Johanna Drucker: New Book on Ilia Zdanevich a Biography Within a Biography

Scholar of the history of the book and the design of information visualization shares perspectives on historical research.

With two books out recently and a third one on the historiography of the alphabet due in March, Johanna Drucker has been very busy. Last fall, the UCLA Distinguished Professor of Information Studies published “Visualization and Interpretation: Humanistic Approaches to Display,” released by MIT Press, an English language version of a book of Drucker’s writings that were first published in France. This work continues her exploration of the theoretical understandings of visual images and their relation to knowledge, and how the specifics of the graphical are to be engaged directly as a primary means of knowledge production for digital humanities. Drawing on work from aesthetics, critical theory, and formal study of graphical systems, Professor Drucker addresses them within the specific framework of computational and digital activity as they apply to digital humanities. 

Drucker’s second book, “The Digital Humanities Coursebook: An Introduction to Digital Methods for Research and Scholarship,” published this year by Routledge, outlines critical and practical frameworks for the application of digital humanities tools and platforms, which have become an integral part of work across a wide range of disciplines.

But it is “Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist,” published in 2020 by Johns Hopkins University Press that Drucker, the inaugural Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography at UCLA, describes as “a work of love.” The book is based on Drucker’s longstanding project on the Russian poet Ilia Zdanevich, known in his professional life as Iliazd, who began his career in the pre-Revolutionary artistic circles of Russian futurism. 

Iliazd was the publisher of deluxe limited-edition books in Paris, which are highly prized by bibliophiles and collectors for their exquisite book design and innovative typography, and in small part, for the publisher’s collaboration with many major figures of modern art—Pablo Picasso, Sonia Delaunay, Max Ernst, Joán Miro, Natalia Goncharova, and Mikhail Larionov.

The biography, which Drucker began working on in the 1980s with the guidance of Madame Hélène Zdanevich, Iliazd’s third wife and widow, is truly a story within a story. In it, Professor Drucker explores the relationship between documentary evidence and narrative, between contemporary witnesses and retrospective accounts and shares her experiences of working with Iliazd’s widow and other figures from his life in the process of researching his biography. 

Professor Drucker shared with Ampersand the challenging role of the biographer and the many conundrums that arise when telling the story of an individual one did not know, and her unique experience of preparing the archives of her father, Boris Drucker, an illustrator and cartoonist best known for his work in The New Yorker. 

Professor Drucker’s own artwork can be found in museum and library collections at the Getty Center for the Humanities, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Marvin and Ruth Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, the New York Public Library, and the Houghton Library at Harvard, among many others. In 2012, a comprehensive retrospective of her books, graphic art, and visual projects titled, “Druckworks: 40 Years of Books and Projects,” opened at Columbia College and traveled throughout the country for two years.

Drucker’s books include Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, with Emily McVarish (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008). Her independently authored publications include “SpecLab: Projects in Digital Aesthetics and Speculative Computing” (Chicago, 2009), “What Is?: Nine Epistemological Essays” (Cuneiform Press, 2013), and “In Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production” (Harvard University Press, 2014). She is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Riot Material.

Ampersand: How did you first encounter the story of Iliazd?

Johanna Drucker: In 1985, I was doing my dissertation research in Paris on early 20th Century avantgarde typography in the context of data and futurism, which were two movements that were part of the 1909-1920 period, where there was lots of very creative innovative work using type and experimenting with way language looked. I was working in an archive there, called the Bibliothèque Jacques-Doucet and there was a young man across the table from the who was looking at livres d’artistes, which are these big deluxe books with images and text. Some were by very famous artists. 

It turned out that he was an art history student at UC Santa Barbara. We got to talking one day and he said, “Well, if you’re working on typography, you might want to know about Ilia Zdanevich,” – or Iliazd… a contraction of his first name and the two letters of his last name. He was a poet, but he was also a book designer and a typographer.

I said, “Okay,” because there was nothing much written about him at the time and so I got in touch with his widow. This art student said, “She really likes to talk to people about her husband.” The book tells this whole story from when I first went to see her on a January afternoon. 

