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Iliazd: Publishing as an Art Form — Additional Resources

The Iliazd Project

In 2020, and during the first half of 2021, much of our work with the Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books revolved around the Georgian book artist Ilia Zdanevich, better known as Iliazd. Our Iliazd project included three separate ventures: organizing and hosting the 2020 Reva and David Logan Symposium on the Artist’s Book, organizing an exhibition of Iliazd’s work in the Logan Gallery of Illustrated Books at the Legion of Honor, and developing an extensive website introducing the artist to a broader public, released concurrently with the exhibition in June 2021. 

These supplementary pages, linked from the introductory site, share some of the resources we have compiled for readers who want to explore Iliazd’s books in greater detail. 

Stephen Woodall
Collections Specialist
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

I: Additional Reading

Books and Articles in English

By far the most comprehensive of all publications in English is Johanna Drucker’s recently published Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist.

Online

On specific books

II: Iliazd’s books in the Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books

III: Translations/Commentary

In compiling resources to augment our collection of Iliazd’s books, we have commissioned commentaries and translations of Iliazd’s Russian texts from Thomas J. Kitson, an esteemed freelance translator and scholar. Kitson has managed the difficult task of bringing Iliazd’s avant-garde zaum texts to English, preserving their phonetic eccentricities. 

For the first of these, LidantYU fAram, it will be helpful to open images of the pages he refers to, which are available here. If read slowly, sounding out the phonetics, these commentaries open Iliazd’s experimental writing to anglophone readers, perhaps for the first time, and bring us more closely in touch with the heady atmosphere of Russian Futurism. See also Kitson’s “Notes on Translation” at the end of these commentaries.  

 

lidantIU fAram
By Thomas J. Kitson

lidantIU fAram [lidahntEW azəbEEkun] (1923) is the first of Ilia Zdanevich’s Paris editions and the final act in his cycle of “dras,” aslaablIch’ia: pitErka dEistf: virtEp [dOnkeeness: əfYvər uvAkts: ənətIvitee]. Zdanevich, known as Iliazd, published the preceding four installments in Tiflis between 1918 and 1920, although the first, IAnko krUl’ albAnskai [yAnko albAYneeən kIng], had been performed in St. Petersburg in December 1916. All are written in zaum, the “transrational,” or “beyonsense,” language explored by several Russian Futurists, including Velimir Khlebnikov and Zdanevich’s associate in Tiflis, Alexei Kruchenykh. 

In Zdanevich’s particular brand of zaum, the task of releasing sound from stable sense in order to awaken unconscious meanings entailed experimenting with typography (Kruchenykh, by contrast, favored working with technologies that reproduced handwritten pages). Each of the dras displays a new refinement in the score-like pages to accommodate more precise phonetic notations and complex “orchestral” arrangements of voices speaking simultaneously. The more Zdanevich worked with his zaum, the more attention he gave to vowels as the key element in coordinating timing and rhythm, to the point where he intimately associated zaum with dance.  Passages from the dras were “danced” by himself and by Lizica Codreanu at Dada soirées in Paris, and Iliazd was making plans for an unrealized ballet set to a zaum score (with sets by Matisse) as late as 1948.


Iliazd, newly arrived in Paris, late 1921. Courtesy of Iliazd estate.

What initially attracts readers to lidahntEW—the exuberant explosion of disparate fonts in different sizes across its pages—actually represents a departure from the other dras. It’s believed that Zdanevich arrived in Paris in late 1921 with a worked-out manuscript for lidahntEW, but he soon realized that in order to make the book interesting to “readers” in Paris who could not even sound out the Cyrillic alphabet (let alone understand the sense of the phonetic Russian passages), he would have to emphasize an element that had been largely incidental in the earlier dras—visual interest. Nevertheless, there are many pages filled with intriguing “sober” columns of numbered orchestral parts (for up to eleven voices in the concluding “convocation” of the living and the dead), since Iliazd’s typographic innovation (which, it must be said, resembles Dada “convention” much more than his orchestral columns do) is reserved for solo and “choral” (“in accord” here) passages. Iliazd was always proud of being able to prompt Jean Cocteau’s January 1924 response (“Here is the miracle of a book I can’t read that gives me the pleasure of a deep reading at first glance.”) and that lidahntEW was prominently displayed in the Soviet Pavilion at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris.

The final dra is an apotheosis of the painter Mikhail Ledentu, Iliazd’s close collaborator in the circle of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, who was killed while returning from the front in 1917. When Zdanevich received the news, he was studying Georgian church architecture on an expedition to Russian-occupied Anatolia, where he named a peak in the Pontic Mountains for his dead friend. Iliazd called lidahntEW, in turn, the summit of his zaum composition and concluded his unpublished preface with “Rest in peace, my friend. The wreath on your tomb, plaited with care by my loyal hands, is also the wreath on the tomb of our work, since perfect art is dead.”


