Art Deco Architecture in Paris: Robert Mallet-Stevens, Part Two

Robert Mallet-Stevens (1885-1945)

The Architect of Art Deco, Part Two

The semiotics of Robert Mallet-Stevens was completely different from those of the other modern architects, such as Mies van der Rohr. The radical modern architects were dedicated to building for the masses, providing affordable housing for them, buildings that, grouped together, became contemporary villages, prefabricated, assembled out of modules, they were meant to improve society as a whole. In contrast, the clients of Mallet-Stevens were avant-garde and wealthy and artistic and the villas he built for them were meant to display the elevated social position of the inhabitants. His architectural accomplishments were signs of privilege and elegance, shining in the sun, expansive in their display of distinction. Begun a year after the Villa Poiret at Mézy-sur-Seine, Yvelines, the Villa Noailles was started in 1924 at Hyères. the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles were close friends of Jean Cocteau and were the kind of owners excited to work with a cutting-edge architect who, not so incidentally, had no particular connections with socialism or Communism and no obvious desire to change the world. This large villa was also precisely situated on a hill with a magnificent view of the town below, stretching out towards the horizon. What is striking about both homes is their large and expansive size, the gardens that are enclosed within a structure where its grounds were carefully laid out in a grid pattern punctuated with lushly planted with trees and grass.

Villa Noailles in 1929 Photographe: Thérèse Bonney

The most notable garden at Hyères, completed in 1928 was triangular cubist inspired design by Gabriel Guevrekian (1872-1970), who was one of the stars of the Paris Fair of 1925.

This villa is characterized by contrasting textures on the exterior slabs, some of which are rough and some are quite smooth in contrast. The Villa Noailles has expanses of blank unbroken walls, giving it a more closed in and shuttered look from the outside, keeping the openness of the interior spaces a secret. Inside, the architect was apparently unable to bear the blank wall and frequently used indents, created squared insets or niches to break up the flat expanse, causing long walls to be framed like cabinets. Robert Mallet-Stevens, also a set designer, had written an article “Le Cinéma et les arts: Architecture,” in 1925 explaining the idea of repetition in film. “Architecture plays,” he said, indicating that architecture had to be a “player” in the film by doubling the narrative or the reappearance of certain motifs throughout the film. In the movies, such reoccurrences were termed photogénie. It is clear that this idea of restating a theme was also the architect’s method of design–an eclectic and inclusive combining of modern art movements and modern architectural theories. For example, the ceilings are adorned with glass lit soffits with the De Stijl grids demarcating the light streaming down.

When he was asked in 1928 by the owner to make a film about the home, the repetition of obdurate cubic form inspired the photographer and sometime filmmaker, Man Ray (1890-1976). Ray, eying the tumbling squares, stilled by blank surfaces, thought of the famous poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard of 1897, and reimagined that the poem with the die as a house. The idea of a thrown di, rolling across the landscape became the theme of his 1929 film Les Mystères du château du dé.

The Villa Noailles today

A Robert Mallet-Stevens interior was always more elaborated than one by Le Corbusier or by Gropius simply because there were more shapes, a multiplication of edges. An interior staircase allowed him to show off the zig-zag progression of the stairs rising up a straight ascent or, in a tight space, stairs could be tucked into a tight curve or folded into the side of a cone shape. The Villa Cavrois, a later work of 1932 of which more will be said later, had unique dining room furniture, a long wooden table, and many wooden chairs, resting on a parquet floor of zebra wood squares. The wall is broken with beams of zebra wood, reinforcing the theme of horizontal stripes, which fame a mural by his long-term collaborators the twin Martel brothers Jan and Joël. The commission for the Villa dated back to the Paris Fair of 1925 when the partnership of Robert Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers came forcefully to the attention of the fairgoers when the concrete Cubist trees for the Garden of Modern Housing by Mallet-Stevens became the scandal of the event. The famous Cubist trees, designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens and executed by Jan and Joël Martel, were destroyed after the Fair was closed in October of 1925 and exist today only as maquettes.

Cubist Trees by Robert Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers

Models wearing Sonia Terk-Delaunay Designs

The notorious Cubist trees were executed in concrete and sprouted from a garden was located next to the Pavillon for the twin cities of Roubaix and Tourcoing. Located on the Belgium border, a few miles from Dunkirk, and quite near Arras but dominated by Lille, these towns specialized in the manufacture of textiles. Roubaix was one of the first sites of French industry when in 1469 Charles the Bald gave Peter of Roubaix permission to manufacture cloth. Two centuries later, Charles the Fifth allowed the town to manufacture velvet, fustian, and linen for the common people. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Roubaix called the “Manchester of France” specialized in the spinning and weaving of wool and was the principal supplier of wool yarn for France. Like Roubaix, its twin, Tourcoing was the coveted site for the enemies of France and Belgium, being attacked and conquered by the English, the Austrians, the Dutch and the Saxons. This industrial town also specialized in wool manufacture but there was more of an emphasis on fine cloth and tapestries of mixed silks and mercerized or lustered cottons and “oriental type” carpets. Although today these towns have been deindustrialized, at the of time of the 1925 Fair, they were studded by smoking chimneys of the many factories.

Because both of these towns had been conquered by the Germans in the wake of the fall of Lille in October 1914, the presence of fabric manufacture at the Fair meant more than a mere presentation of the most recent textile manufacture. The area, the battleground of the Western Front would not be liberated until October 1918. Now fully recovered, the towns celebrated the end of a brutal occupation and their subsequent recovery. Designed by the Dutch architect Georges de Feure, the Pavilion for these twin towns was a small brick building, hexagonal in shape. De Feure copied the local architecture by selecting the local brick, which could be red, yellow, brown or cream as his building material. These native brick structures were traditionally capped with white accents blocks, that were used to underscore the shape of the roof or to accent windows and doors and call attention to the angles. The significance of de Feure’s presentation was its unalloyed regionalism. It is often assumed that the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was strictly modern, but, despite its name, the sub-text of the event was its emphasis on the French provinces, upon the regions with their unique cultures. The building of brick from the Western Front not only echoed the local architecture of the region, decidedly historical and not modern but also emphasized the towns’ long affiliation with industrial arts and crafts. De Feure alluded to the many factories through the stacked entrance terminating in a chimney shape.

Georges de Feure. Pavillon of Roubaix and Tourcoing

Adjacent to this Pavillion was a long garden, complete with a cooling fountain. The fairgoers could rest on small wooden folding chairs under the dubious shade of sculptured trees. These concrete trees were the most prominent manifestation of Cubism at the Fair, where the administration was extremely conservative and tended to exercise censorship. Mallet-Stevens, a good friend of the painter Fernand Léger, installed one of his post-Cubist works in his Tourist Pavillon and was asked to remove the offending object from the wall. The architect refused and the painting stayed in the Pavillon. It is possible the grove of trees was a defiant answer to the would-be censors, but Mallet-Stevens frequently used the shattered forms of Analytical Cubism in his architecture. One need look no further than the protruding blades of the Tourist Pavillon or the layered coat rack at the Villa Noailles or his fractured lighting fixtures to see the prior use of intersecting shards. The height of each Arbre Cubiste in the garden was about twice human size, a scale made clear when Sonia Terk-Delaunay posed her models wearing the Cubist-inspired clothes she designed beneath the Trees around the fountain. As if it were a decade ago, cartoonists once again had their way with Cubism, signifying that the movement was still not understood or accepted. The attribution for the Trees has been muddied over time, sliding in favor or the Martel brothers, but, when one examines Mallet-Stevens, his architecture, his interior design and his product design, it becomes clear that the Trees were his invention. That said, the silly scandal of the Cubist trees led to an important commission in 1929 from Paul Cavrois, an industrialist from Roubaix.

Villa Cavrois showing use of yellow bricks

Cavrois owned an old textile firm, the Cavrois-Mahieu company, located in Roubaix, “the city of a thousand chimneys.” His five factories employed some seven hundred people and created high-end fabrics destined for the Parisian market. Cavrois, who had seven children, needed a large house for his family and decided against an abode in the traditional regional style. Perhaps he met Mallet-Stevens in Paris in 1925 and quite possibly may have watched the construction of six of his houses on a narrow dead end street in the sixteenth arrondissement, now called rue Robert Mallet-Stevens, completed in 1927. For whatever reason, the factory owner selected this well-known and proven architect of wealthy clients for the commission. The architect’s brief from Cavrois was “Abode for a large family. A home for a family living in 1934: air, light, work, sports, hygiene, comfort, economy.” The very large villa was built in the residential suburb of Beaumont and is covered completely in long yellow bricks—an alkaline color, imported from Belgium. These bricks, used without restraint over the entire surface, constituted a decorative motif, an external texture. Mallet-Stevens had a penchant for seizing upon building materials and turning the act of building and construction into décor. This willingness to respond to the environment was his trademark that made each of his architectural works site specific and also separated him Mallet-Stevens from the pure modernists. A comparison of the bricks used in the buildings in Roubaix and Tourcoing and those applied to the Villa Cavrois shows that the yellow bricks of the Villa are so long and narrow that they make a fabric or a facture, a surface rather than a pattern that embraced the entire house. The unrelieved stripes of yellow on the outside are echoed by stripped woods, ranging from light to dark tones inside. Planks of wood were used to border the walls and simple slabs constructed the made-to-order furniture.

Interior Design by Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers

Like his colleagues, Mallet-Stevens refused to use any ornamentation but then he didn’t need to. He allowed the dance of light and shadows and the materials themselves to be the stars in their own right, allowing on art on the walls. The villa was one of the highlights of his career and became a metaphor for the decline of the reputation of the architect. Overshadowed by Le Corbusier, who knew how to publicize himself, Robert Mallet-Stevens died in obscurity and poverty in 1945, ordering his archives to be destroyed. The Villa Cavrois suffered equally. Occupied by the Germans in 1940, the home was purchased by a hostile and unsympathetic developer in the 1980s. The unscrupulous businessman stripped the home of its furniture, its exotic woods and even ripped out the plumbing–all sold–in a craven act of vandalism.

By the mid-1990s, the home was devastated seemingly beyond repair but famous architects intervened in a long campaign to save the home. In 2001, France purchased the home and began a 23 million euro restoration that took years. Much of the house had to be recreated completely from photographs, the only records of the building’s former attributes, and slowly some of the authentic materials have been found and bits and pieces of the unique furniture have been located and put back in place. As with the Bauhaus faculty houses for Klee and Kandinsky, the restorers re-discovered the original deep De Stijl colors used on the walls. The parquet flooring, 90% recovered and restored, was relaid by the very same Belgium firm that installed the floor in 1932. Meanwhile, in 2005, the reputation of Robert Mallet-Stevens was also restored with a long overdue restoration at the Centre Pompidou. The Centre des monuments nationaux reopened the home after fifteen years, its distinctive brickwork carefully reglazed. After a decade of careful building, a forgotten and insulted work of architecture that had become a ruin was transformed into a masterpiece again. Open today for pilgrims who now appreciate this remarkable architect of Art Deco, this home exemplifies what Mallet-Stevens once said, “Genuine luxury is living in a well-heated, well-ventilated, gay, and light-filled setting, requiring the least number of useless gestures and the smallest number of servants.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Art Deco Architecture in Paris: Robert Mallet-Stevens, Part One

Robert Mallet-Stevens (1885-1945)

The Architect of Art Deco, Part One

The architectural counterpart to Le Corbusier and his purist radical modern architecture was the less purist less radical yet still modern architecture of Robert Mallet-Stevens. Time and shifting interest has shunted Mallet-Stevens to one side, while headlining Le Corbusier, and yet Mallet-Stevens was far more persuasive in his own time in the popularization of Art Deco architecture. One could argue that most of the Art Deco architecture of note in Paris was his work. Robert Mallet-Stevens, a most elegant architect, who resembled the dancer Fred Astaire, was to the manor born. Specifically, he was born in Maison Lafitte, a seventeenth century home designed by François Mansart, after whom the famous “Mansard Roof,” the signature architectural look for that century in France, was named. The son and grandson of art dealers, Mallet-Stevens was very well connected: his mother, the source of his name “Stevens” was the niece of the well-known painter from Belgium, Alfred Stevens.

