Mayakovsky: A short and simple retrospective

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Author: David L
First Published: 18/07/20
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Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a leading poet of the 1917 Russian Revolution and Russian Futurist movement. Involved with left wing politics from an early age as a Bolshevik activist, he was arrested several times for political subversion before he was 16. It was there, in solitary confinement, that he started writing poetry. Once he left prison, he committed himself to making art as his avocation. It was at the Moscow Art School that he met David Burlyuk, who was the lead figure in helping found the Russian Futurist Movement, and together with others they wrote the manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. They toured the country, and caused scandals with the performance of experimental art in public, along with outrageous public appearances in the art world, often getting their shows shut down by the police. Poems from this period included major works like A Cloud in Trousers, Backbone Flute and the monodrama Vladimir Mayakovsky which starred himself in the title role as himself (it should also be noted Mayakovsky was also slightly notorious for his ego as much as his talent).

The Russian Futurist movement explored new forms and emphasised technical innovation in their art. However, they avoided the fascist turn that the Italian branch of the movement underwent in the 20s. Once the 1917 Revolution broke out, Mayakovsky began to make more explicitly political works. He published poems such as “Oda revolutsi” (1918; “Ode to Revolution”) and “Levy marsh” (1919; “Left March”), and wrote for the theatre, having his play ‘Mystery-Bouffe’ performed in 1918, directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold. He also began to make agitprop poems, pamphlets and posters, which were specifically aimed at the now USSR’s peasant population, which suffered from high rates of illiteracy. This period is not often looked on with as much favour as his Futurist poetry, but it showed a strong skill and talent for satire, and the agitprop posters, through their use of clear, simple & cartoonish style were very effective in communicating their message, and some of them are still used today in leftist culture. In particular his representation of a capitalist, now known as ‘Porky’, can be found in numerous left wing memes.

Towards the later part of his life, in the late 1920s and early 30s, Mayakovsky suffered from a number of failures, both personal and professional. He was unlucky in love with several women. Despite his strong support for Lenin and early Bolshevik policies, his Futurist style and ethos, which he never really gave up, clashed with the ‘Socialist Realism’ of Stalin. In particular his plays The Bedbug and The Bathhouse drew criticism and ire from the Soviet establishment. The Bathhouse was a critical flop because of it. Faced with this along with a denied visa to travel, on 14 April Mayakovsky committed suicide.

Following this, there was a campaign to silence his work by cancelling the publication and making sure there was a ‘silent obstruction’ in the press. It wasn’t until a former lover and friend, Lilya Brik, petitioned Stalin that his work became rehabilitated and he became accepted into the Soviet mainstream again. However, this came at a price. As the Tate explains:

Though Mayakovsky's work regularly demonstrated ideological and patriotic support for the ideology of the Communist Party and a strong admiration of Vladimir Lenin, Mayakovsky's relationship with the Soviet state was always complex and often tumultuous.

And with his reacceptance by Stalin, the passionate rebel who had been vocal in his critiques of the state became a canonized saint of Soviet bureaucracy, with his more controversial pieces and experimental elements of his work either downplayed or censored. It was not until later in the 20th century after Stalin died that his work began to be seen in a more nuanced light. This is not to say Mayakovsky’s work was ever quiet. His poetry has inspired many left wing, socialist artists working for liberation over the past 90 years since his death. He remains an important figure in Russian literature, and experimental art, when Modernist forms were just coming into being. He shows that imagining the future can take place in artistic forms and content as much as it can in political action, and that often the two are closely related. In times such as these, it will be interesting to see what new ideas explode onto the political stage.