Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - July - 2022 Issue

Masterpieces of Soviet Avant-Garde Book Design from Ursus Rare Books


Masterpieces of Soviet avant-garde book design.

Ursus Rare Books has created a catalogue of Masterpieces of Soviet Avant-Garde Book Design. That sounds like an oxymoron. The Soviet Union was hardly a place noted for encouraging original thought. That was more likely to get you executed than acclaimed. Nevertheless, there was some creativity in book designs, at times quite spectacular. Ultimately, it had to relay the proper message. Most of these books were created during the time of Stalin, and he had little trouble killing people who crossed him so most of what is here relays the proper, lavish praise on Stalin or the Soviet regime, but within the context, the creativity can be seen. You just have to ignore the required message. Here are a few examples.


We begin with the one item that doesn't really count as Soviet avant-garde as it preceded the revolution, but it was influential on the field in the years that followed. The title is Mirskontsa (The World Backwards). Published in 1912, it was the creation of Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov. They were primarily poets, using sounds of letters, invented words, and other oddities such as a poem using only vowels. There was obviously a sense of humor within their creativity. However, this includes the contributions of many others, including visual artists, to create this groundbreaking work. They were a bit ahead of time and ahead of what the Soviet authorities liked, though they were not punished. Khlebnikov's work was criticized and he died a few years after the revolution (of illness), while Kruchenykh's work was banned so he got another job and lived a long life in obscurity. Item 1. Priced at $25,000.


Natan Altman was a participant in the aforementioned World Backwards, an artist, illustrator, and later theatrical designer. He adjusted with the times, which provided him with a long career and lifetime. This is his book Lenin: risunki i oblozhka roboty Natana Al'tmana (Lenin: drawings and cover by Nathan Altman), published in 1921. Altman has adapted, not so much his artistic styling but his subject to reflect the new realty of his homeland. He would go on to have a successful career in the Soviet Union. Item 6. $2,500.


Here is a book you might not expect to be published in the Soviet Union but apparently it was not surprising at all. The title is Puteshestvie Charli (Charlie's Travels), published in 1924. It is a constructivist children's book by sisters Galina Chichagova and Olga Dimitievna. Constructivist art was both abstract and industrial, that is, basic and no-nonsense. As such, it was well-received in socialist countries of that time period. What is surprising is the Charlie of this book is the English actor who achieved enormous success in America, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was not only the most famous actor in America of the 1920s, but also throughout the world. The Soviet Union was not immune to his appeal. Item 19. $7,500.


This one takes constructivist art to its limit. It is a combination of artistic beauty and industrial simplicity that is stunning. The book is Podshipniki: sharikovye: rolikovye (roller ball bearings), published circa 1930s. It is the creation of constructivist artist Solomon Telingater. We can't explain it any better than Ursus has, so here is their description: “Perhaps nothing demonstrates the surreal nature of books published in Russia between the Wars than this stunning trade catalogue of the Soyuzpodshipniksbyt (State Ball Bearings Distribution Trust), the audience for which is somewhat mysterious. It is definitely one of the most extraordinary books produced in Soviet Russia, from the embossed binding to its stunning foil-like pages, it is a great example of Terlingater's genius as a book designer. The photographs were take by Alexander Khlebnikov...” Why one would need a work of art to sell ball bearings, especially from one state enterprise to another, is unclear, but that decision left us something by which to remember the state ball bearings trust. Item 48. $17,500.


Here is a clever book. The title is Chto eto takoe? (what is it?). Author Vladimir Griuntal has had photographer Grigory Yablonovsky take photos of ordinary objects from odd angles so as to make them hard to recognize. The second half of the book then displays the objects from common angles so they are easy to recognize if you guessed wrong. Each of the photographs is accompanied by a math problem that seems unrelated to the photographs, but perhaps that is enough to make this a math text book. Published in 1932. Item 57. $7,500.


This book comes from the most notable of the Soviet constructivist artists, El Lissitzky. He may have been controversial at times, but was also an effective propagandist and was able to continue producing artworks until his death from tuberculosis in 1941. This one turned out to be not just controversial but censored though that was no fault of Lissitzky. The title is Raboche-Krest'aianskaia Krasnai Armilia, (Red Army of workers and peasants), published in 1934. This copy is complete and uncensored. It is filled with photomontages from a May Day parade in Red Square. They show the parade, viewers, weapons, and military officers on the viewing stand. Therein lies the problem. As a result of Stalin's purges of the 1930s, several of the officers were executed. It was no longer appropriate to show their faces. Item 70. $22,500.


