Wednesday 11 November 2015

GUEST POST. David Bomberg’s "Russian Ballet": a new beginning for English artist’s books? (Richard Price)

When David Bomberg published his slim artist’s book Russian Ballet in 1919 he was saying a fond farewell to the abstraction he had developed before the First World War.

Here was a booklet developed from sketches he had made before the War, using printing skills he had learned at that time, too.

The cover of Russian Ballet. The lettering is astonishingly ahead of its time: more 1960s
than 1919, and the large, all-capitals title, as well as the use of the artist’s surname (only), at a
perpendicular to the title, has a swagger, challenging conventional notions of ballet and asserting
the artist’s authority. (Image source: Wikipedia.

It is as abstract as anything he had produced in those Cubist-inspired days but it is not a ‘resumption of normal service’: he would soon entirely change direction, painting recognisablelandscapes and cityscapes pretty much for the rest of his life.

An image from Russian Ballet, c.1914/1919. As well as incorporating images into the artist’s
book, Bomberg seems to have made the lithographs available separately, as here. (
Image source: ©Tate,
used here for strictly non-commercial purposes.

There are many reasons why he might want quietly to assert the abstraction of what must have seemed like a bygone era, just five years ago. 

An independent artist rather than working through a movement or school, he had nevertheless flourished in the pre-War company of various kinds of literary and artistic avant-garde, admired by but at armslength from Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists, and part of a loose grouping of men and women associated with Whitechapel, London.

It wasn’t just that he had been so excited by Sergei Dhiagelev’s company Ballets Russes, whose modern approach to dance had created such a sensation when it came to London in 1911. Other artists, such as August Macke, had also been stimulated by what they saw (in Macke’s case, seeing the ballet in Paris).

Ballets Russes, by August Macke, 1912. Macke’s post-impressionist style shares the same rich
aubergine palleteBomberg would adopt, a testament to the velvety light of the theatrical
appearance, and asserts, too, the important role of the audience in the overall experience. Bomberg
differs by moving firmly into abstraction. (Image out of copyright.
Image source:

The excitement was as much about possibilities of response as it was about new subjects. Remembering the exhilaration of finding new ways to praise, to affirm, of finding new ways to pattern celebration –Bomberg must have made Russian Balletfeeling all kinds of complicated nostalgia,including nostalgia for the idea of the good future. Russian Ballet even continues a theme he had addressed in bookform before the War: in 1914 he had provided a dancing image for the cover of Poems by the modernist John Rodker.

There had been so much loss since then. He had been at the Front and had seen the slaughter. Not a natural poet, he had yet been driven to write poems which tried to grasp the horror of the scenes he witnessed (these few poems would not be discovered until nearly the end of the twentieth century and contain some of the most violently explicit war poetry in English). Some of his friends, such as the artist and poet Isaac Rosenberg, had been killed in the War. He had suffered a devastating artistic shock, too, when, as an official war artist, the commission he had madehad been rejected by his paymasters, its anger and its relative abstraction surely the reason.

Caption: Further images from Russian Ballet, c.1914/1919. Image source: ©Tate, used here strictly for non-commercial purposes.

So this physically light-weight book, Russian Ballet, a pamphlet really, has far more emotional freight than its fragile frame suggests. Dance and in fact the human body are like that: people carry a density of experience which renders flat; in comparison to the emotional volume, presents weightless.

I think Russian Ballet is also one of the modern beginnings of the English artist’s book. The pamphlet form is part of this. You could say that one tradition Russian Ballet counters – though there are too many tributaries of the English artist’s book tradition to go into here – is that of the literally heavy religious work. The Lindisfarne Gospels is the prime example in its large lavishness, its huge, physical, sculptural presence. True, the stolidity of its scriptural ‘republication’ of the Gospels is set against the freer improvisations of its beautiful visual decoration, but Russian Ballet takes such abstraction and separates it entire. Figuratively speaking, the Gospels tries to ground its readers, but Russian Ballet encourages them to take to the air.

One of the ways it does this is by using a single, short, text and eking that text out across the whole book. The poem starts with an artistic explosion – “Methodic discord startles” - which is nevertheless described in distanced language, so that we don’t know exactly what is being disrupted and we also feel that a commentary is being made rather than a closer, realistic sally into whatever is actually happening. This strange relationship between an intellectualisation and an experience is maintained all through the book, and is in fact one thing that abstraction is: you may feel closer to the essence of something by being able to understand its reduced but heightened metanature, you come round to what you may think is essence by disengaging to a great degree from specific reality. 

Because each line of poetry is given a whole page to itself, the book emphasises either a contemplative role for the textor a speeding up of reading (the reader can decide). In the first interpretation the exposed short text slows the reader down: the page is saying, “dwell on this, I have place this sentence amid so much white-space in the way that I have placed a visual work on the other side of the opening”. Yet the whole book is about movement, the fast movement of dancers: in the early days of cinema Bomberg is giving us a slow motion effect while foregrounding the dilemma visual and literary art has in
the depiction of movement. The line that the book and poem conclude with – “The mind clamped fast captures only a fragment, for new illusion” – suggests that velocity, admitting that there cannot be a totality of interpretation, is also the book’s theme.

The language is highly unusual for the poetry of the day. It asserts unashamedly a place for theoretical observation in poetry, and yet places a premium on concision: a six line poem becomes a whole book. 

Finally, Russian Ballet was one of the places where poetry and art were joined in physical performance, in theatre of a new kind. It is recounted by Bomberg’s biographer Richard Cork that David Bomberg and his then wife Alice Mayes pretended to be programme-sellers at an actual performance by Ballets Russes, selling Russian Ballet to unwitting attendees of the Ballet. Diaghilev, who was present at the performance, discovered the ruse and apparentlymade the buyers return their books. However, this was not before Bomberg had placed himself in the history of the arts as an innovator in no less than
three fields – the artist’s book, English poetry, and performance art.

There are a number of digitised versions of Russian Ballet available on the net, and free to use under US copyright law. Because of restrictions elsewhere, we have avoided directly linking to those, but draw readers attention to their existence. Of course, for artist’s books, it is usually better to experience them in person. In the UK, libraries which hold Russian Ballet include Birmingham University, The British Library, The V&A, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, and the Tate Library (Tate Britain).

John Rodker, Poems, London: [Privately Printed], 1914.
David Bomberg, Russian Ballet (London: Hendersons, 1919).
Richard Cork, David Bomberg (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987). See
especially: pp.122-126.


How a book could be 

by Richard Price
Bomberg’s Russian Ballet, 1919

This is how a book could be –
tonight it’s ballet, tomorrow
apply a different progression code
within the hyper lex transfer protocol.

There’ll be a future name for a flicker render, mimicking film.
It’s fine, you can theorise in poetry,
sing analysis in. There’s lyric in the language of the intellect –
lyric can be intelligent, breathing out a thought, attentive adoration.

This is how a page could be –
mostly whitespace for the text wall, and the windows varying in size, varied in
colour saturation, force of light.

It is all dancing and stage-build today, rich reds by design,
but you can still cherish resolving in the eye / hands.

Tomorrow this is how pauses work

This is how ellipses…
and now dashes –

           positioning, movement
                                         and you make it all a performance –
Would you like to buy this programme?

(The contents resemble everything I once wanted, worked for, resemble…
nothing you could have seen before,

                                                              and now they’re all alight.)

Richard Price’s poetry collections include Lucky Day, Rays, and Small World. He has collaborated with the artists Ron King, Karen Bleitz, Julie Johnstone and Caroline Isgar on various artist’s books. He is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. More information about his work is gathered at

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