With Mikhail Ledentu, 1916. Courtesy of Iliazd estate.

Although characters never recur from one dra to the next (except, perhaps, as avatars of Zdanevich [zda] and Sofia Georgievna Melnikova [zga] hidden behind different masks, the “aspects of a donkey” in the dOnkeeness cycle’s title; an alternative translation could be unmAsskpekts), lidahntEW refers to the entire cycle thematically in its treatment of birth, death, eroticism, representation, and mutability. If yAnko began with baby talk and the alphabet, lidahntEW brings us to the solemnity of a funeral rite, although hieratic, ritual, cultic elements have been present throughout, from the Zend words discernible in yAnko through the echoes of Apuleius in dOnkee fərEnt, the mysterious statues of EEstər Ylend, and the fortune-telling scene in azdhO zgAH.

The dra opens with the five kOrpsfartz (representing philistine taste; their individual names suggest flowers, birds, reed pipes, and navel-gazing, with possible scabrous double entendres),and the stAHpərd spEErit (whose speech is dominated by Zdanevich’s symbol for a “weak” vowel sound, something equivalent to a schwa [ə]) gathered around a dead woman’s body. The hOst periodically interrupts their speech with a liturgical exclamation like “indhənAYm uvdhəgAWd Ass mahmEn.” On page 23, the hOst announces the wAHndrər (calling him a “grAsniblər”), named for the Itinerants (the famed Realist school of Russian painting whose most famous representative was Ilya Repin), who joins in their ceremony and introduces a lYflyk pOrtret of the dead woman. The portrait also joins in. When the lYflyk pOrtret intones “ohmAYguh” in their chorus, they leave the stage except for the stAHpərd spEErit.  

lidahntEW (designated something like a “lAYdeezman” by the hOst) appears on page 35 and interrupts the stAHpərd spEErit to paint a nAHtəlyk pOrtret of the dead woman. After a duet between the stAHpərd spEErit and lidahntEW, the nAHtəlyk pOrtret touches the dead woman and “rezurEkts” her.

The hOst invokes a “frEnzeed wOOm” as the nAHtəlyk pOrtret and the rezurEktid lAYdee begin a duet that continues through pages 40 and 41, with a refrain something like “ooh aah Intimitlee” featured in large letters on page 42. A quieter duet follows on page 43 as they “snUgəl.”

When the lYflyk pOrtret interrupts them, the action takes a violent turn. The nAHtəlyk pOrtret confronts the lYflyk pOrtret and destroys it on page 46, while the kOrpsfartz quickly attack and “thrAsh” the nAHtəlyk pOrtret on page 47 while the rezurEktid lAYdee objects with a verb that suggests, perhaps, adding a “soft sign” (an important element in the Russian alphabet for Zdanevich and his Tiflis companions, capable of changing the gender of nouns).

Their argument continues on pages 48 and 49, with one of the kOrpsfartz prominently invoking “jEEzuz” and “pikAHso,” until the kOrpsfartz crucify the rezurEktid lAYdee with an exclamation of “mahmEn” as they finish the job. The stAHpərd spEErit, with his very weak vowel grown now to an enormous size on page 49 (thanks, the reader suspects, to his budding association with the manly lidahntEW), enters and kills the kOrpsfartz before the wAHndrər returns.

The wAHndrər shoots the stAHpərd spEErit as lidahntEW reenters and yells “STOP” (in English, written in Cyrillic phonetic transcription) before he “klObərz” the wAHndrər and the hOst pronounces his action a “blUdless mUrdər” (the name of an association of artists and writers Ledentu belonged to during the First World War; their fanciful account of linguist and literary scholar Janko Lavrin’s adventures in Albania, where he served as a war correspondent, inspired Zdanevich’s first dra). lidahntEW’s speech ends with a new version of “amen” to replace the mother-bound “mahmEn”: “zhaminI” (invoking Jomini, the French theorist of war who spent much of his career in Russian service). The hOst responds on page 52 with what sounds like the opening of the Lord’s Prayer in Slavonic, but slightly modified so that it suggests something like “in the vanity of imagination.” The nAHtəlyk pOrtret delivers a speech in which he appears to say “Y wil dEEd dhədEEkons DADA” before he touches the rezurEktid lAYdee while invoking the “Assinyn gAWd” and brings about the sEkund kUming (marked by the very large, cross-like “T” in the hOst’s proclamation on page 53).

lidahntEW, the nAHtəlyk pOrtret, and the sEkund kUming (who together constitute dhəlIving) begin a trio. The remaining characters (dhədEd) join in on page 56 and continue their eleven-voiced “convocation” until page 60, where they fall silent and the marginal gloss directs, “dhəlIving pasAHn / dhədEd reemAYn,” and the hOst concludes liturgically and narratively on page 61: “untoo dheeEnd uvawlEndz.”