I went to find her apartment, which at that point, wasn’t in a very chic part of Paris. I went into this dark courtyard and up this dark staircase and knocked on the door and a person came down into the hallway and let me in, a tall, stately Frenchwoman with upswept hair. She took me into this one little room with a bed and a table and two chairs and an armchair in front of a gas fireplace and we tried to stay warm in the dim light.

We started talking and I realized that I’m sitting in a room with all these original works of modern art by people like Picasso, Giacometti, Robert Delaunay, and Natalia Goncharova. It was like sitting in a museum in this modest little room where [Iliazd] had moved in 1935 or 1937.

There was a tiny little bridge, kind of a corridor that went to another room that was a studio space, with skylights and then an open area was also very modest. That was where he had done a lot of his work. He was born in Georgia but went to Moscow and St. Petersburg as a student, then fled in the wake of the First World War. He then came to Paris in the early 1920s after the Russian Revolution because his parents wanted him to get away. His father was a professor of French and so [Iliazd] was fluent in French.

He came to Paris and got involved with many different artists and poets and writers. He did some printing when he first got there, and then got married and had a family. He was writing poetry and novels but wasn’t making books, and then about 20 years later, he made a book at the beginning of the Second World War… a deluxe edition with Picasso prints in it. But he couldn’t sell it, nobody was buying books as the war broke out.

After the war, [Iliazd] started back into making books and one thing led to another. He did luxurious editions with Picasso and Max Ernst and Joan Miró, as well as other writers and artists who are less well known. 

Anyway, that first afternoon, I got to talking to [Madame] and it turned out she wanted somebody to work on a biography of Iliazd. No one had done a biography of him. I was spending my days in the library and the archives and it was cold and lonely and she was inviting me to come and work with her in the afternoons. I thought, well, that seems interesting. I didn’t even know who this man was and knew very little about him. So I started working with her, piecing his life together from documents she had created listing everything he had done year by year. I still have copies of those lists – in 1917 he does this, and this, and this.  I would say to her, “How do we know?” and she’d say, “We have a train ticket, we have a letter… a poster.” She would bring these things out to show me. So, I started putting all this stuff together. 

She would say things to me like, “Oh, you know, Prince Eristoff is still alive and he knew Iliazd in the 1920s, you have to see him.” And I would write to these people and ask, “Would you be willing to talk to me about Iliazd?” This was 60 years later, and these were people in their 80s. He had various ex-girlfriends who were younger. So, [Madame] introduced me to all these people who were still alive, who were part of his milieu, collaborators, friends… people he had had quarrels with, and I interviewed them.

&: How is this book also a meta- exploration of what a biography should be?

Drucker: Madame wanted me to write just a straight biography, and so I did. I wrote a study of his work and his life and the relationship between the two, and that book was supposed to be published in the early 1990s by an academic press. But there was a downturn in the economy and they looked at the title and said, “We don’t think there’s a market for this,” so they cut the book. I was disappointed, but, honestly, I was young. That version of the work was 30 years ago.

When I went back to reworking the book later, I decided to tell all the stories about the people I met and about the process of what is a biography. Here I am, being given all this evidence, but I didn’t know this person. Is a biography a character study? Is a biography a narrative of a life? Well, I didn’t really know his life – I knew these pieces of evidence. Is a biography to explain the artistic work, and if so, how much information should I be revealing about his private life, because that’s not really relevant. 

And so, it became a book about the process of writing a biography as well as being a biography and a study of his work, and it was so much more fun to write. Little by little, that was part of what I was trying to understand. I was too young in the 1980s to fully understand the complexities of this project. , [Madame] wanted was a kind of heroic biography because she was so impressed with Iliazd as an artist and the world and circles in which he moved. 

She was an amazing woman in her own right, beautiful, tall, and dignified. She was an athlete in the Senior Olympics. But she came from what we call a bourgeois family. For her, the idea that she was marrying a man who was friends with people who at that point in history were the stars of European modernism, was amazing. She wanted him to be recognized and felt he had not gotten the kind of recognition that he deserved, so she wanted a biography that would say, “Look this person was important, they did this important work.” 

