March 3, 2009

Milca Mayerova's Abeceda: The Czech Alphabet Book To End All Czech Alphabet Books


I worry that I'm slipping. When I first found out a couple of weeks ago about Abeceda, a pioneering artist book created in 1926 by members of a Czech collective in which photographs of dancer/choreographer Milca Mayerova "dancing" each letter of the Latin alphabet were used to illustrate its corresponding quatrain from Vitezslav Nezval's modernist poem, I wanted to write the entire post to the tune of the Village People's "Y.M.C.A."

Well, it didn't happen, and guess what, it ain't gonna happen this week, either.


What little credit has been given to Abeceda, which means "Alphabet" in Czech, has gone to Vitezslav and the designer Karel Teige, who were more prominent than Mayerova in the Devetsil movement of post-WWI Czech modernism. It helped that Teige blew his and Nezval's horn about Abeceda in his own manifesto, Modern Typography.

But in the first in-depth study of Abeceda, published in 2004, National Gallery of Art curator and Dada expert Matthew Witkovsky argues [persuasively, I'd say] that it was Mayerova who conceived and realized the book. Mayerova also performed Abeceda live several times in Prague in 1926 and 1927, and then toured the country with it, achieving some acclaim.

The ambitious objective of Abeceda was to create a new, revolutionary beginning for the world rebuilding after the Great War. Like many Modernists in other countries, the Devetsil gang was almost evangelical in pursuing its utopian dream; By appropriating the form of the fundamental building block of language, the alphabet, they signaled their determination to rethink everything from the ground up. Teige's modernist collages contained graphics, Nezval's poem, laid out in Teige's stylized typeface, and photographs of Mayerova. The idea was to treat letters as objects, to collapse writing and imagery, and to overcome the perceived limitations of letters' ability to accurately describe the world.


Which is an awful lot of concept to cram into a Village People song. You see my dilemma.

A thousand copies of Abeceda were printed by Marcelova's family's publishing company and hit stores the day before Christmas 1926; they sold horribly, and most ended up remaindered or tossed out. Abeceda was rediscovered, art historically speaking, through recreated performances and an exhibition of Teige's work in 2001.

nezval_alphabet.jpgWhich is why The Manhattan Rare Book Company [the source of the interior photos shown here, btw] feels comfortable asking $6,000 for a very nice-looking first edition.

Fortunately, the University of Michigan Press published a facsimile edition of Abeceda, complete with translation, in 2001. And it's only $42 at amazon and just $37 at Stout, the awesome architecture book store in San Francisco.

As yet, there is no board book edition.

No pictures, but you can read Witkovsky's May 2004 Art Bulletin article, "Staging language: Milca Mayerova and the Czech book Alphabet" online [findarticles]
a recitation of Nezval's poem in Czech, with a slide show [youtube]
Actually, all the pages, plus a video, are at the V&A's website from their 2006 Czech Modernism exhibit [, thanks andy]
Holy smokes, mellow alert! Larsen, a trippy quartet from Turin, staged a one-night Abeceda chillstravaganza concert in 2007. The CD/DVD is $20. []

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