 

Pis’mo/Escrito (The Letter)
 
Pis’mo/Escrito is dedicated to Olga Djordjadze, with whom Iliazd traveled in Provence during the summer of 1946. At some point in their conversation, it came out that Iliazd had been editing papers for Russian students in Paris just to have the opportunity to speak in Russian. Djordjadze felt that kind of work was beneath him and asked him to write to her instead.

The poem, then, might be the letter its Russian title, Pis’mo, suggests. But Iliazd translates it as Escrito on the Spanish title page he included to honor his collaborator, Pablo Picasso. His choice points to a set of much broader meanings: writing as an author’s profession, writing as an ability to make marks on paper, and writing as any document that bears those marks, including the book of nature. Pis’mo, like Iliazd’s sonnets in Afat, explores how fates are written into the fabric of the universe, how to read natural signs—the marks of fate, and how poetry relates to writing spells—magic signs with power to alter those fates.

Each stanza of the poem, in rhymed quatrains of iambic pentameter, is idiosyncratically indented at the second line. All letters are capitalized, and there is no punctuation. It begins as night falls (once “BUREAUCRATIC VANITY,” the lowest kind of writing, has ended). The poet, an innocent man condemned to death, awaits his beloved, dying with anxiety for a meeting he knows will not take place because his beloved is gone, and he too will soon die. The poet seeks resurrection and reconciliation in a world of dream, in themes related to Persephone, Bacchus, and Orpheus; to the movement of heavenly bodies, especially the sun; and to the advance and retreat of glaciers and weather in mountain passes. The lovers achieve, at least briefly, and only in imagination, apotheosis as the sky grows light. A striking series of eight quatrains toward the end of the poem suggests various symbolic images for the lovers, each concluding with the refrain: THIS IS US. Here is one example:

THE FIELDS ARE STREAMING RIVERS ARE WHITE HANDED
   WHEN DRAWING OUT OF DARKNESS ALL ITS CLOSE
ON FOUL DAYS WATERS NOT FROM FIRE DISBANDED
WRITE WHAT IS TRUTHFUL WRITE THAT THIS IS US

Ultimately, Iliazd moves, as he does in other works, along an asymptotic path toward an impossibly perfect artistic consummation in which life and death are one.

Here are translations of the last two quatrains:

BEFORE LONG I MYSELF MUST BE UPROOTED
   GRACE SHOOTS THROUGH ALL THE WORLD AND PINS IT FAST
DO NOT SUSPECT THATS A REPROACH IVE MOOTED
IVE WAITED WHILE ALIVE ILL WAIT TO LAST

ITS NOT FOR NOTHING THAT WE PRAYED AGREEMENT
   IN WAKING LIFE THE STRONGMAN FATE SAYS PART
AND YET WHEN IN THE GRAVE ILL FEEL FINE DREAMING
PLEASE DONT POOR LADY PLEASE DONT CRY MY HEART

 

Sentence sans paroles (Wordless Sentence)

In Wordless Sentence, Iliazd completed a garland of sonnets, a crowning feat for a poet and an especially prestigious form during the Russian Silver Age (Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Balmont, Vyacheslav Ivanov, and Maximilian Voloshin had all completed their own garlands). The cycle represents his last published poem in Russian and echoes, as a gesture, his unpublished preface to lidantIU fAram (1923), in which he calls his final dra both the “crowning” achievement of his zaum period and a “wreath” on the grave of his dead friend Mikhail Ledentu.

Iliazd’s interest in the sonnet first burst into view in Afat (1940), but we know that his exploration of the form extends back at least to the most intense zaum efflorescence in Tiflis in 1917–1920, when poet Tatiana Vechorka’s series of lectures on the sonnet was a regular feature at the Fantastic Tavern, the 41° group’s headquarters. We also know that Iliazd was teaching his young Paris protegés in the short-lived Tcherez group (disbanded in 1923 after the disastrous “Evening of the Bearded Heart”) how to master the sonnet form as a preliminary step before attempting to write zaum. The sonnet, with its formal strictures, its organization of meter, rhyme, and rhythm, offered, for Iliazd, a road to discovery perhaps even more powerful than zaum, not least because it allowed him to tap into and then expand a long tradition.

