Artwork of the Month, June 2022: Numbered Poem No 18 by Lajos Kassák (1921)

This is the first time a work by Lajos Kassák (1887–1967) features as our Artwork of the Month, but many of our previous articles have mentioned the artist’s name. This is due to Kassák’s uniquely central position in early-twentieth-century Hungarian avant-garde culture. He was not just a visual artist, but also a writer, poet, editor, organiser and thinker. Artists as important and diverse as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), or Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) all belonged to Kassák’s circle before continuing on their separate paths. The significance of Kassák’s periodicals and collaborative projects is so great that they can easily steal the limelight from his individual artistic output. This is how Kassák became a recurring background figure on this blog, and it is high time for him to come into focus.

Lajos Kassák Este a fák alatt, Ma 1922

Lajos Kassak: Numbered Poem No 18, Ma, 7.2 (1922) pp. 18–19 – photo courtesy of the Kassák Museum of the Petőfi Literary Museum, Budapest © HUNGART 2022

Kassák’s artistic works are, of course, inseparable from his other activities. By working across different branches of art and creating works of equal significance as a writer and as a visual artist, he provided an eminent example for the breaking down of barriers between art forms which was, as we shall see, central to his avant-gardist credo. This article discusses a work that combines literature and visual art: a ‘picture-poem’. Concrete poetry, where the typographical arrangement ‘spells out’ an image, was popular with the early-twentieth-century European avant-garde. The best-known examples are Guillaume Apollinaire’s (1880–1918) ‘calligrams,’ particularly The Bleeding-Heart Dove and the Fountain (1913–1916). While the typography of the latter poem visualises the motifs in its title, Kassák’s picture-poems – as he called them – are nonfigurative; similar to the Constructivist compositions he was producing at the time. But how far did the abstraction go? As one of Kassák’s longest and most complex picture-poems, Numbered Poem No 18 provides an intriguing case study for examining the relationship between Kassák’s professed avant-garde principles and his somewhat contradictory tendency to subjective introspection. In order to do so, text and image have to be discussed as an integral whole.

Lajos Kassák: artist, writer, editor     

Lajos Kassák was born in 1887 in Érsekújvár (now Nové Zámky in Slovakia) in northern Hungary, into a working-class family. Leaving school at the age of 12, he trained as a metal worker and moved to Budapest in 1904 to work at a factory. He joined the Social Democratic Party and became its committed activist. In 1909 he undertook a trip to Paris by foot, penniless. He started publishing his poems and short stories around this time. He founded his first periodical, A Tett (The Action) in Budapest in 1915; it was banned for its anti-war stance a year later. To replace it, Kassák launched Ma (Today), which he would continue to publish until 1925.

During the First World War, many avant-garde authors and artists congregated around Kassák, including Bortnyik, László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), the poet Sándor Barta (1897–1938) and his wife, the poet Erzsi Újvári (1899–1940), who was Kassák’s sister; the artist Béla Uitz (1887–1972), who married Kassák’s other sister Teréz, the actress and performer Jolán Simon (1885–1938) – Kassák’s wife – and many others. Absorbing inspiration from Expressionism, Futurism, Constructivism and Dadaism, they began to identify their collective as the ‘Hungarian Activists’. During the 1919 Soviet Republic Kassák took on roles in the Writers’ Directorate and in overseeing visual propaganda, and the Activists gained more prominence in cultural life. After the fall of the Communist regime they all emigrated to Vienna, where Kassák continued to publish Ma and the Activists resumed their performances and other creative work.

The 1926 amnesty for political émigrés allowed Kassák to return to Hungary. He published two new periodicals: Dokumentum (Document, 1927) and Munka (Work, 1927–38). His group was now known as the Munka Circle. Politically, he was more aligned with the Social Democratic Party than with the Communists and remained active in the SDP after 1945. After the 1948 Communist turn he joined the now dominant Hungarian Workers’ Party, but his avant-gardist stance and support for abstract art did not go down well with representatives of official cultural politics, and he was expelled from the Party in 1953. He was not allowed to publish for years, and while the ban on his literary works was later gradually lifted, his visual art remained hidden from public view. He died in 1967.

