The idea of using letters in a visual way has evolved over a long period of time, owing its origins to Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphe With the arrival of avant-garde movements at the start of the 20thcentury, a significant change took place in artists’ use of type. At the vanguard were the Italian futurists, the Russian constructivists and Dadaists in Germany, France and Switzerland. These artists rejected the traditional form of fiction, and wanted to find new ways to create verse using typography and layout as the starting point. In the Dada Manifesto, Hugo Ball says in his article “Opening Declaration” (from the first Dada evening in Zurich, 14th July 1916):
I read a poem which is intended to do no more or less than: reject language. I don’t want to see words that others have invented. I want my own irrationality, and the vowels and consonants that suit it. The poem is a chance to get away with as few words as possible, without language.
Two years before the Dada Manifesto was written, the French poet Guillame Apollinaire (1880–1918) was experimenting with freeing the poem from the shackles of traditional form and composed poems that were laid out like pictures. He dubbed these poems “calligrams”, the best known of which is undoubtedly the 1914 poem “Il pleut” (“It’s raining”), where the lines of the poem run down the page like raindrops on a windowpane. The poem appeared in the 1918 book Calligrammes, and is considered one of the seminal works of 20th century concrete poetry, with Apollinaire himself having been dubbed the father of concrete poetry.
It can be said that the avant-garde artists’ experiments with the use of language established concrete poetry in the history of art. It was not however until the 1950s that the movement became truly visible. From 1951 to 1955, poets from at least fourteen countries and two continents emerged as champions of concrete poetry. This innovation in composition, which falls under so-called neo-avant-garde, earned the title “concrete poetry” in 1953, as was first seen in the Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström (1928–1976)’s manifesto “Hätila ragulpr på fåtskliaben” in Odyssé (1954).
In 1951, one of concrete poetry’s most prominent craftsmen, the Swiss-Bolivian poet Eugen Gomringer (1925–), founded the magazine Spirale in the Swiss city of Bern, along with Dieter Roth (1930–1998) and Marcel Wyss (1930–). The magazine was meant to diffuse modern ideas about composing poetry. In 1953, the first concrete poetry book was published, Konstellationen by Gomringer. In the mid-1950s, concrete poems began popping up in Iceland, which can be credited to Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth moving to the country in 1957. Along with concrete poetry, Dieter brought with him new international trends in the visual arts, such as the ideology of the international avant-garde movement Fluxus, which was characterised by experimentation, the convergence of various art forms into multi-disciplinary artistic creation. With the advent of Fluxus, the concept of the poem was redefined once again, which influenced the development of concrete poetry in the decades to come.
In the early 1970s, foreign and Icelandic art and culture underwent a series of changes when a new generation of artists burst onto the scene with works rooted in conceptual art. In conceptual art, language gained greater importance, and the works were often comprised of text, pictures, and video, as well as performances and installations. The works of the Icelandic conceptual artists associated with SÚM were largely based on wordplay, often with ironic messages and references to Icelandic folk tales and sagas. It can be said that with the dawn of the SÚM generation, concrete poetry had first been applied in a serious way in Iceland. It was however not until the early 1980s that poets such as Ísak Harðarson and Gyrðir Elíasson published books of poetry that had been influenced by concretism.
Things have moved on greatly since the first concrete poems began to emerge in the early 1950s, and as the exhibition shows, this trend has branched off into innumerable divergent paths. Yet concrete poetry was born of the idea of saying something about the world today, and making observers think in new ways – beyond the words. In this regard, it is interesting to look at how contemporary artists and authors have pushed the limits of the concrete poetry form with new technology and a new perspective on the future.
Vigdís Rún Jónsdóttir
Translation: Max Naylor