The Almanac "Unovis"- A Chronicle of Malevich's Vitebsk Experiment

Tatiana Goriacheva

Magazine issue: 
#3 2013 (40)


The publishing house "ScanRus" is issuing this unique edition in two parts - a facsimile of the almanac "Unovis", and a special supplementary part with the introductory text and the text of the almanac itself (foreword, publication and commentaries by Tatiana Goriacheva).

In this supplement the articles from the almanac are edited with additional commentary, especially on the illustrations. The greater part of the texts and drawings has never been published before and thus has not been subject to scientific investigation. In some publications these documents have been used only as supporting material to study the activity of Malevich and his disciples and followers in Vitebsk. This edition is the first attempt towards a full reconstruction and scientific study of the almanac.

The almanac prepared by Unovis was to be shown at the First All-Russia conference of students of GSHM - the acronym for the State Free Art Studios (Workshops); its main function was not only to present a "chronicle" of the activity of the five months of the body's life, but also to introduce a kind of a design project for future planned publications of the group. On June 8 Malevich declared it necessary to receive permission for the project as a newspaper, and thus to apply officially to the Narkompros (the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment). The attempt was unsuccessful, for reasons that were to some extent understandable - no funding, no printing industry and, in addition, circumstances that made the position of Unovis itself rather complicated. The local authorities were far from keen on the idea of giving support and assistance to Malevich. The idea to publish a newspaper was partially realized - from Autumn 1920 theTvorkom (Artistic Committee) started to issue some lithoprint editions in a limited number of copies. Some of them are known and available: the magazine "AERO", leaflets of the Vitebsk Tvorkom, "Unovis - the 2nd edition of the Vitebsk Tvorkom", and the newspaper "Put' Unovisa" (The Road of Unovis). But these publications could not realize or approach the ideal that the members of Unovis strove for in the almanac - they did not embrace many aspects of urgent artistic problems, and were far from exhaustive. The almanac was fated to be the only significant collection of articles in which Unovis managed to speak openly and in full.

It is likely that the members of Unovis planned to issue the almanac at least lithographically, in order to achieve a relatively good printing standard and a larger print-run.

At the beginning of April Marc Chagall wrote from Vitebsk to Pavel Ettinger: "At present they [the School] are preparing a school anthology, although there is a problem with paper here". This problem, evidently, turned out to be decisive, and the almanac was typed in five carbon-copies.

El Lissitsky played the leading role in the publication of the almanac; he not only headed the studio of graphics and printing at Vitebsk Art School, but already had some experience of book illustration. Lissitsky's first experience in book illustration was close to that of the "Unovis" almanac. In 1941 he wrote: "I remember I made my first book in 1905 - two typed copies - a revolutionary almanac with my own drawings and a text written together with a comrade." At the end of 1910 when he was already a professional artist, Lissitsky illustrated a number of Jewish children's books, in which his talent as an illustrator was vividly demonstrated, though they bore all the stylistic traits and peculiarities of national Jewish culture. In 1919-1920 he became acquainted with Malevich, joined the Unovis group, and experienced the strong influence of Suprematism and the invention of"prouns" - all these together not only radically changed his attitude to book illustration and made him adopt ethical norms of avantgarde art, but also stimulated him to create an absolutely new type of book, the "visual book". The almanac was an example of Lissitsky's experiments in the realization of this concept, becoming the prototype for an innovatory book.