18

Numbered Poem No 18, also known as Este a fák alatt… (In the evening under the trees…[1]), was first published in 1921 in Vienna in a volume of Kassák’s poetry entitled Világanyám (My World Mother). It then reappeared in the 1 January 1922 issue of Ma. It is today best known arranged into four columns on two pages, corresponding to the layout in Ma, but in the poetry volume it spanned seven pages. Hence, although it has been suggested that the four columns constitute four separate poems, it is more likely that the work was intended as a continuous flow of words.[2] Its visual appearance is characterised by different font sizes, which make some words stand out while others remain in the background. Some words and lines are printed diagonally or in a curve; others are broken up into shorter sections printed underneath each other, to form a vertical. The last section, which constitutes a column in the version published in Ma, is visually different from the previous three, with fewer words and hence a less crowded typography, a thin line accompanying downward sloping words, and a large round shape: an oversized diacritical mark dotting the i of the word ‘SIR’ (‘weeps’).

Poem 18 has no progressive narrative and – apart from the typographical layout – no clear overall structure. The coherence of the text is provided by its imagery, which consistently evokes an outdoor, rural setting: ‘highway,’ ‘market,’ ‘and i / helped / the old woman / carry her bundle / across the stream,’ ‘fat geese are sitting under / the moon.’ The wording is visual and emotional. Some images are grotesque (‘do not touch the flower / or your teeth / will fall out’), some pious (‘mary embraced her son / and burst into flowers of tears’), some recall the Socialist activism of the Kassák circle (‘I AM / HUNGRY / YOU ARE / HUNGRY / HE IS / HUNGRY / TOO’). The ending expresses ultimate sorrow: ‘THE LORD / has appeared above the waters / AND BITTERLY / WEEPS’.

The rural atmosphere holds the poem together, but the textual imagery does not evolve in a linear way; instead, the poem consists of episodes with no apparent connection. The typography, too, discourages linear readings. Words printed in all capitals, or larger fonts, or bold typeface catch our eyes first, and it is possible to read them separately from the rest of the text. Jumbling up the words is not just possible, but recommended. After all, being printed on a page was just one form these poems could take. They were also performed at Ma events, and their typography can be seen as a visual counterpart to Activist sound art. When the neo-avant-garde poet and performance artist Katalin Ladik (*1942) recited the poem at an event at the Petőfi Literary Museum in 2018, she breathed life into the typography in a way that recalled the spirit of these events.

 

Artist at the crossroads

In 1921, Kassák was in the course of reinventing his art. The failure of the Soviet Republic provided ample grounds for self-reflection. In his literary works, staunch political activism and avant-garde fervour gave way to theorising and introspection. His fellow Activists noted the change and many disapproved of the new, mellow Kassák. Sándor Barta called him out in his poem Crystal of Times: Moscow: ‘but as we again found ourselves in the trough of waves preparing / for a new thrust upwards you immediately painted yourself / into a cosmic ellipse’.[3]

Barta’s poem was one of many signs of a simmering tension within the Activist group that would break up the circle within a few years. The conflicts were not all artistic, but one source of disagreement lay in the group’s reception of the international avant-garde movements of the time, as individual members were drawn to different trends. In the early 1920s their two main influences were Constructivism and Dadaism; currents whose concepts of art could hardly have been more contradictory. Constructivist art sought to build a new society by embracing modern technology and promoting revolutionary politics. In the two-dimensional visual arts, Constructivism created an abstract imagery recalling architectural constructions, machines, the energy of industrial production. Dadaism, by contrast, embraced nonsense and irreverence as its central tenets and rejected notions of logic and progress. It aimed to demystify the concept of art, defining itself as anti-art. Rejecting all rules of artistic production, it encompassed gestures such as exhibiting found objects.

Details from Numbered Poem No 18 by Lajos Kassák

Details from Numbered Poem No 18: ‘YELLOW WELLS TURNING’ and ‘O everyone O everyone DO INDEED INSERT THE FUNNELS INTO YOUR HEADS’

On his part, Kassák was preoccupied with creating a synthesis of these two movements, led by his own artistic predisposition, but presumably also by a desire to unite the Activists.[4] Many of his works in the early 1920s reflect this aim, including Poem 18. In its visual appearance, the poem has many elements that recall Constructivist compositions: a semi-circular arrangement of letters at the top of the third column looks like a piece of machinery, below it, short lines spell out a funnel, and the last column, with its roof-like structure, hints at the idea of building. The first of these spells out ‘YELLOW WELLS / ARE TURNING,’ which strengthens the interpretation that what we see is a wheel. At the same time, the yellow wells evoke the rural atmosphere of the poem, rather than the heavy industrial imagery of Constructivism. The poem employs Constructivism, but in a Dada gesture it also rejects its seriousness through grotesque language (‘O everyone / O everyone / DO INDEED INSERT / THE FUNNELS / INTO YOUR / HEADS’). The chaotic, playful events where the poems were recited were typical Dadaist performances.

