The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910‑1934

Margit Rowell & Deborah Wye

I noticed this on my friend Leslie’s goodreads page and put it on my to-read list more to remember it as a potential resource. But I wound up with some time to kill in NYC and the Mid-Manhattan library has it for reference use only, so I went to visit. The book went with the 2002 exhibit that came out of a gift of 1,100 illustrated books from the Judith Rothschild Foundation. Turns out there is a fairly decent flash-driven site for the exhibition as well; it puts a selection of the books on a timeline marking out the boundaries of Russian’s revolutionary period, “…after which, Stalin’s great terror effectively ended the last pure public expression of the avant-garde.” It’s too bad that they couldn’t include more on the site, since it’s unlikely to see many of these books exhibited very often in the museum itself. But I suppose there is always this book.

Anyhow, there’s a vast array of books from handmade artist books to more industrially produced books. It is a little hard to look at a book of books and not be able to open them and look inside, but even in the photos it’s apparent how worn and fragile many of them are.

Russian avant-garde encompasses several distinct (yet often overlapping) movements, of which constructivism is perhaps my favorite. So I found myself drawn books from Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky. The photomontages in particular reminded me of several by Martha Rosler in the WACK! exhibit of feminist art from 1965–1980 at PS1. We couldn’t help but comment how Photoshop has changed that arena forever. For some reason I love old photomontages, perhaps knowing how much harder it was to make them look really nice without the fancy software we have today.

Overall this is a nice book to spend some time with. Of course if you want to visit with the one at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL, you might want to get there before things disappear to who knows where when it merges into the research library (the one with the lions) sometime in the as-yet-undisclosed future.