Futurist typography and the liberated text


13/04/08 – Excerpts from Alan Bartram’s Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text published 2005 by Yale University Press:


“The Italian Futurist poet-typographers were literary people, as were the very different Russian artists; and, just as for the 1960s protest designers, content came first and created form. Aesthetics merely refined the design.” (7)

“An ability to use a computer makes no one a typographer, and provides no substitute for the fiery imagination adn visual sensibility possessed by Marinetti. His ‘new array of type’ transformed the very grammar and syntax of the sentence, created a unique poetry, a new mode of communication.” (8)

“[...]at least one noteable precendent, the original 1897 version of Stephane Mallarme’s Un Coup de des. And, about the same time Marinetti’s work was published, Apollinaire was experimenting with his calligrammes.” (ibid.)

“What all the work shown in this book has in common is that, unlike that of the Bauhaus and later designers, it is the creation of poets and artists. So it is concerned with literary expression. While Italian Futurism attempted to augment the meaning of words by opening up a new approach to type, Russian Futurism, more painterly in character, liberated the presentation of poetry from existing constraints by intensifying its emotional impact with highly charged integrated illustrations. Different again, the Dada agenda was to emphasis the sound of words , even the sound of individual letters or numbers, both by visual means and vocally. But their visual vocabulary was achieved by exploiting the Italian Futurist array of typographic innovations.” (ibid.)

French precursors: liberating the poetic form

“The printed word was liberated from printing’s traditional constraints by Stephane Mallarme. His Un Coup de des or A Throw of the Dice pioneered an expressive form of visual presentation for poetic language. Henceforth, throughout the early twentieth century, poets and other writers, exploring the new forms of expression, constantly enriched typography.” (9)

“How much did the final success of such work depend upon the typesetter? Clearly, a lot.” (ibid.)

Marinetti and friends: recreating everything anew

“Just as the new language destroyed normal grammatical conventions, the new typography set words free. ‘My new array of type, this original use of characters, enable me to increase many times the expressive power of words…My revolution is aimed at the so-called typographic harmony of the page, which is contrary to the ebb and flow, the leaps and bursts of style, that run through the page … I oppose the decorative, precious aesthetic of Mallarme and his search for th erare word, the one indispensable, elegant, suggestive, exquisite adjective. I do not want to suggest an idea or sensation with the passeist airs and graces … I want to grasp them brutally and hurl them in the reader’s face.’” (20)

“Nor, unlike the Russian Futurist books, which followed an altogether different agenda, were there any illustrations. The excitement was created solely by type and typematter.” (21)

“Marinetti created a simultaneous vision –words plus type-image– where the reader understands the general meaning of hte poesm as much by its appearance as by its literary content.” (ibid.)

“In his [i.e., Marinetti's] hands poetic vocabulary and typographic vocabulary are one.” (22)

“As with several Futurist poems, synaesthesia plays ans important role. Not only is there an onomatopoetic concordance between the word, its sound and (in the Futurist manner) its appearance, but texts often describe a simultaneous encounter of all the five senses, with nature and mechanical objects becoming one.” (25)

“Such integration of the two languages [i.e., visual and literary] makes them more effective than they would be individually; a fundamental tenet of Futurist typography.” (28)

Marinetti: A tumultuous assembly

Artist-poets in Russia: illustration + words

“The Russian groups were formed later than the Italians, and were wary of them; not all liked the name Futurist, which they regarded as incorrect and un-Russian. Their books were not typeset but written, often hand-made, with tipped-in pages, glued-on labels and different coloured papers. They were, effectively, ‘art’.” (32)

“The texts of the Russian books were usually handwritten by the poets, making them very personal productions.” (ibid.)

“The work [i.e., Tango for Cows] includes ‘ferro-concrete’ poems, which generally lack overt syntactic structures: the reader is free to read the poem in any order he chooses, letting the eye wander over the page consisting only of nouns and adjectives, is organised by word association, governed by semantic contextual and visual links.” (ibid.)

“[...]Khlebnikov invented a transrational language called zaum which, going beyond the boundaries of traditional word, aiming to be a universal language for future man aspiring to higher intuition, resulted in several of the Russian books being partly or wholly devoid of meaning, just as Dada work was.” (ibid.)

Kruchenykh: Explodity
Kruchenykh: Learn, Artists!