Palais Stoclet

Another member of the Stevens family, Suzanne, had married very well, to none other than Adolphe Stoclet, whose famous home in Brussels was designed in 1911 by Austrian designer, Josef Hoffmann. The influence of Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet tempered the modernist architecture of Mallet-Stevens whose practice was focused mostly on domestic architecture for a wealthy avant-garde clientele. He designed an elegant studio for the painter Tamara de Lempicka; he began a new home on a hillside for Paul Poiret, but the 1921 villa was never completed, and he created the exquisite Villa Noailles for Charles and Marie-Laure, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles, descendants of the Marquis de Sade. This yellow-bricked home was a collaborative exercise for the noble couple, and the design team included Eileen Gray and Theo van Doesberg.

Mallet-Stevens paused in this project in Hyères when he was invited to participate in the Paris fair of 1925, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. His signature work for the Exhibition was a towering Tourist Pavillon, which had a place of pride at the Exhibition, at the entryway transition. Its tall and narrow tower made for an impressive display of the abilities of reinforced concrete, a strong statement, announcing the arrival of modern architecture in a distinctive Art Deco style. The Tourist Pavillon, unlike Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, was placed advantageously, adjacent to the Grand Palais, creating a strong comparison between the eclectic structure from 1900 and the daring upward march of the Pavillon’s tower, built only twenty-five years later. Interestingly, Le Corbusier’s Pavillion was also in the sight line of the Palais, but he deliberately cropped the older building out to give the illusion that his radical building stood alone, like a work of sculpture. More than an announcement or an introduction to the Fairgrounds, the structure by Robert Mallet-Stevens marked the difference a new century had made and closed the door on a terrible war.

Pavillon du Tourisme

In opening the entrance to the future, the tall vertical for this soaring structure became an exclamation point of a building, topped by a clock face. The sharp tower rose above its counterpart, a long narrow building devoted to Fair information, a horizontal dash adjoining the vertical. The best way to describe the style of Mallet-Stevens was “mannerist.” In contrast to the architectural system devised by Le Corbusier—the concrete columns, the ribbon windows, the open plan, and so on—Mallet-Stevens was the decorator who adorned the surfaces of geometric forms and he often acted as the multiplier of the modernist cube, which he was stack vertically or would arrange horizontally. At the top of shaft of the tower over the entry for the Tourist Pavilion, he mounted non-functional rectangular wafers shapes inserted into the structure, rather like a set of blades had flown in and had become embedded in the spire. The vertical of the clock tower played off the horizontal juxtaposition of two long extensions, which were The Pavillon itself was a two level horizontal extension, stretching out behind the clock tower, as if the vertical member was duplicated and then grounded. The exterior sides of the long grounded hall were studded with non-functional pegs popping out along the lengths of the two halls.

Home for the brothers Martel. Mallet Stevens Street, Paris (1928)

If Robert Mallet-Stevens was an architect of the twentieth century, he was less a creator of new forms and more of a hunter-gatherer who acted like a bricoleur who borrowed modern shapes from late Cubism, from radical architecture, from Mondrian, juggling concepts and playing with philosophies and theories and turning them into style. Although Mallet-Stevens was termed a “Functionalist,” much like Le Corbusier, but he took the elements of modern design, such as the glazed window walls, cantilevered overhangs, exterior staircases and played with them, as if he were juggling a multiplicity of geometric shapes and allowing them to coalesce into a single complex building. As a multiplier of geometric forms, Mallet-Stevens was also an assemblage artist, putting section upon section together. On the street that bears his name, a short street in Paris where six of his domestic homes are clustered, one can see his sheer exuberance in stacking cubes, one on top of another, a balancing act rather like a Mondrian painting. Instead of restraint, Mallet-Stevens took up the available modern forms, all geometric, borrowed them, displacing them from their radical origins in architectural theory, and deployed the shapes with visible pleasure, engaging in exercises of sensuous elaboration. Adolf Loos would have been suspicious, sensing that the use of the apparently bare and plain forms in such extravagant numbers was somehow decorative and lacking in restraint. Indeed, architects and architectural critics of the 20s and 30s expressed their opinions of Mallet-Stevens, based upon comparing him with his radical and purist counterparts. Sigfried Gideon called him “elegant “and a “formalist.” Marie Dormoy used the term “aesthete.” These were not necessarily compliments, but his work was motivated by forces quite different from the architects who can be termed “modern,” for the term “Art Deco” comes closer to explaining the work of Mallet-Stevens, because his was an architecture of high and self-conscious style.

The desire for elaboration seemed to drive the architect, a prolific furniture designer in his own right, who also created specialized furniture for his homes. The metal chair he created for Mobilier was his take on a Thornet chair. This chair seems to be drawn in black outline around the wooden seat and extended to the legs which are tilted backward and slanted forward, opening its stance to a slightly splayed appearance. The back of the chair is half an oval, contrasted by two straight lines cutting through the middle emptiness. Elegant, simple, and stackable, the chair could be black or white or chrome, wooden seat, cushioned seat or metal seat.

Chairs by Robert Mallet-Stevens

Infinite variability was one of the calling cards of Mallet-Stevens. His wooden chairs were strongly reminiscent of De Stijl, based on a couple of open squares, like his Udara design, using open squares which support two comfortable square cushions.

Robert Mallet-Stevens Udara Chair

To describe this architect one uses another vocabulary, one alien to radical modern architecture coming out of the Bauhaus in Germany, for example. One would never use the word “Beautiful” to describe a work by Le Corbusier, nor would one say “exaggerated” or “exuberate” when referencing Bauhaus buildings. In addition, the words “associative” or “referential,” much less “quotation,” all of which were outside the discourse of the purity of modern architecture. But Robert Mallet-Stevens was all of these words, with his buildings gesturing towards De Stijl—making allusions to painting—and playful in his delight in throwing architectural elements together. Lacking the rigid theoretical foundations of his contemporaries, he was closer to the Wiener Werkstätte and the idea of the total work of art, a notion quite different from following the rationality of the machine and the logic of structural construction. As opposed to thinking of architecture as form, Mallet-Stevens seemed to think of a building as a presence in the environment, casting a spell, creating a mood, and, most of all, setting a scene. In his placement of a building, in his creation of a sense of place, Mallet-Stevens practiced a mise-en-scène approach, setting a stage for a work of architecture in the same way he designed the sets for the films he worked on. Buildings are presented and displayed, set at their best vantage point, drawing the viewer towards the site, moving forward expecting more delights to unfold as she or he is drawn towards the building-as-display.

The Villa Poiret

The Villa Poiret (1925) near Mézy-sur-Seine was a case in point, where the architect, acting like a set designer, placed a long white building on the crest of a hill, sited so that the fashion designer, Paul Poiret, could watch races on the river below. The visitor, then, inevitably approaches from below and is asked to look up to the top of the hill. The Villa takes on an aloof appearance, blindingly white in the strong sun, refusing to blend into the surroundings. In contrast, Le Corbusier’s contemporaneous work, the Villa Savoye, has no vantage point, no particular environment, and is presented rather baldly, like a white box on a flat plate. The Villa Savoye can claim an exchange between the inside and outside, thanks to its ribbon windows and roof garden, but it does not respond to the setting. Alone it stands with the aloofness of a sculpture on a socle. This independence is precisely what the architect intended. However, Mallet-Stevens always reacted to the site and used to the advantage of the building, to show off his design, so to speak. Depending upon how it is photographed, the building for Paul Poiret has the look of an ocean liner, cresting the rolling waves of the green hill, with a pair of exterior staircases, one of the architect’s favorite devices, making a V at a corner to stress the appearance of the prow of a ship, pushing the ocean aside.

Villa Poiret

Viewed from the other side, there is a curved wall that resembles the promenade deck of a ship. As if to enhance the illusion of being a sea-going vessel, the wall was punctuated by small square openings that look like portholes on the side of an ocean liner. From another angle, the Villa is deeply reminiscent of the Palais Stocolet in its memories of restrained ornament. The entire structure is a textbook example of how to use reinforced concrete to take advantage of the support system to open the walls. As a result, some windows are large, some are medium sized, some are round, some are square, some rise floor to ceiling, balancing each other in a patterned asymmetrical harmony, like a Mondrian painting. This referencing to another medium, the play between the actual water at the bottom of the hill and the suggestion of the mounds of earth being ocean waves, hoisting the ship/house above towards the sky–all of these conceptual moves by Robert Mallet-Stevens were alien to modern architecture but integral to Art Deco design.

The next post will discuss Part Two on this architect.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Art Deco in Post-War Paris

Defining Art Deco

The Meaning of “Moderne”

One should always beware of long titles, too many words usually conceal or reveal inner contradictions. Take, for example, the 1925 Paris International Exposition, the name of which is long and self-defeating: “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” or the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts, begging the question of whether the arts could be both decorative and international. Not until 1968 were all the adjectives swept away in favor of two signifying words “art deco” coined by the historian Bevis Hiller in his book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. The fact that neither the exposition nor the impact of the numerous exhibitions was discussed at any length until 1968 indicates the uncertain relationship between the past, present, and future that existed on the Fairgrounds in 1925. Hiller was correct that a style he called “Art Deco” emerged and this style certainly indicated “modern,” but, in 1925, being modern was fraught with tensions. As Jared Goss explained in his book French Art Deco:

The narrative of French Art Deco was firmly established by the time of the 1925 Paris Exposition, formed in large part by the designers, museum professionals, and academics who had helped shape the style itself. In books and newspapers and magazine articles, they defined Art Deco’s characteristics and explained its philosophy, noting that it was distinct from manifestations of the movement in other countries by its embrace of its national past as the intellectual point of departure for creating something new. While designers elsewhere often rejected earlier aesthetics, materials, and manufacturing techniques. French designers sought innovation by embracing history. Specifically, the roots of French Art Deco are to be found in the ancien régime–the political and social system of France before the Revolution of 1789–and its time-honored traditions of apprenticeship and guild training. During the eighteenth century, France established itself in the forefront of the luxury trades, producing furniture, porcelain, glass, metalwork, and textiles (not to mention clothing, perfume, wines, and cuisine) of unsurpassed refinement and elegance. Indeed, Paris became what could be considered the style capital of the Western world.

Poster: “Exposition internationale des Arts Décoratifs et industriels modernes ” (1925)

This Exposition of 1925 was intended, by its founders, to restore or to reiterate the dominance of France in the applied arts and decorative design. Interestingly, this large event did not include the fine arts, France’s historical pride, but focused on showing how the nation still stood astride of the luxury trades. In stepping aside from the current avant-garde, especially Cubism, except as the handmaiden to applied art, Art Deco, like much of the visual culture in France between the wars, situated itself part of the larger cultural desire to stop time and to retour à l’ordre. The need to freeze any forward motion in the arts was coupled with an anxiety over the nation losing its dominance in the arts, especially the decorative arts, a concern that dated back to the pre-war era. The source of this worry was, of course, Germany, the perpetual enemy and rival to France. But by 1925, Germany was defeated, excluded, outlawed, and was not even invited to this Exposition until the last minute. The goal of the event was to assert the continued dominance of France in the decorative arts, which heretofore had been expressed only through fashion. In addition to establishing the authority of France in all things decorative, the characteristic of what precisely “French” stood for had been reduced to the classical or the timeless. Therefore, to be French in the art world, from fine arts to architecture, was to extend the historical styles into the twentieth century. Art Deco, as a modern style, was an applied version of late post-war conservative version of pre-war Cubism, which found a natural home in decoration. To the extent that Art Deco was modern, it was that this style was linked to all manner of objects which were, in turn, part of a growing consumer culture, an aspect of modernism that the French had virtually invented. The problems emerged with the term “industrial” or the machine age, which was linked to industrialization. On one hand, the idea of industrial design had to be reckoned with—Germany and the new Soviet Union were making strides in this new and modern area–but, on the other hand, France was reluctant to industrialize and would continue to resist that form of modernization well into the Vichy period of the Second World War.

