On 18th May 2019, a rare copy of the seminal publication Mirskontsa [Worldbackwards] was offered at auction at Nosbüsch & Stucke auction house in Berlin. Published in Moscow in November 1912 by G.L. Kuz’min and S.D. Dolinsky in a small edition of 220 copies, it was designed by Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) and features contributions by key Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde artists and writers, including Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964), Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) and Aleksei Kruchenykh (1886-1968). In addition to 27 original lithographs, the book contains rubber stamps, hand written texts and is recognised as being perhaps the first example of an artist’s book to incorporate a unique collage element into its cover.
When we spotted this copy of Mirskontsa at auction, we knew it would be an excellent fit for the existing holdings of the Archive and Special Books Collection at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (part of the National Galleries of Scotland). A world-class resource for the study of 20th- and 21st-century art, our collection is consulted by students, academics and scholars from across the world. Particularly strong in Dada and Surrealist holdings as a result of acquisition of the Penrose and Keiller collections of archive and special book material in 1995, the SNGMA’s representation of the Russian avant-garde in the early years of the 20th century is relatively weak. Although we do possess a copy of Goncharova’s 1913 book Vertogradari nad lozami [Gardeners over the Vines] we were determined to build upon this to better represent the art historical importance of the Russian avant-garde. We recognised that the acquisition of Mirskontsa would significantly help to rectify this historical imbalance.
Additionally, in 2019 the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) staged the first historical survey of collage to be held anywhere in the world: Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage. It featured loans from major institutions such as the British Museum, Tate, Victoria & Albert Museum and the Wellcome Foundation in addition to a number from private collectors, and illustrated how the medium was practiced by scholars, artists and amateurs much before Picasso and Braque adopted the technique when creating Cubist works.
Chief Curator Patrick Elliott and Archivist Kirstie Meehan wanted to include Mirskontsa but were unable to secure a copy. With FNL’s generous assistance, we were able to purchase this copy just in time for inclusion in the Cut and Paste. It was featured in the centre of a room filled with major Cubist, Futurist and Dada collages by Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Juan Gris and others. It is thought to be the only copy of Mirskontsa in a public collection in the UK.
Mirskontsa has been fully digitised and has already featured on the NGS’s Instagram page (#archivetuesday). It will be the subject of one of our forthcoming ‘Books in Focus’ talks, an opportunity for members of the public to view rare material up close and learn about it from curatorial staff. Of course, Mirskontsa will also be included in future National Galleries of Scotland exhibitions, and will be available for loan to other institutions.
We are most grateful to the Friends of the National Libraries for their generosity in making this purchase possible.