Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mayakovsky and Lissitzky's For the Voice

In keeping with my recent obsession with Russian avant-garde book design, I have a new addition to my library that is now one of my favorites. No…sorry it is not a photography book but it is a great work of art.

In the spring of 1923, El Lissitzky and Vladimir Mayakovsky collaborated on a book that was meant to house a collection of 13 of Mayakovsky’s poems that were most often quoted in speeches from supporters of the revolution. El Lissitzky was to contribute the visual equivalents of the poems along with the book’s design.

The result was published in Berlin by the Russian State Publishing House and it was called For the Voice. Original copies of For the Voice are extremely rare and when found they are priced in the thousands of dollars. In 2000, the British Library published a facsimile edition along with a separate translation and an accompanying book of collected essays about the project called Voices of the Revolution. All three of these small soft cover books came in a hardboard slipcase.

Mayakovsky was revolutionary both in his poems and politics and considered Bolshevism to be the most viable form for social change. In 1917 he and other likeminded artists responded to the request of Anatoli Lunacharsky, the head of education, to create ‘new, free, popular forms of artistic life.’ Mayakovsky’s poetry rapidly became known as a new literary voice created by Soviet life and a full throated support of the revolution. An amusing anecdote from an essay in Voices of Revolution relates an episode where Mayakovsky was about to do a public reading in the Prussian National Assembly and someone placed a glass of water on the table beside him and he quipped, ‘Do you think I am going to dilute my poetry with water! Take it away!’

For the Voice was meant to be read aloud to large audiences. One of the most ingenious design concepts from Lissitzky was to create a thumb index for each poem so that they could be located rapidly.

Lissitzky worked with the Berlin typesetters to create innovative uses of type. As Lissitzky described, ‘The book is created with the resources of the compositor’s type-case alone. The possibilities of two-colour printing (overlays, cross hatching and so on) have been exploited to the full. My pages stand in much the same relationship to the poems as an accompanying piano to a violin. Just as the poet in his poems unites concept and sound, I have tried to create an equivalent unity using the poem and typography.’

The care in creating this facsimile was not limited to the design but also was extended to take into consideration duplicating the exact color of the illustrations and even the weight and feel of the paper. The accompanying English translation book is less enticing as the paper and color reproduction is vastly different. The book of essays is exhaustively informative with excerpts of interviews with Lissitzky and notes on translations, notes on the poems and notes on the graphics.

This edition was distributed in the United States by MIT but it is currently out of print. If you can track down a copy I highly recommend grabbing it as this is a fine example of, in Lissitzky’s words, ‘the book as a work of art.’