Theses Doctoral

Avant-Garde Poetics of Language in Central and Eastern Europe: Vladimir Mayakovsky’s and Karel Teige’s Responses to the Crisis of Language and Representation

Denischenko, Irina M.

This dissertation is a comparative study of the Russian and Czech avant-gardes and their responses to the crises of representation and artistic language in the first decades of the 20th century. In particular, it examines the theoretical and creative output of two artists who worked at the intersection of the word and image: the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the visual artist Karel Teige. Both artists were central figures in the founding and theoretical articulation of Russian Futurism and Czech Poetism, respectively. The chapters trace these artists’ artistic evolutions, from their earliest conceptions of a crisis in art to the development of solutions for overcoming this crisis. The theoretical and creative output of these figures is examined both within the artists’ individual oeuvres, as well as in light of their respective artistic movements and the broader tendencies of the international avant-garde.
Chapter 1 traces Mayakovsky’s response to the crisis from his initial impulse toward abstraction, characteristic of the Russian Cubo-Futurist movement in the verbal and visual arts more broadly, to the introduction of a political agenda into his art. On the basis of Mayakovsky’s participation in collective Futurist publications, his individually authored theoretical essays, and narrative poems, this chapter argues that the poet’s solution to the crisis of language coalesced around the possibility of realizing democratic representation in art. The chapter shows that in poems written between 1914 and 1921, Mayakovsky was concerned with the question of how to accommodate others’ voices in lyric poetry, how to allow them to speak in and through his works. His vision of a more democratic form of representation necessitated the poet’s metaphorical self-sacrifice, which he repeatedly performed in his poems on the level of plot. This sacrifice enabled him to realize his vision of democratic representation in the idea of collective authorship performed in his narrative poem 150,000,000.
Chapter 2 highlights Karel Teige’s response to the crisis of artistic language and representation in his theoretical essays and artworks. By contrast to Mayakovsky’s politicized response, Teige prioritized formal innovation. More specifically, this chapter argues that Teige viewed the fusion of the word and image in a multimedia art form as a solution to the parallel crises that afflicted the visual and the verbal arts. This desired fusion remained a constant of Teige’s artistic solutions throughout the 1920s. His first attempts to overcome the crisis are contained in the Poetist conception of “image poetry,” which incorporated words, painted images, photographs, and other materials. The photograph, understood as a direct imprint of reality, introduced the element of the real into image poetry and thereby transfigured the word and image. After image poetry, Teige went on to replay his formal solution to the crisis of representation in another fused form—the typophoto, which was integrated into the experimental multimedia book ABCs (1926).
The introduction and conclusion frame these case studies in terms of the broader trends that inform the artistic experiments of these figures. More specifically, the introductory chapter grapples with questions of how the crisis of language and representation at the turn of the 20th century can be conceptualized. Arguing that the artistic experimentation of the 1910s and the 1920s represents a continuity of what Foucault calls the modern episteme, the introduction at the same time seeks to address the fissures and breaks represented by abstraction in art and the proto-structuralist understanding of the sign in linguistics. The conclusion addresses the role of figurative language in the articulation of the crisis and maintains that while the language of crisis was productive for artistic experiment, it confined the avant-garde to perpetual renewal of forms and artistic language.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Izmirlieva, Valentina B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 15, 2018