The “sentence” of the title bears, in Russian, the primary meaning of a verdict, a judgment, the pronouncement of a punishment to be served. Its qualification as “wordless” holds in tension the possibilities that the verdict is already in effect, silently present, and being withheld, to be spoken later. Primarily, of course, it represents human finitude, the certainty that we will all die (I ENTER FOR ALL TIME AN EMPTY ROOM [Sonnet 1, ln. 13]). But it also evokes the condition of the artist doomed to pursue again and again an always receding ideal (that EMPTY ROOM might be the blank page where a poet’s legacy will be figured). 

Art, as in lidantIU, is transformative; it remakes the world and has more in common with the Freudian dreamwork (YOUR WORDS HAVE ALL BEEN MUFFLED BY A WAVE / THE MIDNIGHT DAY DRIFTS OFF ON LUNAR ICE FLOES [Sonnet 2, ln. 5–6]) than with descriptive realism (NOT TACTILE SENSE NOR BEAMS OF LIGHT NOR HEARING / OUR ART IS SPEAKING SO ITS DRY AND DREARY / WHILE SHIFTING TALK ONTO ANOTHER THEME [Sonnet 1, ln. 9–11]). And so the sonnets follow the poet’s dim, mute dialogue with a muse that resembles characters from Iliazd’s novels: Ivlita, the supernatural, fairy-tale “bandit’s moll” of Rapture, and Sophia from Philosophia, who is both the Wisdom of God, the eternal blueprint for the cosmos; and Hagia Sophia, an actual architectural structure that bears the marks of history. Unlike Afat and Pis’mo, Wordless Sentence is not dedicated to an individual woman.

A look at the garland’s fifteenth, “magistral,” sonnet, made from the first lines of the fourteen preceding (carefully displaced on the page), demonstrates how much Iliazd, in his late poems, remains tied to lifelong themes that brought him close, first, to Dada, and then, briefly, to Surrealism (DO NOT PROPOSE IN JEST THE LAUREL LEAVES / AND DONT INTERNALIZE COHERENT STYLE [Sonnet 6, ln. 3–4]).    

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A STRANGER TO ALL FEAR YOU SHADOW ME 
                             PERHAPS YOUVE NEVER LONGED FOR SUCH A GIVEN
  NOT DOMINEERING OVER YOUR OWN DEEPS
                                  NOT DEAD AND YET NO LONGER OF THE LIVING

    TO ONE HELD BY A FIERY COLLOQUY 
              A LENGTHY PROMPT TO ONE SO SLOWLY MOVING 
    YOUR WORDLESS SENTENCE I AM SURE TO HEED 
              WHILE REAPING SPROUTS OF SUNSET STARS FROM HEAVEN 

      THE SPECIAL PASSIONS ECHO RUMORED GISTS   
      THEY WONT START SHYING FROM ME IN THE DARKNESS       
      THE BLIND MUTE WALLS AND JAGGED TOOTHY RIDGE    

             WHY WAS I SEEKING YOU AMONG THE GUESTS   
        FORGETTING MEANINGS TIME AND BOUNDARY MARKERS
             ALL THROUGH THIS BURG WHERE WE ARE BOUND TOWARD AGE

Shadows and echoes, forms that follow and figure the gap between signifier and signified, are more prominent here than the reflections and doubles that proliferate in the dras. But Iliazd’s concern with delving into the unconscious—a state intermediate between life and death revealed not just by Freudian analysis but also by mystery cults (YOU LIE AT REST A SEED WITHIN MY BREAST [Sonnet 4, ln. 13])—is unmistakable in the first quatrain. 

The second quatrain brings in the FIERY COLLOQUY, the stars talking to one another (as in Mikhail Lermontov’s great lyric) and the music of the spheres, where the poet looks and listens to read and hear the signs of fate. 

In the sestet there are intimations of Eros (THE SPECIAL PASSION) and Thanatos (the ultimate meaning, the GIST; COME LITERARY SCIENCE TRACK IT DOWN / THE FIRE EXTINGUISHED IN THESE WAXEN ENDS / WITH BRILLIANT ROAR YOUR CANDLE UPSIDE DOWN [Sonnet 9, ln. 9–11]). THE BLIND MUTE WALLS AND JAGGED TOOTHY RIDGE seems forbidding at first, but when we consider the poet’s apparent relief that THEY WON’T START SHYING FROM ME IN THE DARKNESS, we recognize that rather than a dungeon, they are the reassuring structures of the sonnet, cemented over centuries by the poetry of love and loss. Pursuing the muse, so easily lost AMONG THE GUESTS, is a way to escape other kinds of limitation and enter into something that will AGE.