Lajos Kassák Bildarchitektur

Lajos Kassák: Picture Architecture, published alongside an abridged German version of the manifesto, Ma 8.1 (1922) p. 6 – photo courtesy of the Kassák Museum of the Petőfi Literary Museum, Budapest © HUNGART 2022

On a theoretical level, Kassák developed his unification of Constructivism and Dada in his manifesto Bildarchitektur (Picture-Architecture, 1921).[5] Declaring the need to transcend previous avant-garde movements, Kassák defined Picture-Architecture as an art to end all previous notions of art. It does not represent, nor express emotion, nor psychologise, nor draw abstractions – ‘It simply exists.’[6] It starts from architecture, the art form that can encompass all others and rebuild the world, but Picture-Architecture is capable of absorbing all that into a flat plane. In its insistence to construct a new world, the manifesto recalls Constructivism, but its irreverent rejection of ‘every kind of school, even the schooling of ourselves’ and demand to be ‘your most personal life’ clearly draws on Dada. As Éva Forgács has demonstrated, Picture-Architecture often paraphrases the manifesto Dadaismus by the German writer and founder of the Berlin branch of Dada Richard Huelsenbeck (1892–1974), published in Hungarian in the same issue of Ma as Bildarchitektur. Yet, the parallels also call attention to the differences: while Huelsenbeck ‘sounds like a free-spirited skeptic, who only very strongly recommends Dada … as a possible, alternative art form,’ Kassák positioned himself as a stern prophet of the only true art.[7] In Poem 18, the playful freedom of Dadaism unfolds within a framework of grandiose pathos in a similar way.

Lajos Kassák Spatial Construction

Lajos Kassák: Spatial Construction, 1922, oil on cardboard, Kassák Museum of the Petőfi Literary Museum, Budapest – photo: Kassák Museum © HUNGART 2022

The new ideal of Picture-Architecture transformed both Kassák’s artistic practice and the editorial practices of Ma. The periodical now only reproduced abstract, constructivist compositions; the previous expressionist, politically engaged scenes disappeared, even though members of the circle were still creating such works.[8] Kassák himself produced a long series of paintings and prints entitled Picture-Architecture, experimenting with the projection of spatial relations onto a flat plane. In Ma publications, such as books of poetry, these compositions often accompanied texts, but initially as separate works, rarely engaging with the words. Yet, if Picture-Architecture was to end all other forms of artistic expression, it had to absorb language as well. Ma had already been a pioneer of avant-garde typography, and merging these experiments with Constructivist compositions was a logical development.

Are there meanings?

Even though, in Huelsenbeck’s words, ‘Dada is not something you understand. Dada is something you live through,’[9] it is only human nature to seek meaning in everything, even Dadaist poems. In the case of Poem 18, one possible approach in literature has been to read it as an expression of Kassák’s despair over the failure of the Soviet Republic.[10] Disappointment and despair appear in the poem throughout: ‘but even this is not worth anything anymore / the birds / have flown away / the fish / have swam off’ or ‘nothing is left for us / just a little / island,’ leading up to the ultimate image of a crying God. The religious references may seem to speak against this interpretation of the poem as a reflection of Kassák’s Communist convictions. Religious imagery was, however, not uncommon in the political art of the Activists and corresponded to the messianic zeal of the Communist movement.