I also think now when I reflect on it, she wanted almost like a story that she could enter into to live with him the parts of his life that she hadn’t been able to share. She had a longing to really be with him in all these areas of his life. It was fascinating to me – the process, thinking about what my role was as a biographer. In the later version, the version that’s published now, I was able to explore so many more dimensions of what it means to do this kind of work: the scholarship, the biography, meeting people, the mythologies. 

There were two scholars, who were quite young at the time, who would come to the apartment and work with us. One was an academic scholar, who made his career mostly on his work on Iliazd. Another one, who was a poet and a translator, was Russian. He was so gifted and would read Iliazd’s poems to us, and it was like the room would fill with light. 

There are a number of really super recent scholars, who have unearthed things about Iliazd and his life that I would never have been able to find – things had to do with his activities in  Georgia, going to see these ruins of churches in the mountains, and the year he’d spent in Constantinople. But nobody had access to what I had access to in my connection with Madame. This project gave me a new voice and gave me a way to write that I’m looking forward to working with more as well.

&: How have you been able to successfully combine have those two halves of your work – the technical aspects of the digital humanities and the hands-on, very human scale work of typography and the bookmaking tradition? 

Drucker: It’s one of the things I try to pass on to the students: making things teaches you things. I am still teaching them how to make books. I tell them to use anything they have around the house –  they can use cardboard, paper bags, waste paper, wrapping paper. I encourage them to feel that they do not have to buy anything special. One of the exercises was that they had to make a blank book, but the paper had to tell a story: old plastic bags, newsprint, recycled printouts, whatever. It’s just a a one-unit class I do mainly to give them something fun – it’s lively and we get together and make something.

This spring, I’m teaching a new class on the history and practice of information visualization. It’s meant to be part of the new undergraduate major, sort of visual information literacy. And in the spring, I’ll do the sustainability class again.

Sustainability in information professions is often thought of in really narrow terms, as carbon footprint and energy use. But I want them to think about sustaining communities, sustaining the profession through recruitment retention, reflecting on labor practices and diversity, thinking about collection accession and deaccessioning–in other words, all the ways in which sustainability as a concept applies to the work that we do.

&: How does the retrospective exhibition you did for your father Boris Drucker, tie in with your work on Iliazd as a work of biographical storytelling? 

Drucker: My dad was so great. I loved him so much and he was such a bright inspiring figure for me. He had two years of trade school, he didn’t go to college. He was really good with his hands, but he was funny and perceptive. My dad was pretty special. Just the fact of having somebody around who was drawing all the time – it was visual – I don’t think people necessarily get that experience.

One of the things he said to me is that in all the cartoons he ever did, he always wanted them to be funny but he never wanted them to be mean or to be cruel. And that was such an interesting thing for him to say. There was never any satire, no edge, no bite to them – they were compassionate. 

When I went to help him with his archives [when] he and my stepmother left the house that he had bought on the GI Bill in 1949, and when I was helping them move out of it in the early 2000s, I helped him pack up all these materials that went to the University of Syracuse Special Collections library, because they wanted cartoon materials. It was so interesting because most of his work was commercial work.  He did ad campaigns for all of these major companies. For instance, in the 1950s, he was working with Con Edison, the electric company in Philadelphia, doing ads trying to get people to use electricity. He drew an average family and he says, “Look, Mother …  can have curlers. Father can have an electric shaver and a lawn mower.” This cultural history and these materials just blew me away.

In the process of going through his materials I realized this stuff really should be shown. I curated an exhibit of his work with Syracuse Special Collections in New York City at a wonderful gallery space just at the point when my father was starting to fade a little. It was fantastic that we got to honor him and show this incredible work. 

I feel very lucky that I got to be able to to enjoy that work with him, while he was still alive. I feel very lucky in the parents I had. I lost my mother when she was too young. But I have this wonderful stepmother who reads my manuscripts. She read all the chapters in the alphabet book and in the earliest manuscripts. She’s 94. She was an educator herself, she taught math education at Temple University. I talk to her on the phone, and she says, “You know, on page seven, I think there’s a typo.” 

For a blog post for Johns Hopkins University Press by Professor Drucker on “Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist,” click here.