In 1941 in answers to a questionnaire he specially mentioned -among the Vitebsk publications - this very almanac in the "list of works of particular importance". The list included 21 items, out of which Lissitsky marked as number one "Khad Gadze" (A Little She-goat); and as number two - the almanac "Unovis"; in third place were the two issues of the magazine "Veshch" (The Thing). The latter was published in 1922 in Berlin in cooperation with Ilya Ehrenburg. The second place given to the almanac (between "Khad Gadze" and "Veshch") is not the result merely of its chronological sequence: many of his works from the end of the 1910s are not even mentioned. Obviously it emphasizes the role of "Unovis" in the evolution of a new conception of book design. In 1927, making his own analysis of the history of book design, Lissitsky wrote: "At the end of the Civil War (1920) we received the opportunity to realize our plans and ideas in new book design - though using primitive printing and mechanical means. In Vitebsk we issued five typed copies of the almanac 'Unovis'". Lissitsky notes one of the peculiarities of the new book -its "building" composition. In Lissitsky's afterword to the almanac he states: "This book is built up by the collective group of the Unovis graphic studio, using the printing machines of Vitsvomas (the Vitebsk Free Workshops)". The way this phrase is formulated ("built") reveals not only Lissitsky's engineering and architectural manner of thinking, but also his absolutely new and innovative approach to book design.

The almanac embraced all the forms of Unovis activity - pedagogical, public and artistic, and each was represented by theoretical and practical postulates. The structure of the edition - and it does deserve special attention - exposed the group's scale of values: all the materials were published in a certain sequence dictated by the logic of the group's self-consciousness.

The ideological basis of the artistic and life-building activity of the members of Unovis was a socio-aesthetic doctrine, formulated by Malevich - his utopia of"the world as non-objectiveness"; therefore the almanac opened with several declarations and articles (namely, "To pure action", "Unom I", "In the depths of consciousness", and "On "I" and on the collective"), in which the philosophy of Suprematism was declared. They functioned as an ideological preamble to the review of the group's activity.

The first pages of the almanac were illustrated with the symbolic forms of Suprematism - black and red squares, a circle and a cross, visualizing a suprematic model and manifesting the genetic link of the basic concepts of Malevich's philosophy with his artistic doctrine. At the same time these drawings play a secondary role in relation to the texts themselves - in full accord with Malevich's concept (formulated in 1920) that "a brush can't reach what can be reached by a pen. A brush is disarranged, it is not sharpened and it cannot reach the convolutions of the brain; thus a pen is sharper".

Malevich's "sharp pen", and the absolute originality of his literary style was often noted. His contemporaries very frequently criticized him severely for his barbarous, wild illiteracy, the overwhelming number of neologisms, "polonisms" (a result of his Polish origin), inversions and grammatical mistakes, as well as his awful spelling and punctuation. All these, as well as the inarticulateness and incorrectness of his speech allow us to speak of Malevich's distinctly original linguistic phenomenon. He never cared for eloquence or exact and precise formulations. What he did care for was content, thought or the idea to be perceived; as for stylistic devices Malevich made them serve him in building up an image, and stressing the rhythmical expressiveness of his speech. Thus his language, together with its rather vague and uncertain definitions and notions, coming close to a prophetic, almost biblical pathos, evoked absolutely different attitudes and reactions from his readers. A. Efros wrote: "I do like his tough, stubborn, tense inarticulate eloquence; of course, it's no literature. Sometimes it's less, sometimes it's more than literature: there are some flashes of apostolic writings." B. Arvatov in his review of the book "God is Not Thrown Down" ("Art. Church. Factory") pointed to the obscure language as "some kind of ventriloquistic mixture of pathology and the maniac nature of the degenerate, who imagines himself a prophet". In his review of the brochure "From Cezanne to Suprematism" P. Kornitski called it "a collection of senseless phrases". Malevich acknowledged that these authors were right in accusing him of being illiterate, but at the same time his feelings were wounded and he would complain to some of his friends. As for Efros's review, he wrote to M. Gershenson: "A certain fellow wrote about me that some time ago I was a mystery, but now I'm a complete epigone, illiterate, inaticulat [a typical example of Malevich's peculiar spelling mistakes - T.G.]. Well, I'm illiterate, it's true, but it is impossible to say that grammar is everything, or that if I knew grammar, I would have been cleverer".