A different interpretation connects the text to the poet’s personal life. Let us read a longer section from the last part of the poem: ‘nothing is left for us / just a little / island / behind the ear / of the ice breaker / and / ah / ah / Anna / my little Anna / THE LORD / has appeared above the waters / AND BITTERLY / WEEPS’. None of the women close to Kassák were called Anna, yet the name often recurs in his work. Éva Standeisky has argued that the name encapsulated Kassák’s complicated and somewhat neurotic attitude towards women.[11] In his autobiographical novel The Life of a Human, Kassák described with painful honesty his obsessive attachment to his mother and sisters, whom he idealised as supremely pure beings and was disappointed when they turned out to be humans with material bodies and sexual needs. Anna, as Standeisky explains, was a name Kassák gave his image of the aethereal, non-existent ideal woman. Poem 18 contains multiple references to femininity and motherhood: ‘the woman then / opened up to her husband / and said / me / you / them / light’; ‘mary’; the old woman; and, finally, the mythical Anna, who is never to be reached – a predicament that makes even the Lord cry. Based on these references, Ágota Ivánszky interpreted the poem as Kassák’s lament over the ‘effeminacy’ of the world: after the failure of great political ideals (self-evidently gendered as male), all that remains is the imperfect retreat provided by the feminine principle.[12]

The name Anna is certainly a key element of the poem, but it is a dual key. It opens up the interpretation towards the darker side of Kassák’s personal psychology, but it also marks out the poem as a text shaped not by external reality, but by other texts. This is because it recalls another Dadaist poem: An Anna Blume (1919) by the German Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), who was, like Kassák, both a poet and a visual artist.[13] We can be confident this is a deliberate reference, rather than a coincidence. Not only did Kassák often refer to Schwitters in his writings, including in Picture-Architecture, but An Anna Blume itself had been published in Ma in 1921 translated by Mózes Kahána (1897–1974). The difference between Schwitters’s and Kassák’s Anna poems is similar to that between Huelsenbeck’s and Kassák’s Dadaist manifestoes: the former are playful, driven by a simple joy derived from rejecting all rules, while the latter channel the irreverent, deconstructivist tendencies of Dada into prophetic pathos. ANNA is a name well suited to wordplay and typographic art because it reads the same backward as forward. Furthermore, it exists in many languages, including Hungarian. Hence, in Kassák’s poem it is able to signify both the text’s intimate connection to the international Dadaist movement and its difference.

Picture-poetry

These interpretations focus on Poem 18 as text, rather than image, which means they are incomplete. The poem might express Kassák’s political disappointments or sexual frustrations, but it is also abstract Picture-Architecture in its lines, shapes, and their rythm. In the first half of the poem, when typographically highlighted words spell out straight lines these have a downward thrust, guiding the viewer’s eyes in the direction of reading. This changes on the second page, where some words are spelled upwards or in curves. ‘BECAUSE EVERYTHING ENDS THE SAME WAY’ runs upwards, mirroring the downwards ‘ALONG THE HEDGE’ on the first page. The typography creates directions and – as Picture-Architecture should – it also creates space: the line over ‘AND BITTERLY’ is like a roof. Visual representations of the outside world are not completely missing: in the first column, the word ‘sing’ (énekeljetek) is printed in an undulating line, resembling notes in a sheet of music. These images-within-the-image make the poem visually similar to a montage – a technique that gained increasing importance in Kassák’s artistic practice after 1921. The way episodic textual images are brought together in a non-linear order in the poem corresponds to the montage-like typography.[14]

Detail from Poem 18

Detail from Lajos Kassák’s Numbered Poem No 18

Picture-poems created a new relationship between image and text where the two become inseparable because they adopt each other’s qualities: text becomes visual, while image becomes as abstract as lettering. The montage technique was well suited to this and hence constituted a logical direction for the development of the genre. Kassák and the Activists were part of a lively central European avant-garde network that exchanged ideas through magazines and touring performances, and the picture-poem-montage was a preferred terrain of experimentation. In 1922, the Czech artist and writer Karel Teige (1900–1951) attended a Ma performance in Prague and described it as the first appearance of Dadaism in Czechoslovakia.[15] From 1923, Teige created picture-poems that integrated cutouts from illustrated magazines and other found images with typography in innovative ways. In a manifesto published in 1924, he named his new movement Poetism; a playful form of art that crossed boundaries between genres and techniques and can be described as yet another incarnation of Dada.

