Summer 2002

MoMA’s must-have book of books

The Russian Avant-Garde Book, 1910-1934 (text in full)

Ed. Margit Rowell and Deborah Wye
MoMA New York,

I am holding a book that I guarantee will soon be on every designer’s bookshelf. And if this sounds like log-rolling, superlative hyperbole, think again. Rarely would a reviewer go out on such a limb as this, but if there was ever a book that deserves to be so appreciated, the catalogue from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (28 March–21 May 2002) exhibition, The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910-1934, is one. This is by far the most exquisite and valuable book on a rarefied yet fascinating subject.

The briefly mounted exhibition that the catalogue documents, one of the last before MoMA closed its Manhattan doors for four years while its building is renovated, was a major event in the history of graphic design. It is one of the few MoMA exhibitions concerned with graphic design presented over the past two decades that is not about the poster. And although organised by the prints and illustrated books department rather than the design department, the show was an extensive showcase of design and typography, and one of the most embracing collections of progressive Russian book arts from the Futurists (prior to World War I) to the Socialists (prior to World War II), with a generous sprinkling of Russian art and political journals and periodicals, as well.

The catalogue is indispensable for two reasons. It covers a wide swathe of genres and designs, from poetry to children’s books, from typographic experimentation to Soviet propaganda. And it is a gorgeous display of these artifacts. Every item is photographed as an object so that it approximates its display in the exhibition cases. The tactility of these reproductions can almost be felt on the page. The only components lacking in the book that were in the exhibition were the interactive digital displays that enabled viewers to actually turn pages (although one can get a sampling on the stunning website www.moma.org/russian/). Otherwise, the material is reproduced at a respectable scale, photographed in full colour showing all the imperfections of age, and laid out on the page with drop-shadows to approximate a third dimension. The documentation is as thorough as possible and offers for the first time bibliographic and historical data on some very rare items.

The exhibition, curated by Deborah Wye and Margit Rowell, was based on a collection built for the Judith Rothschild Foundation collection, which was started only a few years earlier (and documented by Jared Ash), but attests to how good a focused programme with considerable funding can be when acquiring this kind of material. Some of these items were originally produced in large enough quantities that despite the ravages of time, they have survived in comparatively substantial numbers. Perhaps 50 per cent of the material is familiar to anyone who has studied the Russian avant-garde. But the remaining 50 per cent is a revelation. Certainly the well-known designers appear throughout the book – El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Burlik, Telengater – but lesser heralded members of the various progressive movements and schools, typographers and illustrators, have been discovered, such as Vladimir Lebedev and Adolf Strakhov.

While I am familiar with the material in the ‘Building Socialism 1924-1934’ section, which includes subsections on the photographic book, unofficial publications, and architecture and industry, I was less aware of ‘The Futurist Poets and Painters’ section, with its generous array of artists’ books and typographical constructive poetry. The Futurists’ books on war are among the most moving in the show, and the children’s book collection offers a side of early Soviet thinking that is fanciful and free. The Soviet books in Hebrew, including a few by El Lissitzky, offer an insight into a culture that was far more artistically open than ultimately allowed by the Stalinist regime.

The Russian Avant-Garde Book catalogue and website must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Indeed these are invaluable study tools, yet given the beautiful design and production of both they will also be appreciated for the pure pleasure of it.

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