Rick Poynor

Mayakovsky: Twenty Years Of Work

David King’s graphic programme for the exhibition “Mayakovsky: Twenty Years of Work” in 1982 was his second major project for the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford.* The museum’s director, David Elliott, was committed to exploring post-revolutionary Russian and Soviet visual history. Elliott and King liked each other and formed a highly sympathetic partnership. King designed posters and catalogues for “Alexander Rodchenko” (1979) and “Early Soviet Photographers”, which ran in parallel with “Mayakovsky”, and more exhibition and book projects would follow. 

Vladimir Mayakovsky by Abram Shterenberg, 1924

As a subject for an exhibition, Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a complex and multifaceted character. The catalogue lists his accomplishments: poet and playwright, artist and graphic designer, film star and performer, political agitator and revolutionary, propagandist and advertising man, editor and organiser of exhibitions. Mayakovsky believed his task as a poet was to stand shoulder to shoulder with other workers in the social and economic struggle. As Elliott writes in his introduction, art and poetry “were a central part of life, as staple as bread, and could take for their subject-matter any aspect of the new socialist state.” Mayakovsky’s new poetic language could be difficult and demanding, and sometimes drew criticism. Nevertheless, Elliott concludes, the revolutionary writer “fervently believed in making art which could be understood and appreciated by a mass audience. There are still many lessons we can learn from his example.”

Catalogue cover, 1982
Catalogue frontispiece. Portrait treated by King
Catalogue spread: a poem written by Mayakovsky in 1923

At first sight, King’s graphics for the catalogue could seem highly unorthodox. He is much more visible, as a designer with a commanding point of view, than would be permissible today in work for major British galleries, and this visibility was unusual in the early 1980s, too. King’s visual language looks handmade and immediate, which it was, since everything was cut out and stuck down on a paper artwork. When printed, his designs deliver a sensation of roughness, vitality, engagement and urgency. Mayakovsky is not being displayed in these documents with curatorial detachment as a distant historical subject. He is being reanimated, refurbished and offered to contemporary viewers as some kind of example or hero. 

One medium for achieving this elevation is the photographic portrait. Mayakovsky was highly photogenic and King was a designer who knew how to squeeze vital extra impact from all kinds of photograph, including portraits. Even unpromisingly routine images could be photocopied, blown up large, cropped, colourised and mined for their coarse halftone screens to accentuate the impression of nearness and drama. 

The master image for King was Abram Shterenberg’s portrait (1924), which King rendered in startling yellow (the hues differ on catalogue and poster). As the original print (above) shows, King sliced the image vertically to emphasise Mayakovsky’s strong features, brooding expression and even the pores of his skin, and boosted the tonal contrast to contrive an even more vigorous picture; the faces look irradiated and almost metallic. On the back of an exhibition invitation card, King angles the image to match the type on the front and crops it even more severely. Losing an eye makes the portrait less cantankerous and more intimate, despite its heavy shading. 

Exhibition invitation for the Scottish Arts Council, front and back, 1982

Apart from the main catalogue, which can still be found for sale, there were two additional publications. One of these, confusingly titled Catalogue of the Exhibition, is an eight-page list of the items on show plus translations of their texts. The other is a 28-page exhibition spin-off titled Vladimir Mayakovsky: Three Views, published independently by Scorpion Press in London, although King’s design makes it look like a Museum of Modern Art, Oxford production. This contains three essays and a biography that culminates in a picture of Mayakovsky after his suicide. For these supplements, King applied the same design repertoire used in the main catalogue. The Three Views cover (below) picks up the vertical banding of the poster and catalogue with three “views” of Mayakovsky on the cover and another three on the back. In all three publications, the condensed headline typeface is a version of a 19th-century grot, most likely supplied by a photo-setting house. The list features the same slab-rule column-dividers as the catalogue, and in Three Views an even heavier rule clamps the text like a vice. 

Cover of the list of works in the exhibition
List of works

As with King’s anti-racist posters from the same era, the combination of high-contrast photographs and chunky rules to break up the page and define image areas produces a style of design that could hardly be any punchier. King slots these elements together on the Three Views contents page (below), where he launches the type and portrait fragments asymmetrically into a field of white space. It is one of many occasions in his body of work when his rigorous commitment to the cause is lightened by a willingness to use the building blocks of his design language for more playful purposes. 

Vladimir Mayakovsky: Three Views, front and back cover, published by Scorpion Press, 1982
Contents page
Essay pages: portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Russian theatre director, by Moisel Nappelbaum, 1920s
Biography pages: Mayakovsky after committting suicide, 1930

* The exhibition, based on Mayakovsky’s exhibition about himself, “Twenty Years of Work”, ran from 7 March to 2 May 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. It was organised by the State Museum of Literature, Moscow in association with the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and it was presented in four galleries throughout Britain.