On any given day, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room may be full of studio art students viewing contemporary screenprints, art history students researching works for their term papers, or curators from other institutions planning exhibitions. Every now and then, though, it is visited by scholars whose primary interest is not art, but literature. This is often the case with our collection of Russian avant-garde books from the first half of the 20th century—a gift of the Judith Rothschild Foundation in 2001—which is often consulted by scholars of Slavic and Eastern European studies, in addition to art historians.
The Department of Prints and Illustrated Books has recently acquired five books written and designed by Hungarian authors and artists that complement and expand on our collection of Russian books. The books were published over a four-year span from 1921 to 1925 and are testaments to a tumultuous period in Hungarian history, during which ruling regimes rose and fell at a quick pace as the country’s government transformed from a monarchy to a socialist state. Russia was experiencing a similar period of ideological revolution and during these years Russian artists came to commingle with Hungarian expatriates, along with other proponents of avant-garde ideas, in various European capitals.
The first two books are by the author, poet, and art critic Lajos Kassák and were published in Vienna in 1921. Kassák had edited a variety of journals (political, literary, and artistic in nature) in Budapest since 1915. In 1920, after being imprisoned by the government for many months, Kassák escaped the country as did many of his compatriots. While other artists like László Moholy-Nagy fled to Berlin, Kassák established himself in Vienna.
Prior to this emigration, Hungarian artists had been rather insular, though aware of German Expressionism through journals like Der Sturm and of artwork by their Soviet counterparts. The expatriation of Hungary’s artists exposed them to other avant-garde movements and more contemporary developments from Western Europe. Although there are many formal similarities between Russian Constructivism, which upheld art as a vehicle for political ideology, and its Hungarian counterpart Activism, they were theoretically very different—at least according to Kassák, who believed art to be autonomous of political engagement and both eternal and universal in constitution.
The covers of these two books were designed by Sándor Bortnyik, an artist in Kassák’s circle. Both feature a combination of brightly colored backgrounds over which text and architectonic shapes are arranged in a dynamic fashion.
In the early 1920s, many authors and artists, including Moholy-Nagy, published manifestos connecting political thought and artistic activity. This recently acquired manifesto (at right) was written by Iván Hevesy, a photographer and film critic, along with artist Ödön Palasovsky. Hevesy wrote many articles for Kassák’s journal Ma. Unlike the others, he remained in Budapest, where the book was published in 1922.
The books illustrated above are the same text, one designed by Bortnyik and one by Kassák himself. After years as an art critic, Kassák began creating his own artwork around 1921. The author, Aladár Tamás, was a writer, poet, and editor who founded the short-lived journal 365, which folded after its first issue, but which also published this book. Subsequently, Bortnyik’s publishing house, Új Föld, took over the publication and released additional copies of the book under a separate cover. At the time these books were published in 1925 or very soon thereafter, Kassák, Bortnyik, and many other Hungarian members of the avant-garde had returned to Budapest.
We hope these new acquisitions will be of equal interest as their Russian counterparts!
For more information on the Russian Book Collection, check out the exhibition website for the Russian Avant-Garde Book, 1910–1934.