Ghosts of the Avant-Garde: On Johanna Drucker’s “Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist”

December 20, 2021   •   By Ross Wilson

Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist

Johanna Drucker

I DON’T KNOW for certain, of course, but chances are that you’re reading this on a computer, smartphone, or suchlike glowing confection of plastic and toxic metals. The book under review is also available in a format compatible with such devices, but the version of it I read was printed on “environmentally friendly book materials, including recycled text paper that is composed of at least 30 percent post-consumer waste,” which is good to know — though there’s the rider: “whenever possible.” At least the paper is acid-free. The other details of the book’s manufacture with which the reader is furnished are scanty — we’re not informed what font was used for its script, for instance — though there are the usual credits for the cover image and design.

Who cares? Well, Johanna Drucker, whose career as a professor of bibliographical studies at UCLA has been devoted to modernist book production and the materials of verbal (or perhaps, more properly, alphabetic) artworks, does. And so too, to an exquisite degree, did Ilia Zdanevich, the subject of Drucker’s consistently informative, touching, and disarmingly self-reflective book. Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist is a remarkable account of the life, work, and, in some important respects, afterlife of Iliazd, as he liked to be known. Georgian émigré in the high modernist milieu of 1920s Paris, determined polemicist for Russian futurism, correspondent with Marinetti, collaborator with Picasso, employee of Chanel, Iliazd lived a life of material hardship and personal tragedy. It was also a life of extraordinary artistic and bibliographic achievement, and Drucker’s engaging account will, one hopes, bring Iliazd’s work to the prominence it deserves but has, up to now, only rarely achieved.

Brought up in a cultured middle-class household in pre-Revolutionary Tbilisi (there’s a nice photo of the young Ilia wearing a dress in a comfortably appointed nursery), Iliazd’s life played out against the background of the major upheavals, both geopolitical and cultural, of the 20th century. It is the latter kind of upheaval that featured most prominently in Iliazd’s life. Though he left Tbilisi in 1920, never to return to the Soviet Union, he did not see action in either of the World Wars and, though one can discern a left-leaning tendency, took few political stances and didn’t engage in political controversy. But he did engage in other kinds of controversy: rival futurists, lettrists, and modernists of various stripes, especially those to whom plaudits for innovation and originality were, in Iliazd’s view, unjustly ascribed, all felt the sting of his polemic. Drucker quotes liberally from Iliazd’s published broadsides, lectures, and correspondence, in which he was unafraid of offending the sensibilities of the Parisian cultural leadership by pointing out that Western European avant-gardes had in fact long been anticipated in Russophone writing and artistic practice, often by himself. And there are some good anecdotes of high-modernist fisticuffs, such as the ludicrous fracas between Paul Éluard (the villain of the piece) and Tristan Tzara, witnessed by a panoply of soon-to-be notables, including Picasso, Louis Aragon, and André Breton, at an event for which Iliazd had designed a typographically innovative poster.

Such an episode, and the fact that Iliazd himself managed to avoid the thick of it, might be taken to suggest that Iliazd is mostly interesting as a figure on the margins of artistic history, a perceptive and eloquent witness to his century’s aesthetic developments. To be sure, many of his associates — Picasso most obviously, but others as well — are more routinely acknowledged in the annals of modernist artistic achievement than Iliazd himself, and Drucker does a good job of showing how Iliazd did indeed have an eye for, and attachment to, leading proponents of different avant-gardes. His friendship with Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov is one example of this (so to speak) subsidiary talent, as was his celebration of the Georgian primitivist painter Niko Pirosmani, not to mention his many lectures and credos, his poster designs, and even his late, great project of producing finely wrought editions of the writings of the obscure 17th-century writer Adrian de Monluc. The pinnacle of this important aspect of Iliazd’s career was the publication in 1948 of Poésie de mots inconnus (Poetry of Unknown Words), “the first anthology of experimental visual and sound poetry from the twentieth-century avant-garde,” Drucker strikingly claims, “to appear in print.”

But Drucker also pays close attention to Iliazd’s own work, taking seriously his attempts to advance the avant-garde, to secure his artistic claims, and, in particular, to elaborate different typographic forms, the book above all, as significant art forms in their own right. Thus, she offers sustained and informative accounts of his early Journal of 41 Degrees, as well as his Aslaablitchia Cycle of five plays that were produced in Tbilisi between 1917 and 1919, and his late, elegiac sonnet sequence, Sentence Without Words. Despite his sometimes prickly and defensive polemics — in which, for instance, he insists that Apollinaire and Marinetti were latecomers in the development of the avant-garde, or rounds on the insufferably conceited Isidore Isou — what emerges from Drucker’s account, then, is an artist of almost infinite interests and extraordinary capacities, with a lifelong devotion to the revolutionary potentials inherent in the materials of artistic production — in the letters and shapes, the sounds and silences, the inks and papers and bindings.

