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Vladimir Mayakovsky (Russian, 1893–1930)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

(b Bagdadi, Georgia, 19 July 1893; d Moscow, 14 April 1930). Russian poet, critic, graphic designer and painter of Georgian birth. Although best known as a poet and playwright he studied painting at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1911–14) and, as a member of the Futurist group Hylea, was a pioneer of what later became known as Performance Art. Mayakovsky’s family moved to Moscow on the death of his father in 1906, and he soon became involved in left-wing activities, for which he was repeatedly arrested. On passing the entrance examination of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in August 1911, his political activities shifted their focus to bohemian épatage. In the class for figure painting Mayakovsky met David Burlyuk, who with his brothers Nikolay Burlyuk (1890–1920) and Vladimir Burlyuk (1886–1917) and the ‘aviator poet’ Vasily Kamensky (1864–1961), formed the core of the Russian Futurist movement. Adopting a stance similar to that of Marinetti, whose Futurist manifesto (see Futurism) had been published in Russian in 1909, these artists, although they denied an Italian Futurist connection, rejected what they felt was the bourgeois compromise of the old world in order to embrace the pitiless technology of the new. Wearing the uniform of a dandy, or a parody of the traditional clothes of the Russian peasant and populist intellectual, they painted their faces with arcane symbols and travelled the length and breadth of Russia giving poetry readings and impromptu performances merely by appearing in public in incongruous attire. They intended, as the title of David Burlyuk’s manifesto Poshchechina obshchestvennomu vkusu (Moscow, 1912) makes clear, to render ‘a slap in the face of public taste’. There are surviving academic studies produced by Mayakovsky at art school (now Moscow, V. V. Mayakovsky Mus.) and a series of fanciful sketches of giraffes, bears and other animals, as well as portraits of the artist and his friends. Many of these were made with improvised materials on scraps of paper. Most of his energy at this time, however, went into the writing and performance of his poetry, which incorporated neologisms and non-verbal sound effects; but his most important achievement as a visual artist were his drawings for the books produced by Burlyuk and his circle. Trebnik troikh (‘The missal of the three’, Moscow, 1913), for example, contains a particularly interesting example of a primitivist Still-life (facing p. 42).

In February 1914 Mayakovsky and Burlyuk were expelled from art school. A number of small Cubo-Futurist oil paintings (Moscow, V. V. Mayakovsky Mus.; Moscow, priv. col.) by Mayakovsky date from 1915 and 1916. At the same time he began to work on a series of crude, cartoon-like anti-German and anti-Turkish war propaganda posters, to which he added humorous, rhyming verses. The enthusiasm of the avant-garde for the War soon evaporated, and when the Revolution took place in October 1917, Mayakovsky, then living in Petrograd (now St Petersburg), was one of the first to welcome it. The Futurists supported the Bolsheviks and put all their energies into propaganda for the new state. During 1918 Mayakovsky wrote scripts for films in which he played a leading role; he also completed and performed in the ‘medieval’ agit-play Misteriya-Buffa, with sets designed by Kazimir Malevich. He wrote and performed many new revolutionary poems and submitted three works to the first exhibition of the Union of Russian Artists in Moscow. From this time until the mid-1920s the Futurists, now Com-Fut (Communist-Futurists), enjoyed a privileged relationship with anatoly Lunacharsky, Head of Narkompros, who provided state patronage for their newspapers and journals and who insulated them from criticism from Lenin and other party leaders who felt that their avant-gardism was élitist. Aware of their vulnerability, the avant-garde sought to serve the Revolution by moving away from fine art to designing objects or images that were useful or changed the way people thought. From October 1919 Mayakovsky worked in Moscow for the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) on a series of large-scale, stencilled posters with simple serial images, which provided up-to-date news on the progress of the Red Army in the Civil War, or information on the government’s public health and literacy campaigns, for example . The posters, which were displayed in empty store windows and at telegraph offices, were very eye-catching, looked like vast newspaper cartoons and could be understood by the barely literate; Mayakovsky worked on these until February 1922.

When the Civil War ended in 1921 Mayakovsky became the leader of the Moscow LEF (Left Front of the Arts) group and the editor of its journal; this became the main mouthpiece for Productivism, a tendency that involved avant-garde artists as propagandists and designers for industry. The group held together until spring 1925, when Mayakovsky embarked on an extended journey to Cuba, Mexico and the USA via Germany and France. Under Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP; instigated 1922) Mayakovsky had joined with Aleksandr Rodchenko in writing and designing advertisements for the press, and billboards to promote the large state-run department stores and the goods and services of nationalized industries. As with the ROSTA posters, Mayakovsky matched images to a humorous rhyming text. They also worked together on illustrated volumes of Mayakovsky’s verse (e.g. Pro eto, ‘About this’, Moscow, 1923, and Siflis, ‘Syphilis’, Tiflis, 1926). In 1927 the LEF group reformed as Novy LEF (New LEF) but, in keeping with the changing cultural and economic climate, it manifested a new interest in documenting the profound changes in agriculture and heavy industry that were beginning. LEF saw itself as the guardian of revolutionary values and roundly condemned bourgeois NEP mentality as well as the proliferating bureaucracy of the state. Mayakovsky’s satirical plays Klop (‘The bedbug’, 1929) and Banya (‘The bathhouse’, 1930) levelled their sights on such targets; however, Lunacharsky, Mayakovsky’s protector, had been dismissed, and Mayakovsky was no longer immune from counter-attack, particularly from the state-backed associations of self-designated proletarian writers and critics who pronounced that his work, as well as that of his LEF colleagues, was élitist, formalist and ‘unintelligible to the masses’. Such accusations were deeply wounding to an artist who had consciously modelled himself as the poet of the revolution. In February 1930 he organized a one-man retrospective, Dvadtsat let rabot (‘Twenty years of work’; Moscow and Leningrad), which showed the wide range of his creative output and was intended to prove that his work was still popular and relevant to the present; the new literary establishment ignored the exhibition. Devastated by this as well as a series of unhappy love affairs, Mayakovsky shot himself in his apartment. Crowds of over one hundred and fifty thousand people thronged the Moscow streets at his funeral. Vladimir Tatlin and the students of Vkhutein designed his catafalque. Mayakovsky’s work quickly fell into disregard until it was rehabilitated at the express wish of Stalin in 1936, with an official version of Mayakovsky’s life that was a tendentious rewriting of what actually happened. On the letter with which he gave his authorization, Stalin wrote: ‘Indifference to his memory is a crime.’

David Elliott
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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