Mayakovsky, in his yellow shirt

Futurism was the artistic movement Mayakovsky became a part of in the early years of his career. The movement was a reaction to Symbolism, and, with its rejection of the past and focus on creating a completely new future, in many ways embodied the ideas of revolutionary Russia. Symbolism, a world view that became popular in Russia in the 1890s, believed that there was a higher means of existence beyond the world that everyone knows, and the only way to transcend to this plane was through art. In literature, this was done through use of color, repetitive sound of syllables and letters, and spelling of words to express their deeper meanings and lessons of the story. However, due to the revolutions that began in 1905, Russia had begun to recreate herself entirely, and by 1915
Symbolism began to feel excessive and indulgent with respects to the workers movement. Futurists fervently rejected history and looked to reinvent art in new ways that had not been done before: Rebuilding art as they rebuild their country, casting aside the past and building an entirely new future, optimistically believing that what would come of this would be truly great.


David Burliuk

A major player in Russian Futurism was David Burliuk, a Ukrainian-born Artist who studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Mayakovsky met him in 1912, and recalls that upon reciting one of his poems (a bad one, he admits,) Burliuk called him «poetic genius,» and claims «That night, quite unexpectedly, I became a poet.» He called Burliuk his «only real teacher,» and in 1912 the two of them, along with Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksey Kruchenykh, formed the poetry troupe «Gileya» (Гилея), after a Greek city Burliuk once lived in. Together, they produced a «futurism manifesto,» A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (Пощечна общественному вкусу.) The manifesto called for a complete overhaul of art for the new era—not only throwing out the classic Russian greats Pushkin and Dostoevsky, but calling for the creation of a completely new vocabulary with which to write, believing that all previous forms of writing to be completely outdated. Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh soon thereafter created a new language of sound symbolism called Zaym (Заум), which was a system of nonsensical or archaic words used only for their sound, and not for their meanings.

A copy of Kruchenykh's Zaum

This Futurist group was a beginning for Mayakovsky, not just he had suddenly «become a poet,» but because he now had a community with which to travel in that matched him in flamboyancy and energy. The Futurists became known for their wild performances, toppling chairs over and bellowing their poetry at people. Burliuk in particular was known for the bird he would paint on his cheek, and Mayakovsky for his wild yellow shirt, apparently made by his mother. Such antics received mixed reviews from the population, frightening Mayakovsky's soon-to-be lover, Lili Brik, and causing the poet Osip Mendelstam to yell at him in jest, «Mayakovsky, stop reciting! You are not a Romanian Orchestra!»


ROSTA posters by Mayakovsky

Although they were always left-leaning, the futurists generally supported the Bolshevik party, believing that the they would provide them with the clean slate they needed to realize their reinvention of writing and art. In this year, Mayakovsky also joined ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency. For this organization Mayakovsky designed propaganda posters and wrote jingles talking about Russia's civil war, and supporting the Bolshevik effort. This type of worked helped Mayakovsky develop rhymes and meters, and his poetry at this time was very political. However, by 1919 the Soviet government became skeptical of the movement. Lenin himself did not want Pushkin to be «thrown overboard,» but rather wanted him to be enjoyed by all Russians and not just the bourgeois. A Proletarian Culture movement was also formed, and although they shared the same general message of a new, better Soviet future with the futurists, they did not want to reinvent art entirely, so the Soviet government believed them to be «safer.» Thus, on December 1st, 1920, the government decreed that the Futurist Movement was harmful to the new Soviet Union, and their works would not be encouraged.

"Ukrainians" by David Burliuk

Mayakovsky, however, continued to carry Futurist ideas with him. His plays, especially Mystery Bouffe and The Bathhouse all promoted the idea that the proletarian would wipe away the bourgeoisie and create an entirely new world, and in his poetry he constantly reassured the reader that the poet plays an important role in this society, famously calling for «The pen to be on par with the bayonet» in his 1925 poem Homeward!. In 1923, he found Futurism a new home in the journal Lef (Леф), The Left Front of Art, which he became the editor of. The purpose of this journal was to unite several of the left-leaning art movements, allowing a place for them to publish and exchange new ideas. It also had international aspirations, publishing avant-garde works from other countries. However, by 1928 the Futurist movement began to develop less fictional and idealist works, and more realistic accounts of life and travel. This brought about a new journal, New Lef (Новый Леф). Mayakovsky created a final incarnation of Lef shortly before his death in 1929, called Ref (Реф), or the Revolutionary Front of Art.

While Mayakovsky died in 1930, Futurism did not die with him. Although the movement relied much on the earlier fervor of the revolution and civil war, the avant-garde ascetic that came with Futurism was still very much alive, but was focused more on architecture and art than in literature. In its place came Soviet Realism, which emphasized the goals and achievements of Socialism. While this movement broke astatically with the futurist and avant-garde movement, Soviet Realism's ultimately glorified Stalin and the Soviet Union, creating an idealistic «look to the future» not at all unlike what Futurism began achieving in the 1920s.

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