When Aleksei Kruchenykh published this book of twelve abstract collages, he accompanied each one with a short poem written in a novel mode called zaum (usually translated as "beyonsense" or "transrational"), which he had invented with his fellow-poet Velimir Khlebnikov. Celebrating the elemental units of language—words, letters, sounds—as distinct from their use in ordinary communication, zaum used unexpected juxtapositions to produce new forms and meanings. Kruchenykh's collages function similarly: although their titles contain words related to warfare, such as “battle,” “explosion,” “betrayal,” and “destruction,” they can no more be read descriptively than can the brief zaum poems that accompany them.
Kruchenykh made his book of collages and poems during World War I, and his titles invoke this historic catastrophe. Yet the most prominent element on the cover of the book is the Cyrillic hard sign, a silent, unvoiced character used in Russian spelling to indicate the pronunciation of words ending with a hard consonant. In the period when Kruchenykh produced his book, a movement to modernize the Russian language, and in doing so to eliminate the use of the hard sign, had produced intense debate. Kruchenykh’s use of the sign here equates its absurdity and obsolescence with that of war itself.
Gallery label from Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, December 23, 2012–April 15, 2013.