Ursus Rare Books may be reached at 212-772-8787 or pkraus@ursusbooks.com. Their website is www.ursusbooks.com.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b><center>Koller Auctions<br>Books & Autographs<br>29 March 2023</b>
    <b>Koller, Mar. 29:</b> DADA - <i>Cabaret Voltaire.</i> A collection of artistic and literary contributions. Edited by Hugo Ball. CHF 5,000 to 8,000.
    <b>Koller, Mar. 29:</b> EXPRESSIONISM - <i>Der Sturm.</i> Weekly magazine for culture and the arts. Almost complete suite from the years 1910 to 1932. CHF 20,000 to 30,000.
    <b>Koller, Mar. 29:</b> LISBON EARTHQUAKE - <i>Augsburg collection of copper engravings of Lisbon. CHF 40,000 to 60,000.
    <b>Koller, Mar. 29:</b> Hamilton, William. <i>Campi Phlegraei. Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies as they have been communicated to the Royal Society of London.</i> Naples, 1776-1779. CHF 50,000 to 70,000.
    <b><center>Koller Auctions<br>Books & Autographs<br>29 March 2023</b>
    <b>Koller, Mar. 29:</b> Leonardi, Domenico Felice. <i>Le Delizie della villa di Castellazzo descritte in verso dall'abbate Domenico Felice Leonardi lucchese fra gli Arcadi Ildosio Foloetico.</i> Milan, 1743. CHF 12,000 to 18,000.
    <b>Koller, Mar. 29:</b> Zwingli, Huldrych. <i>Von erkiesen und freyhait der speisen. Von ergernusz und Verbößerung. Ob man gewalt hab die speyß zu etlichen zeyten verbieten [...]</i>. CHF 2,500 to 4,000.
    <b>Koller, Mar. 29:</b> HENDRIK VAN VULLENHOE, UMKREIS. Benedictional and other texts for Johannes von Venningen, Bishop of Basel. Latin manuscript on parchment. CHF 50,000 to 80,000.
    <b>Koller, Mar. 29:</b> Gujer, Hans Rudolf. Master typist's book by Hans Rudolf Gujer from Wermetschweil (Wermatswil). German manuscript on paper. CHF 3,000 to 5,000.
  • <b><center>Stargardt Autographenhandlung<br>Autographs: Literature, Music, Art, Science, History, Theatre & Film<br>March 28, 2023</b>
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Autograph album leaf signed, 1826. €9,000 to €12,000.
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Franz Kafka: Autograph letter unsigned, 1924. €15,000 to €20,000.
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Torquato Tasso: Autograph poem signed, no date. €12,000 to €16,000.
    <b><center>Stargardt Autographenhandlung<br>Autographs: Literature, Music, Art, Science, History, Theatre & Film<br>March 28, 2023</b>
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Charles Darwin: Autograph letter signed, 1866. €4,500 to €6,000.
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Albert Einstein: Autograph letter signed, 1933. €6,000 to €8,000.
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Heinrich Hertz: Autograph manuscript signed, 1889. €18,000 to €24,000.
    <b><center>Stargardt Autographenhandlung<br>Autographs: Literature, Music, Art, Science, History, Theatre & Film<br>March 28, 2023</b>
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Giambattista Bodoni: Autograph letter signed, 1787. €900 to €1,200.
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Francisco de Goya: Autograph letter signed, 1789. €18,750 to €25,000.
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Martin Luther: Notes from his desk, no date. €30,000 to €40,000.
    <b><center>Stargardt Autographenhandlung<br>Autographs: Literature, Music, Art, Science, History, Theatre & Film<br>March 28, 2023</b>
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Ludwig van Beethoven: Autograph letter signed, 1816. €22,500 to €30,000.
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Gustav Mahler: Foto portrait signed and annotated, 1907(?). €7,500 to €10,000.
    <b>Stargardt Autographenhandlung, Mar. 28:</b> Bed?ich Smetana: Autograph letter signed, 1883. €4,500 to €6,000.
  • <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper<br>30th March 2023</b>
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Roman binding.- Pindar. <i>Olympia, Pythia, Nemea, Isthmia,</i> translated by Johannes Lonicer, contemporary Roman binding by Niccolo Franzese, Basel, 1535. £40,000 to £60,000.
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Raverat (Gwen). Comprehensive album of 530 wood engravings, circa 1909-1950. £40,000 to £60,000.
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Hemingway (Ernest). <i>Fiesta,</i> first English edition, first impression dust-jacket, 1927. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper<br>30th March 2023</b>
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Fleming (Ian). <i>Casino Royale,</i> first edition, first impression, 1953. £12,000 to £18,000.
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Dickens (Charles). <i>Great Expectations,</i> 3 vol., first edition, first impression, Chapman and Hall, 1861. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Campbell (Colen) & others. <i>Vitruvius Britannicus, or The British Architect...,</i> 5 vol., vol.1-3 later editions, vol.4 & 5 first editions, [?1731]-31-67-71. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper<br>30th March 2023</b>
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Geography.- Mela (Pomponius). <i>Cosmographia, sive De situ orbis,</i> Venice, Franciscus Renner de Heilbronn, 1478. £8,000 to £12,000.
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> America.- [?Espinosa y Tello (José)]. <i>Relacion del Viage hecho por las Goletas Sutil y Mexicana en el Año de 1792,</i> 2 vol. including Atlas, first edition, Madrid, 1802. £8,000 to £12,000.
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Australasia.- Péron (Francois) and Louis-Claude de Saulces de Freycinet. <i>Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes,</i> 5 vol. including Atlas, second edition, Paris, 1824. £8,000 to £12,000.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper<br>30th March 2023</b>
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Botany.- Curtis (William). <i>The Botanical Magazine; or, Flower-Garden Displayed,</i> 83 vol. in 62, 1794-1956. £8,000 to £12,000.
    <b>Forum, Mar. 30:</b> Darwin (Charles).- Lecky (W.E.H.) <i>The Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe,</i> 2 vol., Darwin's copy with inscription "Charles Darwin 1865", pencil marginalia and pencil notes, 1865. £7,000 to £10,000.
  • <b><center>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Printed & Manuscript African Americana:<br>March 30, 2023</b>
    <b>Swann March 30:</b> Victor H. Green, <i>The Negro Motorist Green Book,</i> New York, 1949. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann March 30:</b> Papers of pianist-composer Lawrence Brown relating to Paul Robeson & more, various places, 1925-54. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann March 30:</b> Freedom Summer archive of civil rights activist Karen Haberman Trusty, Atlanta & elsewhere, 1963-64. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann March 30:</b> E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> New York, 1933. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann March 30:</b> Archive of letters from the sculptor Richmond Barthé to a close Jamaican friend, various places, 1966-85. $25,000 to $35,000.

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