Zdanevich: Le-Dantyu as a Beacon

“Zdanevich uses recognisable Russian words, although spelt unconventionally, and zaum transrational language, which is mainly conveyed in Cyrillic rather than in a phonetic system.” (ibid.)

Dada: illogic and chance, perhaps

“Anti-art, anti-authoritarianism, anti-everything, the cult of Self and personal freedom resulted in the rebels turning against each other. In contrast to Futurism or Russian Constructivism, Dada had no utopian vision. The attempts at a new language were not aimed at augmenting or intensifying meaning, for there was no meaning. Lack of meaning was the meaning.” (70)

“The Italians balanced the semantic content of their work with its visual presentation. The less visual Dada programme of non-logic, discontinuities, disruptions and a transrational manipulation of language would, it was hoped, create a new kind of poetry.” (ibid.)

“Accidents achievable in painting, exploited by mnay artists including Turner and Francis Bacon, could play no part in any typographic medium in the 1920s. Th emost that could be achieved was a chaos of different types, sizes and styles changing for different lines or within the line; and Victorian playbills had already done this, announcing a bizarrely inconsequential sequence of acts with a dramatic use of disparate types. And type specimen sheets have always displayed a medley of disconnected phrases culled from capriciously chosen sources. All that was new were the clams Tzara made for his work, and hismore self-conscious arrangement.” (70/71)

“So chance was allowed only limited input, especially as Tzara’s chosen typesetter was the same very experienced Albert-Birot.” (71)

“The negativity, the pointless acts of defiance, the nihilism of Dada; its frequent descents into childishness; its cult of Self, freedom at all costs and the claims and counterclaims of its fractious members: these were the seeds of its own destruction, and it imploded around 1923, leaving only scattered fragments of influence later painters.” (ibid.)

Schwitters: Merz 11 cover

Paul Van Ostaijen: Bezette Stad

The means were largely Dada inspiration, yet the intention was to augment meaning. In this, it forms a link between Dada work and Italian Futurist typography.” (102)

Lacerba: a tumultuous assembly

“The Florentine newspaper Lacerba, with Giovanni Papino and Ardengo Soffici as main contributors, ran from 1 January 1913 to 22 May 1915, with a total of seventy issues.” (117)

“The Italians were not interested in a sequence of sounds, as was Kurt Schwitters for instance. The words were there to create a visual image, both by the way they were used typographically and by their literal meaning.” (ibid.)

Binazzi: A redeeming trip
Soffici: At the station buffet

L’Italia Futurista: experiences of war, and birdsong

“Unlike Lacerba, its content was restricted to Futurist matters, and the journal frequently showed a whole page of poems, often by ‘Giovanissimi Futurist’ or young Futurists. Many of these were ‘al fronte‘, fighting in the war which Italy had entered in 1915, just as Lacerba ceased publication.” (132)

“The range of types used, as well as their inventive presentation, is extraordinarily varied. How the poets conveyed their ideas to the printer is a bit of a mystery.” (ibid.)

“This unnamed Florentine printer [i.e., printer of Lacerba and L'Italia Futurista] is the real hero of Futurist typography.” (ibid.)

Marinetti: Patterns for Futurist dances of war
Josia: Kisses in a cemetery

The Revolutionaries

“The ambience, so different from the often decadent fin-de-siecle life, ensured there was no return of any decorative tendency. These poets, whether they were writing about was or about modern life, particularly its noisy or violent aspects, wanted to convey personal, sometimes physically painful, experiences.” (158)

“Typographic ingenuity became a substitute for grammar” (ibid.)

“The typography is an essential ingredient of the poetry; without it the poems make no sense.” (ibid.)

“The idea that words set in type could be made visually espressive, adding to their literal meaning, was unprecedented; nor has its potential been fully explored since. Concrete poetry plays games with words and letters, but it is an intellectual exercise, not a means of emotional release.” (ibid.)

“But the Futurists were poets, not designers; they strove to weld the literary word with the visual word in order to express ideas beyond words, while –unlike painters attempting the latter– using words a a medium.” (ibid.)

“Italian Futurism, more in tune with our times, is concerned with direct communication, yet not so constricting that it pulls down the shutters on the windows of our minds, for it can be read as poetry and looked at as painting.” (ibid.)

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
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