Pavilion of the Magasins des Galeries Lafayette, Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Paris 1925

Beau, Georges (1892-1958)
Dufrene, Maurice (1876-1955)
Hiriart, Joseph (1888-1946)
Tribout, Georges Henri (1884-1962)

In 1925, the Great War had been over for seven years and the European nations were slowly recovering from the ordeal. As English speaking and English writing people, we tend to hear more about the brief American Experience in this war and we are familiar with the British anti-war poetry and the legend of the well-born and the well-bred, the flower of English manhood dying on the battlefields of Flanders, alongside their colonial allies. But it was the French who suffered the most during the Great War. The battles were fought on French soil, on the border shared with the Belgians. German strategic plan for winning the war was to bleed France white, to fight the war until there were no French men left to block the way to Paris. The exsanguination tactic worked quite well—the French lost the most men of any nation—but Germany also bled itself in the effort, and, unsupported by allies, was forced to surrender. When one asks the question: why did the French surrender to the Germans in 1940, one has only to look at the statistics of loss to realize that the nation would have done anything to survive, gone to any lengths to save its new generation of young men, now so precious to its uncertain future. But in the 1920s in France, the future was unknown, Germany had been vanquished, and it was finally time to celebrate.

Joséphine Baker est une artiste emblématique des années folles, qui correspondent aux années 1920

But in the 1920s in France, the future was unknown, Germany had been vanquished, and it was finally time to celebrate. The années folles was the jazz age in Paris, the years of the new woman in France, the time of the Lost Generation, nomadic and unsettled, presided over by Gertrude Stein the expatriate American poet. Behind the fun was caution, for, despite its exuberance, the mood was conservative, regardless of the presence of modernity, the gaze was firmly fixed to the past. It is out of the odd paradox of post-war modernism and the retrospective mindset among the French that the glittering and commercial spectacle of the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris emerged in all its glitter and glory. Taking advantage of good weather, the Exhibition opened in April and closed in October, attracting thousands of visitors, most of whom were delighted with the expansion of commodities crafted in the name of all that was modern. However, there was the presence of the radically modern, represented by the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau by Le Corbusier, tucked away behind the Grand Palais in obscurity, and the Soviet Pavillon by Konstantin Melnikov; and the modern that was precisely the opposite of radical. The other modern, which was later termed “moderne” an appellation of light mockery, or Modern Light, was exuberantly decorative and ostentatiously ornamental. That said it was the “Moderne” that dazzled and thrilled the crowds; it was the Moderne that cemented the French reputation for being the queen of the decorative arts, the arbiter of luxury goods, the seer of all things fashionable.

Iron and copper grill called “Oasis” by Edgar Brandt, who also designed the ornamental gates at the main entrance of the Exposition

The 1925 Exhibition in Paris cemented Cubism as a style for applied art and was notable for its rejection of industrial design and modern architecture, despite its long and unwieldy name. Years passed, another War intervened, post-World War II aesthetic judgments rejected the decorative and rejoiced in the abstract. It was not until the 1960s, a decade beloved for its Youthquake styles, neon colors, curvilinear psychedelic designs and a new appreciation for the decorative, that this exhibition was revisited and renamed: ART DECO. By the 1960s and the definitive volume by Bevis Hiller, modern architecture had long since been winnowed out from its original surroundings and now reigned supreme as the International Style, while the prevailing style of the 1020s had slid into oblivion and disapproval. Since the sixties, Art Deco has been named and understood as an important style, which was not to be disparaged but was to be appreciated on its own terms which were part of its time, those few fragile years between the Wars. Like Germany, France has a housing shortage and, like Germany, the nation needed to modernize its infrastructure; but unlike Germany, Holland and even Russia, France decided to reject the future for an exploration of a contradiction in terms, a historicized modernism.

Exhibition Catalog with cover by Robert Bonfils

This modernity, like Baudelaire’s modernity of the 1860s, was expressed safely, through fashion and style. This modernity was drained of any threat and was safe and positive. Lacking any philosophical or theoretical underpinnings, Art Deco was, nevertheless expansive and inclusive and open-minded, accepting ancient Egypt and American culture, cashing in on the discovery of the tomb of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922 and turning the engineering triumph of an ocean liner into a decorative poster. Closer to home, Art Deco sampled the Wiener Werkstätte designers, especially Josef Hoffmann and Kolomon Moser, gave a nod to Russian Constructivism, and repurposed Cubism to its own ends , An accessible accumulative style of quotations and appropriation, Art Deco is perhaps best understood through the artists who represented it, not necessarily the fine artists—that would be the Cubists or the post-Cubists—but via the works of the decorative and applied artisans, the graphic artists, and the interior designers. As for the architects, the best examples of Art Déco architecture were in New York, but in Paris, some remarkable temporary buildings at the Fair, built for the French exhibits introduced the French stance on decorative and ornamental art to the rest of the world. The Fair was a frank and unapologetic trade fair for French merchandise, especially luxury goods and consumer goods of great style and the undeniable Gallic flair for the chic. Art Deco, in its eclectic way, signified “modern” and in doing so also signaled that old styles were now outmoded. This signal educated the potential buyer as to what to purchase next. The most succinct description of current trends was made by the painter, Charles Dufresne, who explained the difference twenty-five years had made to French design: “L’art de 1900 fut l’art du domaine de la fantaisie, celui de 1925 est du domaine de la raison.” Indeed, the Fair marked the low point and eclipse for Art Nouveau and the advertisement of Art Deco, the new synthetic style of applied art, was marked, not by nature but by the machine.

General View of Exhibition Pavilions

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Constructivism on Display, Part Two

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

At the Paris Fair of 1925

The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was “international,” stressing the nationalism of the post-war period, but the French, the host nation, proved to be cautious with which countries were invited and included. The French government had officially recognized the new Soviet Union in 1924, so the invitation to the Exposition was belated, but the artists sprang into action. Along with Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, the Soviet Pavilion stood out as the two buildings resisting the blandishments of Art Deco and memories of early pre-war modern architecture. Only in these two buildings was the Bauhaus spirit manifested and only in these two buildings was ornamentation and decoration resisted for an assertion of the philosophy of Construction as Design. The Soviet Pavilion, which exists today only as a series of photographs, was a series of slices of architecture composed of slants and diagonals. The Pavilion was daring and simple: two triangular volumes sliced in half by a staircase. A glazed wall, windows stretching from roof to road, bend steeply to make way for a rising flight of steps. From the outside one could look through this sheet of glass and view all the exhibitions inside the building. Above the stairway, the series of diagonals crossed like swords above the processional also functioned like a faux set of roof beams supporting nothing, existing only as formal shapes. This stunning building turned the architect, Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) into a sought-after celebrity among the Parisians. Only Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect, working and practicing in Paris, had offered such an architectural work of such revolutionary impact. Perhaps because he was representing a far-away and still unfamiliar government, Melnikov’s offering was better received than that of Le Corbusier whose threat to the status quo in France was far more apparent.

Soviet Pavilion at the World’s Fair, Paris 1925

The best analogy to this building would be the contemporary design for the Wexner Center of the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, designed in the late 1980s by Peter Eisenmann. Eisenman took his abstract philosophical theories of deconstruction as applied to architecture and refused the architectural dictates of straight lines and enclosure for broken angles and opened walls.

The Wexner Center of the Arts

But Melnikov was using abstract two-dimensional shapes from painting as architectural slabs fitted together into a dynamic and daring pavilion. However, Melnikov’s working method revealed a deconstructive mindset, for his preparatory drawings showed that he played with geometric shapes which he broke up and reconnected through causal intersections. Indeed, much of the building was glass, buttressed by an occasional slab wall here and there. Topping the building was a tower of open work trusses, suggesting the Tribune of El Lissitzky. The skeletal projection was also a flag pole, and it should be noted, that, at the closing of the Exposition, the flags of all nations were ceremoniously lowered, except for that of Russia. For days afterward, the red flag with the gold hammer and sickle rode the late summer breezes. Clearly, Melnikov was experimenting with the language of architecture, as was Eisenman, almost one hundred years later, deconstructing the concept of “structure” in what was probably an experiment in formal language. Even Le Corbusier’s offering was conservative compared to the Russian architect’s design that was as savage and brutal as it was a fragile accumulation of teetering walls, leaning against each other. As if to emphasize the precariousness of the structure, a conglomeration of words suspended in air, somehow attached to the building, announced that this was the Soviet Pavilion. If anyone was in doubt, a hammer and sickle rose in the air, cutting into the sky. While he was in Paris, Melnikov gave an interview, recently translated, in which he laconically described his intentions:

This glazed box is not the fruit of an abstract idea. My starting point was real life; I had to deal with real circumstances. Above all, I worked with the site that was allocated to me, a site surrounded by trees: it was necessary that my little building should stand out clearly amidst the shapeless masses through its color, height, and skillful combination of forms. I wanted the pavilion to be as full of light and air as possible. That is my personal predilection, but I think it reasonably represents the aspiration of our whole nation. Not everyone who walks past the pavilion will go inside it. But each of them will see something of what’s exhibited inside my building all the same, thanks to the glazed walls, and thanks to the staircase that goes out to meet the crowd, passes through the pavilion, and enables them to survey the whole of its content from above. As far as the intersecting diagonal planes over the route are concerned, may they be a disappointment to lovers of roofs corked up like bottles! But this roof is no worse than any other: it is made so as to let in the air, and you keep out of the rain from whatever direction it may fall.

Interior of Soviet Pavilion

The Soviet Pavilion, with its interior exhibits, was a container that was a Constructivist “thing” or object that, in turn, held more “objects” from the utopian society. And yet, Melnikov’s design intention was never symbolic. He was concerned with the site itself only—where the building was located at the fair and the fact that the exposition was a temporary event, destined to be torn down. As the result of accepting the ephemeral nature of the placement, there is a thrown-together-soon-to-be-demolished temporary air of casualness about the Pavilion that reinforces the artist’s statement: “..why should a building whose function is temporary be granted the false attributes of the everlasting? My pavilion doesn’t have to keep standing for the whole life of the Soviet Union. It’s quite enough for it to keep standing until this exhibition closes. To put it briefly, the clarity of color, simplicity of line, and abundance of light and air that characterize this pavilion (whose unusual features you may like or dislike according to taste) have a similarity to the country I come from. But do not think, for goodness sake, that I set out to build a symbol.”

The Temporary Soviet Pavilion in 1925

In addition, as with the displayed objects inside, the object/structure was an example of faktura or the practicality of industrial materials used as materials without disguise or cladding or decoration. Glass was glass, steel was steel and wood was wood. However, although the architect intended the building to be read as an independent Constructivist object in its own right, the Pavilion was understood by others as a propaganda document, advertising the modernity of the USSR, a newly arrived political entity, which, by ingesting European modernism, had forged forward on its own unique path. Inside the Pavilion, the Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) rose toward the ceiling, pointing to the sky and to the future of the Soviet Union. Alexander Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, which served as an interior room and exhibit and as an object all at the same time, followed the utilitarian and ideological philosophy that an experimental construction or an example of how studio “laboratory” work could become a practical object. An abstract sculpture could become a building, an abstract painting could become a pavilion, and faktura could be mobilized to build simple and useful tools for the workers to use. The Club, which is an ideal model, was conceived by Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) as a three-dimensional design for education and comradeship among workers. There is an exchange between the workers’ bodies and the activities practiced in the space: the long table is a communal affair, a place where workers congregate on both sides, facing each other. The worker is contained in an enveloping chair that curves around in a semi-circle, embracing him or her with the arms of comradeship.

Reconstruction of Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club

Rodchenko imagined these Constructivist objects to be comrades in their own right: friends and allies for the workers, working in unison with the laborers. Unlike the rather rigid and uncomfortable chairs, the tabletop could be altered. The top could flip up for writing or down for reading, but based on the photographs and reconstructions of this table, such alterations would have to be communal, at least on that side—everyone must read or everyone must write. And there are racks for magazines full of educational materials for the edification of the labor force. In describing these structures, Stepanova referred to them as “wall newspapers,” which like all the objects in the Club could be manipulated and controlled by the worker seeking knowledge. While newspapers dangle like towels from a white rack, Lenin peers down benignly from a photograph a year after his death. This is the “Lenin corner” with the photograph of the recently deceased and embalmed leader taking the place of the religious icon in the traditional Russian home. The corner is carefully designed, from the white square left blank, waiting for the requisite photograph, to the timeline constructed of a series of arrows. This corner was conceived of as more than a cult site where the worker was expected to peruse the archive of materials on Lenin that would, over time, accumulate as the heritage of the leader grew in Russia. In the place of religion, there was the cult of Lenin, who became the founding father about which all should learn and from whom all would be inspired. Rodchenko preferred the authentic record of Lenin, that is the many photographs taken of him to traditional portraiture. Lenin was modern, like the workers’ club and he was present, not in representation but in a substitute reality, hovering in the index of the camera’s record of his existence.

