British Posters of the Great War, Part Two

British Propaganda and Women

The Psychology of Posters

Warfare, especially modern war, has had a strange impact upon men. It is assumed that war and combat is the ultimate event of masculinization, completing the identity of the male. Traditionally, the equation of hyper masculinity and the military had been fairly reliable in the nineteenth century. Wars were fought elsewhere, out of the public eye, with the early war correspondents willing to find heroes who were “mentioned in the dispatches,” even in unpopular wars like that in Crimea. Normally this war is thought of as one that limped to an end, while the British government colluded to conceal the military blunders and mismanagement, but, in an interesting article in The Guardian, Orlando Figes, author of The Crimean War: A History, made a case for the Crimean War as a conflict that created new heroes. While Alfred, Lord Tennyson, mourned and celebrated the anachronistic folly of the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” the British press was pointing angrily to the result of the class system. The rigid class system that ruled civilian society also formed the military hierarchies and would continue to do so through the Great War. The privileged ruling class ruled with the second sons of titled nobility crowding the ranks of those in charge whether or not they merited or deserved their elevation to power and responsibility. The men of the growing middle class became more prominent during this war, if only in contrast to the incompetence of the exalted officer corps.

As Figes pointed out, “..the public meaning of the war” was fixed by middle class “journalists and pamphleteers, poets, artists and photographers, orators and priests. This was the first “modern” war in the age of mass communications – the first to be photographed, the first to use the telegraph, the first “newspaper war” – and it shaped our national consciousness.” These observers in the newly emerging mass media took an objective perspective on a war that was being fought for no discernible reason, revealing folly and heroism. Figes continued, “The mismanagement triggered a new assertiveness in the middle classes, which rallied round the principles of professional competence, industry, meritocracy and self-reliance in opposition to the privilege of birth. It was a sign of their triumph that in the decades afterwards, Conservative and Liberal governments alike introduced reforms promoting these ideals (the extension of public schooling, opening of the Civil Service, a new system of merit-based promotion in the armed services, etc). The political scramble for Middle England had begun.” The middle class soldiers shone in comparison to their aristocratic superiors: “..the heroes who returned from Crimea were the common troops. Their deeds were recognised for the first time in 1857, when Queen Victoria instituted the Victoria Cross, awarded to gallant servicemen regardless of class or rank. Among the first recipients of Britain’s highest military honour were 16 privates from the army, five gunners, two seamen and three boatswains.”

The Great War was the first war that impacted upon the consciousness of the British public since the Crimean War and war, over five decades had changed enormously. And so too had the role of women in British society. During the 1850s, it was Florence Nightingale and Mary Jane Seacole, who defined convention and became the women who established military nursing–the care and healing of the wounded soldier. Even in the hands of a woman, the wounded British male retained his masculinity and it was important for the nation to celebrate his heroism, especially in light of the War’s failures reported in excruciating detail by William Howard Russell. The women who nursed the men also became heroes, apparently without threatening the manliness of the men. Writing in 1878, in Heroes of Britain in Peace and War, Edwin Hodder explained, “..in our hospitals there is a noble army of brave women who are devoting themselves the to care of he sick; women, who not finding a sphere for labour in their home circles, and feeling the burden of humanity claiming their sympathy, have gone as heroically and in some instances more so, to labour among the sick in the hospitals of crowded cities as others have gone to tend the wounded and dying on the battlefield..” It can be assumed that nursing as a form of nurturing fell into the bounds of expected and accepted behavior for women, and it is clear that two decades later, the shock of women invading the precincts of medicine had worn off.

But the woman of 1914 was a different social person, living in a British society in which the middle classes were educated and ambitious. As Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) attests, nineteenth century attitudes still prevailed in an increasingly modern world, with the ruling class of males deliberately holding aspiring women back. For decades, after the Crimean War, women had been campaigning for the right to vote. As in America, at the same time, the movement broke into two separate sectors, one conservative and willing to wait patiently, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and one more militant and more impatient, Women’s Social and Political Union. As in America, the WSPU under the leadership of the Pankhurst women, mother and daughters, women were put in jail and stubbornly refused to eat. As with Alice Paul in America, the British women were force fed, a form of torture in those days. When the Great War began, the suffrage movement redirected its efforts towards working to win the war and thus prove women worthy of being given the right to vote.

It is against this political background that one understands the propagandistic efforts to encourage male enlistment in a deadly war. While at first, outraged by the invasion and “rape” of Belgium, men eagerly signed up, recruitment efforts flagged and atrocity propaganda could not inspire sufficient enlistment. The government embarked on another other approach, which was a play or a variation on the demanding Lord Kirchner poster–public shame. In what might be called the descendant of the “white feather” campaigns, men were shamed into playing a part in the war of attrition. The idea of the white feather can be dated back to the days of cock fighting in the eighteenth century. When a defeated cock “turned tail,” revealing the white feathers beneath his plumage, he was signaling refusal to fight, advertising defeat. The transference of the the meaning of a white feather to the practice of handing out white feathers to men considered cowards was popularized by the English writer A. E. W. Mason in his famous 1902 book, The Four Feathers. Written during the Boer War, this novel was a shameless advertisement for imperialism in which a young military officer who preferred not to serve the Empire was presented by four white feathers from his fiancée and his close friends. The entire novel is an adventure story in which the shamed young man, Harry Faversham, has to redeem himself, save his friends and win back the woman he loves, all while in the service of the Empire. The popular story (which has been made into at least six films) laid the groundwork for the White Feather Campaign during the Great War.

This campaign of public shaming men out of uniform was begun at the end of August 1914 by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald who advocated compulsory military service. He organized the White Feather Campaign in Folkstone and recruited young women to hand out white feathers, also a sign of an inbred cockerel unfit to fight, to young men out of uniform. The timing was fortuitous: the suffrage movement was on hold and young women had high expectations of being of service. At the early stages of the War, women were given nothing of use to do and many, particularly the young ones who had not raised a child, leaped at the chance to participate as patriots. But, in the process, many young men were shamed and suffered for decades over the public humiliation. As Peter J. Hart wrote in “The White Feather Campaign: A Struggle with Masculinity During World War I,”

The Campaign worked fairly well and by shaming Home front men, these women drove many into the army out of dread of receiving a white feather themselves. But an unexpected consequence arose from this attack upon Englishmen’s masculinity, one that these “patriotic” women didn’t foresee. As this campaign became more public and recognized, the community backlash against women who engaged in this practice became increasingly harsh. Englishwomen had been molded into a weapon against the masculine identity through propaganda and promises of patriotism.

There were compelling reasons why women echoed the shaming campaign of the propaganda posters. Given that the War had began during the long and violent Suffragette Campaign during which the British government stalwartly resisted the demand that women be given the right to vote, women would react with alarm to the horrors inflicted on the women of Belgium. The attack of the Germans upon helpless Belgium was the main reason the British entered the War and the women of Belgium had suffered terribly from the German army. The stories that swirled around the atrocities were so graphic and, at times, so exaggerated, that for decades it was thought that the tales could not be true. But revisionist history, searching though German Belgium archives has established that the atrocities committed in Belgium were very real indeed, even accounting for the inevitable tall tales circulated during wartime. For British women, the stories of how the Germans treated the women of Belgium were terrifying and they felt justified in urging men to avenge these female victims. But, perhaps more importantly, the women could take on the role of responsible citizens, doing their part and fighting the War in their own way. Not unexpectedly, the White Feather Campaign, which activated women, resulted in women being criticized for what they were asked to do. The criticism was based, not in the idea that they might be unjustly shaming an undeserving man, but on the grounds of “immodesty,” meaning that women were aggressively approaching men and imputing their masculinity.

Nevertheless, women were merely echoing a broader campaign of shaming, raised repeatedly by the press and mass media, driven by the desperate need for males to fight the long war. Nicoletta F. Gullace wrote that poet John Oxenham wrote a special poem directed to women, calling them to their duty:

O maids, and mothers of the race,
And of the race that is to be
To you is given in these dark days
A vast responsibility….
Remember!—as you bear you now,
So Britain’s future shall be great
—Or small. To your true hearts is
given a sovereign duty to the state.

In her article “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War,” Gullac quote the approving words of the Mayor of London, directed towards women: “Is your ‘Best Boy’ wearing Khaki?…If not don’t YOU THINK he should be? If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for—do you think he is worthy of you? Don’t pity the girl who is alone—her young man is probably a soldier—fighting for her and her country—and for You. If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will Neglect You. Think it over—then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TO DAY!” The point is that the women who participated in the “Order of the White Feather,” had wide public support and wives and mothers and sweethearts were exhorted by mass media and by propaganda posters to reject men who would not join the military. Men were also directly addressed by the propaganda posters, which also employed a tactic of shame, implying a dereliction of duty and suggesting that their own families would reject them if they did not do their duty.

In his 2012 book Britain and World War One, Alan G. V. Simmonds explained how these shaming tactics were shaped by government propaganda: “..what began as a politicians’ and diplomats’ war declared for reasons of economic security and European hegemony became a struggle for national unity, civilization, liberty and for the protection of Britain’s Empire and her essentially Victorian way of life. The threat of all of this was a powerful reason for men to enlist, but it proved insufficient to satisfy the Army’s ever-growing need for recruits.” One of the earlier attempts at blackmailing men into joining the military was the innocent sounding Pals Battalions, which, as Simmonds expressed it, “successfully embodied powerful forces of peer pressure and civic pride. Groups of men, linked by a common bond of professional, recreational or emotional ties, were encouraged to join up together in units that combined a strong sense of local identity with group solidarity, along with an opportunity to exploit alternative loyalties for which to fight other than ‘King and Country.'” Another way of explaining the Pals’ Battalions was a way to encourage young men who were not necessarily invested in the British Empire to join up. These recruits would more likely be middle class but without the public school privileges enjoyed by the upper ranks and the working classes who owed little to what was a campaign to preserve the power of the upper classes.

