Ukrainian book avant-garde from Delaunay to Ekster


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The art of book production is a unique type of creativity: it contains a stable internal structure with its own logic of development. In his book “100 Ideas that Changed Art,” Michael Bird dedicates a chapter to the history of book production where he mentions the small print runs of 20th-century book publishing. By releasing books in limited editions or even as a single copy, avant-garde authors engaged in a dialogue with the evolution of printing – seemingly trying to reverse it at first, and then accepting the general vector of development and qualitatively changing its content. This article examines specific books created in different countries by artists directly involved in the Ukrainian avant-garde scene.



A simultaneous book: Sonia Delaunay


“La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France” (“Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France”) by Blaise Cendrars (Paris: Éditions des Hommes Nouveaux, 1913). Print run: 60 copies.


This book is by the French artist of Ukrainian descent, Sonia Delaunay. It was one of the first in a series of publications that combined avant-garde poetry with contemporary art. In 1913, Guillaume Apollinaire introduced Delaunay to a fellow poet Blaise Cendrars. This acquaintance resulted in a unique poem-object “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,” which set a new vector for the development of the genre known as the artist’s book.


Blaise Cendrars wrote in free prose verse, which was later admired by the Futurists and Surrealists. He imitated the ragged rhythm of a train to describe his impressions of traveling along the Trans-Siberian Railway during the 1905 revolution in the Russian Empire. The final part of the poem refers to the two symbols of early twentieth-century Paris – the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wheel. These two images, along with a highway map, became the only figurative elements of Delaunay’s visual series.





She laid out the poem in a two-meter-long accordion book with 22 panels – extended like a journey through Siberia. The total length of the first edition’s 150 copies, unfolded in full size, was originally supposed to be 300 meters to equal the height of the Eiffel Tower. In the end, the edition was limited to 60 copies illustrated with Delaunay’s orphic abstractions in the pochoir technique. The book’s design is not “illustration” in the classical understanding of the word. Delaunay’s works are rather a visual equivalent of poetry — a translation of the complex, uneven rhythm of words into an interplay of shapes and shades. Researchers call this book “simultaneous” because its visuals are based on Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s theory of simultanism, which describes the movement of color rhythms.



“Prose of the Trans-Siberian” was a great success in Paris and at the Autumn Salon in Berlin, where Delaunay’s bright geometric shapes impressed the German artist Paul Klee. It is believed that his famous “mosaic” style originated under the influence of her book.






A futuristic book: Burliuk Brothers


“Tango with Cows. Ferro-concrete Poems” by Vasily Kamensky (Moscow: Edition of David Burliuk, the publisher of the first magazine of the Russian Futurists, 1914). Print run: 300 copies.


In 1914, the Ukrainian Futurist David Burliuk published one of the most beautiful and unusual avant-garde books in Moscow. “Tango with Cows,” also known as the “pentagonal book,” is a 20×20 cm square with a cut upper edge. This experimental edition of “Ferro-concrete Poems” by Vasily Kamensky was illustrated by brothers Volodymyr and David Burliuk. Like all Futurists, Kamensky searched for signs of pictorial possibilities, which became reflected in the book’s design: the Burliuk brothers divided the page into multi-tiered blocks and filled them with chaotically arranged letters of different sizes.



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“Tango with Cows” is an aesthetic pinnacle of the printed Futurist book and replaced the Futurists’ earlier handwritten experiments with a lithographic technique. While lithographic books had no typesetting and texts were carved on stone by hand, their later books were published using traditional printing methods. Utilitarian printing techniques were used as a means of artistic expression. Italics, different types of fonts, non-alphabetic characters, margins, and paper texture all served to create a variety of visual effects.





ln designing “Tango with Cows” the Burliuk brothers refused to adhere to the traditional continuity of text and the rectangular shape of the book block, positioning the rows vertically or at an angle. Additionally, the book does not meet the definition of a “circulation book” — rather than using paper, it was printed on bright, colorful wallpaper. Artists cut the wallpaper randomly, not minding the print; each copy of the book is unique.





The practice of dismantling traditional forms of regularity and the integrity of the book block marked a stage in the development of Futurist literature – through maximum convergence of printing, visual, and poetic techniques. At the same time, it outlined a way of rethinking the production component of the book as its creative characteristic – a path that the next Constructivist avant-garde wave would follow.





From Futurism to Constructivism: Vasyl Yermylov


“Ladomyr” by Velimir Khlebnikov (Kharkiv: Lithographic workshop of the Kharkiv Railway, 1920). Print run: 50 copies.


The publication of Velimir Khlebnikov’s poem “Ladomyr,” illustrated by the Kharkiv artist Vasyl Yermylov, is a unique example of a transitional stage in the development of avant-garde books. It is approximately halfway between the Futurist aesthetics and the Constructivist pragmatism. Khlebnikov wrote his poem in a Kharkiv psychiatric hospital, where he was evading conscription into the Russian monarchist army that occupied the city in the summer of 1919. In 1920, “Ladomyr” was published in the lithographic method characteristic of the Futurists, with a print run of only 50 copies. Yermylov’s brother, who worked in the lithographic workshop of the Kharkiv Railway, helped with the publication, and the artist himself forged a signature on the permission from the Commissioner for Printing. Khlebnikov immediately distributed the entire small print run among his friends. Legend has it that most of the books were used for hand-rolled cigarettes, and only a few copies of the first edition survive to this day.