True to the desire to educate the worker, there is a speaker’s lectern and a movie screen, allowing the club to be turned into a site of saturation, where Communist philosophy could be absorbed by the now passive audience. As with his posters, Rodchenko demanded that the workers participate with and manipulate the media stands in order to obtain the information contained in the various stands. Above the heads of the activated workers, electric lights hang, symbolizing the goals of Lenin–to electrify and thus to modernize the nation and the desire to educate the people in the ways of Communism. There is an air of efficiency, from the simple and inexpensive materials used for the furnishings to the sense that the Club was completely transportable and could be set up in any available room. Time was precious and could not be wasted with fun and must be used for edification, put to good use in this Club that has everything but relaxation and enjoyment. The placement of the Club inside the Soviet Pavilion, suggesting an alternative to capitalism, in the City of Light, Paris. In Paris, one wasted time and sat at a sidewalk table and sipped a café au lait while chatting with friends and watching the parade of fashion down the boulevard. Such capitalist customs were a scandal to Rodchenko who was in Paris for the first and last time in his life. The contrast between the austerity and discomfort of the rigidly designed Workers’ Club and the long lunches enjoyed by Parisians could not be clearer: the Club was the Soviet rejection of Western decadence. It is impossible to miss the artist’s assertion of totalitarian control over the lower classes, their minds, their activities, their movements, and their time. The difference between the Leninist avant-garde and the Stalinist Socialist Realism is a distinction without a difference. It is clear, that, while the Workers’ Club was ostensibly a site of relaxation, complete with chess sets, this room was also a site of propaganda and control.

Writing about the Pavilion a few years after the Fair in the 1929 book, The Reconstruction of Architecture in the USSR, the artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941) said,

The first small building that gave clear evidence of the reconstruction of our architecture was the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, designed by Melnikov. The close proximity of the Soviet Pavilion to other creations of international architecture revealed in the most glaring way the fundamentally different attitudes and concepts embodied in Soviet architecture. This work represents the “formalistic” [Rationalist] wing of the radical front of our architecture, a group whose primary aim was to work out a fitting architectural concept for each utilitarian task. In this case, the basic concept represents an attempt to loosen up the overall volume by exposing the staircase. In the plan, the axis of symmetry is established on the diagonal, and all other elements are rotated by 180 ̊. Hence, the whole has been transposed from ordinary symmetry at rest into symmetry in motion. The tower element has been transformed into an open system of pylons. The structure is built honestly of wood, but instead of relying on traditional Russian log construction [it] employs modern wood construction methods. The whole is transparent. Unbroken colors. Therefore no false monumentality. A new spirit.

The Soviet Pavilion 1925

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Constructivism on Display, Part One

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

The Years of Lenin

The word “Constructivism” was a Russian word that came from multiple sources in Russia and spread to Western Europe very quickly, as soon as the Civil War ended in 1921. In fact, the slogan of the 1920 Dada Fair in Berlin was “Art is Dead: Long Live Tatlin’s New machine art.” That same year, the term “Constructivism” was in circulation at the Düsseldorf Congress in May, where it signified a Bauhaus approach of using new construction materials rather than using conventional means of building and the Dada interpretation of anti-art or anti-traditional art. Constructivism in Russia, however, had an institutional home the job of which was to take the word from a name and an idea and to make the construction of a new art form a Soviet reality. That goal fell to the Vkhutemas, a new art school in Moscow, which sought to apply Constructivism to the Revolution and its needs. It was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) himself who established the Vkhutemas institution in 1920 and gave it his qualified blessing by visiting the classrooms in 1921. Fairly or not, the Vkhutemas, an acronym for the Higher Art and Technical Studios, is often compared to the Bauhaus in that it combined industry and design and art under one roof. Like the Bauhaus, the school was the result of a merger between two pre-existing institutions, the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts, but unlike the Bauhaus which was a very small school, the Moscow college had 2500 students compared to the 200 annual enrollment at Dessau. Like the Bauhaus, the faculty was distinguished, with artist Aleksandra Ekser teaching “color in space,” Alexander Rodchenko was in charge of construction, while Nadezhda Udaltsova presided over “volume in space.” Most famously, it was Varvara Stepanova who was in charge of the textile department. It was Stepanova, who stated the goal of her department and of the entire school succinctly as being “devising methods for a conscious awareness of the demands imposed on us by new social conditions.” However, Lenin was disturbed by the lingering presence of Futurism and Suprematism, evidence of a past era still present among the students and faculty. Seeking to reassure Lenin about the Vkhutemas, theorist Aleksei Gan (1893-1942) wrote Constructivism in 1922 a year after Lenin’s visit, stating that “Our Constructivism has declared unconditional war on art, for the means and qualities of art are not able to systematize the feelings of a revolutionary environment.” As the leading theorist and agitator, Gan was responsible for the phrases that would be linked to the post-revolution Constructivist movement and its anti-art stance. “Art is dead!” he insisted, “There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique, and organization!”

The Revolution in politics had acted like an earthquake on Russia, transforming the nation, and for a time, the new Soviet Union was a very good place to be an artist or a designer or an architect. For a few years, one could dream; one could create a new world; one had the freedom to create new objects for new purposes. In 1928, an American, Alfred Barr (1902-1981), active in the nascent New York art world, decided to visit Moscow to witness the new movement of Constructivism, where all disciplines intersected, giving birth to new forms. Upon his return, Barr, who would become the first director of the new Museum of Modern Art, wrote, “We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.”

To that end, Aleksei Gan set up the First Working Group of Constructivists, also known as “artists-engineers,” turning theory into application. In response to the need to honor Lenin, in Saint Petersburg—Petrograd–the Constructivist artist, Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) built the Monument to the Third International in 1919, a model for a structure that was never built. With his Constructivist experiments, Tatlin himself was the source of inspiration at At 1300 feet, the Monument, which was to have been the tallest structure in the world, was often on display, becoming the image of all that the Revolution aspired to. But this monument, like the unfinished project of the avant-garde in Russia, was never built and remains an unrealized requiem for unfinished dreams. In point of fact, while Western scholars toil to reconstruct the lost years of the avant-garde after the Russian Revolution, the present-day Russians themselves have a complex and ambiguous relationship with the past. The Russian schools hardly touch upon the Great War, now considered an imperial conflict best forgotten. Even in the centenary of the October Revolution of 1917, there is a gap between the sanctity Lenin and a respect for those years when he was in charge. This conceptual gap seems to be caused by the long reign of Stalin, during which he crushed the hopes and dreams of ardent believers in a social revolution during decades of terror. While evoking the memory of Lenin, Stalin wiped out evidence of his accomplishments, suppressing or killing the artists and architects he had promoted or supported along with unrelated political dissidents. Only recently have there been cautious and reluctant gestures towards what remains of avant-garde architecture still extant in Moscow and other Russian cities. These efforts, however tentative, are significant because little of the important movement of Constructivism remains today. Black and white photographs stand in for objects now lost and ideas never realized. Models of proposals exist but many plans remain on paper, preserving a poignant record of an artistic desire to change society. When one moves beyond the photographs and drawings and asks the pointed question—what has survived? Unfamiliar names emerge, standing alongside that of the leading Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin. One could argue that it was Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974), who left the most extensive record of the Constructivist and architectural avant-garde behind in a scattering of remarkable buildings still standing, and in the memory of his grand prize at the Paris Exposition of industrial design in 1925, won for the Soviet Pavilion. Like many of the Russian Constructivist movement, the architect Melnikov taught at the Vkhutemas school, but by 1925, he had separated himself from the institution. His desire to combine his dedication to the Revolution with his assertion that the individual should also assert him or herself in works of art led Melnikov to start the New Academy at the school as a separate program but he was marginalized when his department was absorbed into the Academic workshop.

In 1925, artists, Rodchenko, Tatlin, filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, and architect Konstantin Melnikov came together to display the Constructivist philosophy and practice at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1925. Now an independent artist, Melnikov became the architect for the Soviet Pavilion in Paris. It was here, at the heart of an Exposition that would later be thought of as the home of a new decorative movement, Art Deco, that Constructivism was manifested for the world in terms of a building, a workers’ club and a symbol of the Revolution. If the Constructivists had introduced themselves in the New Russia Exhibition in Berlin, their philosophy of new architecture was viewed and experienced by the thousands who attended the Fair, most of whom were seeing the Russian Revolution in action for the first time, alive and well at Melnikov’s remarkable Soviet Pavilion. The Pavilion itself was one of the first manifestations of what would be a short experiment in avant-garde radical architecture. Once Stalin was firmly established in power, those days of optimism came to an end to be quickly replaced with a very different vision of the task of architects. Writing in 1932, when Russia was in the grip of totalitarianism, Hans Schmidt explained in “The Soviet Union and Modern Architecture” what had happened after the Soviet Pavilion had won acclaim:

Unlike their Western colleagues, the Russian architects had no opportunity to acquire new skills by dealing with the problem of the working class dwelling or the middle-class house. The victory of the October Revolution brought to the forefront a number of young architects who identified with the aims of the Revolution. Taking up the cudgel in the fight with the older generation of architects, they apparently were bringing about the triumph of modern architecture. At a time when relatively very little construction could actually be realized in the Soviet Union, this young and technically inexperienced generation devoted all its energies to utopian projects, in many cases outstripping the real situation of revolutionary development by decades.

As shall be discussed in the next post, the Soviet Pavilion was a triumph of a “utopian project” build to display the designs of a new generation for their nation. But Melnikov’s was a fleeting moment and, in a very few years after the Paris Exposition, the plans for an avant-garde architecture would be halted. As Schmidt noted,

This defeat was rendered even more poignant in a situation which manifested itself by revealing an important difference between the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. In the West, the principles of free competition apply up to a certain point even in the field of the arts. In Soviet Russia, however, all ideas are expected to be subordinate to and integrated into the mainstream of the Revolution. As things stand now, modern architecture has gambled away its chance, at least for the time being. Even the broad masses and youth have joined the ranks of the general opposition. What is even worse, though, is the fact that the modern movement in architecture has presently run into a closed ideological front ranged against it.

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Producing Soviet Culture

Producing Soviet Culture

Popova and Stepanova

The study of modern art and design is noteworthy for its lack of women included in the history. That is not to say that there were no women who were artists—to the contrary, there were numerous women who braved the odds against them and attempted to enter the boys’ club of the art world. The scarcity of women in the art the twentieth century is based in society that put artificial barriers against their talents and their thoughts and their contributions. The male artists themselves, as American artist Georgia O’Keeffe found out, were unwilling to accept any female artists in their ranks. Galleries and then museums followed the same gender biases without much thought, thus brushing aside the considerable contributions of women, leaving their art to be discovered by later generations. Subsequent historians buried these women, consigning their art to the margins of their pages, which were largely devoted to the males. One of the few exceptions to the rules of the avant-garde were the women in the Russian avant-garde who were fortunate enough to come of age as artists in a culture that—for a time—was determined to give at least lip service to gender equality.

Unfortunately, they, along with their male peers, were suppressed under the regime of Stalin and the process of rediscovering their contributions to art, design, and culture continues today. Art history tends to skim past the post-revolutionary art in Russia because this period stressed propaganda or the re-education of the Russian population and the next decade was not devoted to the bourgeois art of painting but was concerned with politics. After the Revolution, political and social experimentation took the place of formal artistic experimentation and, on the level playing field after 1917, men did not hold any special advantage. The women could step forward and take their places in remaking this brave new world. One of the arenas, new, open, and unguarded, was the Russian version of industrial design called Productivism. Productivism was the artistic response to the New Economic Policy, designed so that artists could participate in the economic revival of the nation through designing domestic items and propagandistic apparatus for the revolution. During the 1920s, the productivist aspect of post-war art in Russia was led by women, such as Liubov Popova (1889-1924) and Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), who attempted to create new clothing that would separate the Old World from the New. The New Economic Policy was an emergency plan proposed by Lenin, who had run the nation’s fiscal policy during the Civil War in terms of an emergency “War Communism.” “War Communism” was a kindly name for the confiscation of private property for needs of the Red Army with starving citizens being left in the military dust. By 1921 the local revolts and mutinies in the Navy were multiple signals that the nation was in a state of emergency and was teetering on the brink of another revolution. Vladimir Lenin loosened economic control and allowed peasants to keep and sell their surplus goods in the capitalist marketplace. Small businesses and industries were given some freedom to make profits and a new class of entrepreneurs emerged, Russian style capitalists called “NEPmen.” But it was the factory itself where this new phase of the Revolution was fought. While the peasants were the recipients of the redistributed lands of aristocrats among themselves, and small businessmen became rich, the factory workers were desperately needed to produce goods for a nation in need. Therefore, in their situation of enforced labor, they did not benefit from the loosened restrictions. The temptation of the State was to overwork the laborers in the industries, who resented the unceasing demands and, in the factories, a very significant debate over the limits of Communism occurred. What was the relationship between the rights of the individual factory worker and the needs of the country?

