Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910-1934 from MoMA

The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910-1934 was an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in March of 2002. Although the accompanying catalog isn’t a photobook per se, it is well worth mentioning (and photography plays a part too). The exhibition focused on books produced by Russian avant-garde artists and poets that were a gift from the Judith Rothschild Foundation.

The period of 1910-1934 saw radical approaches to finding new forms that mirrored the cultural and political climate that led up to and through the 1917 revolution. After 1934, Stalin decreed that anything but Socialist Realism in the arts was forbidden. This exhibition and catalog showcases the results of those years of creativity and collaboration among important Russian artists.

A section called Photography in the Service of Propaganda looks at the use of photo montage as a propaganda tool through examples by Gustav Klutsis, Alexandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and El Lissitsky.

The catalog reproduces hundreds of examples from the gift to the museum of over 1200 books. It is well designed and the quality of the reproductions on the heavy weight matte pages is very fine. One draw back is that it does not really describe the books individually other than basic publishing and production information. At over 300 pages it would have to have been a lot thicker to give individual attention to each title.

Another book for those interested in design is Julian Rothstein and Mel Gooding’s ABZ: More Alphabets and Other Signs published in 2003 by Chronicle Books. I recently found this as a $9.00 remainder and beyond being a wonderful collection of design based around alphabets, it does include interesting photography related sections much like the Russian Avant Garde Book catalog.

The most interesting to me is the complete reproduction of the entire modernist alphabet created by the Czech artist and writer Karl Teige. Made in 1926 for Viteslav Nezual’s 24 poem work Abeceda, Tiege’s designs feature photos of the dancer Milca Mayarova who found poses for each letter of the alphabet. Karel Paspa was the photographer. Teige described his aim to “create a new optical language, a system of signs capable of embodying words in graphic figures.”

Another interesting section reproduces several pages from an anti fascist schoolbook issued in 1937 by the Ministry of Public Information of the republican government of Spain. The Catilia Escolar Anti Fascista was provided to aid in a campaign of the ‘cultural militias’ against illiteracy. Designed by Mauricio Amster, the schoolbook combines colorful photomontage with type overlay of anti fascist phonetics.

Chronicle Books is a steady purveyor of these types of collection type books. They also seem to be a publisher whose titles make the rounds of the remainder houses rather quickly so most can be gotten very cheaply.

Book Available Here (Russian Avant Garde Book 1910-1934)

Book Available Here (ABZ More Alphabets and Other Signs)

Buy online at MoMA (The Russian Avant-Garde Book)