“Every artist,” wrote V.I. Lenin, “everyone who considers himself as such, has the right to create freely according to his ideals, independently of everything.” Who would have guessed that the author of this noble thought is none other than the originator of one of the world’s most repressive social systems! Even the most remote similarity between the ideal and the present Soviet reality is a sheer coincidence. Yet behind this cruel irony lies the secret of the Russian Revolution.

Intimately linked with the Russian Revolution is the life and work of the artist, painter, and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). The paradox of the Revolution is reflected in the personal tragedy of the artist. It is impossible to talk about Mayakovsky’s art without considering the times that produced the artist. Both East and West were exploding in the 1900’s with new ideas. The men and women who championed these new ideas sought to abolish established norms and genres in the arts and to overthrow established social orders. Certainly this was true about Mayakovsky. There is no way one can abstract or “subtract” the artist from his work.

Nevertheless, Juliette Stapanian’s scholarly and pedantic study of Mayakovsky’s poetry is a remarkable effort in that direction. Relying strictly on an analytical method called “graphic scansion,” Stapanian first attempts a step-by-step examination of Mayakovsky’s poems and then tries to show that his poetic imagery and technique correspond to those found in cubist-futurist paintings.

To use a modern colloquialism—and Mayakovsky is modern even by today’s standards—most of his lyrical poetry is “off the wall.” In one such poem that Stapanian has chosen for analysis, “a crazy cathedral” is “galloping” across the horizon of the urbanscape, while the image of Christ has “peeled off” the ancient Russian icon and fled (to safety!). Stapanian wants to “arrest” this free-fancy chain of images and subject it to her analytical scrutiny. So she offers a logical explanation of how, optically, this phenomenon could actually take place as the observer walks in the direction of the cathedral and his own movements are translated into apparent movements of the image of the distant cathedral. But the reader must wonder if this sort of logic is applicable to this kind of poetry—written by a “crazy Russian poet”!

Stapanian finds “a related source of complexity and distortion lies in the equivocal flow of images by the studied displacement of locational references.” Mayakovsky, the man of the earth, would have marveled at this lofty tone of literary style. The poet of the “cloud in trousers” and of the “scent of the armpits,” who didn’t shy away from occasional obscenity, Mayakovsky longed to be understood by everyone, even by the most simple and the uneducated. Obviously this compulsion to be understood is not one of Stapanian’s problems. The reader may be tempted to conclude that Mayakovsky exercised good judgment and foresight in committing suicide some 55 years ago: otherwise he would have had to endure such literary (and literal-minded) studies as Stapanian’s myopic Cubo-Futurist Vision.

The tragedy of Mayakovsky is the tragedy of the Russian Revolution and of the people of the USSR. All that Mayakovsky fought against—the “philistines” and the “reactionary bourgeois” style—triumphed in the official Soviet state. When the Almighty State, ruled by the Central Committee, decided to punish “bad” artists and reward “good” ones, Mayakovsky’s fate was sealed. The “apparatchiki” (safekeepers of the revolution) and the modernists were hopelessly incompatible because they were mutually incomprehensible. Not much has changed since.

Yet it is hard not to see a striking resemblance between “socialist realism” and commercialist “photorealism” in the West. True enough, the two aesthetics serve different masters, but the ultimate goal is the same; salesmanship. In thrall to commercialism and consumerism, art surrenders to a very simple one-two rule: what sells is good, what doesn’t isn’t. The “verisimilitude” of artistic representation, both East and West, spells out the neurosis of our times. Verisimilitude is a poor substitute for creative authenticity. The ever-so-sterile and deadly imitation of “reality” is a true sign of man’s competitiveness with “nature” and of his alienation from himself.

We still need Mayakovsky today; we need his bold spirit of an incorrigible rebel with a cause. We could use his “slap in the face of public taste” and his appeals for a greater integration of the arts and a closer cooperation between artists, across national borders but also across artificial boundaries of different artistic discipline.

It has been 55 years since Mayakovsky’s death, but we need to hear his poems once more. In both East and West.


[Mayakovsky’s Cubo-Futurist Vision, by Juliette R. Stapanian; Rice University Press; Houston]