For me, the explosion of artistic innovation in Russia in the first two decades of the twentieth century is one of the most underappreciated cultural flowerings in history. The very name by which it is generally known, the “Silver Age,” implicitly devalues it by comparison with the “Golden Age” of Pushkin & Co. a century earlier—Omry Ronen wrote an entire book protesting the name, in his conclusion quoting Roman Jakobson as hesitating between the terms “Second Golden Age” and “Platinum Age,” either of which would certainly be preferable. (And how I would love to sit in on Prof. Ronen’s University of Michigan course Russian 478, “Vladimir Nabokov and World Literature I: The Russian Years”!)

At any rate, you can get a nice taste of one aspect of the period, Russian Futurism, from the exhibition “Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910–1917”; the site shows sample illustrated books through which you can leaf electronically, and you can even hear the poetry read with enjoyable vigor. The Curator’s Essay by Nancy Perloff, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute, provides a brief introduction explaining the origin of the movement and its essential differences from the more famous Italian Futurism, and of course if you’re lucky enough to be at the Getty between now and next April 19 you can see the exhibit for yourself.

Addendum. The name of the exhibit comes from the title of a poem by Vasily Kamensky, one of the major Futurists; having discovered he didn’t have a Wikipedia entry, I spent most of the day creating one.


  1. I would be interested to know why two unconnected groups of people in Russia and Italy in 1909-10 took the name Futurism. Does anyone know where the name came from? Was it from France? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t come from Picasso and Analytical Cubism even though that’s the only link I can see between them.

  2. I wonder if this ties in with something I read last night, an offhand remark by Wells in Tono-Bungay (1908) that puzzled me. The narrator has been making social analyses of his experiences, and has described his uncle’s miserable, drearily self-righteous urban relig. congregation: on page 49 (or thereabouts), he writes, “If Bladesover [a country manse] is my key for the explanation of England, I think my invincible persuasion that I understand Russia was engendered by the circle of Uncle Frapp.” I have no idea what aspect of Russia Wells expected to spring to his readers’ mind in this context.

  3. They weren’t so unconnected: the Italians came first. The exact history is a bit muddy, and has no doubt been revised since I learned it, but it’s certain that Marinetti’s Le Figaro manifesto, which introduced the name, was translated and published in Russia almost immediately. See here in JSTOR for the an outline of what those of us raised during the Cold War were taught.

  4. marie-lucie says

    A historian friend of mine wrote his dissertation on the link between Italy and Russia before the revolution. Several Russian revolutionaries did not just visit Italy briefly but lived there as exiles. I think that Bakunin was the most well-known.

  5. A.J.P. Crown says

    You’re quite right, it must be the Cold War that makes it so difficult to see those Russian artists moving around Europe.
    I remember seeing some lovely book covers of yours on Conrad’s blog, MMcM.
    The chauvinism of the Russians that is mentioned in both articles is made to sound sinister, but it is actually something that was used quite positively. The Constructivists, later on, made references to local vernacular building practice — a kind of typical shed roof used on Russian farm buildings that you also see in Melnikov’s Russian Pavilion at the Art Deco Exhibition in 1926, in Paris, for example — and this is something that Kenneth Frampton has picked up on and elaborated into a theory or tendency of contemporary Modern architecture, called Critical Regionalism.

  6. Crown, A.J.P. says

    Marie-lucie, how great to hear from you.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, AJP. Glad to be back.

  8. Here is an English language essay on the ferro-concrete poems in Танго с коровами. As it suggests, compare the Getty scan to the almost contemporary Zang Tumb Tumb and other Italian Futurist Books.
    Conrad’s covers were his own. My only contribution was answering the quiz to identify a famous Renaissance woodcut.
    Digressing: Boston now has a super-size Russian supermarket. Among other things, we got some ტყემალი; no big deal in NYC, I’m sure, but I hadn’t seen it around here in the smaller ones before. But we still haven’t figured out what to have it with: it was too tart for french fries.

  9. Probably one important reason these Russian movements aren’t well known is because first of the Russian Revolutions, which disrupted life at home and links abroad, and then Stalin’s purges, which managed to kill off most of the intellectuals who didn’t emigrate, or force them into the constraints of Socialist Realism if they survived.

  10. That’s true, but I think people are reasonably likely to meet Constructivism and Suprematism (with no particular distinction) in a Lascaux to Last Week survey, along with Italian Futurism and maybe Vorticism. Like German Expressionism, but not Der Blaue Reiter.
    Perhaps another factor is Greenberg and Barr’s teleological approach to modernism, which postmodernists still haven’t shaken off.

  11. Siganus Sutor says

    “Tango with cows.” With (Italian) Wisconsin cows?

  12. Some important Silver Age books on sale next month at Bloomsbury New York.

  13. A.J.P. Crown says

    There are some wonderful, interesting things in that Bloomsbury catalog. I loved this alphabet book, by Alexandre Benois, and look at this piece of Yiddish Suprematism, that’s something I didn’t know about. It would be very nice if this work could be republished in some form (for those of us who live in the bush).

  14. A.J.P. Crown says

    Perhaps another factor is Greenberg and Barr’s teleological approach to modernism, which postmodernists still haven’t shaken off.
    Not just Greenberg and Barr, that’s true of architecture too. The students do actually read Kant’s Critique of Judgement at the art school where my wife teaches, but it’s the first part they focus on.

