One Hundred Years at the Library: Art and Politics

In celebration of the centennial of the Frick Art Reference Library, peek into the past one hundred years of the library’s remarkable history through important places, people, and objects from the collections. The objects featured are included in the commemorative publication One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library and are available for consultation in our reading room.

In this entry, we look at three items connected to the career of the Futurist poet and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky and his involvement in the turbulent politics of early twentieth-century Russia.

Through images, publications, and a vast trove of digital materials, the Frick Art Reference Library documents art created in the Western tradition from the fourth to the mid-twentieth century. Since its foundation around a century ago, the library has collected materials on the most up-to-date art, including modernist innovations that were revolutionizing artistic traditions around the same time the library was getting its start.

In this post, we focus on materials in our collections related to the Russian poet, playwright, and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930). The library has collected Russian materials since its inception, including books on Tsarist iconography and Symbolist art magazines, but subsequent acquisitions have made our holdings particularly strong in the areas of Russian and Eastern European modernist movements.

Book open to a cover page reading "Exposition de 1925, Section URSS, Catalogue" in front of a Soviet hammer and sickle

Mayakovsky’s career spans many of the upheavals in Russian society in the early 1900s. Under the Tsarist regime, before his beginnings as an artist, Mayakovsky was imprisoned and put in solitary confinement for Bolshevik activism. It was there where he claimed to have started to write verse. After his release, he enrolled in the Moscow Art School, in 1911, where his involvement in the nascent Futurist movement of art and literature began. During the Civil War, he created agitprop posters for ROSTA, the Russian State Telegraph Agency, and was later associated with the Left Art Front (LEF). Mayavosky’s art and writings reflected the massive changes taking place around him, while aiming to reject romantic and academic traditions.

In 1925, a few years after the formation of the Soviet Union, Mayakovsky and other Russian artists participated in the major exhibition held in Paris called the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts). The title gave rise to the term Art Deco, a style of design associated with modern progress and characterized by bold geometries and international influences. However, the Soviet contribution—a late entry—did not fit this category.

Today, the Soviet entry (catalogue pictured above) is best remembered for Konstantin Melnikov’s wood-and-glass pavilion and Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, both made in the Constructivist style. Mayakovsky and others contributed to the Soviet installation in the Grand Palais, which featured traditional handicrafts for sale along with advertisements for Mossel’prom products—beer, bread, cigarettes, cooking oil, and tea—designed by Mayakovsky and Rodchenko, who had begun to collaborate in 1923. Mayakovsky, who had come to Paris en route to the United States via Mexico, won a silver medal for these posters.

Brown paper catalog with black Cyrillic lettering on the cover
Cover of 20 лет работы Маяковского (20 Years of Mayakovsky’s Work) (Moscow, 1930), Frick Art Reference Library

Five years later, on February 1, 1930, Mayakovsky’s retrospective opened in Moscow and presented works covering twenty years of his art and writing. By then, his career had hit rock bottom. His recent play, The Bathhouse, performed both in Leningrad and Moscow, was poorly received by audiences and critics. He had also been banned from traveling abroad. The retrospective was boycotted by the political, literary, and artistic establishments, which had become less receptive to experimental art. At the opening, Mayakovsky read his latest poem, “At the top of my voice,” which was effectively his own funeral oration: “setting my heel on the throat of my own song.”

The catalog for the show (above), 20 Years of Mayakovsky’s Work, is strikingly simple: a typed list of 364 items, sorted into groups—books, journal articles, posters, drawings, advertisements, etc.—presented in a twenty-seven-page pamphlet. The publication was reproduced in stencil, as the printers, under political pressure, had refused to print the planned catalog. In a way, this marked Mayakovsky coming full circle, the cheap and ephemeral catalog evoking the Futurist publications of his early career.

Just two months later, on April 14, 1930, Mayakovsky took his own life. He had deep personal problems, but the state clampdown on artistic freedom and its imposition of socialist realism, a mandated ideology for the arts, added to his despair.

Front and back cover of a pamphlet, the front cover featuring an artwork of a building façade

Mayakovsky’s legacy as a politically engaged, highly modernist artist was felt internationally. In France, a year after his death, he was included by the Surrealists in Lisez/Ne Lisez Pas (Read/Don’t Read), a published game in which writers old and new were listed in columns of those to be read and those to be avoided. Mayakovsky appears in the approved, “Read” list (above, right: third column from left, fourth from bottom).

Mayakovsky had traveled to Paris, and though his French was extremely basic, he had been courted by the Surrealists, bolstered by a romantic connection forged between Ella (Elsa) Triolet, the younger sister of Mayakovsky’s lover, Lilya (Lili) Brik, and leading French Surrealist poet Louis Aragon, whom she later married, in 1939. It was likely that Surrealist co-founder André Breton met Mayakovsky on that trip as well.

After Mayakovsky’s death, Breton published an homage to him in the inaugural July 1930 issue of Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution:

любовная лодка разбилась о быт.
La barque de l’amour s’est brisée contre la vie courante.
The boat of love has crashed into everyday life.

All together, these materials charting Mayakovsky’s rise and fall are a poignant example of the documentation of modernist art held at the Frick Art Reference Library, in both primary and secondary sources. Though perhaps unexpected given the Frick’s art holdings, the library’s collection has, from its start, represented a much broader scope, enabling the discovery of many rich stories from throughout the history of art.

Learn more about the history and offerings of the Frick Art Reference Library at Discover all one hundred objects in One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library. To explore more content celebrating the library’s centennial, watch our video series on YouTube, subscribe to our e-news, and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and X.

One Hundred Years at the Library is supported in part by Virginia and Randall Barbato.

All photos by Joseph Coscia Jr., The Frick Collection

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