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Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist by Johanna Drucker

 A Meta-Biography of a Modernist. Johanna Drucker.
Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist. Johanna Drucker. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. Pp. 312. $94.95 (cloth); $34.95 (paper); $34.95 (eBook).

Modernity seems very much to be with us still. Yet that explosive moment on either side of 1900 is long over, and what has come after is either a pale shadow of its former self or actively contests it. It is precisely that gap that Johanna Drucker explores in Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist, in terms of the book artist Iliazd (1894-1975) and of Drucker herself, who began her project as a graduate student in 1985 and returned to it in 2019 as the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies and Distinguished Professor of Information Studies at UCLA.

In the modernist uncanny, the physical book is of crucial importance. As Marshall McLuhan reminded us, Modernism was in many ways a remediation of the spatial system established by the linearities of typography, a remediation powered by electronic media. Gramophone, film, and later television produced a space not bound by the exigencies of print. Franco Marinetti’s parole in libertà had already pointed directly at the issue: to free words from their typographical constraints was to free art from the passatismo that had characterized it for the last few hundred years.

The book artist Iliazd (Ilia Zdanevitch) was a friend of Marinetti and began his career as a typographer. From Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia, Iliazd moved to St. Petersburg in 1911, and it was there that he encountered the Futurist manifestos of Marinetti. By the following year he had entered into the charmed circle of artists such as Natalia Goncharova and in 1914 met Marinetti himself during the Italian’s visit to Moscow. Having obtained his law degree in 1917, he renounced the profession and became a printer, as well as the author of several one-act plays written in zaum, a language that derived its meaning purely from sound. Zaum was of crucial importance for Iliazd’s later work, since it embraced the configurational space of acoustic culture as opposed to the linearities of print.

By 1920, Zdanevitch was signing his work “Iliazd,” and the following year he moved to Paris and entered the artistic milieu of Pablo Picasso, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Tristan Tzara, Paul and Gala Éluard, Marc Chagall, Pierre Reverdy, Antonin Artaud, and Max Jacob. In addition to organizing artistic soirées and writing more plays, Iliazd began working as a fabric designer for Coco Chanel. The friendship with Picasso developed to the point that Picasso produced a series of illustrations for Iliazd’s first livre d’artiste, Afat, published in 1940, and a number of such books followed over the next decade. In the mid-1950s, at Marcel Duchamp’s request, Iliazd designed a new box for La Boîte en valise, and in the years before his 1975 death, Iliazd continued to produce work illustrated by artists such as Picasso, Braque, Mirò, and Giacometti.

It is in Paris a decade after the death of Iliazd that Johanna Drucker picks up this story, travelling to Paris to do research on his life and work that has culminated in Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist. Drucker’s own experience with letterpress attracted her to Iliazd. Having completed her biography of the artist in the early 1990s, the book was under contract to Northwestern University Press and scheduled for publication in 1994, but an economic crisis led to its cancellation. A revival of interest in Iliazd in 2019, with exhibitions in Moscow, Málaga, and at Columbia University (and there is one in 2021 at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor) coincided with a Beinecke Fellowship that allowed Drucker to return to the project, the hiatus affording her the opportunity to expand her research and also to consider the complexities of biography itself. The understanding she had of modernism thirty years ago is not the same one she has now, and with that change her understanding of the life and work of Iliazd has changed as well. As Drucker compellingly puts it, “I can no longer simply write about things, whether they are historical events, objects, or aesthetic positions, as if they exist independently of the processes by which they are assumed to exist as things, events, objects, or positions. The attention to the meta-level of knowledge permeates my thinking,” and hence her meta-biographical reflections on “how biography produces its supposed subject” (xii).