Involving women was an ideal way of activating women of all classes who would be encouraged to hand out white feathers to the men they encountered. Lower class men could be directly confronted; middle class men shamed at home. Every woman had a network of male relatives who could not ignore the devices of the White Feather brigades. The result of the campaign in which women were asked to participate directly or indirectly was nothing short of emotional blackmail. The government recruited women, as much as it recruited men, as participants in the War, asking them to send away their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to a war from which many would not return or would return wounded in body or mind or both. The constant drumbeat of these early posters, issued before the Military Service Act in 1916 started forced conscription, emphasizes the inherent unnaturalness of war. Men and women had to be forcibly manipulated by a constant drumbeat of obligation with an underlying threat of being de-masculinized. This threat manifested itself in reality as conscription resulted in more and more men disappearing from the Home Front and into the military. Women began to take their place everywhere, in the factories, in the offices, in the hospitals, even wearing uniforms as police officers. The wartime posters began to address women, urging them to join the war effort and to take the places of men, whether driving buses or playing football.

The Great War utterly changed women, propelling them headlong into the twentieth century, proving that they could succeed at the very jobs men had insisted they could not do. Of course, when the War was over, the women were sent home to make room for the returning males. But, as with the Second World War, women would not forget their wartime experiences Unlike World War II, an entire generation of men never returned. After the Great War, women were widowed or were nursing men with permanent wounds, and there were those women who would never marry. This new independence was played out by their younger sisters who became “flappers,” who refused to live the lives of their mothers. For men, the Great War had begun as a noble cause, a fight for King and Country of for one’s closest friends; for women the Great War had begun with handing out white feathers and shaming men into enlisting. After the War, many of these men would not come home; others would never recover; others struggled with their traumatic experiences. The aggression and the enthusiasm “immodestly” displayed by women during the war when handing out white feathers was channeled into factory jobs and into college classrooms. One could argue that the generation of men who fought the war lost their place and women suddenly managed to find a purpose for their new lives.

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

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British Propaganda Posters of the Great War, Part One

British Propaganda

The Psychology of Posters

When the Great War began in August of 1914, Great Britain was at a distinct disadvantage. Although it was expected that Germany would be aggressive at some point, this was not a war the English wanted. The British Isles were not a military society and the monarchy was not surrounded by a martial presence of sword rattling. Regardless of their individual capabilities, the guards at Buckingham Palace were ceremonial in appearance, appearing publicly in splendid uniforms that dazzled the eye. But behind the diplomacy and the ceremony was a vast Empire that was offshore, so to speak, supported by an extensive professional army stationed in more or less remote outposts, from India to China. The Empire was patrolled by the equally professional Navy, the most powerful in the world, guarding the vast territories that were the foundation of England’s wealth and power. The most dominant Empire, the most important nation on earth, was protected by a military that was voluntary and its members considered their lifetime of service to be a desirable profession. But the role of this military had been limited to fighting small wars, putting down internal rebellions in a colony, not taking part in a “total war,” but the First World War was aptly named and changed everything.

In his 2003 article “War and the Public Sphere. European Examples from the Seven Year’s War to World War I,” Richard Stauber wrote that by the Great War, the press and war correspondents were censored and were considered to be agents of the government, rather than representatives of freedom of speech and information. Because the urgency of selling the war to the public was greater on the German side, Berlin allowed war correspondents to go to the Front/s and then, apparently, lie to their readers back home. France and England eventually followed suit but these nations also controlled content as mass media became part of a vast propaganda campaign designed to justify the war and to keep the spirits of the public high and positive. As Stauber wrote of the German, French, and British press, “They had to prove themselves committed ‘patriots’ before they could be accredited as journalists. They had to allow themselves to be ’embedded’ in the pool system organized by the military. They had to submit to censorship. And they had to accept that in general they would stay on the fringes of the action.” Given those conditions, it was no wonder that one of the main sources of “information” was propaganda posters.

According to Pearl James in the introduction to her book, Picture This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture, posters were everywhere, a vital part of the communication between the press and media and the public. The war, she stated, “..unfolded in an essentially nineteenth-century cultural landscape.” This insight helps explain the shock of citizens in Belgium, France, England and finally American at German tactics in the new modern “total war. Posters were part of the modernization of the Great War, she wrote, “..they reached mass numbers of people in every combatant nation, seeing to unite diverse populations as simultaneous viewers of the same images and to bring them closer, in as imaginary yet powerful way, to the war. Posters nationalized, mobilized, and modernized civilian populations..It was in part by looking at posters that citizens learned to see themselves as members of the home front.”

As early as 1908, the government realized that, faced with constant German bellicosity, the military had to be built up. The male population of Great Britain had always relied upon the Regular Army, but they were suddenly needed to participate in a war that would mobilized millions of men. Alone of all the participating nations in 1914, England relied upon volunteers. Without a compulsory “draft,” the nation had to persuade the eligible young men to serve. After serving for a period of less than ten years, a volunteer for the Regular Army became part of the Army Reserve, where he could be called up when needed, for five years. By 1914, there were some 350,000 men standing by, and, as a result of the changes of 1908, they were joined by the newly established Special Reserve. The Special Reserve was “special” because unlike the Territorials, the local part time forces, they could be sent abroad when needed. But both the Territorials and the Special Reserve could be called upon during time of war. It seemed that England was well prepared for any eventuality but no one could imagine a war that could consume an entire army in a month.

The brutality of the fighting in France and the undeniable carnage on the Western Front meant that whatever enthusiasm might have existed in the late summer had vanished by the winter of 1914. While the conventional wisdom asserted the customary “the troops will be home for Christmas,” Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, a veteran of wars in Africa, correctly predicted that this would be a long and costly war. When Kitchner became the Secretary of State for War, he urged the male population of Great Britain to volunteer to serve their country. As Peter Simkins noted the high point of volunteerism was September. By the new year, it was evident that mere appeals to patriotism would not be enough. According to Simkins in his article, “Voluntary recruiting in Britain, 1914-1915,” “Though 2,466,719 men joined the British army voluntarily between August 1914 and December 1915, even this enormous total was insufficient to maintain the BEF at a strength which would enable it to fight a modern industrialised war involving mass conscript armies. Declining recruiting totals led to increasing calls for compulsory military service throughout 1915. On 27 January 1916, the first Military Service Act introduced conscription for single men of military age, this being extended to married men by a second Military Service Act on 25 May 1916.” These recruits were required to remain in service until the war was over. Depending upon their individual luck, the recruits would spend years in the trenches.

The first wave of recruits were stirred by the inspiring sight of posters, featuring the imposing Lord Kirchner pointing his finger in their direction, reading “Britons” above the stern faced Lord, beneath which were the words “Wants You.” “Join Your Country’s Army. God Save the King” was printed below. The image was simple and compelling and personal with the military hero directly addressing hopefully patriotic young men. The direct gaze and the pointing finger of a national symbol would be copied in America by James Montgomery Flagg who would change little in his poster of 1917, needing to state only “Uncle Sam Wants You.” Enough said. In England, men joined the army by the hundreds of thousands. But one hundred thousand was not enough. Two hundred thousand was not enough. The maw of war was open wide. By 1915, a vast propaganda machine was beginning to roll and it used, as its first fodder to convince young men of the dangers presented by the Germans, the “atrocities” committed in Belgium and northern France against civilian populations. Previous essays have discuss the way in which the Germany army attacked and massacred peaceful civilian populations in Belgium and have discussed the willful destruction of cultural property and architectural treasures. Rape and looting and atrocities were widely reported by the mass media, by now fully developed and devoured by a largely literate population. Posters of the suffering of Belgium, the nation that angered the Germans by resisting being invaded, focused on the bravery of the nation and of the suffering of the inhabitants at the hands of the “barbarians” and “savages.”

In May 1915, the British government produce the Bryce Report, or The Report of the Committee on Alleged German Atrocities, which was undoubtedly part of a pattern of the government participating in the production of propaganda in its sensationalist description of lurid details. Despite the emotional content, the amounts were accurate and correct and well suited to the public mood during the war, but, after the war, the vividness of the descriptions seemed distasteful and not objective enough in a world that wanted to forget and move forward. Nevertheless, much of the material came from captured diaries belonging to German soldiers. As the Bryce Report stated of these primary documents, “They have been translated with great care. We have inspected them and are absolutely satisfied of their authenticity. They have thrown important light upon the methods followed in the conduct of the war. In one respect indeed, they are the most weighty part of the evidence, because they proceed from a hostile source and are not open to any such criticism on the ground of bias as might be applied to Belgian testimony.” The team of investigators and lawyers who listened to the depositions of eye witnesses went from town to town, chronicling the atrocities at each location. An entire segment of the Report detailed the terrible treatment of women and children, the innocents of war:

The officers ordered the houses to be set on fire, and straw was obtained, and it was done. The man and his wife and the child were thrown on the top of the straw. There were about 40 other peasant prisoners there also, and the officer said: “I am doing this as a lesson and example to you. When a German tells you to do something next time you must move more quickly.” The regiment of Germans as a regiment of Hussars, with cross-bones and a death’s head on the cap. Can anyone think that such acts as these, committed by women in the circumstances created by the invasion of Belgium, were deserving of the extreme form of vengeance attested by these and other depositions?

