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Russian and Ukrainian Avant-Garde and Constructivist Books And Serials in The New York Public Library:

A First Census & Listing of Artists Represented


Compiled by Robert H. Davis, Jr., The New York Public Library and Margaret Sandler, The New York Public Library with an Introduction by Gail Harrison Roman and Robert H. Davis, Jr.


The New York Public Library has an exceptional collection of both documentary materials and rare books and journals that reveal the character of the unique and fascinating history and culture of Russia and Ukraine. Russian and Ukrainian Avant-Garde books and journals represent a particularly intriguing chapter in the complex history of Russian book culture. The movement affected every aspect of book production, from the content of the text to its typographical design, layout, publication, and distribution. It was a manifestation of the incredible outburst of creativity and productivity that marked the culturally exciting decades surrounding the Russian Revolution, Civil War, and the NEP. What this particular segment of the Library’s collection represents to its international constituency—the cultural elite and the intelligentsia, as well as the more casual observer—is an unusually large and distinguished group of works that encompasses the finest experimental literature combined with innovative design.


Although they were familiar with contemporaneous movements in Western art, the “rebellious” creators of the Russian and Ukrainian Avant-Garde vowed to craft a wholly indigenous art and literature. They achieved this nationalistic goal (although only briefly, in the years surrounding the Revolution), largely because they exploited their language to develop new linguistic forms.  In order to give concrete form to their explorations into the root structure and multilayered meaning of words, early Avant-Garde writers and artists, known primarily as “Futurists,” produced books with varied typefaces and dynamic layouts that demonstrated an experimental fusion of pictorial and verbal imagery.


Rejecting the precision and symmetry of printed type as repetitive and dry, these progressive authors and artists often lithographed handcrafted texts, which were usually placed on the page with greater attention to matters of verbal and artistic innovation (often brash and startling) than to questions of narrative logic and reality. In these works, most of the illustrations are integrated with the text and share similar inventive design and unusual linear effects.

The dynamic style of Futurism (which governed much pre-Revolutionary art) and the non-objective geometric forms of Constructivism dominated Russian and Ukrainian Avant-Garde art through most of the 1920s.


The Russian Revolution mobilized an already existing and rapidly growing number of progressive artists and writers who, as self-appointed “engineers of the new society,” sought to transform all propagandistic media—literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, domestic and industrial design, photography, typography—into vital creative agents within the new society.


History of Avant-Garde Book Collecting at The New York Public Library


The question of how these books came to The New York Public Library is as intriguing and colorful as the items themselves.


In contrast to many Western library institutions, which began to build Avant-Garde collections only in recent decades, Russian and Ukrainian Avant-Garde materials began arriving at the Library soon after their creation. In a number of cases, the Library obtained them, quite literally, from the hands of the poets and artists themselves.  This most fortunate (and, at the time, unique) situation resulted from personal and professional contacts established by Library representatives during a book-buying trip to Soviet Russia in the Winter of 1923/24.


The expedition was led by the third Chief Curator of the then-Slavonic Division, Avrahm Tsalevich Yarmolinsky, his wife, the poet Babette Deutsch and the Library’s dynamic and colorful Chief of Reference, Harry Miller Lydenberg. The NYPL expedition was the first organized expedition funded by an American library solely for the purpose of acquiring book materials, and with the goal of reestablishing the normal channels, disrupted by the Revolution of 1917 and subsequent Civil War, for the supply of current and retrospective monographs and serials. By the time the trio left Soviet Russia, more than 9,000 choice volumes from the pre- and post-Revolutionary period had been acquired for the NYPL, and many thousand more were to arrive on exchange in the decade that followed.


In the course of their visit, Yarmolinsky, Deutsch, and Lydenberg met with many of the most prominent cultural figures of the time, including Maiakovskii, Lunacharskii, Meierkhol’d, and Malevich, as well as the librarian Liubov' Borisovna Khavkina (1871-1949), both socially and on official Library business. The timing of their journey, during the relative freedom of the NEP, was fortuitous in that Soviet library colleagues and cultural figures were able to freely assist, question, disagree with, and befriend them—activities which further aided collection-development efforts.


With regard to the NYPL’s Avant-Garde holdings, unquestionably two of the most important individual contacts were Maiakovskii and Kruchenykh. Yarmolinsky met and dined with the former on more than one occasion, and hired the latter to seek out and acquire the latest Futurist works.


The ascendancy of Stalin in the mid-1930s brought an end to the acquisition (and creation) of such materials. During the next fifty years, whatever Futurist and Constructivist titles were acquired were primarily the work of émigrés, living primarily in the United States. Retrospective purchases tended to focus on eighteenth and especially nineteenth-century classics of Russian literature and history, reflecting the mainstream orientation of selectors and readers alike.


Scholarly and popular interest in Avant-Garde book culture increased in the 1970s and early 1980s. Following the appointment of Edward Kasinec as sixth Chief of the Slavic and Baltic Division, and of Robert Rainwater as curator of the Library’s Spencer Collection in the mid-1980s, the Library began to add additional Futurist and Constructivist materials to the core collection that had been established in the 1920s and early 1930s. In 1979, as Harvard’s Ukrainian bibliographer, Kasinec had been instrumental in obtaining and organizing the private collections of the Detroit resident Onufrij Murmyluk  and Volodymyr Lakh (b. 1900) of Cleveland for the Houghton Library.


The Catalog

            The present catalogue includes printed books and manuscripts by Russian and Ukrainian artists and writers identified with the Futurist and Constructivist movements who were active in the homelands and/or in emigration during approximately the period 1907 to 1948. Each entry includes title, place of publication, pagination, and some NYPL copy-specific information.


            It must be underlined, however, that this is only a partial census of the NYPL’s holdings of avant-garde works. The Dictionary Catalog of the Slavonic Division was consulted only in checking for specific works cited in Hellyer. Therefore, in cases where bibliographic records for additional works by a given author were present in the NYPL’s Dictionary Catalog only, they are NOT recorded here.  At the NYPL, publications containing works produced by representatives of these artistic movements were cataloged upon receipt into a large number of classmarks, the majority of which await systematic review. In addition, Library holdings of Avant-Garde design produced in the other countries of Eastern and Central Europe still await checklisting and description. These lacunae aside, this first census is a useful point of departure for further work based on the NYPL’s nationally significant collection of Futurist and Constructivist materials.


Russian and Ukrainian Avant-Garde and Constructivist Books And Serials in The New York Public Library: A First Census & Listing of Artists Represented; ISBN: 0-88354-383-4

September 1998; Library binding, acid free paper……………$ 40