 

65 Maximiliana, ou L’Exercise illegal de l’astronomie
(65 Maximiliana, or The Illegal Practice of Astronomy)
Page through the complete contents of the book here.

The texts Iliazd selected for 65 Maximiliana, although written in three languages (disregarding Max Ernst’s profuse cipher writing) and in different genres (scientific reports, poems, lists, gnomic aphorisms), draw readers, like the variable layouts of heterogeneous visual material, into a convincing, harmonious vision. The work presents a creative individual’s predicament in the cosmos, as both maker and reader of meanings. 

As a whole, the book affirms that in order to understand ourselves and the world, we must trust in a deep connection between microcosm and macrocosm; we must move out into the world and back into ourselves again. The book opens with Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel’s assertion that mere mediating tools do not produce meaningful knowledge. Far more important is the active, alert mind behind them practicing, in this case, the “ART OF SEEING.” This art, Tempel claims, is endangered by the invention of optical instruments just the way “MEMORY IS LESS CULTIVATED” thanks, notably, to the accumulation of “PRINTED MATTER” (Iliazd’s book clearly aspires not to be that kind of tool). Tempel’s last quoted statement, “MY STARS HAVE HELPED ME UP TILL NOW I HOPE THEY MAY HELP ME YET,” demonstrates his trust in the stars, objects of his study and guides to his fate.

In between, Iliazd tells how Tempel discovered an asteroid he named 65 Maximiliana and faced a controversy over naming it that threatened to obscure his accomplishment. Tempel’s difficulty arises because the profession relies too much on institutional norms, just as it relies too heavily on its tools rather than on its practitioners’ skill and creativity. This section is balanced later in the book by an overview of Tempel’s other discoveries, including his own suggestion following his discovery of 97 Clotho—an opportunity to make meaning within the accepted system of naming celestial objects for figures from classical mythology: “IT WOULD BE POETIC TO GIVE THE LAST PLANETS 97 98 99 THE NAMES OF THE THREE PARCAE CLOTHO LACHESIS AND ATROPOS NOT TO CUT THE THREAD OF RESEARCH BUT TO CLOSE THE FIRST CENTURY OF SMALL PLANETS.” The book does not tell us that the names chosen for the last two were Ianthe and Dike.

The central portion of the book alternates folio by folio between two types of text: scientific reports and a lyric poem. Iliazd selects long passages in French and Italian drawn from Tempel’s published observations of clouds, auroras, and nebulae and arranges them in columns at the bottoms of the pages beneath Ernst’s engravings, a layout that very nearly mimics pages of a conventional journal, where the text provides the basis for accompanying illustrations of the kind Tempel might have produced in his itinerant work as a lithographer. By contrast, Iliazd places segments of a poem, “The Bell Ringer,” written in German by a much younger Tempel, at the extreme top of the complexly organized intervening pages. It is as though the poem were resounding from a high belfry across rich landscapes that like “CHILDHOOD’S HAPPY DAYS / LIE OUTSPREAD” before readers. 

Here, Tempel’s observant details gleaned from reading the natural world perhaps offer guidance for reading the more cryptic intervening folios. Tempel works carefully to distinguish figure and ground in the literally nebulous objects of his study. He notes that “OUR ATMOSPHERE IS DIVIDED […] INTO CELLS VERY DIFFERENT FROM ONE ANOTHER” and conjectures that “A LANDSCAPE PAINTER” (one thinks of John Constable’s cloud studies) is more likely to understand his own art than “THE METEOROLOGISTS” who “HAVE UNLEARNED THE USE OF THEIR EYES.” 

The paean to the bell ringer, meanwhile, extols a language of tones and overtones as the bells mark celebrations and fateful events in the life of a little village, finally summoning the people together to fight, along with “RIGHT AND FREEDOM”, “THE TYRANT DEATH.” When the poet recalls that he “ANNOUNCED TO THE DILIGENT / ALL THEY CREATE AND BUILD / IS DONE FOR EVERYONE,” the poem offers an ideal social model, in a sense, for the collective scientific enterprise. 

The bell ringer is also a stand-in for Iliazd and Ernst as they regard Tempel, and for us as we regard all of them: “SYMPATHETIC I FOLLOWED THE BITTER / AND JOYFUL WAYS OF FATE.” Iliazd’s text about Tempel explicitly notes the ironies of fate, but some ironies he leaves as clues, often as dates, to be made meaningful by careful readers who recognize important events behind them. Two “fated” dates mark the statelessness and revolutionary impulse Tempel shares with both Ernst and Iliazd. Tempel’s first Italian entry is conspicuously dated April 9, 1871, soon after the Franco-Prussian War that forced him to leave Marseilles, while “The Bell Ringer” bears the date January 2, 1849, in the heat of the German uprisings of 1848–1849. The date draws our attention even more to the poet’s wish to take up his post once more in order to “DEEPLY INFORM ALL HEARTS / THAT THE DAY IS BRIGHTENING / THAT THE FEARFUL DARK NIGHTS / ARE NOW OVER AS THOUGH A DREAM / AND THE SACRED RIGHTS OF HUMANKIND / HAVE JOYFULLY BLOSSOMED ON FREEDOM’S TREE.” 