As has been established in earlier posts, the Germans were waging war for the honor of German Kultur, attacking inferior French Zivilization, and, in doing so, the out of control military played directly into the hands of British propagandists. With atrocity propaganda, convincing the British population of the dangers posed by the “Hun,” Belgium was gendered as female. A helpless woman, Belgium was “raped,” and Germany became a brutal male animalistic rapist, both symbolically and literally. Thus in the space of a few terrible months, Belgium had gone from being the brave David holding off against the German Goliath and had became the helpless maiden ravished by an impeccable and vengeful hyper-masculinized foe. The propaganda posters, however, elided the fact that, once the nation was thoroughly conquered and subdued, it was further raped, plundered for supplies for Germany’s war efforts. Thanks to a stubborn British blockade of German ports, considered an “atrocity” by Germany, the Belgiums starved, so that the Germans could eat. The Belgiums would be fed by an American organization, the Commission for Relief in Belgium, headed by Herbert Hoover, because the British refused to help the Germans by feeding the hungry women and children that appeared in their posters.

Germany replied to the Bryce Report with their own account of the conduct of the Belgiums against the occupying Germans. The White Book, an infamous document not to be confused with the earlier White Book, a justification for starting the War. The new White Book was issued in May 1915, in keeping with the habit of issuing “books” or documents under the title of a color. The White Book was described by Sophie de Schaepdrjver as a compendium of lies and justifications: “At the same time, May 1915, the German government produced its own report (the so-called German White Book) which claimed that the Belgians had conducted a premeditated ‘People’s War’, with sadistic excesses, against its army. This report relied on hearsay and heavy editing, omitted evidence from within the German army that contradicted its claims, and suppressed depositions by civilians for the same reason. In response, the Belgian government-in-exile published a detailed refutation (the so-called Belgian Grey Book) with lists of civilian victims; and the Belgian sociologist Fernand van Langenhove invalidated the ‘People’s War’ thesis in his 1916 study The Growth of a Legend, which proved on the basis of German documents that the franc-tireur story had been a mass delusion, a ‘cycle of myths.'”

The war of words was not just between Germany and England but both salvos from both sides were directed to an American audience, to a neutral nation that must be persuaded to take a side in a conflict a continent away. Accordingly, the White Book reported (totally without fact) on the conduct of the people of Bruges: “Men, women and children opened such a frightful fire on the enemy that the first ranks tumbled one on the other. The Germans nevertheless entered the village streets, cavalry in front, infantry behind, while the exasperated populace did not cease to overwhelm the enemy with its fire. The women poured boiling oil and water on the German soldiers who rolled on the ground howling with the pain.”

It has been established beyond doubt that Belgian civilians plundered, killed and even shockingly mutilated German wounded soldiers in which atrocities even women and children took part. Thus the eyes were gouged out of the German wounded soldiers, their ears, noses and finger-joints were cut off, or they were emasculated or disemboweled. In other cases German soldiers were poisoned or strung up on trees; hot liquid was poured over them, or they were otherwise burned so that they died under terrible tortures.

One of the most important poster campaigns galvanizing the British, the French, and the Americans mourned (in rage) the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell. A respectable middle aged woman, doing her patriotic duty for her country, Cavell died because she helped British soldiers escape from captivity in Belgium. Following on the heels of countless atrocity stories over an entire year, the tragic death of Cavell on October 12, 1915, shocked the sensibilities of those who considered women the revered and sacred gender. Her death stood for all the other women whose honor had been assaulted by the Germans, daily demonstrating their lack of civilized behavior. The use of women in propaganda as helpless victims, no matter how brave they were in real life, was exaggerated in mass media. from posters to films, all depicting Cavell as much younger than her actual forty-nine years.

From the propaganda posters and the newspaper accounts published by America, it was clear whom the citizens of the United States eventually believed. There were many German Americans very sympathetic to the home country but the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915 caused a shift in public opinion. America wanted to remain neutral but its sentiments began to shift towards the beleaguered Belgiums and towards the French and British fighting in the trenches. The attack on the Lusitania, full of innocent civilians, including women and children, many from America, on May 7 caused Americans to develop the British attitude towards the “Huns” and the French contempt for the “Boche” as being “uncivilized” in conducting a stealth war, hidden below the waves. The year 1915 was the year in which Germany with its Zeppelin raids over London fully demonstrated its “frightfulness,” a uniquely British phrase, on the battlefields of the land, sea, and air.

Although the luxury liner, flying a British flag, had been warned that any such ship would be liable to attack by Germany, the attitude was as one survivor stated, “I don’t think anyone took very much notice of this because they thought, well, no nation would dare go to the point of sinking a passenger liner and especially a liner so famous as the Lusitania.” To the German submarine commander, Captain Walther Schwieger, the Lusitania was flying the wrong flag and, in keeping with the German position of “unrestricted submarine warfare,” must be sunk. One hundred twenty-four Americans, including ninety four children, died, dealing a blow to German hopes of American neutrality. As the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill expressed it, “The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of 100,000 men.” For decades it was not confirmed what the German knew, that the liner was carrying arms, concealed in its cargo hold and therefore the Lusitania was “fair game.” After the entire “civilized” world expressed outrage and horror, Germany prudently halted “unrestricted” submarine warfare and in 1917, without mentioning the Lusitania, Schwieger received the “Pour Le Merite” medal, or “Blue Max” but six weeks later his ship struck a mine six weeks later and the man who sunk the Lusitania was killed.

William Lionel Wyllie. The Track of the Lusitania (1915)

When America finally joined the Great War in 1917, its own propaganda machine began to print posters. Easily the most famous and most notorious was the “Destroy This Mad Brute” enlistment entreaty by Henry Ryle Hopps. Designed well before the 1933 film, King Kong, the poster depicts the by now well-developed idea of Germany. Wielding club with the word “Kultur” on it, the “mad brute” is carrying a supine and swooning woman, breasts exposed, and is wearing a Pickelhaube or spiked helmet. The ape is sporting the mustache of the Kaiser with the jaunty upturned ends but this civilized style is clearly and pointedly not in keeping with the beastliness of the Germans. Americans had always associated the “savage” with Africa and the inherent racism in the nation and its long struggle with slavery, still a living memory in many of its citizens, makes this poster a racist proposition. Its imagery is drawn directly from Southern attitudes towards black males who were apt to rape white women, a representation that was easily transferred to another uncivilized being, a German ape. It is doubtful that the Americans or the artist understood the complex meaning of “Kultur,” but the main point of the poster was that the Germans were “brutes” who raped women in Belgium and sunk ships carrying babies and fought unfairly with poisoned gas. Their uncivilized behavior had, from the very beginning of the conflict, had stripped the Germans of their most prized possession, “Kultur.”

For the French people, the menacing presence of the Germans at the gate was “frightful.” The French army had fought off the German invasion into France, a thrust inward that came so close to Paris that the Eiffel Tower itself seemed to cower. But then the German army had to pause and regroup, giving the French a chance to push back so that they “won” the Battle of the Marne. But in this first month of the War, the French lost so much of its army that the nation would literally not recover from that blow. Literally on its knees, every day, the army fought in the trenches to keep the “Boche” at bay. For their part, the British realized that the Battle of the Marne had been a close call for the French and thus for the British Empire and brought in the Navy to blockade the German ports as part of what was becoming a war of attrition. The first year of the war had shown the full extent of the German “beastliness,” and the people of the British Isles were well and truly alarmed. The posters depicting Germans as ape-like creatures on the loose echoed the fears of both the French and the British, feelings of terror exacerbated by reports of widespread rapes, looting, massacres, and destruction of property in Belgium. The next post will continue the discussion of the psychology of posters during the Great War in relation to the role of women at War.

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

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

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Dada in Zurich: At War in a Neutral Nation, Part Two

Dada Émigrés in Exile

The Disintegration of Kultur, Part Two

Today the city is called Leuven but one hundred years ago, the university town was called “Louvain,” and it was the site of an atrocity, a war crime against property, against culture, against human beings that attracted international attention. On August 25, on its way to France, the German army angered and delayed by the defiant troops of Belgium, took out its rising wrath on an innocent civilian population, composed of professors and towns people standing between Liege and Brussels, in the way of the imperial progression to victory. In Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, Alan Kramer described the march of Germany through a neutral nation:

The German troops arrived in the town in the morning of Wednesday, 19 August, to find a peaceful population frightened by the news of German cruelties perpetrated along their invasion route since 4 August. In the area around Liège, closest to the German border, some 640 civilians had been killed by 12 August, but no precise numbers were known at the time. The town of Aarschot, only some ten miles north-east of Louvain, was the scene of mass killings on 19 August, with 156 dead; in Ardenne, further south, 262 were killed the next day. The Louvain civic authorities had confiscated all weapons in private hands in early August, to prevent any spontaneous individual acts of resistance the might provoke reprisal, and published warnings that only one regular army was entitled to take military action.

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Propaganda Poster

Louvain had heard of how Germans had treated other cities and had subdued themselves accordingly while the army marched in and the German military itself considered the town sufficiently secure to make it the headquarters of the 1st Army. But something spooked the occupying army on the evening of the 25th sending the German soldiers into a frenzy of of wrath and retribution, seeking mythical French “franc-tireurs” of free shooters, civilian snipers encountered during the Franco-Prussian War, resurrected in Belgium. While assaulting the civilian population, executing and torturing townspeople, setting their houses on fire, damaging a fifteenth century Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in the process. The famed University Library was singled out for special treatment. As Kramer wrote,

Using petrol and inflammable pastilles, they set it on fire. The library burned for several days, but within ten hours, little remained of the building and its collections apart from blackened walls, stone columns, and the glowing embers of books..the killings continued the next day and night, Wednesday 26 August..In all, 248 citizens of Loubain were killed. Some 1,500 inhabitants were deported to Germany on a long journey in railway cattle-wagons, including 100 women and children and were forced to endure the harsh conditions in Munster came until January 1915.. Still the misery was not over. On Thursday, 27 August the German army announced that the town was to be bombarded, because its citizens were allegedly firing at the troops..Most of the destruction had been caused by arson.In a town of 8,928 houses, 1,120 were destroyed, including some of the wealthiest properties, in addition many public buildings and commercial premises. Not only university library and archive also the personal libraries, research papers and professional documents of five notaries, 14 solicitors, 5 judges, 15 medical doctors, and 19 professors were lost..witnesses testified to pillage on a large scale.