Artists were part of the discussion on the future of workers mostly as onlookers who made art in relation to the painful birth pangs of the Revolution and its transformation into a viable government. The most direct link between Productivism and the artists and the conditions in the post-war factories was the discussion group, theINKhUK or the Institute of Artistic Culture. The role of the INKhUK was a theoretical one—to debate the role of art in the service of the nation. A first, the group was chaired by Vasily Kandinsky a former pre-war expressionist artist now out of his element in the wake of a revolution. His initial idea, to study how the formal elements of art impacted the viewers was clearly unsuited to the needs of Communism and Kandinsky was ousted in late 1920. In place of a late romantic approach to art, the rest of the group proposed “laboratory art” or experiments with untraditional non-artistic materials and “production art,” or what we could call today “industrial design.” The notion of artists actively intervening in and participating in the factory process itself was limited to the production of designs that could be mass manufactured was in and of itself a very revolutionary idea. Even the Bauhaus, which would later learn from the Russians, was still thinking in terms of arts and crafts in 1920 and would only partner with industry six years later. Out of Production Art came Constructivism, which centered less on design and more on abstract structures and visionary architecture. Predictably, males dominated Constructivism, which gave opportunities for individual recognition, and the females gravitated to Productivism and were in more direct contact with the needs of the people.

Popova’s designs for Factory Worker and Urban Woman

While Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova were active elsewhere in the Revolution—Popova was famous for her inventive stage sets and Stepanova for her posters—they both shone in the design of textiles and fashions for the new Soviets of the 1920s. Before the Great War, the most productive industry in Russia had been that of textiles and this industry was among the first to be nationalized and under the NEP a certain amount of capitalism was allowed. In 1923, Popova and Stepanova, close friends and colleagues, began working with the First Factory of Printed Cotton in Moscow. The women had a philosophy of designs for clothing and fabric designs, insisting upon modernity over tradition and upon using uniquely Russian motifs as their inspiration. Traditionally fashion design and production, such as its was, before the war was based upon Parisian models that were not Russian at all. The aristocracy of Russia had always responded to Paris and the court spoke French, therefore, it seemed clear that Revolutionary clothes had to be Russian and revolutionary. The artists had to define both terms for the public and to do so both women based their designs upon the pre-war avant-garde art styles they had practiced before the Revolution. Popova, for example, had been a follower of Kazimir Malevich and was a Suprematist painter trained in Paris under the Cubist artist, Jean Metzinger. Stepanova had not been as advanced as a painter as Popova and her interests trended towards Futurist visual poetry. One could say that Stepanova was involved in the more theoretical aspects of verbal language and was exploring the concept of “zaum” or transrational poetry, and, like Popova, she had to shift away from the complex ideas of avant-garde art towards the practical needs of the Revolution.

Varvara Stepanova. Billiard Players (1920)

For both artists, the translation of abstract painting into fabric design was a natural step. Their work during the twenties was very similar to that of Sonia Terk-Delaunay but their audiences and markets were very different. Terk-Delaunay, a Russian artist, was based in Paris and was buoyed by the trend towards Art Deco and had access to a clientele that was wealthy and interested in wearing avant-garde designs. Her clothes and her abstract and colorful fabric designs were haute couture, while the proposals of Popova and Stepanova to the Moscow factory were destined for the masses. The masses had been accustomed to fabric designs that were floral or were covered with wildlife or were illustrative of scenes from history, but none of these motifs were commensurate with the goals of Communism. The Revolution needed new women who symbolized by their modernity the new era for socialism and Popova and Stepanova produced a wealth of fabric designs that are still modern today. During the 1920s, painter Kazimir Malevich found himself increasingly irrelevant as his followers morphed into constructivists or productivists, like Popova, or into poster designers, like Gustav Klutsis. The stylistic invention of Malevich, the abstract art style of Suprematism, became the basis of post-war art made by the former avant-garde artists turned revolutionaries. Like Cubism, which became a fashion in Paris, Suprematism became an applied art and would be the visual new face of the Revolution.

Stepanova’s sports outfits

Artists Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova entered into the new world for women in post-Revolutionary Russia in their roles as designers for a new way of life for the liberated woman. But beneath the jaunty new outfits they created and the vivid fabrics they designed was the lived existence of real women in the 1920s. As the avant-garde designers found, the old ways die hard; and men, used to being in power, were loath to share social prestige or economic advantages. Both Popova and Stepanova were involved with a Russian version of “dress reform,” which can be seen as part of the larger revolution. They wanted to create a new uniform with was democratic, that is, did not reveal class origins—now that everyone was equal. Their fabric designs were deliberately intended to be devoid of historical associations, in keeping with the new form of government and the unprecedented equality in society. Even though the early revolutionaries were eager to utilize the creative talents of women and hard labor of women was desperately needed to remake the post-war world, the Revolution itself launched a hundred-year struggle for equality between men and women.

During the Great War, women had moved into industrial positions once filled by men, but when the Civil War ended in 1921, the New Economic Policy caused huge shifts in the labor force, women were laid off so that men could be rehired. The repositioning of the economy from capitalism to socialism to a modified capitalism meant that women were caught up in years of employment insecurity and that, due to prevailing patriarchal attitudes, they would always be on the losing end. In 1918, women were granted the right to divorce and the courts were flooded with petitions from women eager to end arranged marriages—a deluge of requests for divorces that went on for almost ten years. By the mid-1920s Russia had the highest divorce rate in Europe and abortion was common, especially in cities. Until the economic situation of the late 1920s forced women to remain in unhappy unions for financial reasons, the divorce rate remained high.

Wedged between War Communism and Stalin’s Great Turn in 1928, the NEP, with its disruptions and inequities, was a halcyon time for women, who would be reassigned to their traditional orthodox roles as wife and mother under the conservative era of Stalin. In 1922, Lenin suffered the first of a series of strokes which left him paralyzed and limited to one-word utterances. When he died in 1924, Lenin was immortalized and Stalin, who out-maneuvered Leon Trotsky in a power struggle. Trotsky was an internationalist, who wanted to continue to fight the cause of communism across the world, but, given that the proletariat in other nations had shown little inclination to rise up and throw off their chain, Stalin’s nationalist position of making socialism succeed in Russia seemed preferable. However, Trotsky’s belief that being surrounded by capitalism meant eventual extinction for Communism in Russia was proved to be correct in 1989, and in the meantime, Stalin consolidated his power during the 1930s by murdering millions.

Luibov Popova Dress Designs

The artists worked during years that seemed filled with opportunity and optimism and during these exact same years, political forces beyond their control were gathering to put an end to artistic freedom. In the textile industry, now the world of Popova and Stepanova, 60% of the workers were women. But during the time the artists worked in the textile industry, women also were being laid off in massive numbers and those who were left behind were forced to compete with men. Industry and businesses preferred male workers over women were given protections against night work and restrictions on their jobs if they were pregnant or nursing. As a result, women employees became more expensive for management. Married women who had husbands were fired and sent home; unmarried women, the sole support of their families were also laid off. Unions, seeking to salvage employment for males, led the drive against women in the workplace. Because the liberation of women was critical to the Revolution, the Party attempted to step in and protect the women, but the managers continued to discriminate against women.

Textile designs by Varvara Stepanova

The Constructivist philosophy was that the artist would be of more use when participating directly in improving the existing society. In keeping with the Utopian ideals of the time, acted out in Germany as well as Russia, the artists believed that their efforts—whether through architecture or fashion–would make a new society. Popova’s fabric designs tended to use smaller motifs, well suited to the female form and her ideal woman tended to be urban and chic, rather Parisian. Popova was close to Terk-Delaunay in that she imagined the New Soviet Woman as a middle-class flapper in her very delightful and charming dresses. Stepanova envisioned another kind of woman, the athlete, the active woman who was taking advantage of her liberation by playing games and exercising her newly exposed body. There is a 1923 photograph of Stepanova posing in one of her own designs, a romper that frankly looks better as an abstract drawing than a garment worn by a real woman whose movements rumple the strict straight lines of the abstract designs. She used only a ruler and compass for her designs, tools which had the effect of enforcing a reductive simplicity for the most efficient design. Using two colors for the circle, the triangle, and the rectangle, she inferred that the universe of diversity– the old Russia–had been universalized into a new streamlined modern society working and playing in unison and harmony. Although Stepanova was not as adept as Terk-Delaunay in making sure that the abstraction could be adjusted to the body itself and that the designs on the fabric would hold their own while living on the active body, she was daring in her designs. The shortness of the pants on her gym outfits was shocking and extreme in the 1920s. In America, women who wore bathing suits were being subjected to having their skirt lengths measured so as to not expose too much tight, but Stepanova seemed happily untroubled by distant prudishness as she posed for a photograph with her legs apart, hands on hips, like the strong woman she was. Her striking sports clothes, characterized by bold stripes, red and black, could be worn by men and women alike, who could wear these geometric rompers playing any number of sports. When the women who modeled these utilitarian sports outfits were photographed, the garments seem poorly cut and constructed, perhaps a function of the lack of experience in how to fit pants for women.

Stepanova in 1923

Like Terk-Delaunay, who envisioned mass produced fashion that would eliminate the class division between prêt-à-porter and haute couture, Popova and Stepanova tried to design clothes that were a variation of Terk-Delaunay’s use of the tissu-patron which delivered the fabric and the dress design to the customer as an integrated product. Like architects in Europe who thought in term “typification” or standardization, Popova and Stepanova worked with templates which could be varied by fabric design not necessarily by changing the cut of the garment. In other words, a simple easy to make garment enlivened by bright bold designs could be mass manufactured by machines. The workers in the textile industry would be gainfully employed—and most of them were women—and the Soviet economy could be moved forward—thanks to art and artists. However, both Popova and Stepanova designed for a fantasy client and for an imaginary world that never came about in their lifetimes. The targeted clients were put off by the Suprematist motifs. Not quite understanding the origin of the designs, the average woman had been trained to prefer traditional floral designs and was not inclined to be avant-garde, nor did she seem to want to put on new clothes that would change her life, meaning her attitude. Adding to the difficulties of re-dressing a society, the Soviet authorities who visited the 1925 world’s fair in Paris, the exhibition that inspired the name Art Deco, saw the disturbing similarities between Cubism and Soviet revolutionary designs in art, design, and architecture. Of course, there were common roots, and this morphological affinity disturbed the ideologically pure Revolutionaries, who were dismayed by the decadent uses of decorative art in French culture, indicating the un-Russian roots of the ghosts of avant-garde art. Over the next ten years, government opinion would turn decisively against the avant-garde.

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The End of the Russian Avant-Garde

Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938)

The Last of the Avant-Garde

Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova were lucky to live out their lives peacefully. In the brutal period of Stalin’s Russia, artists were suppressed. Starting in the late 1920s, the mood of the government became less tolerant of avant-garde efforts and the turn towards the illustrative realism that would dominate from the late 1930s to the fall of the Berlin Wall began. The journey of the posters of Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938) was a case in point as they became less and less radical as the years passed. Like Rodchenko, Klutsis had an equally talented wife who was also an artist, Valentina Kulagina (1902-1987), and like Rodchenko, he used photomontage in a straightforward fashion for didactic purposes. Like Rodchenko, Klutsis reduced his palette to a few colors, red, gray, black and white, and these colors became identified with Russian avant-garde art during the revolution.

