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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.

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.

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.

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 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.


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.

Guillaume Apollinaire - The Bleeding-Heart Dove and the Fountain (1913–1916)

Constructivism is an early twentieth-century art movement founded in 1915 by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. Abstract and austere, constructivist art aimed to reflect modern industrial society and urban space. The movement rejected decorative stylization in favor of the industrial assemblage of materials. Constructivists were in favour of art for propaganda and social purposes, and were associated with Soviet socialism, the Bolsheviks and the Russian avant-garde.

Constructivist architecture and art had a great effect on modern art movements of the 20th century, influencing major trends such as the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements. Its influence was widespread, with major effects upon architecture, sculpture, graphic design, industrial design, theatre, film, dance, fashion and, to some extent, music.