Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Wordplay in Twentieth-Century Prints

Writing and its various forms have traditionally interested a wide variety of artists from numerous cultures and periods. Focusing on a selection of works from the Met’s collection, this essay examines how some twentieth-century artists engaged letterforms and language in the graphic arts in ways that challenged dominant linguistic codes, as well as cultural, social, and political structures. Three avant-garde movements in particular—Futurism, Dada, and Lettrism—had and continue to have a profound impact on artistic production that involve letterforms.

In February 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) published “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” on the front page of the French journal Le Figaro. Marinetti lauded the accomplishments of a group of young Italian artists known as the Futurists, who were attempting to break with the classicism of the past and dismantle existing visual and verbal structures in order to reflect the sounds, images, and dynamism of modern life. That the manifesto was published in Paris—then viewed as the center of modernity and contemporary art—was not a coincidence; rather, it illustrated that Marinetti intended for his manifesto to serve as an announcement to the international community about the group and their philosophy, as well as a veritable call to arms.

In 1912, following the mandate of the manifesto, Marinetti developed parole in libertà, or free-word poetry, a radical form of writing in which words and sounds are reconfigured and conventional syntax and structure eschewed. In these collage-poems, which comprise dispersed text, fragmented words, onomatopoeias, and distorted letters, Marinetti and other Futurists created works that could be interpreted both visually and verbally.

Marinetti’s In the Evening, Lying on Her Bed, She Reread the Letter from Her Artilleryman at the Front (1995.511.1) and A Tumultuous Assembly. Numerical Sensibility (1995.511.2)—both of which are from his book Les mots en liberté futuristes—are examples of the next stage in the Futurists’ engagement with language: tavole parolibere, or free-word pictures. In these works, innovative typography and diverse pictorial elements are scattered across the surface of the page to create a kind of visual and aural cacophony. In the Evening features the silhouette of a woman reading a note from “her artilleryman” in the bottom right corner. The distorted and fragmented words, both real and constructed, thundering above her reflect the sounds of war, as well as the Futurists’ fight against grammatical, artistic, and social conventions.

In A Tumultuous Assembly, Marinetti again liberates numbers, signs, letters, and images from their functional responsibilities by exaggerating forms and juxtaposing diverse elements to create unexpected associations. He combined innovative typography, dramatic variations in scale, and found elements, such as the image of the drummer and the strips of letters and numbers, to create a dynamic composition that represents a crowd celebrating Italy’s victory in World War I. Both of these works show how the Futurists visually represented war through the use of typography and orthography, and created analogies between weaponry, such as torpedoes and bombs, and their poetry.

The Futurists were not alone in their belief that the destruction of language could lead to political and social revolution. In the wake of World War I, Dada artists—who, unlike the Futurists, rejected militarism—also sought to create an art that would disrupt dominant systems of order, including conventional modes of perception. Raoul Hausmann (1886–1971), a founder and key member of the politically oriented Berlin Dada group, captured in his work the dynamic spirit of both creation and destruction inherent in “Dadasophy” by juxtaposing letters and fragments of text, images, and references with both visual and aural elements.

In Hausmann’s ABCD (1987.1100.58), a self-portrait based on a 1923 collage, he combined photography with fragments of paper featuring words, phrases, and disparate images gathered from a variety of sources in order to reflect a contemporary lived urban existence. Combined with those to the left spelling “VOCE” (Italian for voice), the letters “ABCD” extending from Hausmann’s mouth allude to the centrality of both phonetic poems and spoken word performances in his oeuvre and that of his Dada contemporaries.

Both Futurism and Dada influenced Lettrism, an avant-garde artistic and literary movement that emerged in France after World War II. Lettrists sought the liberation of language by destroying the ability of letters to convey meaning or act as representations of anything other than themselves. As shown in the art of Roland Sabatier (born 1942), the Lettrists combined images, utterances, hieroglyphs, and musical notes with fragments of text, letters, and even complete words to create pieces that can be read (even sung), heard, and interpreted visually. He even included a micrographic image of a man’s head that is a portrait composed almost entirely of minuscule marks and written forms.

In Sabatier’s Lettrie à ouvrir des horizons nouveaux (67.765.18), forms are dispersed across the surface of the page, challenging the dominant manner in which pages are read and language is interpreted in Western European culture (from left to right and top to bottom) while also showcasing elements of play and humor. The term lettrie refers to a Lettrist poem, which group members believed was a blank form that could “open new horizons” for both the author and the reader, as well as society at large. Like many Lettrist works, the title Lettrie à ouvrir des horizons nouveaux evokes a variety of associations, ranging from alphabetic characters, writing, and literature, to being well read, to decorative printed letters found in traditional texts, as well as making reference to, and promoting, the Lettrists themselves.