Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text, by Alan Bartram

A visual feast, Alan Bartram's Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text gathers examples of early 20th-century poetic experiments in typography and layout/design. Bartram provides introductory essays for each chapter: "French Precursors: Liberating the Poetic Form"; "Marinetti and Friends: Recreating Everything Anew"; "Artist-Poets in Russia: Illustration + Words"; "Dada: Illogic and Chance, Perhaps"; "Lacerba: A Tumultuous Assembly"; "L'Italia Futurista: Experiences of War, and Birdsong"; and "The Revolutionaries." I love typography, but my literary training was in British and American literature, so most of these movements and texts were new to me. All were revelatory.

The original texts are primarily in Italian, French, Flemish, German, and Russian, so it's not possible for a primarily monolingual reader like me (I have only a smattering of French and German) to pick up on all of the subtleties of presentation and meaning-making on display here, but Bartram does a good job of glossing each example and pointing out many of the elements at play ("play" often being literally accurate). From poems to playscripts to "advertisements," the examples here cover a wide range of topics and styles.

A quick Google image search for "futurist typography" will give you some idea of the range of texts contained in this book, and the freedom from constraint they embody. It's interesting to note that when these tests were created, in the pre-computer era, often the typesetters themselves were--by practical necessity--making aesthetic choices on behalf of those artist-poets who did not typeset their own works. There is "intent" (always a difficult concept) and there is "execution": Somewhere beyond lies poetry.

Although the link isn't made explicitly here, it seems to me that the spiritual descendents of these Imagist and Dadaist texts are to be found in the Punk/DIY/zine cultures of the 1970s to roughly the 1990s (and of course, beyond). Now I'm curious to read up on those movements to see if anyone was specifically drawing inspiration from the earlier examples represented in Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text.

Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text
by Alan Bartram
Yale University Press, 2005
ISBN-10: 030011432X
ISBN-13: 978-0300114324
160 pages, $55.00