Russian Avant-Garde Books & Wallpaper at MoMA

Various artists (Vladimir Burliuk, David Burliuk, and Vasilii Kamenskii). Tango s korovami. Zhelezobetonnye poemy (Tango with Cows: Ferro-Concrete Poems) [front cover] by Vasilii Kamenskii. Moscow: D.D. Burliuk, 1914. Edition: 300. Book [16] leaves, 18.9 x 19.2 cm (irreg.). Wallpaper cover with letterpress typographic design mounted on front; 3 letterpress illustrations (1 by V. Burliuk and 2 by D. Burliuk); text includes ferro-concrete poems and letterpress typographic designs by Kamenskii; all printed on verso of wallpaper leaves.


In the throes of thesis research, I came across a lovely catalog MoMA put together in 2002, called The Russian Avant-Garde Book, 1910–1934. (With a really good interactive website, too!) It has amazing color reproductions of hundreds of Russian books printed and made in the early 20th century, all part of a gift from the Judith Rothschild Foundation. In order to break with Western artistic tradition, especially the French Impressionists and Symbolists, Russian avant-garde artists used cheap, simple materials and low-tech printing methods to make small editions of affordable books, with text that was as experimental as the object. Olga Rozanova even used a little-known kind of carbon-copy printmaking called a hectograph for some of the books, such as the book Te Li Le. My research is on wallpaper, so I’m sharing a few amazingly colorful examples of Russian books bound and/or paginated with wallpaper, and printed by letterpress, as well as a few great quotations from the catalog.

Burliuk, Vladimir. Sadok sudei (A Trap for Judges) by various authors (David Burliuk, Nikolai Burliuk, Elena Guro, Vasilii Kamenskii, Velimir Khlebnikov, Sergei Miasoedov, and Ekaterina Nizen). St. Petersburg: Zhuravl’, 1910. Edition: 300. Book: 131 leaves, (12.4 x 10cm). Wallpaper cover with text mounted on front; 10 letterpress illustrations; text and illustrations all printed on verso of wallpaper leaves.


“Mikhail Matiushin relates in his memoirs a case of artistic provocation involving the first edition of A Trap for Judges (1910) that was aimed against Symbolists, in this case members of the poet and writer Viacheslav Ivanov’s inner circle:

‘This book fell like a bomb among the mystics at Viacheslav Ivanov’s. The Burliuks came to him very piously, and Ivanov welcomed them cordially. Then, as they were leaving, these ‘scoundrels’ stuffed every pocket of all the coats and clocks of those present with a copy of Trap.’”

—Nina Gurianova, “A Game in Hell, Hard Work in Heaven: Deconstructing the Canon in Russian Futurist Books,” in The Russian Avant-Garde Book, 29. (Qtd. from Mikhail Matiushin, ‘Nashi pervya disputy,’ Literaturnyi Leningrad, October 20, 1934.)


Kamenskii, Vasilli. Nagoi sredi odetykh (Naked Among the Clad) [front cover]

Kamenskii, Vasilli. Nagoi sredi odetykh (Naked Among the Clad) [back cover] by Vasilii Kamenskii and Andrei Kravysov. Moscow: Rossiiskie futuristy, 1914. Edition: 300. Book: [16] leaves, (19.5 x 18.7 cm) (irreg.) Wallpaper cover with text mounted on front; 5 letterpress illustrations; text includes letterpress ferro-concrete poems and letterpress typographic designs by Kamenskii; all pages printed on verso of wallpaper leaves.


Various artists (Vladimir Burliuk, David Burliuk, Natalia Goncharova, Elena Guro, Mikhail Larionov). Sadok sudei II (A Trap for Judges II) by various authors (David Burliuk, Nikolai Burliuk, Elena Guro, Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Benedikt Livsjits, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Militsa, and Ekaterina Nizen). St. Petersburg: Zhuravl’, 1913. Edition: 800. Book: 107 pages, 19.5 x 16.5 cm. Wallpaper cover with title mounted on front; 15 letterpress illustrations (6 by Guro, 3 by D. Burliuk, 2 by Goncharova, 2 by Larionv, and 2 by V. Burliuk); all pages printed on pale green paper.


“As Kruchenykh recalls in his memoirs, ‘With the wrapping and wallpaper of our first anthologies, books and declarations, we launched an attack on the extravagant tastelessness of the bourgeois[ie’s] verges and gilded bindings, stuffed with the diseased pearls and drunken lilies of gentle little boys.’”

—Jared Ash, “Primitivism in Russian Futurist Book Design, 1910–14,” in The Russian Avant-Garde Book, 38. (Qtd from Kruchenykh, Nash vykhod, p. 94).


Zhurnalist, no. 3, Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1930. Journal with letterpress illustration on wraparound cover, page: 11 7/16 x 8 7/16″ (29 x 21.5 cm). Publisher: Ogonek, Moscow. Edition: 8,000.

[Finally, as a special Printeresting treat, the cover of Zhurnalist by Rodchenko, with Cyrillic lead type!]

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Categories: Book Review, Print-related

2 Responses to “Russian Avant-Garde Books & Wallpaper at MoMA”

  1. rob murray says:

    what are letterpress ferro-concrete poems? I’ve heard of ferro-concrete as a boat building material

  2. jwcurry says:

    “letterpress ferro-concrete poems” are poetic structures built on the principles of concrete poetry, using words in visual arrangements that reïnforce the multiplicity of meanings that such arrangements allow. someone out there correct me if i’m wrong but i think it was Vassily Kamensky who first referred to the wordstructures he was writing as “ferro-concrete poems” after the then-new process of pouring concrete onto a hidden system of iron bar webbing that gave greater stability & strength to the resultant cast. much of the Russian futurist material that was published around this time (early 19-teens?) was printed using letterpress — steel, lead & wood type.