Futurist Books: Tbilisi 1917–1919

Text by Mzia Chikhradze

During the beginning of the 1910s, the Russian Futurists worked together with their Georgian colleagues in Tbilisi in the pursuit of artistic research. The freedom to work against the academy was typical of the aims of the movement and was reflected in the design of Futurist books produced first in Russia, and then in Tbilisi. In particular, the books produced from 1917 to 1919 are among the most important artistic artifacts from the rich cultural life of Tbilisi. They present a strong example of the multicultural and international collaborations that occurred between artistic figures and genres during this period.

Poet and artist Ilia Zdanevich was one artist who played an important role in the development of the Georgian avant-garde, and especially in Futurism. As one of the founders of the artist group 41°, he was also one of its most active members. The group included Alexander Kruchenykh, Igor Terentiev, Zigmund Valishevski, and Ilia Zdanevich, and together they produced a variety of books with various publishing houses that also provide many insights into the artistic scene of Tbilisi.
Among their projects was the reprinting of books originally published in 1912/1913 in St. Petersburg and Moscow, such as Uchites, Khudogi, Ojirenie Roz, and Malokholia v Kapote by Kruchenykh, O Sploshnim Neprilichii by Terentiev, and Janko – Krul Albanski by Zdanevich. In 1919, other titles published by the group included Milliork and Lakirovannoe Trik by Kruchenykh, Record Nejnosti by Terentiev, and Ostrof Paskhi, Zga Jakobi by Zdanevich. The books were all issued in very small editions.


Ilia Zdanevich, Zga Jakobi, Tbilisi, 1919.

Produced in the form of lithographed brochures, a virtually unknown format at the time, these new books sometimes also contained hand-written texts by the artists or authors themselves. The narrative and representational character of the illustrations were usually secondary to their formal and graphic expression, and text was composed in «Zaum», the experimental language the Futurists devised as a poetic play on words where meanings often became secondary to sounds. In this way, improvisation became a main tool and a way to create a new art.

Futurist artists and poets considered handwriting capable of emotional expression, a trait that was simply lost in mechanically printed type. To overcome the «boring straightforwardness» of monotonous lines of printed words, they combined various typefaces and letter sizes, which alternated with handwritten text. Words and illustrations were often juxtaposed, and this created the overall appearance of a unified and graphic image.

As the founder of Georgian Futurism, Ilia Zdanevich is also considered the inventor of Dadaism in the country. His radical, typographic experiments in the publications of 41° laid the foundations for the development of the movement in Tbilisi. From 1919, Zdanevich worked prominently under the pseudonym Iliazd. Among the best example of Zaumni poetry is his text Donkey for Hire, dedicated to the actress Sofia Melnikova.



Ilia Zdanevich, Donkey for Hire (in Russian).

Here, Zdanevich reduces the aural, visual, and graphic elements of the poem to extreme abstraction. Words are meant to be read simultaneously and are visually depicted as such. As if composing a musical chord, two words of two texts are combined, stacked one vertically above the other. If they share the same vowel or consonant, it is written only once, accentuated in size and weight. The texts become one. When read by two people simultaneously, their voices harmonize in unison. The peculiar verbal-musical and artistic expression is pure Dadaist absurdity and is considered one of the best artistic examples of this time.
In general, the books of the Tbilisi Futurists hold a multicultural and international character. In September 1919, the finale of works dedicated to the actress Sofia Melnikova was published in Tbilisi in a book that formed an anthology of Futurist poetry and art. It contained samples of Russian, Armenian, and Georgian poetry, and united them as an artistic oeuvre. The peculiarities of the individual works make the book more versatile as it gives them both a clear structure as well as highlights artistic differences.

The development of Futurism and Futurist books played a significant role in the formation of Georgian avant-garde art all through the 1920s and early 1930s. The year 1924 saw the publishing of H2SO4, an influential journal conceived by a group of Georgian writers, poets, and artists. Among the editors and contributors were Beno Gordeziani, Akaki Beliashvili, Simon Chikovani, Irakli Gamrekeli, Nikoloz Shengelaia, Shalva Aklhazishvili, and others. H2SO4 forms yet another example of the way the Georgian avant-garde pushed the boundaries of art, literature, and poetry to create new artistic realities with an emphasis on experimentation and playfulness.


Installation viwe, Georgian Modernism: The Fantastic Tavern, Kunsthalle Zürich, 2018
Photo: Lucas Ziegler.