Yermilov made the manuscript for the lithographic stone. His design of the book’s flyleaf shows the influence of Narbut’s fonts, albeit in a simplified and livelier form. Handwritten letters, differently-sized characters, and non-linear lines all refer to the aesthetic experiments of the Futurists. However, the simplicity of the book’s cover and its chopped typeface shows the future style of the Constructivist Yermylov and his upcoming breakthrough in print design. In the laconic design of the cover, Yermylov wittily plays with the similarity between Khlebnikov’s neologism “Ladomyr” (“world order,” an ideal imaginary country inhabited by “creators”) and his pseudonym Velimir. This laconicism is also realized in the minimalist color combination and comparative simple font. All of this reveals a new book aesthetic that replaced the “zaum” (“заумь”) of the visual poetry of the Futurists.





A Suprematist book: El Lissitzky


“About Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale of Two Squares in Six Constructions” by El Lissitzky (Berlin: Skythen Verlag, 1922). Print run: 50 copies.


“About Two Squares” by El Lissitzky became the book that most radically implemented the aesthetic of non-objective art. The artist tried to create a visual book, where illustration prevails over language with the help of commonly understood plastic means. Not less important is the pedagogical pathos of the book. Lissitzky’s idea was that the children to whom the tale is addressed would learn a new plastic language, and through it, a new attitude to color, shape, and space.





The Soviet children’s book of the 1920s was a grand, utopian project aimed at educating “a new kind of person,” and Lissitzky’s “About Two Squares” fits well into this project. During his pre-Constructivist period, he designed children’s books in Yiddish for the Kyiv Kultur Lige publishing house (an organization for Jewish artists), where he remained constrained by figurative thinking and merged the aesthetic of the avant-garde with traditional Jewish illustrations. Lissitzky created “About Two Squares” after meeting Malevych, who introduced him to the visual language of Suprematism. The characters of the book, black and red squares, are doing a Constructivist restructuring of the planet and flying off into space to create new worlds. Several researchers have suggested that the black square here symbolizes Suprematism (through a reference to Malevych’s “Black Square”), and the red square symbolizes communism (through an association with red flags). This theory is confirmed by the artist’s own words: in his article “Suprematism of World Construction,” he speaks of the parallel development of two revolutions: the political and the aesthetic.






“About Two Squares” has 12 pages, six lithographic illustrations, and four lines of text compositions. The structures are the semantic center of the book, while the text “illustrates” them. In the book, land looks like a red ball on which Constructivist buildings rise – a project of the city of the future. There is nothing accidental in the book: All the elements of its design serve a single idea and carry a semantic load.






“About Two Squares” was published in 1922 by a Berlin emigrant publishing house “Scythians” and later as a facsimile (without translation) in a Dutch magazine “De Stijl.” This magazine was the mouthpiece for the De Stijl art group that developed the ideas of Suprematism and Constructivism based on Mondrian’s Neo-plasticism. Soon after, a whole range of children’s book illustrators in Europe adopted the aesthetic of Constructivism.



A handwritten book: Alexandra Ekster


“Ode to Bacchus” by Horace (Paris: Created manually as a single copy, 1937).


Bright and colorful, “Ode to Bacchus” appeared in 1937 in Paris where the Ukrainian avant-garde artist Alexandra Ekster lived at the time. In 1923, she traveled to France to prepare a Soviet exhibition and stayed. In the early 1930s, Ekster joined the French tradition of creating “les livres manuscrits” – unique manuscripts with each page signed by the author. Matisse, Bonnard, Derain, Braque, and Chagall successfully worked in this style. They brought to life a principle admired by the avant-garde artists where the illustration in the book was intended as a plastic equivalent of the text.


Alexandra Ekster first became known as a book illustrator: She illustrated the Kyiv magazine “World of Art” in 1907-1908, and at this time she also illustrated “The Knight from Nuremberg” by Olha Forsh. Book illustration would dominate her creative career: She realized all her findings in painting and scenography in manuscript books. “Les livres manuscrits” were usually made in a single copy, either for an order or as a gift. “Ode to Bacchus” was Ekster’s gift for her student and friend, the Slovak artist Esther Shimerova.


“Ode to Bacchus” has 32 pages; all its images and fonts are made with ordinary gouache. Ekster unfolds the six stanzas of Horace’s poem into a vast world filled with Bacchae, naiads, satyrs, vases, cups, and animal skins. Her visuals, however, cannot be called illustrations – there is no plot structure in the ode, and the images are lyrical reflections.


Ekster starts from the structural features of Horace’s poem, such as the rhythm and dynamics of his phrases, and embodies them in her own color and compositional solutions. The panorama of the bacchanalian carnival she created refers to both her early Cubist-Futurist experiments in the field of theatrical costumes and scenery, and her later work in the more fluid aesthetics of Art Deco. Ekseter’s reference to the Roman poet Horace marks the avant-garde’s departure from focusing on the present. In the 1920s and 1930s, a return to the ancient heritage was typical for many European artists: Dali, Picasso, and de Chirico went through periods of a kind of “Neoclassicism,” foreshadowing a widespread conservative turn in aesthetics that coincided with the strengthening of totalitarian regimes.


Printed and hand-made avant-garde books strive to influence the reader as a spectator. With varying degrees of radicality, interaction between text and image is present in all variations of the avant-garde book. This invention of the avant-garde had a tremendous impact on the development of book publishing. It applies to both mass market and artbook design – through the interaction between the techniques of media art, public art, mail art, land art, and other trends in art.



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Translation: Olena Pankevych

Copy editing: Tanya Mykhaylychenko, Terra Friedman King

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