Finding a Role: The Artist Reinvented

At a time when our access to art in museums is limited, the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, 1918-1939’ showcases works that were ironically meant to be seen not within the rarefied space of a gallery but in the midst of the crowded metropolitan street.  With admission limited so as to comply with safety protocols it is a pity that this display, celebrating as it does the work of artists and designers who saw their vocation in a more direct engagement with the public, will be seen by a relatively modest crowd.  For those of us unable to visit New York ourselves the Museum has generously made the display available via a series of navigable images on its website, and there is also a lavishly illustrated catalogue to help us enjoy these works at our leisure.  Celebrating as it does as generation of artists committed to reinventing their relationship with the public at large, this is certainly a display that deserves to be ‘seen’, in whatever capacity we can do so.

Valentina Kulagina, ‘We Are Building’ (1929, MoMA)

For figures like Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vavara Stepanova, or El Lissitzky the questions facing the artist in the early Soviet period were existential in nature.  What should an artist do in the revolutionary times through which they were living?  Indeed, how should one be an artist in such situation?  “Whole generations disappeared from our sides from one day to the next,” wrote the Hungarian poet, critic, and painter Lajos Kassák in 1922, “the scales of time-tested aesthetic truths fell from us.”  To emerge from the cataclysm of World War into a time of revolution and civil unrest was, for these artists, matched by an equally profound awareness that aesthetic values had been swept away in the same manner.  A key example of this, Lissitzky’s famous 1920 ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ poster, was designed for use in the Russian Civil War but rather than reprise a figurative, representational style of the old regime it applied the Suprematist approach to colour and form to its cause.  Red and black squares, circles, and lines now carried ideological weight, and in the early Soviet period the streets of towns and cities from Petrograd to Vitebsk were filled with such designs, whether painted on billboards or directly onto the buildings themselves.

As the dizzying pace of the city routine captured in Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera indicates, the role of technology also had a key role to play here.  The creative process became, in societies where the impact of the machine on the individual’s life was increasingly pronounced, turning everyday living into a form of ‘production’ in itself.  As a key part in the machinery of the state the artist was not detached, observing from the side-lines, but committed both to social improvement and cultural collaboration.  Writing in 1931, Gustav Klutsis invoked “a wholly new type of artist […] a socialist worker,” whose skill would be evident in their ability to make comprehensible to “the masses of workers and peasants” the messages, goals, and values of their time.  In this age, Art was to find its new home on the bus stop and the billboard.

Aleksander Rodchenko & Vladimir Mayakovsky, Poster for Mossel’prom Cooking Oil (1923, MoMA)

Art’s relocation from the gallery wall to the advertising poster was an assertion of its capacity to change the world around it: not only in the persuasion of an audience to acquire goods or services, but to think of themselves as part of a new and more engaged society.  Collaboration, and a belief in collective activity were at the core of many artists’ visions here, and it is not surprising that their work first finds favour amidst the formative years of Soviet Communism, and the hopes that similar changes in Germany, Hungary, Poland, and other countries were on course to be realised.  Within the USSR the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1922 was a controversial step back from the path to Socialism that had initially proved so ruinous, but when framed as an adjustment rather than an ideological betrayal the NEP allowed artists and designers a rare opportunity to hone their skills further by selling products as well as ideas. To see that by 1923 Rodchenko and Vladimir Mayakovsky should be found collaborating on billboards for Mossel’prom that encouraged the purchase of everything from cocoa to lightbulbs seems a strange step from their works of earlier years, but the same desire to reach as many people as possible is as evident there as in their simultaneous contributions to the artistic and literary journal Lef.  The tools were the same, and as the figure of the ‘Artist’ was reinvented in the new Soviet era their willingness to serve the state’s goals was always evident.  Even the marketing and acquisition of goods was different in the new world that such figures inhabited, for rather than exploit the worker goods and ideas would exist to empower a populace more visually and textually literate than it had ever been.  The designs by Elena Semenova included in the exhibition for a Workers’ Club incorporated a lounge and a cafeteria, but would also (like that proposed by Rodchenko at the 1925 Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts) provide workers with a fully-stocked reading room to maximise their leisure and make them more informed members of a new social order.