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The University Library, Louvain

The town of Louvain was thoroughly sacked. The British press sprang into action. As Troy R. E. Paddock explained in his book A Call to Arms: Propaganda, Public Opinion, and Newspapers in the Great War, what we would consider war crimes today were so novel a hundred years ago that they were hard for the public to believe. Reporters were caution in their account, apparently concerned they would not be believed. Nevertheless from the early weeks of the war, a steady flow of accounts of German “misbehavior” appeared in English and French newspapers. And each atrocity report was countered by the Germans with charges of lies by the enemy and by counter narratives that were falsehoods aimed at neutral nations and at the German public. In the Daily Mail, a journalist Hamilton Fyfe used the terms “Barbarity” and “Sins Against Civilization” and “savage” and “uncivilized” and “barbarous,” terms that had a tendency to sensationalize accounts that were utterly truthful. In the growing accounts of “atrocity propaganda,” Louvain, as the author reported

was significant for two reasons. The first was its particular cultural resonances..Louvain was an undoubted cultural jewel, a perfect site for proposing a powerful thesis that the German army was a real enemy of civilization. The second was that after the German army committed its crime, the town was briefly recaptured, giving a rare opportunity to verify what had occurred..The relative caution of earlier editorializing is being replaced by a certainty of German bestiality. Louvain seems to be a turning point..It seems likely that it was the combination of verifiability and visual impact that made this particular town so important. The physical destruction visited on Louvain was massively emphasized during the final week of September with photographs at the back of the newspaper..It is in this context that the initial use of the word Hun in the Daily Mail needs to be understood. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “For All We Have and Are”had used the line “The Hun is at the gate,” and its first use in the Daily Mail is a direct echo of this, immediately after the news of Louvain..The use of Hun began to emerge in this very specific context, that of an assault on the physical manifestations of civilization..this was the worst act of cultural destruction in more than a century, involving a university town the equal of Oxford or Heidelburg. For this reason Louvain has been described as the Sarajevo of the European intelligentsia, leading to a widely reprinted exchange between British and German academics.

The first salvo was delivered by the artists mobilized by the well-organized arm of British propaganda, Wellington House, in the form of an “Authors’ Declaration” in September 1914. The fifty-three signatories noted that

We observe that various German apologists, official and semi-official, admit that their country had been false to its pledged word, and dwell almost with pride on the ‘frightfulness’ of the examples by which it has sought to spread terror in Belgium, but they excuse all these proceedings by a strange and novel plea. German culture and civilization are so superior to those of other nations that all steps taken to assert them are more than justified, and the destiny of Germany to be the dominating force in Europe and the world is so manifest that ordinary rules of morality do not hold in her case, but actions are good or bad simply as they help or hinder the accomplishment of that destiny.

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Signatures of British Authors

In response to the denunciation of German “barbarism” in the name of Kultur, ninety-three German intellectuals and artists published the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” but first appeared as “Aufruf die Kulturwelt!” a deliberate word choice, no doubt, in all German newspapers. Written in probable good faith, patriotism and complete ignorance of the actual events, the document declared,

It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire a part of the town as a punishment. The greatest part of Louvain has been preserved. The famous Town Hall stands quite intact; for at great self-sacrifice our soldiers saved it from destruction by the flames. Every German would of course greatly regret if in the course of this terrible war any works of art should already have been destroyed or be destroyed at some future time, but inasmuch as in our great love for art we cannot be surpassed by any other nation, in the same degree we must decidedly refuse to buy a German defeat at the cost of saving a work of art.”

Historian Stefan Wolff pointed out that the manifesto, translated into ten languages and distributed to neutral nations, was a complete failure and that physicist Wilhelm Wien attempted to provide “the facts in the way he believed to know them” and, disbelieving all accusations against the German military,” writing “None of the accusations our enemies are spreading against us are true.” A month later in November 1914, Thomas Mann, author of Buddenbrooks, published “Gedankem im Kriege” in Neue Rundschau. As Mann pointed out in a letter to Richard Dehmel in December 14, 1914, many manifestos had appeared in Germany defending Kulutr and denying the reports of destruction of cultural monuments and property, and he wrote, “Not that I deluded myself that writing it was any special achievement. I am not one of those who think that the German intelligentsia “failed” in the face of events. On the contrary, it seems to me that some extremely important work is being done in spelling out, ennobling, and giving meaning to events, and I feared that my little piece of journalism would make a miserable showing alongside these other things..” Several important points need to be made: first the German scientists and artists and intellectuals were, with few exceptions, united in their support of Kultur and therefore were defending their nation’s innocence and, sadly, bound together in their completely unquestioned belief in the deliberate lies of their own government, distributed through mass media. Mann, himself, renounced his early naïve patriotism, but not until 1918. The blindness to German behavior during the first months of the War was not universal and surely led to the recoil felt on the part of thoughtful people, from Albert Einstein to the artists who withdrew from the conflict.

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Louvain in 1915

Before the year 1914 was finished, the German military committee and denied war crimes, and the intellectuals of Germany were misled into defending the destruction of cultural property of the enemy, opening themselves to the charge of religious bigotry–Protestants attacking Catholic heritage and sites of learning. In “Kultur and Zivilization,” on the the best extended discussions of the origin and meaning of German Kultur, Arnold Labrie discussed the origin of the dichotomy between German Kultur and French Zivilization in 1784 with Emmanuel Kant, in which “Kultur results from an inner moral necessity; the truly cultivated person behaves in a civilized way, because he can not do otherwise. As Labrie stated, “This negative association between Zivilization and bourgeois society was to become an important part of German ideology, culminating during the First World War..” In order to understand the impact of the disgrace of Kultur it is important to understand to the extent to which Kultur was the “possession” of the class of people represented by the Dada artists who fled to Zürich. Labrie continued,

To a certain extent, this idealized vision of Kultur reflects the social position of the literary elite, the so-called Bildungsbürgertum, which more or less consists of people working in the liberal professions or other positions requiring higher forms of education (gymnasium and university). The Bildungbürgertum may be considered the social group supporting the German idea of Kultur.” According to the author, this class understood the Franco-Prussian war to be one of Kultur against Zivilization. “The same attitude was to return during the First World War,wen almost every intellectual considered it his patriotic duty to contribute to the ideological battle against Western Civilization by writing pamphlets and articles. In 1915, for instance, the prominent sociologist Werner Sombart published his book Helden und Händler. The heroes of this story are German soldiers, dying for the cause of Kultur, which now has found its political expression in the state. These German idealists are opposed against Western merchants, Händler, who was strictly interested in material profit..To a certain extent, Buildung and Kultur served as a surrogate religion which filled the spiritual void that was left when orthodox christianity gradually lost its hold on the literary elite during the nineteenth century..Kultur..originates in religious cultus and it this way refers to eternal, inner values of the individuals’s faith or Weltanschauung..

By the time the Dada artists and writers had arrived in Zürich and gathered together for comfort in the Cabaret Voltaire, German Kultur was under fire, German soldiers were considered “barbarians” and commonly called “Huns,” and in 1916, Germans were convicted of war crimes in the minds of everyone but the German people themselves. The visual and verbal propaganda from the British and French and Americans were both merciless and exaggerated, playing on fears and arousing hatred against the now “frightful” enemy. For an intelligent outsider, who could see the photographs of the smoldering ruins of the university library of Louvain and the bombarded ramparts of the Cathedral of Rheims, Germany stood tried and convicted of the destruction of cultural property, the desecration of literary documents and a lack of reverence for history itself. In addition, norms of civilized behavior, which were universally recognized, had been smashed and left behind in the dust and hysteria of total modern war. Kultur, an entire way of life which had, for two hundred years, had formed the basis for the inner life and for the intellectual raison d’être for an entire class in Germany, was no longer tenable. For any artist, writer or intellectual, especially those of German heritage, the choices were complex: one could defend the indefensible, as Thomas Mann did, or one could take the more difficult path–find a new way to create a new form of culture without the blinding idealism of the past. The Dada artists were of the class of people charged with creating and contributing to Kultur but they had lost Kultur and needed to make statements about their willingness to destroy Kultur the way that Kultur had destroyed Louvain.

The next posts will discuss the visual propaganda that depicted the German people, establishing an image that would lead to the humiliating Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The negative representation of the German people and of German Kultur was part of the back story of Dada, an important component of the anger of the artists against the War and its consequences.

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Dada in New York: Artists in Exile, Part Two

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in New York

The Americanization of Dada, Part One

In an interview with Pierre Cabanne, decades after the Great War, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) explained how he became an artist and how it was that he came to be exempted from military service–and the two events were linked together. In pre-war France, a nation anticipating a war with Germany, there was a “three year law,” which allowed a young man to do one year instead of three, if he fell under certain exemptions. Feeling, as he put it, “neither militaristic nor soldierly,” Duchamp stumbled upon the fact that there were exemptions for doctors and lawyers and, surprisingly, “art workers.” For the military, “art worker” meant someone skilled in typography or printing of engravings and etchings. It is at this point that Duchamp shamelessly cheated: his grandfather had been an engraver and had left behind some copperplates with “extraordinary views of old Rouen.” The grandson worked with a printer and learned how to print his grandfather’s plates and impressed the jury in the same city and Duchamp was classified as an “art worker.” However that promising start to his military career ended under the withering disapproval of his commanding officer and he was discharged and forever exempted. And so it was that Marcel Duchamp, discouraged by the emptiness of a sad Paris during the Great War was able to come to New York and find Dada there.