I mentioned above the sometimes difficult circumstances of Iliazd’s life — difficult despite his avoidance of direct or active involvement in the political upheavals that wracked his world, from the mountains of the Caucasus to the streets of Paris, during his lifetime. Often impecunious, Iliazd had to find work that was sometimes adjacent, at best, and drastically unrelated, at worst, to his artistic interests: his work for Chanel was a high point; his job hunting for pigs’ teeth in Constantinople rather lower. But it is his personal life that looms especially large throughout this book. After a first marriage that ended in divorce, Iliazd married Ibironke Akinsemoyin, a Nigerian princess and the mother of his son Chalva. The marriage lasted only two years, during the late stages of World War II, before Iliazd was widowed — Akinsemoyin had likely contracted TB in a German internment camp for foreign nationals — and left heartbroken and battling to secure his son’s dynastic claim with his wife’s family in Nigeria.

There are glimmers here suggesting that this marriage was the most significant relationship of Iliazd’s life: Akinsemoyin was one of only two women whose work appeared in Poetry of Unknown Words, and his 1959 book Le frère mendiant (The Wandering Friar), an edition of the explorations around the African coast of a 14th-century friar, attested to his abiding interest in Africa and African studies after her death. But it is his third wife, Hélène née Douard, who is the most powerful presence in this book. It was Hélène who preserved Iliazd’s significant archive, who encouraged Drucker in her research, who retained contacts among the surviving members of the Parisian avant-garde, and who knew which other young scholars had an interest in Iliazd’s work and legacy. Drucker describes the long-standing and cordial, if always slightly formal, relationship she developed with Hélène, and she generously records her debts not only to this patron but also to the many other researchers with whom she put Drucker in touch. What emerges is a candid account of the collaborative and personal nature of biographical research, as well as of the influence of surviving friends and witnesses.

Drucker compellingly evokes the painstaking work in the unofficial archive of Iliazd’s papers in Hélène’s possession — the chilly, cramped apartment, the smell of tobacco on a fellow researcher’s jacket, the touch of paper, the poignancy of Hélène’s wedding ring worn on the hand that passed materials to Drucker as they worked. But for all this materiality, brilliantly evoked, the book is haunted by ghosts that flicker into presence only to fade back all too quickly into the nothingness of the past. The ghostliness of these figures, Iliazd above all, the contrast of their untouchability with the material traces they have left behind, is a point repeatedly raised throughout this book. Can these dry bones live? Drucker admits, with refreshing honesty, that she remains unsure of an answer to this question even at the end of this particularly long, complex biographical enterprise.

One of the details of this book’s publication that bears thinking about is its stated date of release: 2020. “Publication dates are one of the great deceits,” Drucker tells us, and it is especially so in the case of this book. Begun in the mid-1980s while Drucker was doing doctoral research on a different but related topic in Paris, this life of Iliazd might have seen the light rather earlier than it has. Drucker tells us that the website for Northwestern University Press still lists Iliazd: Ilia Zdanevich and the Modern Art of the Book as having been published in 1994, but, as Drucker mordantly puts it, “the book does not exist and never did.” This book — the one propped up on the desk in front of me as I type — thus has a kind of phantom double itself, a version that might not exist as a physical book but which did exist in some form or other.

Drucker tells us, in fact, that in 1989 (a significant date in relations between the West and the Soviet bloc, though Drucker, perhaps following in Iliazd’s spirit, doesn’t remark it), she sent the draft of what came out of the mid-’80s research to Hélène. Hélène, though, was disappointed. What Drucker had written “was not a novel.” By contrast, Steve Tomasula’s remark on the back cover of Iliazd lauds it for reading “like a novel” — which it sometimes does — but what Drucker took Hélène to mean was that she wanted “a vivid, living hologram of the man and his life that she could walk into in order to live again the experiences they had shared — and also participate in those chapters in which she had not been able to be present.” It is a strange formulation in some ways — what would it mean to “walk into” a hologram? and while a hologram might be “vivid,” is it ever really “living”? — but it does gesture toward the many phantoms, rather than real people, that inhabit the book — a book that is itself also a phantom of an earlier version. Hélène, understandably, wanted to relive her life with Iliazd, but she wanted, too, to live the life that Iliazd had had that did not include her — his youthful formation in Georgia, his discovery of Byzantine architecture, the hijinks of the Parisian avant-garde, even, somehow, his previous marriages.

Drucker failed in such an impossible task (and we might certainly wonder whether success would have been all that desirable). But she has succeeded in writing an engaging account of a significant life, which, at the same time, reflects touchingly and revealingly on the process of writing “not […] ‘the’ biography but ‘a’ biography — that is actually ‘my’ biography.” It should secure, finally, Iliazd’s reputation, but it should also inform debates about the nature and purpose of biography as well. Read it in the ebook version if you want, but, even though it isn’t bound in buffalo, sheep, donkey, or goat skin (as you’d expect, Iliazd was very particular about this kind of thing; I’m quite glad it isn’t bound in any sort of skin), and even though it doesn’t display anything in the way of typographic innovation, I think Drucker would prefer you to read it on paper. Iliazd, I imagine, certainly would have.

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Ross Wilson is associate professor in Criticism at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College. He is the author of Shelley and the Apprehension of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Theodor Adorno (Routledge, 2007). His essays on poetry, criticism, and aesthetics have appeared in the Times Literary SupplementFrieze, the New StatesmanNew Literary History, and elsewhere.