The years that surrounded the turn of the twentieth century were marked by wide ranging artistic experimentation and innovation. Influenced by the sights and sounds introduced through recent technological creations such as automobiles, airplanes, and the cinema, artists of all genres began to incorporate the new sensations of speed, dynamism, and simultaneity into their creative works. The most prominent early exponent of a new technologically informed art was the Italian editor and ideologue Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Enraptured by the dawning machine age, Marinetti aimed to sweep aside the perspectives and values of the past in a thoroughgoing aesthetic revolution. As he announced in his famous “Futurist Manifesto” from 1909:
We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
The movement created by Marinetti profoundly altered the contemporary art world in the years leading up to the First World War. But the Italian theorist was hardly the only member of the avant-garde interested in integrating technology and art. Russians numbered among the most innovative and influential of the new “Futurists.” Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchonykh, David Burlyuk, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Kazimir Malevich (among others) took up Marinetti’s challenge. They set-out to create new modes of communication that would transcend previous forms in the construction of a new aesthetic.
Of all the Russians who contributed to the emerging avant-garde perhaps none was better suited to the role of technological prophet than Vasily Vasilievich Kamensky (1884-1961). Beginning in 1908 as editor of the poetry journal Spring (Весна), and later as a participant in the literary group Hylaea and contributor to the movement’s foundational collection of poetry A Trap for Judges (Садок судей) (1910), Kamensky was among the earliest of the “Cubo-Futurists,” the most prominent Russian group to build on the ideas first developed by Marinetti. No less important, Kamensky was one of the very few Imperial Russian citizens who had direct experience with the era’s most revolutionary technological device: the airplane.
Kamensky’s first encounter with aviation came in the summer of 1910 when he flew as a passenger along with Vladimir Lebedev (one of Russia’s earliest pilots and aircraft constructors). Smitten by the “passion for wings,” the poet resolved to master the new art of flying. After placing an order for a Blériot XI of his own, he traveled to Paris where he took some half dozen lessons from Louis Blériot himself. Kamensky then returned to Russia to complete his informal training under the tutelage of Lebedev. Within several months he had made enough progress that he was able to pass the flying exam administered by the Imperial All-Russian Aero-Club. By the early spring of 1912, Kamensky had joined the small ranks of Imperial Russia’s first licensed pilots.
As it turned out, Kamensky’s tenure as a pilot was short-lived. The poet’s aerial career met an abrupt end only a few months after he had earned his wings. Following a near-fatal crash into a muddy bog, Kamensky abandoned aviation and returned to literature. Still, the airborne experiences profoundly shaped his artistic vision. In the years to come, Kamensky worked to incorporate the sights, sounds, and sensations of the new technology into his poetry and prose. The result was a series of radically new works that helped shape Cubo-Futurism and, in doing so, contributed to the rise of modern aesthetics.
Typical of Kamensky’s air-minded Cubo-Futurism was his 1912 poem “The Flight of Vasya Kamensky on an Aeroplane to Warsaw” which describes a pilot’s sensations as he prepares to depart from an aerodrome. Aside from the poem’s subject matter (which was itself quite novel), it was the striking composition of the piece that set it apart from contemporary works. Instructing his readers that the poem should be read “from the bottom of the page upward,” Kamensky employed a series of progressively smaller typefaces to communicate the experience of observing an airplane’s take-off, ascent, and final disappearance into the horizon. In retrospect, the poem is an early indication of the immense contributions that Russians were poised to make in the written and visual arts.
A more extreme (though less immediately obvious) example of Kamensky’s air-minded artistry is his 1914 “ferro-concrete” composition “Constantinople.” Although the work is typically identified as a “poem” it bears little resemblance to anything previously seen in that genre. “Constantinople” consists of words, sounds, letters, and numbers grouped together in apparently random fashion and arrayed within individual sub-sections comprising a larger square-shaped field. The words (and parts of words) chosen by the author clearly suggest things that one would encounter on a visit to the Turkish city. Here, one encounters “sailors” (матросы), “mullahs” (муллы), and “seagulls” (чайки). There, one can glimpse the “shores” of the “Bosphorous” (берег — Босфор) and the ancient cathedral “Haiga Sophia” (Ай Софи). But the “poem” has no beginning or end. It is impossible to “read” even in its original Russian. As such, it is essentially untranslatable.1 So what, if anything, does it mean?
It is only when we recall Kamensky’s experience as an aviator that “Constantinople” makes sense. The visually arresting, unreadable composition is a literal word-map depicting the city’s architectural features, inhabitants, and urban neighborhoods as experienced from overhead while looking down from an airplane. Little-known beyond a small circle of Russian literary and cultural scholars, “Constantinople” is one of the earliest and most important examples of aviation’s vital role in transforming twentieth-century art.
And now, the musical portion of today’s post:
- For Jack Hirschman’s “translation” of the poem see, Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium. The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. Volume One: From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude (U of California Press, 1995.) [↩]