It is during that brief period of time, from 1915 to 1918, that Duchamp concentrated on a theme he inherited from the Futurists: the machine. In his introduction to The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Michel Sanouillet explained,

Duchamp’s attempt to rethink the world rests on two supports, the machine, the image and incarnation of our epoch, and chance, which for our contemporaries has de facto replaced divinity. Towards 1910 he was in contact with futurist experiments and conceived the vision of a society where the automatic and artificial would regulate all our relationships. it was to better affirm his humanity that he integrated himself into this new world. He was going even beyond our own time, which still persists in wishing to adapt the machine to man. Duchamp was trying to imagine a state of affairs where man would humanize then machine to such as extend that the latter would truly come to life..What if the machine, stripped of all anthropomorphic attitudes, were to evolve in a world made in its image with no reference to the criteria governing man, its creator? What if, like Kafka’s monkey, it servilely imitated all human grimaces and gestures with the exclusive goal of freeing itself of its chains and of “leaving” them? Then, if the machine were to love, desire and marry, what would be its mental processes?..According to Duchamp, the machine is a supremely intelligent creature which evolves, in a world completely divorced from our own; it thinks; organizes this thought in coherent sentences, and following the technique describe above, uses words whose meaning is familiar to us. However, these words conspire to mystify us..On the other hand, what would happen if the machine admitted the possibility of accident, or non-repetition, exclusive attribute of man? Better yet, if having gotten ahead of us, it learned to use chance for utilitarian or aesthetic ends?

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Mechanical drawing of Bolts and Screws

This rather long speculation on the machine owes more the contemporary science fiction than to the mindset of 1915, but there is no question that Duchamp and his friend Francis Picabia (François Marie Martinez Picabia)) though long and hard about machines as humans and considered the possibility that humans were also machines or mechanical in their operating systems. When Picabia returned to New York, he paused in his career as a painter for almost a decade and embraced on an interesting series of “mechanomorphs,” or portraits of those in the New York art scene as corresponding machines. In other words, if his friends were machines, what kind of machine would he or she be? It was, at this stage of his career , for Picabia to give up painting for it was a medium too “fat” and shiny and sensuous for the machine and its mechanical nature.

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Francis Picabia. I See Again in Memory, My Dear Undine (1913)

Like the artists of New Objectivity who would emerge in a decade, Picabia turned to mechanical drawing, dry and circumspect, straightforward and pragmatic. The source material was plentiful and industrial designers and their drawings, artless and presentational, were available in catalogues and manuals. Mechanical drawing itself is an acquired skill, with the artist working at a drafting table with instruments such as compasses and straight edge rulers. It is an art or precision, designed to show and tell without introspection and without need of interpretation. Or course,
reading” these complex renderings is a skill in itself, but, for artists, the reading was less important than the emotionless rendering itself.

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Francis Picabia

When Picabia returned to New York in 1915, his sponsor and colleague, Alfred Stieglitz, was in a bit of a holding pattern. A successful photographer, art dealer, sponsor of avant-garde in America, publisher of a major art journal, Camera Work, Stieglitz had been the main conduit for contemporary art but the Great War had stymied the free international exchange of ideas and art. Middle aged and in an unhappy marriage, the photographer faced a crossroads, and, indeed, in 1916 he would close 291 and end that chapter in his life. But, as always the older man surrounded himself with young protégées, in this case, the poet Paul Haviland and the poet Agnes Ernst Meyer, who convinced him to start a new and innovative art magazine, 291, after the famous gallery. Picabia eagerly joined this new enterprise and filled the pages of 291 with a series of “object portraits,” or mechanical drawings of notable members of his artistic circle, pictured as machines. This idea of a person as a metaphor would be copied a decade later by Charles Demuth who painted the poet William Carlos Williams as one of his own poems, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold. But Picabia was far more rigorous in both is approach and his drawing of these “portraits.” No painting is involved, a renunciation similar to that of Duchamp, who was also moving towards a mechanistic form of rendering, as seen in his linear recreation of one of his earlier paintings of a chocolate grinder on the cover of The Blind Man. Picabia explained later that it was his time in America inspired his turn to the machine:

This visit to America has brought about a complete revolution in my methods of work..Almost immediately upon coming to America it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression. I have been profoundly impressed by the vast mechanical developments in America. The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of human life–perhaps the very soul.

Picabia was in and out of America between 1915 and 1917, before declaring his farewell to Dada in 1918. During this time of restless traveling, he was in Barcelona where he published a European version of 291, called 391, in which a number of his machine drawings appeared. Using industrial catalogues as a resource, Picabia seems to have favored cars and their many parts as his main source of inspiration. For a man as fascinated with cars as he was, it would not be surprising that he would not only know of manuals of parts but would also be familiar with the actual experience of being a mechanic. Early cars were temperamental and the owners were expected to be able to do their own repairs at a basic level. As Mariea Caudill Dennison explained in her interesting article, “Automobile Parts and Accessories in Picabia’s Machinist Works of 1915-17,”

His American residency gave him ample opportunity to browse in contemporary American printed material, finding illustrations and diagrams of auto parts in magazines, advertisements, handbooks, manuals and even window dis- plays..By the summer of 1915, combination starting, lighting and ignition systems were becoming increasingly common in cars, both as standard equipment and add-on packages.

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Francis Picabia. Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz /foi et amour (1915)

In one of the finest of these “portraits,” Alfred Stieglitz was, predictably, a camera or his exact camera to be precise, a vest pocket Kodak model. But Picabia added additional “equipment,” so to speak, a gearshift, which gives the car instruction, and a brake lever that perversely put the camera/car in an immobile position. The brake on Stieglitz has been interpreted as the stalemate the photographer faced as he was a decade past his breakthrough as a “straight photographer.” Both William Innes Homer and William Camfield assert that the brake should be thought of as the photographer at a creative standstill. Appearing on the cover of the July-August 1915 issue of 291, this crisp drawing indicates the speed with which Picabia, who arrived in New York in June, found his métier. As William Rozaitis descried the drawing in “The Joke at the Heart of Things: Francis Picabia’s Machine Drawings and the Little Magazine 291:”

The viewer is confronted with a crisply rendered machine. Its parts are easily identifiable as those of a camera: a lever and a handle appear to the right; a bellows puffs out of a film box at the bottom; and connected to the box by a series of overlapping, riveted supports is a lens. The drawing bears the inscription and title, Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz /foi et amour (Here, this is Stieglitz / faith and love), an apt description of the master photographer (1864-1949) who selflessly worked, with “faith and love,” to raise the status of photography to an art form and to introduce modern painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography to the American public. The word “ideal” appears in Gothic script above the camera’s lens, while 291-the title of the magazine as well as the name of Stieglitz’s well-known gallery-appears to the left, suggesting that the contents of the magazine will champion the same “ideal” standards for modern art that led inspired artists and devotees to crowd Stieglitz’s small room.

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Francis Picabia. Le Saint des saints (1915)

The meanings of the suite of five “mechanomorphs” are as complex and personal as the drawings are simplified and impersonal. Picabia’s own self portrait, Le Saint des saints, is a braying automobile horn, also called a “canter,” by the artist, that is one who speaks “cant” or a local language. At the bottom, Picabia wrote “C’est de moi qu’il s’agin dans ce portrait,” which means: “The holy of the holies is to me that it is in this picture.” Le Saint des saints is a portrait of an artist as a conveyor of a message, but, as a prophet, he arrives in a fast car, a machine, the object of the future. If Picabia was a source of noise, then Paul Haviland was a portable electric lamp–a source of light. the poet was wealthy, representing Limoges china to American consumers, and was a financial backer of 291. The portrait, titled, La poésie est comme lui. Voilà Haviland, is a relative simple one, suggesting that Picabia was politely paying tribute to the man who was making his work possible.

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Francis Picabia. De Zayas! De Zayas! (1915)

If we overlook the curious fact that the cord for the lamp lacks a plug, in contrast, the rendering of Stieglitz was borderline insulting, if art historians are to be believed, and the portrait of the close associate of Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas (1880-1961), and their benefactor Agnes Ernst Meyer were also less than flattering. Much ink has been spilled on figuring out the many parts of De Zayas! De Zayas!, the portrait of De Zayas, the editor of 291. Indeed, it was De Zayas who had introduced the idea of Apollinaire’s petit revue to New York and published twelve issues of the magazine. He soon left the association with Stieglitz to open his own gallery, The Modern Gallery in 1915. Stieglitz, used to being the only game in town, objected to this sudden move towards independence and the two collaborators drifted apart. Perhaps as an acknowledgment of the estrangement, the gallery was renamed the De Zayas Gallery in 1919.

That said, in 1915, the object diagram of De Zayas is complex and undeciphered, part machine and part fashion illustration, complete with an old fashioned woman’s corset, with no woman in it. Homer noted that the inscriptions were equally strange: “J’ai vu/et c’est de toy qu’il s’agit,” or “I have seen you and it is you that this concerns.” Even more puzzling, the artist wrote, “Je suis venu sur les rivages/du Pont-Euxin,” or “I have come to the shores of Pont-Euxin.” As suggested by the presence of the empty corset, this portrait seems to have sexual content, from a male perspective. Indeed as Mariea Caudill Dennison remarked

Given Picabia’s inclination for linking women and sexuality with machines, it is no surprise to find a woman’s corset here..The female sphere in De Zayas! De Zayas! is clearly the black electrical schematic drawing. Picabia equated a female to a spark plug in Portrait of an American girl in a state of nudity (1915) and here the spark plug is linked by a diagonal line..This point of contact between the red and black systems in Picabia’s rendering suggests that the female creates a spark or surge of electricity that excites or activates the base of the connecting rod. In a car engine the connecting rod moves with the piston (not shown in Picabia’s work) up and down inside the cylinder. The plunging movement within the cylinder is analogous with sexual intercourse..Picabia has seen machinery and females as sources of art and has conquered them both.

