Staging Language: Milca Mayerova and the Czech Book Alphabet
Witkovsky, Matthew S., The Art Bulletin
After great catastrophes, in sonic sense one always starts over from the alphabet.-Frantisek X. Salda, "On the Newest Czech Poetry" (1928)1
The 1926 book Alphabet (Abeceda) is a landmark achievement in European modernism (Fig. 1).2 Its frequent reproduction in exhibition catalogues and scholarly articles has made it a key symbol of Devetsil (1920-ca. 1931), the Czech artists' collective within whose ranks the book was conceived, and its importance is increasingly measured in international terms as well.3 The book consists of a series of rhymed quatrains by Devetsil poet Vitezslav Nezval, titled and ordered according to the letters of the Latin alphabet. Facing each set of verses is a Constructivist photomontage layout by Karel Teige, a painter turned typographer who was also Devetsil's spokesperson and leading theorist. Teige developed his graphic design around photographs of dancer and choreographer Milada (Milca) Mayerova, a recent affiliate of the group, who had performed a stage version of "Alphabet" to accompany a recitation of the poem at a theatrical evening in Nezval's honor in April 1926.
Alphabet is unanimously considered a consummate expression of Poetisrn, the credo that Nezval and Teige formulated in 1923, which has been called Devetsil's main contribution to modern art theory.4 In Teige's writings, Poetism heralded a revolutionary synthesis of verbal and visual signs that would give poetry the immediacy of advertising billboards-a mass-media fantasy aimed at transforming art and society alike and improving the global state of humanity in a world recovering from war. "The art brought by Poetism is nonchalant, exuberant, fantastic, playful, nonheroic and erotic.... It was born in an atmosphere of cheerful fellowship, in a world that laughs; what does it matter if there are tears in its eyes."5
Alphabet matches that declaration from the first Poetist manifesto (1924) particularly closely, and models as well the guiding Poetist partnership between figures of play and forms of industrial technology. Nezval's pithy rhymes invoke jugglers, dancers, and cowboys and Indians, shooting across time and space with the rapidity of modern telecommunications. Recorded in photographs, rather than drawings, the dance by Mayerova combines fetching impersonations of letters and poetic images with a robotic affect, while her costume connotes both brazen sensuality and the standardization of the uniform. The geometrized typography invented by Teige has the look of architectonic fantasy; solid and abstract, it couples lyrical whimsy to the rigor of structural engineering.
Despite the widespread admiration accorded Alphabet, no probing examinations have yet been made of this book, and little has been published to illuminate the history of its creation or its place within the cultural and intellectual context of its day. In the absence of such investigations, Alphabet has been explained consistently in terms of the ideas of its two male participants-without, for all that, uncovering the divergences in their thinking, nor the importance of their joint achievement to international currents in poetry and the visual arts. The most obvious aspects of Alphabet, meanwhile, have yet to be addressed: its appropriation of the grade-school syllabary (abeceda Czech means both "alphabet" and "primer") and the tremendous visibility it confers on Mayerova, an otherwise forgotten creative figure, throughout its pages as well as on the cover.
A singular collaboration, Alphabet resembles a team-taught course, or, as Nezval awkwardly phrases it in his preface to the book, "a meeting of autonomous arts solving a common task in parallel and within the bounds of their functions."6 The project to create a new alphabet epitomizes the proselytizing attitude of avant-gardists in various fields in the years after World War I. From Dada poetry to Constructivist architecture and design, from calls to overhaul theater to revolutions in literary theory, a panoply of experiments took the alphabet as their model or target and disclosed the potency of this elementary linguistic structure as a trope for creative renewal and social revolution. …