The picture-poems Kassák published in 1921–22 did not employ cutouts and with a few exceptions only used typography for visual effects. In Poem 18 the typography itself builds picture-architecture by creating space through the contrast of larger and smaller fonts – foreground and background. Read separately, the foreground adds a temporal dimension, as it is about night and day: ‘IN THE EVENING,’ ‘LIGHT,’ ‘TAKE OFF YOUR NIGHTCAPS,’ ‘THE STAR.’ Then, in the third column, three words evoking family stand out: ‘CHILDREN,’ ‘SIBLING,’ BROTHER-IN-LAW,’ Reading the small type too, this seemingly cosy message turns into its opposite: ‘there are no longer SIBLINGS there are no longer BROTHERS-IN-LAW.’ Considering that two of Kassák’s siblings and brothers-in-law were members of the Activists, this part could even refer to the conflicts within the circle.

Lajos Kassák 18th numbered poem detail

Detail from Lajos Kassák’s Numbered Poem No 18

Such a reading emphasises the personal aspect again. Expressions of feeling, subjectivity, even sentimentalism certainly form parts of the montage, in stark contrast to the artist’s manifesto. In uniting different art forms, as well as different modes of artistic expression, Poem 18 follows Kassák’s description of Picture-Architecture, but it also diverges from it in other, fundamental ways. With its cries of JAJ, JAJ, the poem is definitely expressive, and with its lamentful climax it is definitely emotional. These are not just qualities of the text, but also of the image. The way the Lord’s bitterness slides downwards to reach the (rock) bottom of the page, the way the letters flow like tears towards the solemn monument formed by the word SIR and its all-ending full stop is crucial to the emotional effect. Yet, there is no self-contradiction. After all, Dada does not respect any pre-established boundaries. Picture-Architecture means rejecting ‘even the schooling of ourselves;’ it means overriding and ignoring even our own rules.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] Translations from Numbered Poem No 18 are all mine.

[2] János Brendel, ‘The Bildgedichte of Lajos Kassák: Constructivism in Hungarian Avant Garde Poetry,’ in Szabó et al., The Hungarian Avant Garde, p. 33. For the most detailed analysis of the poem see Ágota Ivánszky, ‘Kassák Lajos: 18. számozott költemény’ [LK: Numbered Poem No 18], Irodalomtörténet, 75.1–2 (1994) pp. 126–147. See also Marian Mazzone, ‘Dadaist Text / Constructivist Image: Kassak’s Képarchitektúra,’ Hungarian Studies Review 31.1–2 (2004) pp. 21–24.

[3] Quoted (in Hungarian) in Ivánszky, ‘Kassák Lajos: 18. számozott költemény,’ p. 127. Translation mine.

[4] On Dada and Constructivism in Activism and Kassák’s efforts at unification see Éva Forgács, ‘Constructive Faith in Deconstruction: Dada in Hungarian Art,’ in Forgács, Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement (Los Angeles, 2016) pp. 55–85.

[5] Ludwig Kassák ‘Bildarchitektur,’ translated into German by Paul Aczél, in Kassák, MA Album (Vienna, 1921), n. p.; in Hungarian: Lajos Kassák, ‘Képarchitektúra,’ Ma, 7.4 (1922) pp. 52–54; shorter German version: Ludwig Kassák, ‘Bildarchitektur,’ Ma, 8.1 (1922) p. 6.

[6] Lajos Kassák, ‘Bildarchitektur (“Pictorial architecture”),’ translated into English by George Cushing, in Júlia Szabó et al., The Hungarian avant-garde: The Eight and the Activists (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1980), pp. 116-117.

[7] Forgács, ‘Constructive Faith in Deconstruction’, pp. 67–68.

[8] Júlia Szabó, A magyar aktivizmus művészete 1915–1927 [The art of Hungarian Activism] (Budapest: Corvina, 1981), pp. 94, 107.

[9] English from Forgács, ‘Constructive Faith in Deconstruction,’ p. 68.

[10] Brendel, ‘The Bildgedichte of Lajos Kassák,’ pp. 31–37.

[11] Éva Standeisky, ‘Kassák Annája’ [Kassák’s Anna], Irodalomtörténeti Közlemények 88.5–6 (1984) pp. 676–694.

[12] Ivánszky, ‘Kassák Lajos: 18. számozott költemény,’ p. 133.

[13] Éva Standeisky, ‘Kassák Annája,’ p. 681.

[14] Ivánszky, ‘Kassák Lajos: 18. számozott költemény,’ p. 126–147.

[15] Mazzone, ‘Dadaist Text / Constructivist Image,’ p. 21.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/8R2YA

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