Augusto de Campos "Lygia Fingers“ (1953)

Ian Hamilton Finlay “You/Me” (1968)

Concrete Poetry: the concrete in art, sound and image

As perhaps one of the few, if not the only international art movement that is simultaneously also a significant twentieth-century literature movement, Concrete Poetry pursued a radical effort to break with traditional notions of poetry. Through its cross-pollination with many post-war movements and its interdisciplinary nature, the idea of the concrete represents a kind of renaissance within the art of the twentieth-century. Its emergence greatly influenced several related experimental art practices such as Phonetic Poetry or Performance Art and further informed the establishment of Digital Art and text-based art as we know it today.

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Before the 20th Century when literature and the visual arts intersect, appeals to equalise both art forms have been recorded as early as 19 BC by, for example, the leading Roman lyric poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known as Horace. “Ut pictura poesis” is the notable Latin phrase in Horace’s “Ars Poetica”. Translated to “as is painting so is poetry”, the poet ignited a long- running debate based on his argument that poetry merited the same careful analysis that was, at the time, reserved for painting. While centuries earlier in 556 – 468 BC a similar discussion was held based on the writing of Simonides of Keos, who had stated: “Poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens”, “Poetry is a speaking picture, painting a silent poetry.”, Horace’s stand would serve a long-standing symbiotic exchange between the two mediums up until the 18th Century.

The achieved equality was dismissed in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 publication “Laokoon”, in which the German writer and philosopher draws a clear line of distinction between the two art forms. In retrospect, this influential writing served as the catalyst for an obstruction that extensively shaped artistic creation and theoretical discourse of the time. Lessing’s efforts to systematically separate literature and the visual arts are contrasted through well-documented tendencies in the artistic practice dating back to ancient times. Referenced by many Concrete Poets is the work of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poem “Un Coup de Dés” (1897), adopted an unconventional typographical composition of words on paper.

Within the 20th Century, these intersections become increasingly more apparent in the context the visual arts, as 20th Century philosopher Michel Foucault’s wrote in one of his most acclaimed books “The Order of Things”: “But the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation.” Literature adapts visual imagery and composition, while the visual arts increasingly feature elements of written language. It is notable for the development of presenting language as visual entity that in our modern-day and age of extreme and constant visual stimulation, the conception of a distinction between image and text is nearly non-existent. Within the modern development of a unified art form, there are several art movements originating in Northern Europe and Latin America that have influenced and informed the path towards experimentations with visual poetry. Concretism in the visual arts was a broad international movement that originated from the post-war era in Europe. Following the destruction of the war, artists were seeking to rebuild culture. In response to a new chapter in civilisation they aimed to reignite and recover the ideas of the Avant-garde.

Although theories and practices regarding visual poetry or linguistic art originated in many pre- historic, late 19th Century and early 20th Century movements, the introduction to new technologies following Word War II, such as the type writer or tape recorder, was essential to the definition of Concrete Poetry as established art genre. At the same time in post-war Brazil, its significance was equally strong. Influenced by the many fleeing and exiled European artists that were associated to Constructivism, the Latin-American abstract art scene experienced an invigorating contribution that resulted in the conception of groups such as the “Asociacíon Arte Concreto-Invencíon”. During the mid 20th Century Brazil saw a period of rapid economic growth in which Concretism in art symbolised a new spirit of optimism in the country, similar to post-war Europe. Within this momentum Augusto and Haroldo de Campos with their colleague Décio Pignatari developed the group called “Noigrandes”, referencing an Ezra Pound poem. The same year Eugen Gomringer worked in Germany for the Ulm School of Design, an important centre of education that followed in the footsteps of Bauhaus. The Swiss poet had independently been creating an identical linguistic style to the de Campos brothers in Brazil. When Pignatari met Gomringer in 1955, an agreement was made to establish an international technique referred to as Concrete Poetry. The following year Gomringer wrote the first manifesto defining the movement officially and the Noigrandes group firstly referenced the art form in an exhibition of Concrete Art at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo.

Mimmo Rotella, Poema fonetico n.10, 1949

Mimmo Rotella’s performed “Poetica Epistaltica” in 1954

As phenomena situated on the distinction between literature and visual art, its origins are inherently experimental and are thus strongly identified with experimental art movements of the 20th Century such as Cubism, Dada or Fluxus. Closely associated with the emergence of Sound Poetry, or Phonetic Poetry, many artists and poets at the time experimented with the performative aspect of poetry. This sub-genre, similar to the pre-historic origins of Concrete Poetry, is rooted in the history of pre-literate tribal communities and their rich culture of oral rituals. Its definition however primarily emerged during the late 19th Century and early 20th Century through Avant-Garde movements such as the Futurists, or Dadaists. Known as one of the quintessential examples of this genre is Kurt Schwitters “Ursonate” (1920-32). Towards the mid 20th Century, Phonetic Poetry was further informed by the Dada-influenced art movement Lettrism and later Ultra-Lettrism. As a multi-disciplinary movement, the Lettrists were primarily concerned with the promotion of the visual language. Founders Isodore Isou and Gabriel Pomerand believed in this, at the time radical proposition to create hybrid artworks based on the composition of both writing and visual art. Its influence on Phonetic Poetry in its simplest definition is that Lettrists used letters as sounds and then as images. Poetry would turn into a musical score and then into an artwork. In Italy, artist Mimmo Rotella who was closely associated with the Ultra-Lettrists, created what he referred to as “Manifesto dell’Epistaltismo”, a form of Phonetic Poetry. In the late 1940s, after experiencing an artistic crisis, Rotella was seeking to depart from his earlier abstract painting-based practice and sought more experimental ways to express himself. His “Poetica Epistaltica” consisted of sequences composed of nonsensical words, sounds such as whistles or recorded urban noise and onomatopoeic phonetic sounds. The late art critic Germano Celant described these as: ” Intertwining of invented words, ancient chants, sound quotes, everyday sounds and jazz improvisations “.