Gustav Klutsis. In Memory of Fallen Leaders (1927)

In Revolutionary Russia, there were certain iconic images: Lenin himself, the god-like deity of the Russians who was always elevated above those whom he ruled. The reader of the poster invariably saw Lenin, larger than life, and photographed from below. He strides the universe Klutsis made for him like a colossus, capable of everything and anything. The left arm of Lenin is frequently outstretched, a simple orator’s gesture that became a gesture towards the future—a sort of visual semiotics of moving forward. Like his speeches, Lenin’s messages were brief, identical, and repetitive, like an incessant drum beat, directed to the peasants and the workers of Moscow and Petrograd and beyond. The posters had to compliment the precision of the spoken words, and it is here that the difference between agitation, the practice of Lenin, and propaganda, which is a longer and more doctrinaire explanation of ideology, can be located—one is simple and emotional and the other is the province of intellectuals. Agitprop, in the talented hands of Klutsis, was simple and direct, focusing on the heroic figures of the Revolution, from Lenin himself to the worker and the peasants, soldiers in the Revolution. But it was Lenin who walked through the posters of Klutsis. The artist, a Latvian, was an ardent Communist who remained faithful to the Revolution. As if to follow the outstretched arm of Lenin, the basis of the style of Klutsis was the diagonal, leaning in, tilting forward, angling towards the future, marching to victory.

Gustav Klutsis. From NEP Russia Will Come Soviet Russia (1930)

Lenin was frequently depicted by Klutsis as a Gulliver, moving purposefully among his Lilliputian peoples, creating miracles in his wake. “From the Russia of the NEP, new economic policy period, there will arise a socialist Russia,” a quote from Russia inspired an exemplary poster by Klutsis, featuring a giant photomontaged Lenin, wearing his familiar cap, with his arm outstretched above the tiny workers toiling on industrial projects. Facing right, Lenin is silhouetted against a red triangular banner, bearing his own words. In a near flip of the earlier poster, a late work of 1931, used the same drop of a diagonal red shape reinforced by a flag pole carried by a photograph of a worker in overalls, facing left, urging on the workers of the world, who project from the red globe at the bottom of the poster. Beneath the elaborate and often delicate photomontage work in the posters of Klutsis are the shapes and the movement found in the Suprematist paintings of his colleague, Kazimir Malevich.

El Lissitzky. First Russia Exhibition poster (1922)

One could argue that the year 1922 was the last great year of artistic freedom for the Russian artists and the first year in which an international language for post-war art manifested itself emerged. Vladimir Tatlin and Malevich faced off, as it were, in the Van Diemen Gallery in Berlin near the Russian Embassy. The First Russian Art Exhibition showed off seven hundred works of almost two hundred artists who had developed a new art style, Constructivism, since the Russian Revolution. Malevich represented the pre-Revolutionary avant-garde styles, while Tatlin represented the new and strident anti-art idea of the artist as being an engineer who constructed objects for the Revolution. But in terms of basic composition, Constructivists artists absorbed the diagonals and the dynamism of Suprematism, which, in turn, had been inherited from Futurism. Whether with photomontages or actual constructions, such as Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International, on view at the Van Diemen Gallery or with traditional paintings, the style of Malevich had become knitted into the post-war Revolutionary art of the Russians. The combination of Constructivism and Suprematism impacted the artists of Europe and the First Russian Art Exhibition traveled to Amsterdam in 1923, where it was favorably received by the Dutch artists. A post-war international style was born, bringing Russia, Germany, and Holland together in a visual vocabulary that expressed itself in architecture, agitprop posters, graphic design, and, for a short time, painting.

Joost Schmidt. Poster for the Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar (1923)

Walter Gropius, Director of the Bauhaus, was so impressed with the First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin in 1922, he returned to Weimar, the city of the first Bauhaus, with a new idea and a new slogan: “Art and Industry: A New Unity.” The following year, almost precisely a year later, the Bauhaus held an exhibition to show off the achievements of the new art school, its students, half of whom were female, and its distinguished faculty, many of whom were left-leaning. While the town of Weimar, suspicious of the Communist inspired imported philosophy of Constructivism, did not warm to the new non-traditional style, impacted by the diagonals of Theo van Doesburg and the Futurist-inspired dynamism of Suprematism, artists in Europe saw this new version of modern art reaffirmed. The poster for this exhibition by Joost Schmidt is not unlike that designed for the First Russian Art Exhibition by El Litisszky. The main difference is that the logo designed by El Litisszky is a straight vertical and the shape designed by Schmidt was set on a diagonal.

Vladimir Lenin. Sverdlov Square in Petrograd on May 5, 1920

The Germans were more fortunate than the Russians in that they had the opportunity to carry out their slogan and put art and design in the service of industry. The new Communist regimes had far fewer resources than Germany in the mid-twenties and the government, after the death of Lenin, were less favorable to the avant-garde artists and their ambitious ideas. Tatlin’s Monument was a mere scale model and most avant-garde architectural proposals remained dreams on paper. And yet with these designs, which resembled agitprop posters, the Russians had combined the structure of constructivism and its real-world purpose with the shapes seen in the paintings of Malevich. Beginning with a photograph, then composed like a Suprematist painting, rendered as a proposal for an architectural project, these hybrid posters evolved but were rarely manifested. For example, perhaps the most famous image of Lenin came from his speech Sverdlov Square in Petrograd on May 5, 1920, when was photographed from a variety of angles, one of which shows the tall lecture he climbed to rise above the crowd of soldiers—Petrograd Communists—leaving for the Polish front. Lenin’s speech ended, “Long live our Red Workers’ and Peasants’ Army!” In fact, this platform became so iconic that El Lissitzky built a drawing model of a Tribune for Lenin, in which the old-fashioned wooden platform was mechanized, multiplied so that each level could be hoisted in stages high over the crowd, depending on its size. In other words, as the span of the crowds increased, the leader could ascend to a higher platform via a striking red and black Eiffel Tower like structure which slants to the left. Designed in 1920, this photomontage of an imaginary piece of architecture was contemporaneous with Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International but was not made public at the time. El Lissitzky added a photograph of Lenin speaking from the highest platform with a signboard above stating a favorite theme, “Proletariat.” In 1924, this Tribune on paper became a model in which stairs were added on as a practical gesture. But by 1924, Lenin was dead and El Lissitzky’s Tribune became a de facto tribute.

El Lissitzky. Tribune for a Leninist (1927)

Meanwhile, Gustav Klutsis reimagined the concept of the Speech harnessed to propaganda to mass media through a series of narrative machines, from loudspeakers to kiosks. Time moved fast in revolutionary Russia and in 1921, Klutsis made posters that were muted in tone with sharp-edged drawings anchored with softened photomontages. In “Electrification for the Entire Country,” the poster seems closer to a print or an etching than the eye-catching red black white and gray posters that became the signature style of the artist. The famous electrification poster contained the ghost of the academic artist that Klutsis used to be but showed the devotion of the Latvian soldier who, according to legend, was among those in the 9th Regiment of the Latvian riflemen who escorted Lenin and the government from Petrograd to Moscow. After the Revolution, he was re-educated at the Higher state artistic and technical studios—spelled VKhUTEMAS—a Russian version of the Bauhaus where he later taught. Klutsis taught his students to be revolutionary artists who should be cognizant of “..all the contemporary achievements of science and technology.” To that end—to communicate with the masses—Klutsis designed a group of stationary objects that were the counterparts of the agitprop trains—machines for transmitting propagandistic speeches and kiosks for printed information. The designs were, once again, this dynamic and spare and dramatic translation of Suprematist painting into actual constructions which transformed Malevich’s abstractions into practical machines.

It is not well known that the Soviets were pioneers in developing radio. When they came to power in 1917, “radio” consisted of a Morse code transmission which was accepted by a receiving station whose job it was to decode the message which was then distributed in print. Recognizing the potential of mass communication, the new government threw its efforts into upgrading the capabilities of radio. By 1920, scientists had learned how to send the human voice via radio waves and in 1921, a real radio station was established to transmit news and propaganda or educational materials. The Spoken Newspaper of the Russian Telegraph Agency was heard with a radio receiver which individuals could not afford, and to solve the problem of communicating with large numbers of people, loudspeakers were installed in public sites and blared out the Bolshevik point of view. Lenin was quite fond of this new technology and in 1922 Moscow had the most powerful radio station in the world. In response to this new demand for public sites for listening, Klutsis created loudspeakers to amplify the voice and project the radio addresses. These structures were always red black and white or metal and were planned in posters or preliminary drawings and sometimes manifested in maquettes. These extraordinary designs were very complex and difficult to realize but Klutsis imagined a live speaker on a platform with his voice being projected while the same loudspeakers could be used for radio broadcasts. Some of these larger stands had screens for film projections. He even combined a set of screens with a kiosk for the fourth congress of the comintern and fifth anniversary of the October revolution in 1922. Only a few of his constructions seem to have been put to actual use.

Gustav Klutsis. Worker and the Worker woman all to elections! (1933)

The poster Worker and the Worker woman all to elections! of 1933 is composed of one hand, photomontaged in different sizes overlapping the large lead hand and contained on a black and white diagonal of photographs against a red background. The poster’s words were plain white with the words “Worker and “Woman” in bold for emphasis. In many of his graphics, the leitmotif is always the diagonal or the slant or the lean forward as in We Shall Pay Back Our Coal Debt to This Country. Photographs of miners, some with modern drilling equipment paired with an old-fashioned lamp and hammer, show the workers as heroes marching forward with grim determination. The artist tilted the miners to the left behind a simple and strong red background relieved only by the slogan above the heads of the stalwart miners. This posted was dated 1930 but also in that year, he designed a poster that might, in hindsight, signaled the beginning of trouble to come. Under the banner of Lenin for socialist construction is a very strange poster, almost spooky. Lenin has been dead six years and yet he appears as a disembodied head with a tender expression on his face as he views—from the grave?—construction sites. Looming behind him and obscured is the darkened face of Stalin, the new leader of the Soviets. Some scholars have suggested that this juxtaposition of overlapping faces meant that Klutsis was showing the transfer of power and the fate of Russia from Lenin to Stalin but the face of Lenin, whose visage is almost sweet, is full of light contrasting with Stalin who seems to be a negative force. From a formal point of view these colliding heads, silhouetted against the familiar red background, the dark and light provides a color or tone contrast, but from a historical perspective, Stalin, who was a mass murderer seems to be foreshadowed by an artist who may have had an intuition.

Gustav Klutsis. Under the Banner of Lenin for Socialist Construction (1930)

Indeed, by the next year, 1931, Klutsis was in trouble—he was expelled from the party because he had failed to pay his dues for many months. But he was also charged with something called “political illiteracy,” a phrase that was a catch all indicating displeasure. Was his attitude or his art? We shall never know, but Klutsis apologized and was reinstated. Although Klutsis had been a powerful artist, shifting from Lenin to Stalin, he was dedicated to Communism rather than to a specific leader, suggesting that he had no protection against one of Stalin’s many mad purges. Klutsis had given up his Latvian identity but when the Latvians became restive towards to the Soviet Union, he was swept up in the arrests. A victim of the Great Terror of 1934 to 1940, he was accused of being a member of what was termed “the fascist plot of Latvian nationalists.” The contributions of Kultsis, who had created a powerful and lasting visual vocabulary for the Russian Revolution and its leaders, meant nothing to the fanatics who were in charge of the nation at that point. The purges were well under way and in1938, Gustav Klutsis was executed in 1938. It could be said that the death of Klutsis served as a head on a pole or a warning to his colleagues, that no matter how important an artist, no matter how selflessly the artist worked, no matter how dedicated he or she was to the ideals of Communism, no one was safe. The avant-garde in Russia was over and the remaining artists assumed an even lower profile, hoping to survive. The striking avant-garde designs of Klutsis were expelled in favor of an illustrative style called Soviet Realism, considered more readable or more legible for the vast audience that needed to be educated into the cult of Stalinism.

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Propaganda and Art After the Russian Revolution, Part Two

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956)

The Photomontage Poster

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), formally a painter, retired from painting in 1921 and became a designer of posters that became iconic of the brief period of favoritism and freedom. A patriot, loyal to this new Russia he stated, “We had visions of a new world, industry, technology, and science. We simultaneously invented and changed the world around us. We authored new notions of beauty and redefined art itself.” In 1923, he supported, in a series of posters for Lenin’s New Economic Policy. The NEP was a temporary solution to post-war recovery of production, which allowed private enterprise to exist alongside state-owned enterprises. Rodchenko, now one of the Constructivist artists, working for the good of the state, created a series of posters extolling the virtues of government production. These productions, like his film posters, were complex, reflecting the principles of an organization of artists who identified themselves as the Left Front of the Arts, of which Rodchenko was a member, along with Sergei Eisenstein and the group’s leader, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The artists, including a stage director and a literary theorist, published a journal LEF from 1923, which became Novyi Lef (New Left) between 1927-28, with all covers designed my Rodchenko. LEF was a response to the government requesting that artists join in with the NEP in which the contributing artists wrote of the links between progressive art and leftist politics. The roster was an impressive list of prominent Russian intellectuals and artists, from the leader, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the writer Sergei Tret’iakov, who said that the artists wanted “the production of a new human being through art.” All of the artists of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath were convinced that a new way of life required new forms that expressed the sea change. By using new forms, signifiers of new ideologies which had replaced the old ways of thinking, art could send transformative messages which operated through viewer participation. Rodchenko’s posters and mass media designs were laid out with the intention of drawing the reader in and inviting him or her on a visual and ideological if not didactic message.

