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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Their website is www.ursusbooks.com.