Spring 2006

Pioneers of Futurism

Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text

By Alan Bartram
British Library Publishing Division / Yale University Press, £20

The typographic experimentation of the early Futurists brought about a ‘new, more intense and expressive language of communication, neither literary nor graphic, but a synthesis of both.’ The political and cultural schisms brewing in Europe fuelled rising feelings of anxiety and marginalisation among artists and writers, and culminated in the violence and brutality of World War II. This helps to account for the often extreme nature of the work: the Futurists’ glorification of violence, the Dadaists’ nihilistic anti-logic.

Alan Bartram chronicles the development of early experimental typography, beginning with Mallarmé and Apollinaire, who are credited with conceiving of expressive visual presentation for poetic language. Marinetti and the Futurists managed to harness the real potential of this new approach to type. The Russian Futurists followed an alternative path in their handwritten books, though Bartram also reproduces a good twenty pages of author / designer Zdanevich’s typeset reciting poem ‘Le-Dantyu as a Beacon’. The essay on Dada is over-personal, but rich with typographic information. A selection from Merz includes twelve pages of Schwitters’ ‘Ursonate’ (designed by Tschichold), which signals an obvious departure from the syntax-busting phonetic poetry of the early Dadaists. Another agreeably long excerpt is the Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen’s ‘Bezette Stad’, a Dadaist recitative set in Flemish. The Italian Futurist journals include Lacerba, printed from 1913 to 1915, and L’Italia Futurista, printed from 1916 to 1918, in which the war imagery is more pronounced. The glossary-like translations are useful and unobtrusive.

The writing itself is informal and leisurely, but lacks a sense of historical context. Bartram makes up for this with insider knowledge of the processes and limits of printing typographic poetry, partially sourced from Stefan Themerson’s seminal exposition of the subject in Typographica 14 (1958).

Though he readily asserts that Futurist typography is of value to the contemporary designer, Bartram shies away from anything more specific. We are left to form our own opinion of the subject. This seems a missed opportunity to propose a renewed view on the value of Futurism and Dada for those of us schooled in 1990s postmodern typography and what has come after. The difficulty in evaluating a form that intersects art, design and literature is evident.

Another shortcoming of the book is Bartram’s choice to reproduce many images without page edges and at non-original sizes (because the poets ‘seemed unconcerned with sizes’). This reduces the object-quality of the work and treats it more as fine art. In describing how some of the work in Lacerba and L’Italia Futurista may have been produced, he suggests the poets provided an anonymous Florentine printer with pencil sketches, giving the final product an ‘arbitrary’ nature. These complex pieces of typesetting are, after all, neatly fitted into the column grid of newspaper pages. This raises many questions, such as how the poets conveyed their ideas to the printers while they were on the Front. If the printers were the ‘real heroes of Futurist typography’, surely this work deserves to be shown with more concern for their object quality: with edges, perhaps within full newspaper pages, alongside articles and ads.

Though it may appeal more for its images rather than its writing, Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text is a thoughtful collection, with generous excerpts, and helpful translations.

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