  15. A.J.P. Crown says

    We have a small parrot called Tango (there are 30 cows up the road).

  16. Thanks very much for that Bloomsbury catalog, MMcM! If I were a rich man, I’d hie me to the auction and go nuts.

  17. A.J.P. Crown says

    Yeah, I’d be bidding against you.

  18. John Emerson says

    During the ism era of poetry (ca. 1910-1925??) isms came and went pretty randomly. In Spanish, Huidobro invented “creacionismo”, which consisted of him. I’d like to see an inventory.

  19. A.J.P. Crown says

    ‘Ferro-concrete’, by the way is a very Italian-sounding word for what would normally be called reinforced concrete (I’m thinking of ferrocement, which was a material invented by the great Italian engineer/architect Pier-Luigi Nervi).

  20. A.J.P. Crown says


  21. John Emerson says

    “Reinforced concrete”: coincidentally, I once read an interview with a then-contemporary Russian poet in which he discussed reinforced concrete. Apparently many Soviet poets ended up with technical educations.
    My source may have been “Living Mirror”, Massie’s translations of Leningrad poets, and the poet may have been Andrey Voznesensky.

  22. As a young Russian major, I thought very highly of Andrey Voznesensky. Now that I’ve read all the poets he was influenced by, not so much.

  23. I thought “ferro-concrete” was quite a normal English word…

  24. It gets 105,000 Google hits; “reinforced concrete” gets 2,660,000.

  25. Siganus Sutor says

    Ferro-cement, or ferrocement, is what I’ve heard most, and it used to be a material used in boat building.

  26. 218,000 google hits for “ferrocement”and 217,000 for “ferro-cement”.

  27. A.J.P. Crown says

    Those extra 10,000 are mine. I always write ‘ferrocement’.

  28. Meanwhile, back in Italy, 512,000 for ferro cimento

  29. Siganus Sutor says

    Anyone voting for ferrero roche d’or or ferrero rocher? It’s not as hard as ferro-cement, though.

  30. Siganus Sutor says

    I’m thinking of ferrocement, which was a material invented by the great Italian engineer/architect Pier-Luigi Nervi
    Oops! I missed that, A.J.P. Anyhow, I can’t think of any structure that is built with ferrocement nowadays. Not even sarko-phaguses.

  31. Crown, A.J.P. says

    There was a fashion, if that’s the word, post WW2, I think, for building boats with ferrocement. I know Nervi built one, possibly his was the first. It may be out of style now, but it will suddenly make a comeback, like Sigmund Freud will — maybe they will float back together.

  32. A.J.P. Crown says

    Damn, you already wrote that. Sorry.

  33. Yes, please don’t use up precious comment space with repeat observations. As you all know, we are approaching Peak Comment Space, and soon all comments will have to be made in tiny type with words of no more than two syllables. I told them this was coming, but would they listen? No! The fools!!

  34. Siganus Sutor says


  35. A.J.P. Crown says

    You see, I don’t like to waste people’s attention span with remarks they have heard before — especially since I’m making up new remarks all the time.

  36. Allison Pultz says

    Russian and Italian Futurism have a tangled relationship. Surely, some of the Russian “futurists” were familiar with the Italians and even some of their manifestos reflect the bravado of their Italian namesakes (for example, “Throw PUshkin,e tc overboard from the steamship of Modernity…” from “A Slap in the Face of Public TAste”. Marinetti visited Moscow and St. Pete in 1913. Some primary Russian “futurists” (burliuk, mayakovsky, kamensky) were away giving a tour of Russia) and those that stayed behind greeted him with disdain while the older artistic elite gave him their respect. Also, the Russians seem to have accepted the name “futurists” with some reluctance–it was a name the press applied to them and was hard to shake off. But the name also carried with it some preexisting infamy which the Russians could use for their own PR benefit. There are important ideological differences to consider: Italians embraced war, the machine, technology. RUssians did not. Khlebnikov coined the word “budetlianstvo” (Futureness, will-be-ness)and “budetlianin” (futureman, will-be-man) as words which better describe the RUssian movement and distinguish it from its Western European counterparts. Russians sought to create art of the future by going back to ancient Slavic, pagan roots. Not so much the Italians. Also in Russia, there were multiple “futurist” groups, that polemiczed with one another (the ego-futurists, the Hylaean futurists, etc), and not a singular group led by one personality as is more the case in Italian futurism, i.e. Marinetti. KEep in mind also— there is big difference between pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Futurism (the latter’s banner carried by Mayakovsky).
    Kamensky’s ferro-concrete (reinforced concrete) poetry is probably one of the better examples of the influence of Italian word-poetry on the RUssian, not of Italian Futurism on Russian FUturism on a larger scale. Taken as a whole, the poetic content of Kamensky’s works, and the look of the book as a whole is much more folksy and evocative of a clash between rural and urban than the Italian.
    A good article on Russian and Italian futurism is on jstor: Collaborating on the Paradigm of the Future
    Margarita Tupitsyn
    Art Journal, Vol. 52, No. 4, Interactions between Artists and Writers (Winter, 1993), pp. 18-24
    Published by: College Art Association
    Allison Pultz
    Co-curator of Tango with Cows

  37. Thanks very much for the discussion and reference, Allison!

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