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Francis Picabia. Portrait d’une jeune fille américane dans l’etat de nuditié (1915)

Next to the famous portrait of Stieglitz, it is the spark plug, perfectly copied in its simple entirety but titled Portrait d’une jeune fille américane dans l’etat de nuditié of 1915, that is the most well-known of the object portraits. Homer suggested, although others disagree, that the jeune fille was a portrait of Agnes Meyer, a married woman, with a wealthy husband. The money she was able to contribute to the “cause” of avant-garde made her a “spark plug” for the artists. As a patron, she made their engines go, sparking their progress. Engraved on the side of the spark plug was the word “Forever,” an ironic inscription, given that it was she who funded De Zayas’ gallery, considered a rival to Stieglitz. The “young girl” was copied from a very deluxe spark plug called a “red head,” but, viewing this homage from the vantage point of one hundred years later, the analogy between a mature married woman and a spark plug in the service of male artists is patronizing and condescending. However, the equation between women and machines and sex was one of the conceptual foundations of Picabia’s work of this interim period. In Picturing Science, Producing Art, Peter Galison noted,

Here we get to the heart of the matter, or rather, the sex of the machine. Surely the spark plug is a phallic woman (which is to say a metaphoric hermaphrodite). Yet she is rendered quite explicitly unthreatening by her very “nudity” and controllability–by our recognition that she stands naked of the larger apparatus that controls her sparking. .PIcabia’s vision of the plug’s erotic potential is suggested by is statement that he chose the spark plug for his girl because she was the “kindler of the flame.”

Sadly, shortly after this remarkable series of machine portraits or mechanomorphs, Picabia had a mental and physical breakdown and in 1916 left New York for Barcelona where he produced a new magazine, 391, nihilistic and alienated and aggressive. Reflective of the personality of Picabia himself, the issues also presented some of his ”portraits mécaniques.” In the third issue, Marie, a fan belt represented the artist Marie Laurencin, who was associated with Apollinaire. Then in 1917, Picabia returned to New York and continued his publication. Subsequent studies of the work of this artist during the years of the War have been somewhat sloppy in assuming his art was a critique of the New Woman or the Flapper, but these liberated women asserted themselves only after the war was over, and in America at peace, women were safely in their traditional places. There is no evidence to suggest that the Spanish-French artist was aware of the Suffragette movement, taking place in front of the White House in Washington D. C. Both Picabia and Duchamp had complex and varied experiences with many women and these events often found their way into their art in what David Hopkins called “male self-referentialty.” It seems more likely that, like Duchamp, Picabia’s interest was less in women and their social position and more in the mechanics of sex itself–Stieglitz is old and impotent and women, as sex machines, exist for the pleasure of the young male, also a sex machine.

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

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Dada in New York: Artists in Exile, Part One

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in New York

The Americanization of Dada, Part One

Francis Picabia (1879-1953) arrived in New York for his second visit early in 1915, a few months before the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in May 1915. Born in Cuba to a wealthy family, a Spanish father and French mother, Picabia, early twentieth century Euro-trash, was a rolling stone who drifted through his life and roamed the art worlds of Paris and New York, sampling many styles and expressing multiple moods. Much of his butterfly art was derivative and only mildly interesting but he had an eye for the main chance and hung about some of the bigger players in the very interesting new game called “Dada” during the Great War. It can be argued that, inspired by Alfred Stieglitz and his old friend Marcel Duchamp, Picabia enjoyed a brief flowering as an interesting artist. As Michael Gibson wrote for The New York Times on the occasion of yet another exhibition in 2002 attempting to sort out his complex oeuvre: “The exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris demonstrates with dazzling clarity that Francis Picabia was, in fact, a pretty awful artist.” In November of 2016, the Museum of Modern Art received a traveling exhibition, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, which has a section on his machine drawings, products of his Dada experiences. Moving past Picabia’s Impressionist, Post-Impressionsit, Cubist works, Roberta Smith concentrated on the most famous segment of the artist’s work: “The Mechanomorphs line the walls of the show’s largest gallery while vitrines of Dadaist material occupy its center, reflecting the artist’s activities from 1915 to the early 1920s, during which he abandoned painting for drawings, prints and magazines and pursued Dada first in New York, with Duchamp, then in Switzerland with Tristan Tzara, the movement’s founder, and finally in Paris.”

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Picabia à dada (1919)

Picabia who had come to New York in 1913 for the Armory Show was already a character in Paris, who cut a flamboyant figure with his penchant for fast cars and fast women and an accomplished wife. New York in 1913 was not exactly a frontier of avant-garde art, but there was one gallery in the city and one man who was interested in contemporary artists: Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz held parallel exhibitions of cutting edged European artists in his gallery, 291, and Picabia wisely made his acquaintance. Stieglitz showed two of Picabia’s early abstract paintings, Udnie (1913) and Edtaonisl (1913) at his gallery, adding to the shock of the provincial New Yorkers. Looking back on this famous exhibition that changed American art, Life Magazine noted in 1959 that Picabia’s painting, Dancers in the Spring, was a close rival in shock effect to Duchamp’s nude.” Like Marcel Duchamp, Picabia became well-known on New York as a result of the Armory Show and this fame beckoned once the Great War began. Like many of his peers, Picabia was drafted into the Army. Sent on a mission to America, Picabia managed to disembark in New York in 1915 and simply did not return to his military life. New York was now home to Parisian artists in exile: Albert Gleizes, the famous Cubist painter and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who had given up painting, thanks in small part to Francis Picabia. Thus Picabia had a small part in the fold of the career of Duchamp, who was shocked by the rejection of his 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase from the Salon des Indépendants. Smarting over the betrayal of his brothers, who failed to back him or protect him with their colleagues of the Salon, Duchamp joined Picabia and his wife Gabrielle Buffet and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire on a road trip through the Jura Mountains in the fall of 1912. Already, the artist had decided to exit the art world and to take another path–whatever that might be–towards being a different kind of artist.

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Francis Picabia. I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (June-July 1914)

During this weekend journey, Duchamp began making notes on his future conceptual direction, scribbling down ideas that would eventually become The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even, The Large Glass. Roaring along the mountain road with Francis Picabia at the wheel of one his large and elegant cars, Duchamp imagined what Richard Hamilton described as “a prose fantasy. A machine, with an animal component, is describe as absorbing the long, straight empty road, with its comet-like headlights beaming out in front towards a seemingly infinity.” One hundred years later it is hard to recognize just how novel such an experience would be in these early years of automotive traveling. Surely it was one of the eventsthat shifted one’s attention towards all things mechanical–the machine, upon which one was totally dependent in the mountains. Already Picabia was fascinated with the motor car, an object of desire that drove him, so to speak, to collect one hundred twenty seven of them during his life time. But there is more to this experience–driving at night on a road then innocent of highway markings with the headlights attempting to penetrate the dense darkness, like comets streaking across the sky–an idea that make a tremendous impression on Duchamp.

Speeding over the mountain roads, hardly suited for the fragile cars and their thin tires, there was a sense of not seeing and not knowing what was ahead. While Picabia was driving, Duchamp was writing: “On one hand, the chief of the five nudes will be ahead of the four other nudes towards the Jura-Paris road. On the other hand, the headlight child will be the instrument conquering the Jura-Paris road..The term ‘indefinite’ seems to me to be more accurate than infinite. The road will begin in the chief of the five nudes, and will not end in the headlight child.” Later Duchamp, thinking of glass, wrote, “Use ‘delay’ instead of a picture or painting: picture on glass becomes delay in glass–but delay in glass doesn’t not mean picture on glass..” This delay could be seen as the “delay” in seeing that happens when one drives in a fast car, approaching a new sight but not quite there yet–a scene that lies ahead but is delayed in time and space but is always being anticipated by the passenger. Picabia and Duchamp, then, had a history of being outsiders and iconoclasts in the Parisian art world and it was to be expected that they would reconvene in New York in 1913 and again in 1915 in with anarchy on their minds. Casting around for like minded artists, equally alienated for whatever reason, they met the American Man Ray, who was still painting in his pre-Dada phase, and joined cause with John Covert and Morton Schamberg and the collector and collaborator, Walter Arensberg. For lack of a better name, this “group” was later called “New York Dada,” because it was supposedly “anti-art.”

However characterizations and definitions came later, often after the Second World War. In 1966 fifty years after the fact Hans Richter stated of New York Dada, “..its participants were playing essentially the same anti-art tune as we were. The notes may have sounded strange, at first, but the music was the same.” The term anti-art is a broad idea that is not only an anachronistic historical determination but is also an umbrella for all the different manifestations of Dada. But, if one thinks of Dada emerging in a number of cities, more or less sequentially, then the fact that Dada may have arisen avant la lettre in New York, emerged full blown in Zurich a year later and ended with a few clever gestures in Paris before being absorbed into Surrealism, signals that there were different artists thinking different thoughts in different cities under different conditions. The New York group shared in common with the Zurich artists the condition of exile but they were visual artists who were fascinated with the mechanical. This interest in mechanics suggested an anti-aesthetic or a non-sensuous approach in traditional artmaking procedures. Machines were the way “out of” art, the path that allowed them to think beyond the hand and the “talent” of the artist, and this fascination with machines, learned in Paris before the war. was only enhanced in the most modern city in the world–New York City. Picabia, in particular, was struck by the modernity of a city sprouting skyscrapers, elevated by machines that hoisted steel beams agains the open sky. Duchamp was fascinated by the products of the city and one of the first Readymades he purchased was a shiny new snow shovel, the like of which did not exist in Paris. Both artists were anti-art in the sense that they were pro-machine or pro-mechanics and they understood well that an old way of making art was coming to an end.

