation for avant-garde painting and poetry – an economy of means and primacy of materials: in books such as Kachildaz (Tiflis, 1918), Kruchenykh presents minimalist page compositions consisting of two single lines on different angles, set above two roughly-drawn letters (fig. 6); in F/nagt (Tiflis, 1918), one poem consists entirely of five diagonal lines arranged at different angles (fig. 7).

Even though the text is hand-drawn, Kruchenykh seems to have designed the layout of these books with a typesetter-like approach, limiting himself to primary type elements – letters, ornaments, spacers, and bars, as well as mathematical signs like those mentioned in the epigraph of this essay. A number of pages practically call out to be transferred to a printer’s line or grid; whether the results would have retained the warmth, charm, and dynamism of the longhand originals is debatable.

Kruchenykh did attempt to realize in type a composition similar to those of his hectographic books in To Sofiia Georgievna Melnikova: The Fantastic Tavern (Tiflis, 1919), a thick collection of poetry, prose, and graphics by a large number of contributors. A true landmark of futurist typography, the collection features an incredible array of Russian and Georgian type designs by Kruchenykh, Igor Terent’ev and Il’ia Zdanevich, set by Adrian Ternov. By exploiting outline type, Kruchenykh achieves expressiveness not possible with manuscript text. In a composition similar to those of his hectographic publications, Kruchenykh presents a poem comprised of five letters ( m u z k a ), set in various sizes and styles, in a circle-like arrangement (fig. 8). Whether the magic is Kruchenykh’s alone, or Kruchenykh and Ternov’s, the effect achieved reveals a true sensitivity and understanding of the unique aesthetic properties and potential of type.

When one reads or re-reads El Lissitzky’s writings on typography or looks at Of Two Squares (Pro dva kvadrata) (Berlin: Skify, 1922), certain principles or practices addressed by Kruchenykh in the 1910s are bound to seem reflected: concerns about the limitations of type in its existing state; the importance of economy, purity, and simplicity; the striving for an optical, rather than phonic, transmission of ideas. Kruchenykh’s use of letters of contrasting colors, non-conventional use of capitalization and varying type sizes, and other techniques by which he successfully drew the reader to consider the letter as a self-sufficient entity, are precisely those for which Of Two Squares and For the Voice (Dlia golosa) (Berlin: Gosizdat, 1923) (fig. 9) are most often praised.

Kruchenykh provides an example of someone who, while rarely thought of as a typographer, played an essential role in providing precedents and creating an environment that encouraged innovation and experimentation with letterforms. Including Kruchenykh in studies of typographic history illustrates the importance of expanding the field of focus to include artists who may have worked primarily outside the margins of typography, yet whose aesthetic theories and creative explorations resonated within the discipline.

Kruchenykh is the first of a number of artist-designer-typographers whose significant contributions to typographic innovation and advancement in Russia in the 1910s-1930s are not yet entirely recognized or known. An array of individuals and type-related accomplishments await recognition by the West: lesser-known artists of the 1920s and 1930s such as Nikolai Il’in and Mikhail Tarkhanov who were considerably more involved in typographic artistry than their more widely-recognized colleagues; more information and examples of works by Aleksei Gan, Solomon Telingater, and others, whose recognition by the field has been impeded by the limited availability of their works and lack of reference material; and better insight into the major issues, trends, practices and principals involved in typography at the time, which are coming to light thanks to the diligence and dedication of Russian scholars such as Selim Khan-Magomedov, Vladimir Krichevskii, and Alexander Lavrentiev. Those with the foresight to foster and encourage the research of these scholars and others, and the willingness to accept and incorporate new findings, corrections and clarifications, will be rewarded handsomely.

Jared Ash is a curator, translator, and lecturer on Russian avant-garde art and design. He curated and catalogued the Judith Rothschild Foundation’s Russian collection which was given to the Museum of Modern Art New York and celebrated in The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910-1934. He is currently translating the writings of Aleksandr Rodchenko.