There exists an inner logic in his texts, ruled by some laws and peculiarities of the author's thinking: his inarticulateness, the repeated phrases reflecting the complexity and multi-stage structure of the generative process of philosophical thought, and certain obscure meanings of many formulations conditioned by vague statements of one and the same idea in numerous of Malevich's papers. He does not keep the same style throughout his publications: emphasis follows irony, the indifferent tone of his philosophical discourse is broken by sharp polemics, invectives are coloured with either sarcasm or anger -but all of these make the character of Malevich's works really notable. The theoretical works of his disciples were infected with a similar stylistic virus. Their articles are characterized by the same specific style, which mirrors the atmosphere of the heated disputes that took place in Vitebsk in 1920 and the indisputable authority of Malevich, and in some cases, probably, the lack of education of the young provincial figures concerned. It was not only Malevich's philosophy that influenced them, or the code of his commandments, but also his language. His disciples copied the "pathetic" declarative intonation of their Teacher, and reproduced some specific figures of Malevich's speech, his formulations, neologisms and even the mistakes of his grammar. This formed a certain conventional speech system, which N. Kogan called - rather precisely - "an incredible Vitebsk-Russian dialect".

A special part of the almanac was devoted to the Unovis programme of culture reforms. It contained some papers on the theatre ("Victory over the Sun" with costumes designed by Vera Yermolaeva under the direction of Kazimir Malevich; "suprematist ballet", choreographed by Nina Kogan; and the article "On the Theatre" by L. Zu-perman); on music (M. Matiushin's article "On the Old and New Music"); and on poetry ("Declaration of the Word as It Is" by Alexei Kruchenykh). Another part of the almanac was devoted to the representation of the Unovists' pedagogics, including the articles "Fundamentals of Abstract Art" by N. Kogan and "On Studies of Cubism" by V. Yermolaeva. Both the articles were illustrated by numerous works by students of the preparatory workshop.

There was also a part which - in the terminology of Unovis -might be called "Collective Creative Activity". This part presented the programme of the group, a chronicle of its activity and many examples demonstrating the results of its creative activity: Ilya Chashnik's draft plan for a suprematist speaker's podium for a city square (Lissitsky later incorporated this plan into his famous photomontage known as "Lenin's Tribune"); agitational propaganda, such as Lissitsky's "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" on the sides of railway cars; and suprematist transformations of the city's appearance.

The concluding part of the almanac resembled a kind of mosaic, with many materials dealing with a variety of problems: the curriculum, a resume on the talks "On Still-life", reports made at Unovis members' meetings. Its conclusion was the project of the organization of the "Committee on New Forms of Art". This document turned to be "a denouement" of the composition of the almanac as it directed the life-building programme, introducing some organizational ideas and formulating a concrete plan of action for the Unovis group.

As Malevich put it: "We, as witnesses to and creators of the New Art movement, must also document it, so that its history will not need be excavated from the ruins of posterity."

The publication of the "Unovis" almanac was a partial substitute - though in quite a different form - for Malevich's never-realized magazine "Supremus". Its contents coincided with the aims of the projected third issue of the magazine, formulated in May 1917 by O. Rozanova: "It is a periodical magazine. Strictly in the frameworks of the group, its programme being: Suprematism (painting, sculpture, architecture, music, new theatre, etc.)... The articles should be academic, or popular scientific, etc"

But although following the lines of "Supremus", the almanac deviates sometimes given particular circumstances of life, such as some rotation or changes among Malevich's students and disciples, the new social-public activity of the Vitebsk group and most of all, due to radical changes in Malevich's theoretical background, from a declaration of artistic postulates to the formulation of an utopian socio-aesthetic programme.

It should be stressed here that Malevich did not consider the almanac as a realized project of a real suprematist magazine. In 1923 L. Yudin writes in his diary: "Malevich on the magazine. There has never been anything like a suprematist magazine [italics, T.G.]. This is the most urgent thing. To give the full space to Suprematism. <...> To use only Suprematism. To give only models and corresponding articles. This magazine is a weapon". In reality this self-made almanac, in five copies, immediately became a bibliographical rarity. This could not satisfy Malevich's desire to create a representative anthology of the suprematist school's activity. Nevertheless, this edition, issued at the moment of the birth of the Unovis group and at the peak of its activity, became a unique monument to the utopian thought and activity of Malevich's school.





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