For the artists who had fled the war, the stalemated trench warfare, the modernity of suffering, the mechanization of death made it imperative to rethink the role of art and, even, what “art” would or could be in this conflagration. In an interview for The New York Tribune, probably conducted in French, in 1915, Duchamp predicted a new “severe, direct art,” suitable for the beginning of the twentieth century. He continued, “One readily understands this when one realizes the growing hardness of feeling in Europe, one might almost say the utter callousness with which people are learning to receive the news of the death of those nearest and dearest to them. Before the war the death of a son in a family was received with utter, abject woe, but today it is merely part of a huge universal grief, which hardly seems to concern any one individual.” Duchamp was speaking in this, the second year of the war, which had already defined itself as a simple bloodletting. Although the myths of the Great War have tended to emphasize the high casualties on the British side, especially those of the highly educated classes, it was the French who were nearly wiped out in the first month of the war. In November 1918, once again, it was the French who, at the end, suffered the greatest losses, an entire generation was simply gone. Duchamp, who was in France in that terrible first year, would have been well aware of the high cost the French Army had paid in holding the German Army at the Marne. Duchamp was deemed unfit for military service but his brothers Raymond and Jacques were in service, as was Guillaume Apollinaire, while he was a bystander observing the unfolding of random mass death without “glory.”

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Paris, Place d’Alma 1915

Duchamp describe the deserted art scene in Paris: “Art has gone dusty,” he said, referring to the stalled creativity. “Paris is like a deserted mansion. Her lights are out. One’s friends are all away at the front. Or else they have been already killed.” He noted the toll the War took on creative and artistic thinking: “Nothing but war was talked about from morning until night. In such an atmosphere, especially for one who holds war to be an abomination, it may readily be conceived that existence was heavy and dull.” Once he came to New York he noted, he had stopped painting altogether. Therefore as a wanderer, who did not depend upon cultural nourishment, he wryly asserted that “it is a matter of indifference to me where I am.” But this posture of indifference was used, as it often would for the rest of his life, to elide a more significant truth. For Duchamp and Picabia, New York was a no-place, a private place, a refuge away from the hard critical eyes of the art world they had left behind. Here in this new city, leaping skyward, one could become a new person and one could make new art. Here there were no rules. Here there was only freedom. Both artists thrived in this open minded milieu and produced, in the middle of a nihilistic war, a new way of making and thinking about art. Part Two will discuss the individual ways in which Picabia and Duchamp broke with the art of the past.

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The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part Three

Creating a Language for the Revolution

The ROSTA Windows

In 1917, Russia was a nation no longer a nation, but an empire unraveling, torn between a weak provisional government and rear guard resistance of the so-called “White Russians.” The Russian Empire collapsed under the unbearable weight of an un winnable war, resulting in a wholesale refusal to carry on under the weak and ineffectual Czar. This was the February Revolution, which, according to the new calendar happened in March, and it was a simple and spontaneous strike, a rejection of not just an unwanted war but also a failed ruler. Despite the will of the people who wanted to extricate themselves from the Great War, the Provisional government continued to participate, leaving the door open to continuing discontent and further rebellion. Even though the Czar abdicated, no doubt hoping for a peaceful retirement, another coup took place in October Revolution (November). The arrival of the “Reds,” or the Communists, under Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) pushed the temporary regime aside and established a new kind of revolution, the first Marxist government, led by the Bolshevik Party. Once Lenin had negotiated a withdrawal from the War–at great cost to Russia–making peace with Germany, a five year struggle for the soul of the new nation began with the Whites. This fight was waged militarily and politically, but Lenin, recognizing the power of the visual image, called upon artists to join the conflict as part of the propaganda effort to educate the Russian people on the merits of Communism.

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Comrade Lenin is Sweeping Scum off the Earth

At the time of the Revolution, “Russia” consisted of a few cities, located mostly in its western half. it was here in the municipalities and the urban centers, that culture, both high and low, was produced, mostly for a literate population. However, the new Soviet Union was a huge and vast expanse of land and forty five percent of its inhabitants were illiterate. The stupefying fact that half the people could neither read nor write was an outgrowth of an elitist system in which the upper classes spoke French and the vernacular Russian speakers, the middle classes, strove to produce a specifically “Russian” culture with Russian roots and history. Adding to that division between classes was the total neglect of the lower classes who were left to fend for themselves and remain uneducated. Under the autocratic and ruthless rule of the Czar, the illiteracy hardly mattered, but when the Bolsheviks came into power, they had to fight a civil war to consolidate that power. Part of the war, beyond actual fighting, involved convincing people–all the people–of the benefits of a revolution that promised the level the class system, eliminate all traces of elitism and former loci of collusion, including religion, and to redistribute the wealth and property of the aristocracy. It would be less a matter of convincing the people that this revolution would be preferable to the Czar and more a commitment to informing the people as to the progress of the Reds in their battle against the Whites.

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ROSTA poster

The solution was straightforward propaganda, an information campaign that would announce the new government and explain its new benefits for all. Lenin expressed the scope and urgency of the task, published in the Bulletin of the All-Russia Conference of Political Education Workers in 1920:

The transition from bourgeois society to the policy of the proletariat is a very difficult one, all the more so for the bourgeoisie incessantly slandering us through its entire apparatus of propaganda and agitation. It bends every effort to play down an even more important mission of the dictatorship of the proletariat, its educational mission, which is particularly important in Russia, where the proletariat constitutes a minority of the population. Yet in Russia this mission must be given priority, for we must prepare the masses to build up socialism. The dictatorship of the proletariat would have been out of the question if, in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, the proletariat had not developed a keen class-consciousness, strict discipline and profound devotion, in other words, all the qualities required to assure the proletariat’s complete victory over its old enemy.

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ROSTA poster

During the Great War, mostly due to German misinformation, the word “propaganda,” once a neutral and positive word, gained a negative connotation by the 1920s, but never in Russia. The Soviets used propaganda during the entire life of the Union as a vital tool to control public opinion. As soon as Lenin became the leader a broad strategy emerged called “agitatsiya-propaganda,” or political agitation and propaganda, or “agit-prop.” Agit-prop was dedicated to raising the consciousness of the people, in the Marxist sense, to inform the people of their exploitation at the hands of their masters so that their eyes would be open to the truth of their oppressed condition. In his book, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, José Alaniz noted that the earliest example of Civil War art was a series twelve posters showing the workers’ consciousnesses being “raised” when the peasant is freed from his blindfold and “sees the truth.” Alaniz described one poster, Once Upon a Time There Lived the Bourgeoisie, as resembling a comic strip with eight panels, a format that would become familiar to the public as a progression from one cell to the next. Once the readers understood that the Bolsheviks were their benefactors, the powers that had set the peasants free, the lower classes could be joined in solidarity against the enemy, whether the Whites or an outside threat. To achieve the proper level of communication and education and consciousness raising, agit-prop was deployed as theater, as trains, as posters, as art forms of all kinds form verbal to visual. The agit-prop efforts were especially intense during the war between the Whites and the Reds, from 1917 to 1922, when the activities were less controlled by the government and more in the hands of the artists themselves. After the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, the agit-prop activities were formalized and brought under the command of the victorious regime.

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ROSTA poster

From the very beginning of the propaganda campaigns, the question of the language of art came up in the form of a dialogue of sorts between artists and officials. Most avant-garde artists were enthusiastic supporters of the Marxist cause and worked hard to ensure the success of the new government, but their efforts did not always please the new masters. Artists and politicians are very different kinds of individuals with entirely distinct educational and cultural experiences. Artists such as Marc Chagall in Vitebsk celebrated the October revolution with his own fantastical version of traditional Russian luboks and Jewish imagery, but the authorities were not pleased with the green cows and blue donkeys, improbably flying through the air. The problem for the artists would be two fold: first, as in the case of Chagall, his or her imagination and singular perspective could interfere with what the government needed: a clear message to the people. Second, as in the case of Malevich, art that was too intellectually “advanced” or “avant-garde” was equally incapable of being recognized by the illiterate public as “art,” much less as communication. The artists were deeply sincere, willing to lay down their art in the service of the revolution, but they were also equally committed to their art and the logical outcomes of avant-garde art. This aesthetic outcome, as demonstrated by Malevich’s abstract Suprematism and Tatlin’s spectacular but unbuildable “monuments,” was not very useful to the government and its needs. As Raphael Sassower and Louis Cicotello pointed out in their 2006 book, Political Blind Spots: Reading the Ideology of Images,

..the avant-garde style of geometric abstraction typical to the experimental art of the pre-Revolutionary aesthetics..began to arouse objection from supporters of traditional representation imagery in both the artistic and government circles. Art historians associated with the government publication of posters for the military argued for realistic rather than abstract work. Workers, soldiers, and peasants drawn in squares, circles, and triangles were senseless images that couldn’t express the integrity of the revolution..Public decorations in the avant-garde manner, often referred to by Pravda reviewers as “the fashionable futurist style,” met with opposition as being incomprehensible and condemned as a mockery of the taste of the working class.

