“In our art, we already have the first experiments of the language of the future.”
The poet and artist Aleksei Kruchenykh is best known as one of the most dedicated and radical proponents of Russian Futurism. In A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, a manifesto issued in 1912, he and his co-authors called for the inauguration of a new artistic language: “Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, et al., et al., overboard from the Ship of Modernity,” they declared. “We alone are the face of our Time.” Perhaps more than any other figure in the Futurist group, Kruchenykh fully committed himself to the renunciation of the prevailing artistic and literary canon. His innovative books synthesize nontraditional poetry composed of nonsensical words with abstract imagery often contributed by other artists, including Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and Kazimir Malevich. In these books, Kruchenykh intentionally incorporated misprints, deletions, errors, and even blank pages, seeking to convey the disorder and irrationality of a world marked by rapid social transformation and technological innovation.
Born in 1886 to a family of peasants in the Kherson region of present-day Ukraine, Kruchenykh trained in the graphic arts at the Odessa Art School before becoming a high school art teacher. He later abandoned his teaching career to dedicate himself to poetry, moving to Moscow in 1907 to join a circle of avant-garde writers and artists. It was shortly thereafter that he helped pen A Slap in the Face with David Burliuk, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Velimir Khlebnikov. The collaborative impulse implicit in this effort underpins much of Kruchenykh’s artistic output.
In 1913, he staged the opera Victory over the Sun, in which performers held a symbolic funeral for the sun to signify the triumph of a new aesthetic over obsolete artistic traditions. Mikhail Matiushin contributed the music, and Malevich designed the costumes and sets, including a curtain that featured his earliest exploration of the square. Kruchenykh’s prose for the opera, written in a fragmented, nonlinear style known as zaum, scandalized audiences and critics alike. Invented by Kruchenykh with fellow poet Khlebnikov, zaum is usually translated as “beyonsense” or “transrational.” With nonsensical units of sound and unorthodox rhythms of speech, zaum defamiliarizes language and evades logic in order to produce new, unexpected meanings.
One of Kruchenykh’s best known works of zaum is the book Universal War, which he made in response to the chaos and destruction of World War I. Kruchenyhk wrote the book’s 12 short poems and created the accompanying collages, which he composed from irregular geometric shapes that he cut out of colored paper. While no apparent relationship may be drawn between the disjointed letters and words of the poems and Kruchenyk’s crude, abstract collages, both texts and images suggest the absurdity of war through their very unintelligibility. Universal War operates as an explicit denunciation of this historic catastrophe, while also exemplifying the ways by which Kruchenykh sought to challenge traditional conceptions of books as cohesive conveyors of information.
Kruchenykh would continue to produce artist’s books throughout the 1920s. Later, he created memoirs and small monographs on his Futurist friends. While modest in appearance and printed either by hand using carbon paper or with simple lithography, these works demonstrate Kruchenykh’s novel and highly personal approach to illustrated book production. “Let a book be small,” he mused, “but contain no lie—everything the writer’s own, to the last ink blot.”
Kiko Aebi, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2022
Opening quote is from Aleksei Kruchenykh, “New Ways of the Word (the language of the future, death to Symbolism),” in Russian Futurism through its Manifestoes, 1912–1928, ed. Anna Lawton (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988), 70.