Rodchenko’s LEF cover

One of the most important theories for that group was that revolutionary art necessitated the participation of the spectator, meaning that the audience learned and was educated in the process of looking at visual images. Eisenstein, for example, used montage, editing, in his film, Battleship Potemkin, as effectively as Rodchenko in his posters. The breaking of the cinematic practice of sustained looking at a series of moving pictures, Eisenstein cut a scene with interacting images, speeded up into intense activity, meant to involve the viewer in his story of a Cossack massacre of innocent civilians in the 1905 uprising. The Odessa Steps sequence is still today one of the longest sustained sequences of edits, bringing a new visual vocabulary of dynamism and frenetic rhythm to a once staid medium. Although the LEF group asserted its politics as leftist avant-garde artists against the more conventional artists working for the Revolution, the work done by Rodchenko was, in its own way, humble. His designs, like the work of Eisenstein, were montages of works and images, arranged in a manner reminiscent of Futurist and Dada compositions, to extol the virtues of Soviet airplanes and Soviet cookies, charmingly named “Red October,” and Soviet caramels, amusingly named “Our Industry,” and beer. These otherwise mundane enterprises were government run and therefore, were worthy of Rodchenko’s attention.

Red October Cookie Design

Aside from the stunning packaging for caramels and the famous poster for the revolutionary cookies, his best-known poster is probably the advertisement for Lengiz state publishing house with the promise that the firm sells “books on all the branches of knowledge.” This 1925 poster for the Leningrad department of state publishing house “Gosizdat” shows a lovely fresh faced Russian worker, a young woman with a headscarf capping her short curly hair. Her hand is up to her open mouth and she is calling out, joyously. Indicating that her hand is a megaphone, a triangle of expanding letters shoots out to the right. In contrast to the usually subdued dull oranges and blacks of most his posters, Rodchenko used strong reds and greens, complementary colors that activated the eye. Toned down with a bit of blue around the front of the face, the black and white photograph of the woman nails the poster to the news of the day, to the revolutionary present. She is calling to her comrades to come and read, and, in the process, become educated by this state media agency. Education was deemed essential to the political conversion of a backward peasantry and illiterate proletariat to the new communist philosophy, meaning that literacy, teaching the population to read, was a primary goal of the Communist government. Posters, part of the broader agitprop campaigns were considered critical to the transformation of the unlettered masses to workers who felt empowered.

Rodchenko. State Publishing House

From the very early years of the new Soviet government, art was an important weapon to be wielded in the service of the perpetual revolution. The presses that had once produced books or magazines were temporarily idle while the Reds battled the Whites, meaning that mass produced posters had to speak for the Bolsheviks or the Reds. Perhaps because they were supported by the Allied forces, America, Great Britain and Canada, Whites had no comparable agitprop machinery to call upon. The Bolsheviks marshaled public support until, finally in 1921, the civil war ended, with the Red, the color of revolutions everywhere since the French Revolution, being victorious. Unlike the Whites who were fighting for a more familiar status quo, the Reds promised a new world and a new future and they had a strong message to convey. Well into the 1930s, a continuous deluge of posters, which were plastered everywhere, sent the same few messages, repeating the story of revolution and the liberation and rise of the heroic workers. Just like the basic message of the promises of Communism, the posters themselves had to share similar visual themes, all based upon the unifying color and a common art language. During the early years, before doctrinaire formula were established, the former avant-garde artists were allowed by the government authorities to experiment with the new visual vocabulary circulating in Europe—ideas from Germany and Switzerland mingling with Constructivism in Russia—recycled back to and from the Bauhaus and De Stijl. Given the destruction of the Great War, this creative flourishing was an astonishing contrast to the very real economic difficulties and the political struggles in Germany and Russia, but during the 1920s, art and ideas traveled freely across borders. Pre-war Suprematism, with Futurist-inspired floating geometric shapes darting across the canvas, developed by Kazimir Malevich, was translated into a graphic language. The abstract forms became vehicles for images and words. The population–the masses, who were the target audience for the agitprop posters needed simple words or phrases and easily recognizable images.

El Lissitzky. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

For example, one of the most powerful and impactful designs of the Civil War period, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge of 1919, was exactly what it said: a red triangle, long and sharp shoots in from the left and, in a thrusting phallic manner, penetrates a passive white circle, carved out of the black field on the right. The artist, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), scattered words completing the design, allowing the contending shapes to imply war with shrapnel shards of red splintered across the fields of white in a barrage of color. However, easy it was for viewer familiar with avant-garde styles to translate this abstract image, an uneducated person would have been puzzled. The solution to the problem of visual translation devised by Rodchenko was to insert photographic images into what were Suprematist shapes transformed into a constructivist ideology. The photomontage traveled from Germany to Russia where it was repurposed and reused in a less radical and more direct fashion. Working as an engineer with impersonal precision at the behest of the client, the revolution, the former artist backgrounded—as it were—avant-garde styles and foregrounded familiar photographs that had the advantage of being documents and carriers of truth.

Varvana Stepanova. Through Red and White Glasses (1924)

Therefore, in contrast to his own New Vision photography, the images Rodchenko used for his posters and journal covers were conventional and easily understood, directed at a mass audience who needed direct communication. Where his posters differed from the precursors, the ROSTA wood block prints, was the rejection of Russian tradition in favor of using the German practice of political critique—the photomontage—and transforming it into a signifier of modern art being mobilized in a modern fashion for a new form of mass media. These carefully designed photomontaged posters, created to catch the eye and to be legible, used powerful combination of words, lettering and colored segments and patterns. Some of these classic propaganda posters, designed by Rodchenko’s wife Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), were unique contributions to avant-garde poster design. Bauhaus posters tended to not include photography and the Germans used photomontage as a political weapon against the government.

Rodchenko. Poster for the film Cine-Eye (Kino glaz) by Dziga Vertov (1924)

Rodchenko’s faithful service to the Soviet Union did not help him, although he also gave his time and talents of Stalin in the 1930s. However, as the Soviet Union became more normalized, losing its revolutionary edge, the focus of the government became consolidating power under one man, while siphoning power from the “soviets” or the local councils. After the death of Lenin and the demise of the original revolutionaries, Stalin and those around him were unsympathetic to a sophisticated art that could not be easily read by the masses. Despite their contributions to Soviet art in the formative hours of the Republic, Rodchenko and Stepanova lived out the last decades of their lives, during and after the Second World War in relative obscurity. Compared to their colleagues, they were lucky.

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Propaganda and Art After the Russian Revolution, Part One

The Russian Avant-Garde and Agit-Prop Posters

Out of “Art” and into the Revolution

In 1917, the Russian Empire, assaulted from within and without, finally crumbled under its own anachronistic weight, bending under the burden of the unheard demands of a people under the fashionable heel of an aristocratic boot. The Russian Revolution was a long process, unfolding during a years-long Civil War between the Reds and the Whites, ending with the Bolsheviks in charge and the Czar and his family gunned down in a basement and buried in a secret grave in Siberia. What the Communist regime, headed by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), inherited was a vast sprawling nation, nearly completely landlocked, weakened by a negligent monarchy, torn apart by the Great War and a revolutionary struggle. Having laid waste to centuries of autocratic rule, the people, led by a band of exiled intellectuals, who had come home to lead them, inherited their Slavic patch of the earth and gazed across the razed plain that had to be reconstructed from destruction. By 1918, artists and peasants alike had the opportunity—rare in history—to build a brave new world, one in which there would be economic and social equality. But there was a catch: the population of Russia was uneducated and illiterate. The proletarian masses and the huddled peasants knew they were downtrodden but, even after the new government came into power, outside of Moscow and Leningrad, there were millions, who had no idea that the Czar had been assassinated. Starting with that basic fact—the sheer ignorance of a blighted citizenry—and proceed with the hope and the resolve to help the people of Russia to rise from their knees and actualize themselves under the banner of communism then the question turned back upon Lenin’s seminal manifesto of Bolshevik philosophy: “What is to be Done?” The answer to the post-war challenge was contained within the 1902 document—the newly released Russians, the Soviets, would be re-educated. The Bolsheviks considered propaganda to be political education work, which involved agit-prop that would teach the people socialism. In his section on “Can A Newspaper Be A Collective Organiser?” in his long essay, Lenin wrote that

..the masses will never learn to conduct the political struggle until we help to train leaders for this struggle, both from among the enlightened workers and from among the intellectuals. Such leaders can acquire training solely by systematically evaluating all the everyday aspects of our political life, all attempts at protest and struggle on the part of the various classes and on various grounds. Therefore, to talk of “rearing political organisations” and at the same time to contrast the “paper work” of a political newspaper to “live political work in the localities” is plainly ridiculous.

Propaganda or the education of an entire population was both visual and verbal, and visual culture was the realm of the artists, who marshaled their considerable talents and skills and gave themselves over the government. Art was dead. The artist was dead. In the place of such bourgeoisie concepts, the engineer emerged full of projects and pictures and objects, all aimed towards propaganda. By the end of the Great War, an otherwise neutral word, “propaganda,” meaning persuasion or a spreading of a certain message, had morphed from a doctrinaire teaching of a received truth, such as that from a religious organization, or, on a lower level, the semiotics of selling a product, to a campaign to teach the audience to hate. During the War, vast and sophisticated machineries, based in the governments of the contending powers, cranked out posters, articles in newspapers, books, primitive films, even postcards, shaped stories and crafted messages with one goal in mind: to stir up the feelings and emotions of the people to hate the other side. In England, a nation without a universal draft, the messages were ones of shaming fit young men into serving in the military. In France, the content was simple, the Germans were barbarians. In Germany, the story was that the British Empire surrounded the world like a giant octopus. However, when the exiled leaders of the Russian Revolution returned to their homeland, joining those who had stayed behind to fight directly against the Czar, a sophisticated machinery had been honed through years. Aided by intellectuals and abetted by artists, all of whom came from the small middle class, the fight for the hearts and minds of the lower classes began.

The earliest posters were plastered onto the windows of the Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, located in cities from Moscow to Petrograd to Odessa and points beyond. ROSTA had its own Moscow-based art department until 1921 and its posters were the joint products of an artist, Mikhail Cheremnykh, and a journalist Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), who directed a project that eventually employed local teams beyond Moscow. Given that this endeavor existed for only two years and yet over two million posters were distributed. Although the founders of the program were sophisticated, the audience was working class and largely illiterate. To reach this audience, which needed to be informed of the latest news, the ROSTA artists appropriated the look of a lubok or traditional Russian folk art print was deployed. Avant-garde artists, such as Ivan Maliutin, were recruited to communicate with a public that had a horizon of expectations limited by a low level of literacy and a visual acuity trained by Russian icons. The Russian people could read images fluently and the simple narrative style of the ROSTA posters—rather like cartoon drawings—could be easily followed. The Bolsheviks needed to convince the people of the righteousness of their philosophy, one of empowering the working class, de-legitimating the ruling class, and establishing a centrally controlled economy valorizing the laborers. ROSTA text was kept to a minimum and the weight of the message rested upon simple but graphically effective images.

Vladimir Mayakovsky. Sowing Campaign: Let’s fulfill the decree!
“Everyone fulfilled the Soviet plan” (February 1921)

In an interesting article, written on the occasion of a 2014 exhibition at the Gallery Thomas Flor in Berlin, Alexander Roob, explained,

In February 1919, the painter and caricaturist Mikhail Cheremnykh in collaboration the journalist Nikolai Ivanov started an artistic campaign in the shop window of an empty confectionery with a visually designed news agency report. The campaign was to last three years, from the devastating period of the civil war to the introduction of a rudimentary market economy. The initiative was taken up a few weeks later by the popular revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had recently caused a stir with the publication of an anthology of his futuristic poems and the performance of an elaborate satire spectacle, the “Mystery Bouffe”. When passing by one of Cheremnykh’s ROSTA windows, it seemed he immediately grasped the potential of the initiative. If one can believe his own accounts and those of his hagiographer, Mayakovsky soon functioned alongside Cheremnykh as the spiritus rector of a constantly growing illustrated news collective.

