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Russian Avant-Garde Books, 1917-34, Susan Compton, MIT Press.

[First published in Radio Void Magazine.]

From the Soviet Revolution of 1917 until the clamp down by Joseph Stalin in 1934 and the subsequent enforcement of "socialist realism," an artistic avant-garde flourished in Russia as in few other places or periods in recent history. This creative upsurge saw a host of innovative books designed and published by such artists as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Rodchenko, and El Lissitzsky. In her earlier study The World Backwards: Russian Futurist Books, 1912-16, Susan Compton examined the pre-revolutionary book creations of the Futurist movement. In Russian Avant-Garde Books, 1917-34, Compton continues her examination of avant-garde book design into the early Soviet period, a time of turmoil, hope and artistic freedom.

This Russian Renaissance was only allowed to flourish because Lenin and Trotsky were busy waging a civil war against anarchists, White Russians and foreign interventionists. Too distracted by such practical efforts to sustain their infant revolution, the Bolshevik leaders allowed Russian artists relative freedom to create and publish as they pleased. So long as they did not defy Soviet authority, artists were subsidized and their works published by the State. Some private publishing houses were also tolerated. In the general revolutionary jubilation of the time, most artists gladly accepted this arrangement. The Czar was gone; freedom and prosperity seemed assured. For a brief time during the 1920s, Russian artists worked in an exciting climate full of possibilities. "These years comprise the greatest inventiveness in book design," Compton believes.

Drawing upon the British Library's extensive collection of Russian books, Compton gives a wide- ranging look at the books designed and published by the Futurists, Constructivists, Imaginists, and many other avant-garde movements of Soviet Russia. Over 100 examples of book cover designs (16 in full color) are provided by Compton, showing that Russian book designers pioneered new techniques in typography, photography and montage not taken up by their Western counterparts until years later. Among Russian innovations were the use of negative photographic images, cut-up photographs, a variety of typefaces and type sizes, and intricate montages of line drawings, photos and text. Their innovations were not confined to books of literature but extended to works of architecture, film, drama and medicine as well.

By the mid-1930s, the growing repressiveness of the Soviet regime caused the nature of Russian art to change drastically. Edicts from the Communist Party forced many avant-garde artists to publicly disavow earlier experiments with technique and adopt the party line. Those who did not become communist hacks committed suicide, were executed or sent to prison.

Compton has done a valuable job of capturing an explosively creative moment in Soviet history, a moment all but buried by the monolithic conformity that followed.

--Thomas Wiloch