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For the Voice!

“But surely the book is now everything. It has become in our time what the cathedral with its frescoes and stained glass used to be, what the palaces and museums, where people went to look and learn, used to be. The book has become the monument of the present, but in contrast to the old monumental art, it itself goes to the people, and does not stand like a cathedral in one place, waiting for someone to approach.”

— El Lissitzky, (“The New Culture,” published in Vitebsk, August 1919)

Dlia golosa
El Lissitzky and Vladimir Mayakovsky
Moscow-Berlin: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1923
xN7433.4 M38 D55 1923

Dlia golosa (For the Voice) is considered one of the most innovative works of the early twentieth century. With its distinct typographic style, inspired by the concept of “new optics” — where ideas are given form through letters — this book finds a direct path to the brain through the eye rather than the ear. As noted by the book’s architect, El Lissitzky, “in this channel the waves rush with much greater speed and pressure than in the acoustic channel. One can speak out only through the mouth, but the book’s facilities for expression take many more forms.”

Lissitzky had a certain philosophy when it came to book construction. He wanted to introduce the book to the reader as a dynamic object, such that it can be turned and manipulated in addition to being read. Lissitzky, like many of his contemporaries, saw beauty in industry, technology, mass-production, and repetition, and by experimenting with pieces of type, rules, bars, and bullets, he developed abstract forms which can be read simultaneously as pictures, symbols, sounds, and words.

The Russian Revolution of the twentieth century was not only political, but poured over into the arts. In the burgeoning Soviet Union, Futurists, Constructivists, Supremacists all worked collectively to provide society new perspectives by breaking the physical, visual, cultural and aesthetic orthodoxies which had governed the old way of life. Lissitzky focused on spatial relations — manipulating abstract geometric forms in a limitless space and across various axes. The viewer, or reader, of his work were forced to move their eyes across lines, angles, and curves. With practice, Lissitzky proposed, a reader could “develop confidence in their own tactile and intellectual abilities to convert emptiness and chaos into order and certainty.”

Although Lissitzky’s architecture of the book was unique, it certainly did not exist in a vacuum. In fact, much of his inspiration was drawn from the atmosphere of Berlin, where he had established himself as a leading artist of the Russian emigre community. During the early 1920s, Lissitzky was among some 300,000 Russians living in Berlin, with a third of that population concentrated in the Charlottenburg district, or “Charlottengrad” as it was often called. Without any Bolshevik authorities and political risk, the Russian emigre artists and writers felt free to express themselves. In addition, there existed over fifty Russian publishing firms, several competing printing houses, experienced typesetters, sufficient material resources, and a large Russian-reading public. It was in Berlin where Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lissitzky met and began collaborating on Dlia golosa.

Mayakovsky, with his loud and booming voice, is considered to be one of the most prominent figures of the Russian Futurist movement. During his career, he produced a body of work as large as his personality — he wrote poems, directed plays, appeared in films, edited art journals — all while avidly supporting the ideology of the Communist Party during the Russian Civil War. But like many of his colleagues, Mayakovsky’s relationship with the Bolshevik state was complex. Stringent censorship and the newly prescribed doctrine of Socialist Realism made it difficult for Mayakovsky and other Futurists to publish their work freely. So Mayakovsky traveled to Berlin in the Autumn of 1922, where he sought out Lissitzky to design a book that would be “intellectually accessible, aurally apprehensible, and optically appealing.”  

Collaboration was an important process for the Russian avant-garde. The books that were published during this time often featured abstract illustrations, cut-outs, and other primitive designs that forced the reader to manipulate the book in different ways while simultaneously questioning what a book is and what it does. For Mayakovsky, it was important that his poems be read aloud (hence the title, Dlia golosa, or For the voice). Lissitzky responded by replacing the table of contents with a thumb-index to make the poems easier to find. In addition to the book’s experimental architecture, Mayakovsky’s best-known and most frequently performed poems are transformed into an energetic visual representation using color and typography.  

Dlia golosa consists of thirteen poems — thirteen being a number of superstition, an uneven number that reveals the Futurists love for dissymmetry as well as for taboo. Disorder was celebrated, thus ridding the necessity for pages numbers or linear order. A reader could simply thumb the index and start from anywhere in the book. As Mayakovsky intended, these poems were meant to be read aloud, or, more accurately, “shouted, trumpeted, belched forth in public squares.” Lissitzky’s attention to typographic details amplified Mayakovsky’s verses, through his inclusion of color, size, and weight. This visual stimulation was meant to agitate emotion and thus corresponded directly to the ideological rhetoric of the poems.

For both Lissitzky and Mayakovsky,  the production of the book had a propagandistic goal: creating a “new Soviet reader” and a new system of reading, seeing, listening, and ultimately, understanding. Nearly one hundred years later, Dlia golosa remains one of the most extraordinary examples of early typographic design and Lissitzky’s philosophy on book architecture continues to ring true:

  1. The words on the printed sheet are learnt by sight, not by hearing
  2. Ideas are communicated through conventional words, the idea should be given form through the letters.
  3. Economy of Expression — optics instead of phonetics
  4. The design of the book-space through the material of the type, according to the laws of typographical mechanics, must correspond to the strains and stresses of the content.
  5. The design of the book space through the material of the illustrative process blocks, which give reality to the new optics. The supernaturalistic reality of the perfected eye.
  6. The continuous page-sequence — the bioscopic book.
  7. The new book demands the new writer. Inkstand and goose-quill are dead.
  8. The print sheet transcends space and time. The printed sheet, the infinity of the book, must be transcended. THE ELECTRO-LIBRARY

“Topography of Typography.” Merz No.4, Hanover, July 1923

Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator

  • Chrsitopher Leibow
    Posted at 15:08h, 06 May Reply

    This is amazing. What a jewel for the library collection.

    • lyuba
      Posted at 16:13h, 06 May Reply

      Thank you Chris! I wish you could have seen my how excited I was when the book came in. It’s been a favorite of mine for many years now and I’m so happy that we now have it in the collection. Please come by and check it out (plus so many others). It would be great to catch up!

  • Pingback:Book of the Week — Moscow | J. Willard Marriott Library Blog
    Posted at 14:01h, 28 October Reply

    […] years, he collaborated closely with other famous figures of the Russian avant-garde, such as poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, artist El Lissitzky, and socialite and muse, Lilya […]

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