“A Game in Hell” by A. Kruchyonykh and V. Khlebnikov: Book Art of the Russian Avant-garde

The first edition of “A Game in Hell” poem by Alexey Kruchyonykh and Velimir Khlebnikhov was published in 1912. The illustrations for the first edition were made by Natalia Goncharova. In two years, in 1914 the second edition with illustrations by Kazimir Malevich and Olga Rozanova was printed. The second edition differed from the first in a bigger size, absence of punctuation, and strophes order. Nevertheless, both of them are striking examples of the book art of the Russian Avant-garde in 1910–1920s.

Cover A Game in Hell Goncharova     1Cover A Game in Hell Malevich

Cover of “A Game in Hell” poem by N. Goncharova, 1912          

Cover of “A Game in Hell” poem by K. Malevich, 1914

In 1930 Alexey Kruchyonykh compiled a collection of unpublished works by Velimir Khlebnikov in the “Unreleased Khlebnikov. Edition XVIII” and remembered the story of creating “A Game in Hell” poem there. A. Kruchyonykh wrote that once in a messy and rather empty (as if it was a student room) room of V. Khlebnikov he got from the brief case two sheets of paper with draft of his first poem “A Game in Hell”. A. Kruchyonykh shared the notes with V. Khlebnikov. The latter took the drafts and began to add lines of his own. After he had finished, they read the text, argued and corrected it. And, thus, having become co-authors, A. Kruchyonykh and V. Khlebnikov created their first joint poem. In August 1912 inMoscow the poem was published.

The subject of “A Game in Hell” is an image of the devil which was the ubiquitous topic in Russian art and literature in the first decades of the 20th century. The poem is an ironic sneer at the archaic image of the devil and concerns a card game between the devil and sinners. The narrative is made in a traditional for futurists manner of complicated, tangled language accompanied by the imagery by so called “Avant-garde amazons” Natalia Goncharova (first edition, 1912) and Olga Rozanova (second edition, 1914) and one of the core Russian Avant-garde artists Kazimir Malevich. The poem became the first fully lithographic book of the Russian Avant-garde.

When talking about the features of the futurist book art, first of all, it is essential to mention the principal intentional blending of text and image comprising an integrated composition. A column of the text reflects directly in the graphic figure, as well as letters and words become images themselves. Once Sergey Tretyakov, a poet-futurist, having looked through the “Mirskontsa” futurist book, noticed: “No, these are not verses, these are drawings. They are filled with graphics, but it is literal graphics accompanied by sounds of speech and associations”.

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“A Game in Hell” poem, 1912. Illustrations by Natalia Goncharova

“Another words can never be typed, as for them handwriting is only allowed”, Nikolay Burlyuk noticed. Individual handwriting is another way used by A. Kruchyonykh showing the contradiction to the traditional book typography. Futurists believed that author’s writing enriched a poem with absolutely specific sound, meaning, and quality. The text is no longer a text, it becomes a sort of a painting widening the author’s idea, depicting it in colour. Now the poem is not only to be read, but to be watched as well.


“A Game in Hell” poem, 1914. Illustrations by Olga Rozanova

Strophes and columns are composed not always in a traditional way. They can be disproportionate, of strange triangle form, scanning separation varies, font size and fat font change from bigger to smaller, from brighter to lighter.

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“A Game in Hell” poem, 1914. Illustrations by Olga Rozanova

The illustrations made by Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Olga Rozanova add a specific meaning and broaden the boundaries of A. Kruchyonykh and V. Khlebnikov’s ideas and expressions. Drawings are usually disposed in four ways: at the top or the bottom of a page, vertical drawings in the margins to the left of the text (Natalia Goncharova), triangular or trapezium-shaped, and separate paginal illustrations. The figures are drawn in white on a black framed background and the text is written in black on a light pink or beige background. This mode makes the black background step back, but the text step to foreground, thus, making a specific visual effect. Furthermore, the illustrations do not depict every word in the text. They are bound with each other by plot and form a chain of images which exist simultaneously but in parallel to the text deepening and enriching its ironic manner.

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“A Game in Hell” poem, 1912. Illustrations by Natalia Goncharova

Poetics of a word expressed in graphics was of a prime importance for the Russian Avant-garde artists. By using handwriting, various font sizes, drawings of a non-traditional shape and disposition they tried to intensify, double and treble the meaning of their statement. Having created a work of art from a simple text, they made the words and letters not only to be read but watched as well.

Nastasia Rozhkova 

All the images are taken from the RARUS’S GALLERY website



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