These posters told stories, sent messages, taught lessons with images that would have been at home in a child’s picture book. The colors were bright and arbitrary, applied by assistants who would work from a basic linoleum block, allowing the strong colors to run outside the lines. The result was an image that was friendly and persuasive, sophisticated and amateurish at the same time, with the folkish charm selling strong political messages. In 1921, ROSTA was abruptly shut down by the new government, and its windows were closed so to speak, and the large brilliant posters disappeared. But the way in which the agency was run would be typical of propaganda efforts: workers would be radicalized or co-opted to the cause and there could be no deviation from the party line. The concise and consistent message would dominate and it was the task of the artist to become an engineer in the service of the permanent revolution.

Agit Prop Train

Following the civil war and the consolidation of power, the Communists then set out to transform and unify the vast Russian territories to knit them under the Soviet rule and way of life. The railroads, the one accomplishment of the Czarist regime became avenues of education as the new government reached out to the masses. Long agitprop trains, painted on the exterior with colorful designs that captured the eye and informed the mind traveled everywhere, pausing at towns and small cities. The populations would gather around to receive information, written, verbal and visual, on topics from best practices in health and the values of Communism. The workers, the peasants and the downtrodden learned that they were now heroes, enlisted in the great revolution of the Russian people, now powerful and in charge of their own lives. The visuals of these agitprop trains were closer to ROSTA posters than to the avant-garde posters of the cities, where the audience was more sophisticated. In the 1920s, there was still no set aesthetic for the Revolution and the avant-garde artists moved into the vacuum and gave their lives to Communism. But the story of the Russian avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia is nothing short of tragic. The artists, mostly from Moscow and Petrograd, had been politically left-leaning before the Revolution and most enthusiastically joined the new government with high hopes and good intentions. They willingly gave up the pretensions of “avant-garde” and happily become workers, engineers, and cultural producers, reinventing themselves in the cause of the workers and in the name of the Bolshevik creeds. For a few short years, these artists flourished and were appreciated, supported by the young government, but a revolution never stops, it is only paused from time to time. By the time it reached its natural end—the evolution of a strong totalitarian leader—Stalin—avant-garde art and artists were purged and silenced. Russian avant-garde graphic design and its fate were a case study of the trajectory from aspiration to suppression.

Mikhail Dlugach, Electric Chair (1928)

Containing the stylistic seeds of their own destruction, the avant-garde posters designed by the Russian avant-garde artists were everything the ROSTA posters were not. Rooted in Suprematism and Cubism and Futurism, rather than in folk art, borrowing the tactics of photomontage rather than simple block printing, these posters were complex, not simple, and often constructed on the strong diagonal, giving the images a feeling of dynamism and a sense of change and progress, they were more artistic than communicative, with an alienating aesthetic that put off the masses at which they were aimed. The artists did not help their cause by debating among themselves about which avant-garde style would be appropriate for the masses. Given that Futurism, for example, was Italian rather than home grown, the use of pre-war styles seems out of step with the main goal of the artists, which was to create a new visual universe, full of new objects, in which a new language would appear and communicate the meaning of the brave new world. The new language would be that of the proletariat. But despite the obvious complications, the artists proceeded along their own path to what historians John E. Bowlt and Olga Matich described as “the leftist artists and writers snarled relationship to power and language as the media of political control.” Indeed, as the writers continued, “the avant-garde artist can be seen as the politician’s rival who usually loses the battle to the more powerful opponent.” It is possible to make the argument that the Russian avant-garde ended for all intents and purposes with the end of the Great War, and, after that, the artists carried their memories and their styles from non-revolutionary bourgeois contexts forward with them into a revolution for which this language was profoundly unsuited. Yet out of this ultimately unsuccessful relationship came some of the most striking designs of the twentieth century.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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The Last of Cubism: French Artists at the World’s Fair, 1937, Part Three

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part Three

For Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the opportunity to decorate two buildings, one dedicated to airplanes and the other featuring trains, was too good to refuse. Both artists had long been painting modern life and both lived immersed in technology—Robert in his Talbot—and in cutting edge fashions–Sonia’s “simultaneous” dresses–so that doing murals on modern transportation–trains and airplanes–the pavilions for the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life in 1937 would be extensions of the lives they were already leading. By the late 1930s, the painting of Robert Delaunay had stiffened and thickened, lacking the translucence of color they had possessed before the War. The designs for the two buildings were the final expression of Orphism, distilled into a formula, hardened into a composition of colored discs as a signature motif. The circular forms that had once referred to the halos of light surrounding the new electric lamps for the streets of Paris could be translated into the rushing wheels of a locomotive or the swirling propellers of an airplane. The earlier works of both artists, Robert’s 1914 painting Homage to Bleriot and Sonia’s 1913, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, an account of a journey on a train by poet Blaise Cendrars, designed by Terk-Delaunay.

The particular buildings for the Fair, Palais des Chemin de Fer and the Palais de l’Air, designed by architect Félix Aublet, which were decorated by the Delaunays became the swan song for the couple’s collaboration and, not incidentally, for Orphism and for Cubism itself. For years, Robert Delaunay had been isolated by choice, allowing Sonia to take the lead, but the chance to do murals on such a grand scale tempted him to make his presence known to the public once more. As his friend and art historian Jean Cassou explained, “In this spirit of intuitive and amorous synthesis of Orphic cubism, Delaunay always aspired to accomplish vast works which would express some great idea collective. His isolation in our age stems from the fact that he escaped the temptation of the easel painting in order to learn of possible techniques that would reconcile painting and architecture.”

The maquette for the entrance to le Palais des chemins, representing clouds of smoke and the layout of tracks, by Robert Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay. Voyages lointains (1937) also for the Palais des chemins

Delaunay had a long friendship with Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy and had seen the Parisian debut of the latter’s famous Licht-Raum Modulator, an amazing apparatus that was a beautiful machine casting light and forming shadows. The artist was interested in collaborating with architects because he had been impatient for years with easel painting. In fact, The City of Paris of 1910-1912, shown in the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, was four meters long. Then, when he was invited by the well-known architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens, to produce a mural for the building Society of Decorative Artists for the famed Art Deco exhibition of 1925, Delaunay painted The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower. This mural was an answer and a sequel to the earlier The City of Paris, and once more he had been called upon to do murals for an international fair. Murals in a building would give him the opportunity to increase the size of his paintings to the monumental, enveloping the viewer with discs of color.

Robert Delaunay. The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower (1925)

This triptych was one of the last major figurative works by Robert Delaunay. By the 1930s, he had made the definitive move to total abstraction and he produced a series of paintings called Rhythms, consisting of colored discs. He translated these paintings to “wall coverings,” geometric designs featuring circular shapes applied directly onto the wall itself. The pigment substitutes, such as plaster and casein or plaster laced with sawdust or textured cement, produced raised surfaces of designs that could withstand exterior climate changes. The Reliefs were shown in a Parisian gallery in 1935 and it was at this exhibition that Delaunay met Félix Aublet, who was looking to employ unemployed artists for the upcoming world’s fair. Two years later, Delaunay had, not a wall, but the interior of an entire building to plan and decorate.

Palais de l’air with the murals visible on the back wall in 1937

Exterior of the Palais de l’air in 1937

According to the Centre Pompidou, which organized a retrospective for Delaunay in 2015 (with occasional translation assists from the author) “The Air Palace, located on the Esplanade des Invalides, with an area of approximately 6300 m2, is contrary to the Palais railway, a building designed for exhibition. All metal, it consists of two curiously heterogeneous parts: a transparent tapered lobby and a long opaque gallery, covered with cement slabs..The upper segment was 25 m by 36 m wide, the dome, which overlooks the lobby, is entirely covered with Rhodoïd, transparent material and multicolored, which are associated light projections. In the middle of colored ellipses that recall the rings of Saturn and airplane flight paths, a bridge hanging in the attic allows the public to discover, an airplane suspended in the from the ceiling, in the air, as it were. At night, the transparent walls of the hall allowed a view, from the outside, of this extraordinary cosmic composition, while the fires of three rotating lights come intensify chromatic vibration of color. Under this facility, designed by Delaunay and Aublet, two other aircraft and the latest engine models are exposed on the ground.”

Sonia Delaunay. Murals for the Palais de l’air (1937)

Robert Delaunay. Hélice et Rythme (1937)

For the married couple, the murals were a dazzling achievement. The success of the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life is perhaps more in its place in history as one last bit of international cooperation than in any coherent manifestations of the themes. For many of the artists whose work appeared in the pavilions and palaces, it would be their last mature work before the Second World War, after which they would disappear from history. Artists like Fernand Léger would live another twenty years, long enough to see French art eclipsed by American art. Historians tend to prefer to discuss easel painting and often ignore the entire oeuvre of an artist. And yet the 1930s was a Golden Age for mural painting. It is rare to find an account of Paris between the Wars that goes beyond Surrealism, but many artists were drawn to the alternative of Social Realism which was diametrically opposed to the flight from reality and the journey into the unconscious taken by the Surrealists. Again, art history has shied away from political art and Surrealism, with its apparent lack of politics was more comfortable, because the politics of Surrealism–and Surrealism was political–were easier to ignore than with Social Realism. Diego Rivera left Cubism in pursuit of an art that expressed its own age and its needs in an era of social struggles and class divides. The Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, expressed in the Pavilion, had stirred sympathies for the working classes and a desire for a more egalitarian justice.

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Fernand Léger. Le Transport des Forces. Palais de la Découverte (1937)

Joies essentielles, plaisirs nouveaux. Pavillon de l’Agriculture, Paris, Exposition Internationale (1937)

Fernand Léger, trapped between the avant-garde Surrealists, who were on the wane, and the concrete abstraction of Le Corbusier, sought a New Realism that would express its own time, the modern age of the thirties, in a readable–realism–fashion without being didactic and while retaining recognizable avant-garde features. Léger said, “It’s easier to look backward, to imitate what is already done, than to create something new.” Like the Delaunays, he sought connection with modernity. The murals he did for the pavilions at the 1937 Fair showed the impact of the current debate over the role of the artist in a society increasingly dedicated to listening to the needs and demands of the working class. In France, a new government had been elected in 1936 and the forty hour work week and paid holidays became part of a worker’s right. Léger, politically inclined towards supporting the proletariat, insisted that photomontages were an avant-garde solution to Socialist Realism and its didacticism. In Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, Paul Wood pointed to Léger’s use of photomontage in his murals in his work for the fair as indicative of the ongoing debate of what art should be in an age of social urgency, trapped between Communism and Fascism. To anyone used to Dada photomontage, the use of mass media in a mural scale is a contradiction in terms and there is no doubt that Léger’s sincere idea was a clumsy mural, a bad solution. Like the position of the French government–in between–the struggle of French art to find the secure footing it had once enjoyed. Something had happened since the great fair of 1925 and the murals, commissioned by a government embarrassed that, in the supposed capital of the art world, their artists needed employment. And yet the argument–realism or abstraction? and if realism, what kind?–was suspended when the Second World War ended the debate, leaving important questions dangling in the margins.

The late or post-Cubists works of Robert Delaunay are rarely discussed within art history and only recently has the career of Sonia Delaunay been reconsidered. Of Robert, one must read between the lines and consider the possibility that being thought of as a “deserter” because he refused to serve in the military during the Great War might have hampered his post-war career in Paris. But the lively social life of the Delaunays suggests that the career of Robert might have stalled on its own, while Sonia continued to thrive and grow as an artist. The work he did for the Fair of 1937 was among his finest and would, sadly, constitute the end of his career. In a year, Robert became ill with what was diagnosed with cancer and he struggled for three more years to survive. However, the Nazis marched into Paris and immediately the life of Sonia who was Jewish was in danger. The couple fled south to Vichy territory where they found safety. In 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer, leaving a wife who would outlive him some thirty years and a son, Charles, who would become a world recognized jazz expert.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]