(by Vladimir Markov) (1969)
Markov quotes Nikolai Lossky: “Ideas are not thoughts, they are a special kind of reality.” Isms we can sneer at, at least as soon as their individual shells are rent and the flesh within wastes. Futurism was an avant-garde conceit borne from impressionism, via the blind alley of ‘Ego-Futurism,’ and turned to something even vaguer by Marinetti, who came like a royal progress to Moscow and made something of a fool of himself. The ‘manifesto’ was nothing of the sort, really – a hatred of all things old, a desire for all things new, it represented stunning narrow-mindedness and arrogance, symbolised by fast cars and fast art, ugly poetry and empty declamations.
Russian Futurism was a particularly wacky form of the brand, given the times, when Old Empire was lurching towards a very new and different era. Its particular strain remained very Russian, naturally, despite the early flirting with Marinetti’s western European version, starting with the classically-inspired Hylaea Group, and its poetical manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (1912), containing such metaphysics to rival that of the Vorticists:
“Only we are the face of our Time. The horn of time trumpets through us in the art of the word. The past is crowded. The Academy and Pushkin are more incomprehensible than hieroglyphics. Throw Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, et al, et al, overboard from the Ship of Modernity. He who does not forget his first love will not recognise his last.”
In other words, as with imagism (“make it new”), the manifesto was little more than poetry (which of course is its inherent value). Markov does note that Slap did predict a fall of empire in 1917, a nice piece of prescience amid the flummery.
Though Russian Futurism did include some genuinely great artists – Victor Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky – it was largely an artistic pose that befuddled and annoyed critics, till it was killed stone-dead by Stalin, that great artist of destruction. Some of the following comments (by critics, opponents and proponents) on Russian Futurism and Futurists suffice to illustrate the confusion: “rapists who mock at the word, castrate it, and exterminate its soul” (Vyacheslav Polonsky); “turtledoves from the Ark of the future” (David Burliuk); “negation of the present in the name of the future” (Genrikh Tasteven); “a pretentious mixture of the recherché and the semiliterate” (Zinaida Hippius); “poetry of the canonized bare medium” (Roman Jakobson); “a child of the rotten bourgeois regime” (Alexander Serafimovich); “a protest by a part of the Bohemian literati against traditional aesthetics” (Sergei Malakhov), and “a sui generis illness of art” (Victor Zhirmunsky).
Markov notes as “especially apt the admission of a former Polish futurist that what fascinated him most in futurism was the awareness that “one can do with the word anything one likes.”” To put it another way, it was akin to Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Descriptions, but a little more pretentious.
Markov’s book is cluttered with material and despite the extensive notes and bibliography, it can safely claim to be the first history of the subject. As the author aptly concludes:
“It is easy to repeat the banality that movements do not mean much, that they come and go, but good poetry remains…But let us not forget the existence of another kind of life – those formations, both elusive and cumbersome, which we denote with words ending in “ism.” These group/trend/school movements are the despair of the scholar and a nuisance to an honest reader; but they do exist, they have a heart (not always easy to locate), they are born and die, and after death they often leave strong and formative memories.”