Dating as it does from the later 1920s, though, Semenova’s work also shows how the Stalinist regime, which would come to be defined by the essential conservatism of its Socialist Realist aesthetic in place of the avant-garde experimentation that it rejected, would see information in a different way.  In the world of the Five-Year Plan, montages now urge efficiency in the workplace or vigilance against ‘wreckers’ and saboteurs.  Ranks of ‘shock-workers’ like those in the posters of Valentina Kulagina suggest unity and collective purpose, whilst implying that to stand outside of the crowd is to be a dangerous and subversive influence.  The human figure has once again replaced the Suprematist shape, so as to foreground the human responsibilities demanded of each individual.  As the utopianism of the early Soviet years was replaced with a system of heightened state patronage, but accompanied by tighter ideological control over any content, it was not always a virtue to be visually daring without being very clear as to the preferred message to be conveyed.

Elena Semenova & Lydia Naumova, ‘Every Worker Must Keep a Keen Eye on How the Net Cost of Production is Lowered at Their Workplace’ (1929, MoMA)

The Soviet examples in this exhibition make clear that in seeking a ‘new’ role the Artist could never wholly escape political obligations even when they wished to do so.  The exhibition also reminds us, however, that even as the aesthetic and political climate inside the USSR was changing artists in other countries were embarking on similar paths of reinvention and facing political challenges of a different nature.  To pledge one’s art to the Communist or Socialist cause in Germany was to be a figure of opposition, but ironically to briefly enjoy a greater latitude for experimentation that your peers inside the USSR might expect to have.  By bringing into its display the work of figures like Hannah Hoch, Herbert Bayer, and Marianne Brandt the exhibition foregrounds the dialogue between Russian artists and their German counterparts.  Finding their own way amidst the cultural, political, and economic challenges of the Weimar Republic German artists also sought a social role for their work, putting it at the service of the political Left in the hopes that it would constructively change public opinion.  Although doubts were raised as to its effectiveness, John Heartfield’s 1928 poster for the German Communist Party, ‘The Hand has Five Fingers’, in which a giant photographed hand seems to reach out through the image so as to ‘seize the enemy’ was a revolutionary step forward in graphic design.  Seeing it reproduced on the dust jacket of the catalogue gives a small sense of its impact, but the images on the book’s front endpapers, in which a trio of men stand seeing it full-size, and pasted in a single block of eight posters on the side of a building, reminds us of how, in the accompanying essay by Andrés Mario Zervigón, it “transformed Germany’s quotidian visual culture, expanding advanced strategies for the selling of products to the marketing of ideologies across innumerable printed and posted surfaces.”

Art at Street Level: John Heartfield’s ‘The Hand has Five Fingers’ on a Berlin Street, May 1928

That shift in the visual language was evidence of how artists had found a new role for themselves, but the years that followed would show, as Walter Benjamin had warned, that the nature of what the artist was called upon to ‘sell’ to such an audience might be far from benign.  Making full use of the possibilities of photographic montage that Rodchenko and Klutsis had pioneered inside the Soviet Union, Heartfield would spend the 1930s producing scathing visual critiques of Hitler’s actions and policies, but he would do so having fled to Czechoslovakia, and then on to Britain, in a bid to evade the reach of the Nazi regime.  Ironically, the Nazis had found themselves that many of the same visual techniques that Heartfield used to attack them were, with important modifications as to subject matter, highly effective tools in their own cause.

By this time, too, many of the most innovative figures in the Soviet Union were either dead, marginalised, or prepared to comply with the state’s wishes in order to secure their own safety.  Attacked for his ‘formalist’ (and therefore ideologically suspect) photographs, Rodchenko would henceforth produce the images that the regime required of him.  In a bid to secure official favour he photographed the construction of the White Sea Canal in 1933 for the magazine USSR in Construction and brought to bear on a project that was built by slave labour at the cost of hundreds of lives the same artistic sense of ‘construction’ that had earlier inspired him to more daring work a decade earlier.  By the time he did this his former collaborator Mayakovsky, who had complained in his poem ‘At the Top of My Voice’ that “agitprop dries my tongue” had taken his own life, feeling himself unable to find his place in the Stalinist order.

In time, many of the founding figures of the early Soviet avant-garde were aware that the artistic and political environment they saw around them was not what they had once hoped to realise.  That this should have been the result, however, in no way lessens the daring with which, in looking to reinvent themselves, a generation of artists revised and rewrote much of the visual vocabulary of their times.  They wanted an art that would engage the public directly, and at a time when we are all feeling an absence of connection the online presence of this exhibition, and its excellent catalogue, give us the chance to engage again with their fascinating story.

‘Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, 1918-1939’ is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 10 April.

The exhibition catalogue, edited by Jodi Hauptman and Adrian Sudhalter, is available to order. (ISBN: 978-1-63345-108-7)

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