Russian Futurism

**Vladimir Mayakovsky, from 'Mayakovsky -- A Tragedy' (1914)

The first use of the word futurism by a Russian art movement, was by a group known as the (Ego-Futurists) in 1911. Most of the individuals involved in this group were only 'half-baked' aestheticisms. A far more radical literary movement in Russia at this time were the Hylaens. However, in the beginning they did not consider themselves to be futurists at all. It was only after the decline of the Ego-Futurist group around 1913, that the Hylaens started to examine a set of ideas that were a synthesis of Italian Futurism and French Cubism. The Hylaens were originally organized by a graphic artist by the name of David Burliuk (1882-1967), who was their F. T. Marinetti. Among the members of this group was Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), Alexei Kruchenykh (1886-1970), and the well-known 'Poet of the Revolution,' Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). Eventually the Hylaens became known as Russia's only futurist group at the expense of several other Russian avant-garde cliques who had also existed at the same time.

Perhaps the greatest 20th century experimental poet of Russia, as well as the rest of the world, was Velimir Khlebnikov [1]. While many of his fellow cubo-futurists were looking towards the West for ideas, he wanted to strip the Russian language of any Western influences and thereby create a pure Russian language free from dilution. By finding what he perceived to be the ethnic and zoomorphic roots in his native language, he transformed it into a completely plastic and sonic thing. He also wrote poems in zaum, a transrational, universal, and transmental language created by Alexei Kruchenykh, which was to be as close to experience as possible. His poem 'Zangezi,' which was a conversation between gods, was perhaps his most extensive use of zaum.

Velimir Khlebnikov, front cover of 'Zangezi' (1922).*

Though Khlebnikov had developed zaum to a high degree of intelligence, it was Kruchenykh, who lived and breathed it. He intended to return to the non-rational and primitive in language, thereby releasing it from the entanglements of meaning which had 'killed' it. He did this by developing a system of 'poetic irregularities' which would accent the sounds of language. These techniques would include 'chopped words, half words, and their whimsical, intricate combinations' [2]. The written texts of his poems included anarchistic typographical experiments such as capital letters inside of words, handwritten letters, different font styles, and letters printed upside down. Kruchenykh attributed his 'primitive coarseness' to 'the influence of African art' [3], and both he and Khlebnikov developed a poetry which had more similarity to Dada than to their Italian Futurist counterparts.

Raoul Hausmann put forth the theory that Hugo Ball had learned of Khlebnikov's experiments through the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky had performed his Klang poems (which were not really sound poems as the title suggests) at the Cabaret Voltair in 1916 amidst 'prehistoric howls' from a 'nervous audience' [4]. Kandinsky had made a connection between the innerer Klang (inner sound) of the soul and that of nature. He was interested in developing a type of painting which would function the same as 'Musical sound acts directly on the soul and finds an echo there...' [5]. However, that Kandinsky informed Hugo Ball about zaum is doubtful, since there is no evidence in Kandinsky's work that gives any indication that he was ever particularly interested in the kinds of literary experiments which the Hylaens (and the later Dadaists) practiced.

*Iliazd, a page from LidantJU fAram, (1923).

There is an example of Russian Dada however in the work of Ilya Mikhailovich Zdanevich (1894-1975) [6]. Zdanevich was one of the more clever participants of the 41° literary group which was founded by Kruchenykh in 1919 to publish, promote and give performances of zaum poetry. Zdanevich wrote several transrational dra: plays in which he made 'perhaps the most consistent and large-scale use of zaum in Russian futurist literature [7].' From the early twenties on, Zdanevich did artists books and published his works in Paris and Germany under the pseudonym of Iliazd. He had an important, though somewhat obscure role in the history of Paris Dada while he lived there as an expatriate [8]. Iliazd was also an early champion of sound poetry and in 1949 he published one of the first anthologies, Poésie de mots inconnus, which was a collection of Dadaist sound poetry and Russian zaum. The main thrust of this publication, was to show the 'derivative nature' of French Lettrism which had claimed its uniqueness in a somewhat arrogant manner [9].


Last Modified 23 January 1998