After great catastrophes, in some 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 spokes-person 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 Poetism, 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 in 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. With its large print, childlike verses, and an instructional sequence that matches a single letter in text and image on every page spread, Alphabet presents itself as the class reader for that internationally sponsored course in universal reeducation.
Alongside its thematic treatment of pedagogical zeal, Alphabet reinforces the attention to medium that is equally a hallmark of modernist language experiments. Through verbal associations in the poem, an embodiment of letters in dance, and the layout of atomized typographic signs, Alphabet focuses insistently on the manifest presence of language, or what Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov called "The Letter as Such." (7) That emphasis on material inherently frustrates legibility, and it has served in avant-garde tradition to express skepticism concerning conventions of meaning and communication. The very purpose of an alphabet is undermined in this process, because the elemental units of written language are prized not for their replicability but for their opacity and their independence from the larger sign system to which they formally belong.
The modernist alphabet thus performs a paradoxical double duty. It stands for a belief in system and reproducibility, yet its elements are made to resist systematization in the extreme; Teige's photomontages would make an unwieldy printer's font, for example. Although scholars have heretofore considered only the ideas of Teige and Nezval, Mayerova arguably enacts that double function most clearly. Her dance responds, first of all, to a fascinating model of alphabetic communication formulated by her instructor, the dancer and choreographer Rudolf von Laban. Laban developed a notational system, first published in 1926 as well, to transcribe body movements and thus permit the replication of otherwise ephemeral choreographic ideas. Tellingly, Laban likened this system to a revolutionary alphabet.
Rather than deny the influence of her teacher, Mayerova stressed her adherence to his ideas and proudly presented "Alphabet," which she herself most likely proposed, as a showcase for the Laban method. This decision had a practical motivation, for Mayerova wished to found a dance school in his name to finance her stage career. Mayerova therefore understandably made "Alphabet," which she performed quite frequently in 1926 and 1927, into a guide to her definition of dance. Her chosen specialization, Ausdruckstanz, or "expressive dance" (vyrazovy tanec in Czech), remained otherwise ill-defined despite its booming popularity. It connoted among the cultural public a sphere for "modern" women and girls colored by overtones of emancipation, ambition, and sexual allure--controversial identifications that Mayerova self-consciously put on display in this piece.
Mayerova subordinated her authorial self not just to Laban but to Nezval as well, basing her figures on his verses rather than conceiving an independent interpretation of letters in dance. However, her choreography--reconstructed here for the first time in more detail, thanks to one of her former pupils--operates on multiple registers. Its disciplined, emotionally restrained delivery contrasts with the verses, answering their joyous bravado with the sobriety of classical discipline. The poses, meanwhile, alternately emphasize and elide the distance between the dancer and her dance, and between the dance and its textual inspiration, to create a variety of comic twists on the scenes and images described in the poem. As for the book itself, it appears that Mayerova, rather than Teige or Nezval, thought of this possibility and ordered the necessary photographs, perhaps even before Teige had been consulted; in addition, it was almost certainly she who secured its publication.
Mayerova thus appears as both a follower and an originator, conflicting levels of agency that make it seem difficult to determine her place in the project. I wish to argue that this multiplicity of identity, grounded in Mayerova's cession of claims to formal autonomy--her praise for Laban, her accommodation to Nezval and ultimately Teige as well--in fact constitutes a theory of language in its own right, of a piece with her demonstrable importance to the book's creation. Mayerova understood bodies to be determined within language and took the identification of her own gendered and historically contingent body as the "material" of her dance. In doing so, she proposed a reflection on the very claim of artistic autonomy that also amounts to a strategy of self-presentation in the world.
Mayerova's image operates at two distances within Alphabet. Set slightly behind the picture plane, her dancing body figures as the record of a live performance that fixed Mayerova's persona as a "new woman" and "expressive dancer," not through letters and poetic language but precisely in relation to them. At this level, Mayerova's letters do not in fact form an alphabet, for they lack full legibility and would be hard to decipher independently of the poetry or typography. Mayerova did not make a display of "autonomous art," in other words, but reflected instead on her mobility within a system of constraints--including her peers and language itself--that framed the possibilities for her social identity. Working within those constraints, Mayerova could and did find a measure of real-life autonomy, as a self-employed, professional woman.
Within the book, however, the images of Mayerova do signify as part of a language system. At their printed surface, flat and reproducible, the images harmonize with the verses and typographic signs to form a readable, highly innovative phototext. Alphabet, to repeat, owes its existence principally to Mayerova, and it functioned...