One of the most plangent aspects of Drucker’s book is the sense that the world in which she began her work no longer exists, and with its disappearance, the idea of modernism she had in 1985 has vanished as well. As she writes,

Modernism was already gone in 1985, eclipsed, passing out of unqualified acceptance of the canonical figures and artistic precepts. The postmodern critical reflection on the claims of modern art was emerging. Modernism’s own formulations—aspirations of utopian social transformation through aesthetic means, the radical innovations justified by revolutionary rhetoric, the notion that a universal language of form could be articulated like a grammar—were all concepts that seemed like past tense. That characterization, formulated within modernism’s own ideology, had shifted to one in which the global reach of colonial agendas, the unexamined biases in the concept of primitivism, the masculinist tone, and gender-normative practices, particularly within the “movements” of futurism, Dada, and surrealism, were all being scrutinized and rethought.(4)

A sense of the distance between the Parisian milieu in which Iliazd had lived and the world in which Drucker was doing her research emerges in an extraordinary scene describing her interview with Iliazd’s friend Prince Gleb Eristoff, a White Russian émigré, whom Iliazd’s widow suggests she meet:

Through the usual exchange of letters, I set a rendezvous and went to meet him at his “studio,” a classic early twentieth-century atelier space with glass skylight, kitchen alcove, mezzanine, and bedroom somewhere out of sight. The room had the air of a time capsule, unchanged throughout the decades of his long residence there. He received me in this light but cold environment. It felt more like a stage set than a domicile. He was seated in a large chair and held a cane with a carved handle. He gave the impression of a man from an earlier era, with starched white shirt cuffs and collar, and stickpin and foulard. His hair was swept back, his thinning mane and regal profile still dramatic. He never looked directly at me during the interview but kept himself in profile the entire time. . . . What were the terms of his connection with Iliazd? . . . No notes of mine remain from that visit, only the impression of the man, diminished and elderly, but maintaining a posture of grandeur in an empty space.(150)

Working with Iliazd’s widow, Madame Hélène Zdanevich, on the materials she had amassed about her late husband’s artistic production, Drucker eventually comes to realize that “it was Madame’s Iliazd I came to know,” while acknowledging that, as his third wife, Madame had not been present during Iliazd’s Russian years, nor did she know the Iliazd who arrived in Paris, nor the circumstances of the first publications (4).

Iliazd produced about two dozen books across the span of his career, and while Drucker had access to this material in the archive that Madame had amassed, she is also now aware that “what remains is partial, incidental, randomly preserved. What is missing is infinitely unaccountable. . . . Later you find whole chapters of the life were not revealed—not through design, but simply by circumstance” (20). To understand his books, one must understand the circumstances of their production, which do not map onto the circumstances of his life. While Marinetti loomed large in the early career of Iliazd, he was also influenced by Aleksei Kruchenykh, the inventor of zaum, who gave lectures with titles such as “Luminous Letters of Electric Books” (63). It was in this context that Iliazd began to experiment with letterpress printing, intentionally violating the use of same-sized letters and straight lines for a text. As Drucker remarks, “He wanted to score his texts as if they were orchestral pieces for simultaneous voices” (67).

A 1946 lecture that Iliazd gave in Paris on “Twenty Years of Futurism” provoked the wrath of Isidore Isou, the founder of lettrism, and the upshot of the brouhaha was Iliazd’s publication of Poetry of Unknown Words (Poésie de Mots Inconnus). Drucker calls this book “the first anthology of experimental visual and sound poetry from the twentieth-century avant-garde to appear in print” (157). The work sought to refute Isou’s claim to originality for lettrism with references to the early avant-garde movements in which Iliazd was a player. The book was comprised of single sheets folded into quarters and unbound. Each sheet had the name of the paired artist and poet on the outside, and on the inside was a full-page work, the whole enclosed in parchment. “Compact and articulate, the book performs its aesthetic vision in material form” (174).

When Drucker completed the first version of her biography, she sent it to Hélène, who was disappointed in it, as she had been at the massive 1986 exhibition on Futurism in Venice, where Iliazd’s work was confined to a small glass case, along with other Russian Futurists. Where was her Iliazd? This question is at the heart of Drucker’s book: “The encounter with the project was and also was not an encounter with the man” (253). In a deeply moving conclusion, Drucker shares her realization that “Hélène [was] not a shadow figure here. . . but the living person I came to know” (253).

Iliazd is actually two books: one is the biography of Iliazd, and the other is a meditation on the complicated intersections of biography and critique. Both succeed luminously.