The wheel of fortune brings fame and oblivion, disappointment and hope, like the regular return and departure of Tempel’s comets. But the wheel also figures our back-and-forth movements through this book, the constant revision involved when we joyfully accept the task Iliazd’s book design forces on us—rereading in wonderment.

 

Niko Pirosmanashvili
Translation by Thomas Kitson
[Editor’s note: In June, 1914, Ilia Zdanevich, age 20, published this article in the Georgian newspaper Vostok. He included it in Pirosmanachvili 1914, his next-to-last book, published in 1972.]

I.

Tiflis – a jackal that feeds on the carrion of the European market, a salt-flat sown with debris from the past – can still, like the promised land, tug at a pilgrim’s heart, for its buildings enshrine the buckram canvasses of Pirosmanashvili.

This name is unfamiliar; you are certain art resides in theaters and book catalogs, you exalt artists who feed on impressionism’s detritus, and you call poetry the cold coffee with milk club swindlers serve up for you on a daily basis.

But in damp cellars where red-eyed kintos [unemployed persons] get drunk and sing discordantly, in gardens out of town, where the zurna [reed instrument] wails in fits, in suburban barbershops, bakeries, and fashionable ateliers hang paintings by an artist whose works could glorify the nation and give it the right to partake in the contemporary struggle for art. The master himself, an old man, is rarely sober; he leads a tramp’s life among dukhans [restaurants], bitterly complaining of his fate, sleeps on the ground, and for a dinner or a glass of wine scatters the stars of his astounding talent.

Europe’s bastards – your poets, painters, musicians, critics, and professors, young and old – aren’t worth a centimeter of his buckram. By the way, when we pointed out Pirosmanashvili in the press two years ago and demanded that society pay attention – and help him – you remained silent and this sloth and ignorance will not be forgiven you. When you repudiated the master, you missed out on fate’s largesse after she’d been standing five centuries with her back to you, largesse such that you might suspect the goddess of wanting to advertise.

Pirosmanashvili’s biography is simple. A childhood spent on the “Iveria” estate, 60 kilometers southwest of Tiflis, where the artist’s father was a gardener, life in Tiflis from the age of twelve, where somehow the boy buys watercolors and begins to paint. Then twenty years’ service as a deliveryman for the railway administration and in the dairy trade (at the beginning of the 1900s). Pirosmanashvili’s stall was located on Olginskaya Street and was decorated with images of cows. At first things went well, then worse, and then war brought bankruptcy.  Pirosmanashvili hit the booze. And so begins his homeless life in search of bread. His work pays almost nothing.  By 1912 he was already a wreck. At that time, the artists M. V. Ledentu and K. M. Zdanevich, who stumbled upon his buckrams in a dukhan, took to hunting down the master and the rest of his works. We managed to see Pirosmanashvili and gave him commissions that winter. The old man grumbled over his awful poverty, his working conditions, the ignorance of his clients, and asked us to help him. “If you gave me a room and paints, I’d paint even finer things,” he said.

His works were displayed in the “Target” exhibition in Moscow in spring of last year, and in the exhibition “No. 4” this spring, where he was immediately acknowledged as a master.  Pirosmanashvili has been compared to the French masters of the 1890s and 1900s, securing his fame (alas, too late) and immortality.  

II.

Our appreciation of Pirosmanashvili is prompted first of all by the sophistication of his craft and the technical merits of his pictures. But aside from that, Pirosmanashvili is a classic exponent of his age, and in that there is much to his credit.

We have no intention of resurrecting historical criticism for the sake of saving mediocrities. The value of artistic monuments does not stem from the fact that they are capable of rejuvenating a picture of the past. But sometimes a country’s powers, concentrated in a master – pressuring him to delineate his own day – make his work necessary and urgent, and in this urgency lies the basis for exceptional craft. Pirosmanashvili, and he alone, has found the style of his age, for it is impossible to convey it otherwise and better than he has conveyed it.