In 1951 when the artist relocated to the US for a scholarship from the Fulbright Commission, he performed various of his innovative epistatic poems at Harvard University in Boston and recorded some of them for the Library of Congress in Washington DC. In Rotella’s manifesto, the artist establishes ten declarations referring to the definition of his “Poetica Epistaltica”, primarily addressing that the true essence of the linguistic meaning lies in the phonetic representation, the multi-sensory nature of the experienced performance. In the context of Concrete Poetry, experimentations with Phonetic Poetry and performative linguistic work become essential contributions. Activated by the viewer or reader, a concrete poem only achieves its full realisation through a multi-sensory experience of the work. As with all poetry, the pronunciation and the sound of words is essential to the meaning of the words. In Concrete Poetry, this aspect is additionally met with the visual and textural experiences. While it symbolises a manifestation of aesthetic engagements with phonetic, spoken word and written word, it furthermore possesses unique implications for multi-linguistic understanding. Concrete Poetry can often be read by speakers of different languages, as the signification of the work is primarily derived from the aesthetic qualities of the composition rather than the actual language.

Mary Ellen Solt “Forsythia” (1965)

Augusto de Campos "desumano" (2004)

Augusto de Campos “AMOR TE” (1970)

What characterises Concrete Poetry is the composition of written words in an arrangement of visual form and communication. Letters, words, any type of text are arranged in a composition that acts as a visual tool of communication. Concrete poets often appropriated visual elements and forms to arrange the text such as grids, spirals or columns, reducing the linguistic element of the poem to a minimum. The latter aspect is one of the many ways in which Concrete Poetry acted in response to tradition. As an avant-garde movement, Concrete Poets rejected long- established dictations and radically stripped their poetry down to very few works. They revolted against the existing definition of a poem as merely a column of words meant to be read in silent, rather they identified Concrete Poetry as a spatial, visual construct and multi-sensory experience. Instead of reciting and finding meaning in the written content, the purpose of the Concrete Poem lies in its existence itself, operating purely visual within its given geometric or graphic framework. The movement radically distinguished itself from other post-war art groups by employing new technologies, such as typographic fonts, magnetic tape and more importantly appropriating early coding patterns as seen in the beginnings of computer programming.

Eugen Gomringer “Silencio” (1953)

Eugen Gomringer “Silencio” (1953)

The purpose of reduced language is not the reduction of language itself but the achievement of greater flexibility and freedom of communication (with its inherent need for rules and regulations). The resulting poems should be, if possible, as easily understood as signs in airports and traffic signs.
(Eugen Gomringer, 1960)

One of the leading representatives of the movement remains its founder, the Swiss, Bolivian- born artist Eugen Gomringer. His concrete poetry is still being recited today as essential literature in schools around the world. Gomringer’s “Silencio”(1953) poem, was published amongst the artist’s first collection of Concrete Poetry titled “Konstellationen”, referencing Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetic body of work, which he titled “constellations”. “Silencio” (1953) is undoubtedly one of the quintessential works representing the movement. Its German version of the poem “Schweigen” has since its publication been included in the anthology of the 100 most famous German poems. The work represents the typical stylistic and linguistic aims of the movement. The blanks canvas features a frame formed from the repetition of the word “Silencio”, creating a blank space in the middle of the block. Strongly informed by the linguistic minimalism of Concrete Poetry and the visual minimalism of Concrete Art, Gomringer’s “Silencio” aims to proclaim a reduction of language in the context of our present, characterised by an abundance of communication. The further political subtext of this kind of poetry reveals the preoccupation with silence as a response to post-war Germany. Alluding to the impossibility of communicating the profound trauma of the Holocaust, Gomringer’s poetry offered a brutal confrontation with the silence of the German society.

Today, in the contemporary arts, traces making visible the legacies of Concrete Poetry are primarily evident in the practice of the early exponents of Concrete Poetry that have radically evolved their work of body towards new linguistic systems. Examples of this can be seen in the work of Max Bense or Haroldo de Campos, both essential contributors to the movement, who through the early technological developments have explored the intersections and similarities within Concrete Poetry and computer coding. In the late 1960s, the movement became increasingly more connected to the exploration of computing, establishing the very origins of what we know are familiar with as Digital Art. While the broader cultural impact is rather challenging to identify due to the multi-faceted directions in which the movement developed, its influences are more clearly visible in the work of contemporary artists such as Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger.