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.’


Unknown said...

Where do you find such books?

Anonymous said...


I am very lucky that way. This one is listed through one or two sources on ABE and Bookfinder but they are $150.00 or more. I have the benefit of having several people keep an eye out for interesting things for me, some who actually work in bookstores. This one came into my possession by my simply seeing the spine from afar sitting on stack of other books(it is a very small set too) and I asked what it was.
It also helps that I live in NYC where we still have several used bookstores that buy used collections or books off people who come in off the street. The Strand has been a GREAT resource for the past twenty years for me as they get used things in everyday. Alabaster bookstore around the corner from The Strand also gets interesting things occasionally. Dashwood is also great for Japanese books and current titles. David of Dashwood searches out things that are well off the beaten path. And then there is searching the internet which is always dangerous because you find not only what you were looking for but a whole host of other things that you think you need.

Good luck...

Unknown said...

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for your answer. I looked on Abe Books but am not sure if I found the right one.
Is this the book By Michael Karasik??? You don't mention a cd-r in your comment.

Anonymous said...

I only see one available from Moe's Books for about 180.00

Softcover, ISBN 0262133776
Publisher: British Library/MIT, Cambridge, 2000
Three volumes wrappers in slipcase.

That is a bit expensive but I do not see any other listings.

If you happen to be in NYC, the public library at 42nd and 5th (with the lions) has a show called Graphic Modernism and they have an original copy of For The Voice on display. It's well protected so a smash and grab probably wouldn't be successful.

Anonymous said...

hi... just found your page randomly on the web, i was dying to get some information about lissitzkys works for mayakovsky, and gladly found out about this book...i have a friend who is desperate to know which one is the artwork for "an extraordinary adventure" (tattoo issues)
i was wondering if maybe you could point which illustration (from the pic above) corresponds to it..i'd be really glad..since it seems to be hard to get to buy the book as well, it looks like it's quite rare...