Banquets with faceless participants and tables decked with bottles, cheese, bread, and vegetables, with bunches of grapes like an altar, coachmen taking revelers for a drive at full gallop, scenes of bathing horses in the Kura River and saving the drowning, arabas with jugs of wine, religious processions, military reviews, numerous landscapes, always clear, as at sunrise, illustrations in leopard skin, portraits of Rustaveli, swaggering boys, crooked-nosed, with arms akimbo, frenzied musicians with cherry eyes, lackeys with eyelids swollen from sleeplessness, flat-headed wrestlers, prostitutes with full, pendulous breasts, sheep, lions, deer, giraffes, bears, fantastic beasts and birds, still-lifes and signs – with all these things the master classically conveys the life around him, and not just its narrative aspect, but its interpretation, before all else. His primitivism is this life’s primitivism, and his achievement lies in imparting to his craft, while being the exponent of a primitive culture, the qualities perfection cannot be attained without.  But Pirosmanashvili is particularly valuable for us because, as a painter of the East, he wedges into our arguments about East and West and, as one who preserves the traditions of the former, he is fated to become the tutor of painting youth.

Pirosmanashvili is not a realist. He wields time and space in sophisticated ways.  In his compositions he strives for narrative simultaneity. When he depicts the grape harvest (Onashvili Collection, 50 Molokanskaya Street), he introduces all the stages from picking the bunches to carting the young wine off to the city.

In a still life in I. Zdanevich’s collection, next to a small pitcher and glasses are arranged shrubs, a wineskin, and storage jars for wine, all the same size. The mural at S. Kochlashvili’s dukhan (23 Molokanskaya Street) presents a steamship sailing on the sea next to a fish just as large. The same faculty for disposing of proportions is revealed everywhere.

But Pirosmanashvili’s painterly virtues are astounding. His classicism, his oriental character may not be engaging, but his painterly art cannot fail to grab you. His schema is ornamental, his determination of his material is convincing. The boy’s velvet jacket (in I. Zdanevich’s collection) is forever engraved on the memory of anyone who has seen it. His textures are varied, but always simple. His understanding and use of color stand Pirosmanashvili in the ranks of great painters.

But when we think of the master, we cannot determine his genesis: his nation’s art is too far in the past. How, in the midst of decadence and degeneration, did a gardener’s son bring forth such a weight of succulent fruit? Whence this feast – discovering an oasis in the sands with ripe figs?

You who did not grasp Pirosmanashvili’s sweetness, get out of here; boors, this was an exam and you flunked; get out, ignorance like yours is disgusting. But that’s not the way those who fell from the crucible of struggle into Tiflis encountered him. It was as if they’d unearthed buried treasure.  And if they had to land there once more the pilgrims would say as they neared the city I was excited and my heart skipped a beat: for Pirosmanashvili’s heart was waiting.
                                Ilia Zdanevich


Ilia Zdanevich in cadet uniform, 1911; 1913 portrait by Niko Pirosmanachvili. Images courtesy Iliazd estate.

Notes on Translation
Thomas J. Kitson

Translation problems that might be of interest to readers can be divided, largely, between the two major periods of Ilia Zdanevich’s poetic work: the zaum “dras” (dramatic writings for performance) and the late poems.

Zdanevich relied on phonetic spelling as a major component of his own brand of zaum. Some passages in the dras he published between 1918 and 1923 (particularly speeches by the hOst, who provides an introduction, gives stage directions, and announces the play’s conclusion) are written in recognizable, if not always fully grammatical, Russian. Phonetic spelling serves more than one function. It makes the Russian passages strange to readers, and it also injects a first dose of the ambiguity at the heart of Zdanevich’s zaum, where possible alternative meanings arise in a way that both enriches and impedes reading. Phonetic spelling also allows Zdanevich, on occasion, to introduce specific accents that can be accurately reproduced in reading aloud. 

The role phonetic spelling plays in creating ambiguity extends into the parts of the dras written in “pure” zaum. Here, too, Zdanevich considered it essential for readers to be able to reproduce the sounds he intended. Bits of potential meaning flash by, accumulate, and dissipate in the orchestrated sounds, and phonetic spelling, once again, allowed Zdanevich to accurately “score” them for performance. (Zdanevich wrote and presented a lecture on orthography. I have not had the opportunity to read it, so my remarks here are based on my reading of the dras and the works of scholars like Gerald Janecek, whose books The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-Garde Visual Experiments, 1900–1930 [Princeton University Press, 1984] and Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism [San Diego State University Press, 1996] are indispensable.)

Since phonetic spelling is such a central characteristic of Zdanevich’s zaum, I attempt to employ it in my translations from the dras. This is a real problem. Standard Russian orthography is generally closer to phonetic spelling than the notoriously difficult English orthography is to phonetic spelling in English. As a result, phonetically spelled English is, I sense, much weirder and more off-putting for English speakers than phonetically spelled Russian is for Russian speakers. Zdanevich’s practice for phonetic spelling is more or less consistent throughout the dras (Janecek makes note of discrepancies). He only adds pronunciation keys when he begins to complicate the last two dras with symbols for sounds that don’t exist in Russian.  

References in English scholarship to the dras sometimes refer to the titles, for simplicity’s sake, in completely standardized orthography (“Easter Island” or “Lidantyu as a Beacon”). Texts in English that attempt to convey the phonetic spellings change from one author to another and do not always appear to treat sounds consistently. Again, Janecek’s practice has made the most sense to me, and I have tried to stay close to it in my own attempt to translate a trio from “dOnkee fərEnt.” Still, I found myself improvising in a not entirely satisfactory way.  

There are, of course, systems available to adopt—Simplified Spelling or a variety of standard phonetic systems. What’s most desirable is a system without unfamiliar symbols, with distinct notations for a wide variety of sounds, and with a readily available key that makes it relatively easy for readers to catch on and clear up any uncertainty about pronunciation. The Wikipedia Pronunciation Respelling Key appears to fit quite well, and I have used it here in my description of LidahntEW (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Pronunciation_respelling_key).

Iliazd’s later poetry, beginning with Afat (1940), presents a different set of difficulties. First, Iliazd prints his poems using only capital letters (with the exception of Rahel) and strips them, for the most part, of all punctuation. This is a subtle prompt to read them aloud and emphasizes, just as in his zaum writings, the sound of the poems. I have tried, as much as possible, to follow this practice in my translations, stripping away even apostrophes (which have no place in Russian) so that the poems occasionally demand reading aloud in order to resolve meaning.

The late poems are in regular rhymed and metered forms, most often in sonnets, but all in iambic pentameter, whatever their stanzaic structure. The sonnets are rhymed according to the whole range of sonnet conventions from different traditions. Since there is good evidence that the rhythmic structures of Iliazd’s late poems may ultimately have been more important to him than the meanings the words conveyed, I have made an effort to produce metered and rhymed translations, following as much as possible Iliazd’s rhyme schemes (although often resorting to near- and half-rhymes, where Iliazd’s are full).  

French poet and translator André Markowicz has probably spent more time than anyone else with Iliazd’s poetic manuscripts. He describes notebooks of rhythmic schemes filled in only with constellations of vowels. The notebooks show that, despite the evident difference between zaum and the sonnets, Iliazd continued to focus his attention primarily on the sequence and interaction of vowels, believing them capable of conveying something above and beyond the everyday words of his poems. In my translations and descriptions here, I have not gone so far as to organize vowels first of all (although it’s an attractive problem), turning my attention instead to capturing meanings. But I have also tried as much as possible to capture diction and register, especially in the sonnets from Afat, where Iliazd shifts abruptly from colloquialisms to elevated or archaic speech as a complement to a whole series of contrasting pairs in the cycle. (See, especially, “19 June [1938],” a key sonnet in Afat, with its clear opposition between poet and visual artist, attics and basements, impulse and contemplation, confidence and doubt, movement and stasis—all ultimately united in an artistic work, thanks to the muse.)

There are, of course, themes that tie all of Iliazd’s late poems together. Since Rahel, although generally distinct from Afat in diction, nevertheless shares key vocabulary, I compiled lists of all the places in the seventy-six sonnets of Afat where that shared vocabulary occurs. By reviewing each occurrence, I could make decisions about my English vocabulary for Rahel so that a single shared word would be able to capture the nuances in each context. As a result, I have sometimes chosen to translate with what would normally be considered a secondary meaning. I hope that, when I complete my translation of the remaining sonnets in Afat, this will help readers sense those common themes. 

Wordless Sentence is the most formally complicated of the late poems. It is a “garland” of fifteen sonnets, where the final sonnet is made from the last lines of the preceding fourteen, and where the closing line of each sonnet opens the sonnet that follows. I have begun my translation by translating the fifteenth, the “magistral,” just as the author of a “garland” would begin with the conclusion. Each line has to fit the rhyme and meaning in the context of two earlier sonnets, and before settling on the version included in the description here, I made drafts of the remaining sonnets to be sure they make sense. This should, I hope, put me well on the way toward completing a translation of the whole cycle.

Thomas J. Kitson is a translator living in New York City.  His 2017 translation of Iliazd’s novel Rapture (Columbia University Press) won a Special Mention from the 2018 Read Russia Prize jury.  He received a 2019 Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for his work on another novel by Iliazd, Philosophia.  He holds a Ph.D. in Russian Literature from Columbia University.