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ROSTA poster

The most successful art form dedicated to the Revolution was the production of ROSTA posters, an outpouring of artistic enterprise that cranked out thousands of lithographs. Only a few of these posters survive today but they are the best examples of art made on the fly, responding to the urgent need of the Revolution to communicate with the people. The English writer Arthur Ransome had traveled through Czarist Russia in 1913, acquainting himself with the culture, learning the language and collecting Russian folk tales. The publication of Old Peter’s Russian Tales, (1916) took place during the War and, in fact, Ransome spent the four years in Moscow, reporting on the war. After the Great War, Ransome’s long stay in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, and Moscow was considered valuable to his newspaper, the Daily News, and he began reporting on the Revolution. His book Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 ccontained an account of his encounter with agit prop. Ransome noticed that posters were everywhere:

When I crossed the Russian front in October, 1919, the first thing I noticed in peasants’ cottages, in the villages, in the little town where I took the railway to Moscow, in every railway station along the line, was the elaborate pictorial propaganda concerned with the war. There were posters showing Denizen standing straddle over Russia’s coal, while the factory chimneys were smokeless and the engines idle in the yards, with the simplest wording to show why it was necessary to beat Denizen in order to get coal; there were posters illustrating the treatment of the peasants by the Whites; posters against desertion, posters illustrating the Russian struggle against the rest of the world, showing a workman, a peasant, a sailor and a soldier fighting in self-defence against an enormous Capitalistic Hydra. There were also-and this I took as a sign of what might be-posters encouraging the sowing of corn, and posters explaining in simple pictures improved methods of agriculture. Our own recruiting propaganda during the war, good as that was, was never developed to such a point of excellence, and knowing the general slowness with which the Russian centre reacts on its periphery, I was amazed not only at the actual posters, but at their efficient distribution thus far from Moscow.

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ROSTA poster

ROSTA stands for Russian Telegraph Agency (Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA) which was an organization that transmitted messages and the news across the nation. These agencies had windows which would be plastered with posters, changing hour by hour, “broadcasting,” as it were, accounts of the most recent events and the need to get medical vaccines and bulletins about the Civil War. The idea of the ROSTA windows being the ground for posters has been attributed to Mikhail Mikhailovich Cheremnykh (1890-1962), who created the first poster filled window. The images needed text and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), a revered poet, supplied the slogans and phrases needed to inform the public in a succinct and direct form. As Mayakovsky said, “A machine like speed was demanded of us; it would often happen that a report of some victory at the front would come in by telegraph–and 40 minutes to an hour later, the news would be hanging out in the street, in the form of a colorful poster.”

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

The posters were a collaborate production and most of the artists, such as N. Treschenko, O. Savostyuk and B. Uspensky, labored unknown or unsung, working under difficult conditions, using stencils and linotype to facilitate the speed of output to capture up to date news. These posters were widely distributed, flowing far beyond Moscow to the provinces, where there would be plastered in the windows of the local Telegraph Agency. The massive numbers and expansive distribution of these perishable art forms should be contrasted with the work of artists in Moscow, where photomontages by Alexandre Rodchenko and posters by El Lissitzky tended to remain in more or less elitist circles. The ROSTA posters were kin to the propaganda deployed during the Great War and cousins to the peasant art form , the lubok, but it is important to note that these posters were far less complex and were far more eloquent in their new stripped down easily readable language. According to Alexander Roob, writing in 2914 for the Melton Prior Institute,

The project was support with great effort by Platon Kerzhentsev, the new director of ROSTA. Kerzhentsev was one of the driving forces of the avant-garde Proletkult organization, whose aim was to establish an autonomous working-class culture leaving all traditional, bourgeois genres behind. The revolutionizing of expression, which Proletkult had hitherto sought mainly in the field of literature and theatre, could now be applied under the aegis of Mayakovsky to the area of graphic picture publishing as well. Mayakovsky selected the ROSTA news items and prepared them along with other poets and journalists for pictorial realisation.

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ROSTA posters

Robb noted that “the pictorial sign system” that was developed to reach the “mostly illiterate population” had to be “consistent.” He stated that “The grammar of pictograms established by the ROSTA collective over time is a novelty in the history of illustration. it had a decisive impact on the development of infographics.” Surprisingly, the ROSTA windows (Okna ROSTA) were filled with posters that were designed by artists educated in the most elite and avant-garde of circles and they combined the lubok with Futurism and Cubism with touches of Suprematism that laced these twentieth century comic strips with Western style. The accomplishment of these artists is that the texts engaged the reader in a dialogue that ran parallel to the attention grabbing bright colors and strong shapes. In fact the images in the posters were considered ideograms or hieroglyphs, picture writing accompanied with reinforcing texts that gave instructions on how to survive in terrible times. The posters told entertaining and sometimes horrible stories containing information with entertainment and were among the best examples of art being put into “production,’ in other words, art taken out of the artist studio, out of the galleries and out of the museums and placed in the middle of life itself, an ongoing historical situation that was changing by the hour.

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Exhibition of ROSTA posters

Mayakovsky stated, “Art must not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere–on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops and in workers’ homes.” Instead of heavy handed critique, satire from artists Victor Deni, was used to discredit the Whites and those who disagreed with Communism. The major achievement of the ROSTA posters was that of creating an efficient sign language, uniquely suited to the pouchier style of drawing and print production. Rushed from town to village by rail, the poster artists devised but a visual and verbal language which was able to communicate effectively with peasants without patronizing them. The tradition of the ROSTA posters came to an end with the Civil War and, under Stalin, this very bold and efficient mode of communication fell by the wayside to make way for a more traditionally illustrative tradition coupled with simple slogans. But in their day, the importance of the ROSTA posters and the vital role they played during the war is reflected in the warning: Anyone who tears down or covers up this poster – is committing a counter-revolutionary act

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Dmity Moor. Have You Enlisted In the Army?

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The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part Two

What to do During a Revolution

The Death of Art

It is one of the oddities of modernism that the nations most attached to the past gave birth to movements that yearned most strongly for the future—but that longing for a new way of life cannot be a coincidence. Mired in the past, Italy and the Russian Empire were, by any standards, “backward,” a word universally used, when comparing them to the rest of Europe, to describe these two anachronistic and decrepit nations, clinging to the past and unsure of the way forward. And yet on the eve of the Great War, Italy and Russia had two admittedly small groups of avant-garde artists, writers and poets, the radical intelligentsia, straining to find modernity in places mired in the past. In the case of Russia, the sprawling ungovernable Empire, stretching like a growth, reaching out from west to east, the imperial government was ambivalent when it came to its relationship with the rest of Europe. Russia had a Western face, the side that struggled to modernize and adapt technology to its needs, but Russia also had an Eastern face, a deep consciousness of Russian exceptionalism or uniqueness. And it would be that backwards looking traditionalist face that would—ironically—fuel Russian Futurism—a contradiction in terms.

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Marinetti in Moscow in 1914

When Futurism came to Russia, first as a word, a neologism implying all that which was modern and then later in the person of Marinetti, it was in the waning years of the anachronistic reign of an incompetent Czar. Marinetti was badly received by his Russian audiences in 1914, whose “Futurism” derived more from literature than from contact with actual Italian art. Little did he or any of the other Russian Avant-Garde artists, realize that that winter was the last before the Great War. Although the Futurists could not realize that the Empire could not survive such a massive social and cultural disruption, they were keenly aware of the anachronistic and insanely melodramatic nature of an illegitimate regime. The Czar, Nicholas II, was ruled by his vindictive and unstable wife, Alexandra and, through her allegiance to a mad monk, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, called “Rasputin,” the royal couple had allowed this unstable character to control the affairs of state. For whatever reason, Rasputin had managed convinced the parents that he alone could keep their precious child alive and cast a spell over the poor doomed child Alexia, heir to a throne he would never mount. The situation of the royal family sounded like a plot from a horror film but was, in fact, indicative of how insular Russia had become, going far off course, drifting away from modernity and moderation. The pointless and parasitic aristocrats, like the Royal Family served little purpose, but the nobles plotted against Rasputin and eventually managed to murder him in 1916.

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Russian Royal Family

Rasputin and the drama in the Royal Family were symptomatic of deep internal instabilities within the Empire that could not be sustained. In order to hold on to its power, the regressive Russian Orthodox Church had deliberately held back the hands of time—literally, for, unlike the other nations of the so-called family of Queen Victoria, Russia refused to adopt the Julian calendar and rejected Greenwich Mean Time. In terms of time, Russia was in one place, the rest of the world was in a totally different time, all in the name of tradition and all things “Russian.” So hostile was the Empire to all things foreign that the railroads in Russia were of a gage different from those in Europe. Nevertheless, the counterweight to this deliberate refusal to dilute the uniqueness of the Empire was the life line to modern life was a paradox: the railway that stretched from Moscow to Paris. In the annals of art history, the fabled Moscow to Paris train carried Sergei Schchukin to the studios of Paris where the wealthy art collector scooped up the latest canvases from the ateliers of Matisse and Picasso, browse the galleries and carefully stowe his purchases on the train which carried the art back to Moscow.

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Matisse paintings in Sergei Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace (1920)

Compared to Cubism, Futurism was, before the Great War, a brief movement, only two years and, during this short time could be seen only in Italy, France, Germany, and England, and, in 1915 and 1917 in America. No Futurist exhibition was ever mounted in Russia. Although it was possible to receive Cubism if one were an artist invited to Schchukin’s mansion, a more reliable conduit for West European avant-garde styles would be black and white reproductions seen in magazines and postcards. Dr. Konstantin Akinsha gave an interesting lecture at the Neue Galerie in New York in 1915 in which he described David Burliuk coming in to possession of a post card of a Cubist portrait by Picasso and how the artist immediately did a portrait of his own, telling himself to make it as “good as Picasso.” In addition to scattered reproductions, there were two catalogues of Futurist exhibitions circulating in Russia. With the exception of Russian expatriates in Paris, Russian artists in Moscow received Cubism and Futurism in black and white, a mode of replication which would stress line and structure and obliterating the subtleties of color or facture. As a result, the early responses to both styles on the part of Kazimir Malevich and Nataliya Goncharova were labored and naïve and literal, and it is only when the Russian artists appropriate the reproductions and transform Western styles into something uniquely Eastern and deeply Russian do the Russian avant-garde artists come into their own.

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Nataliya Goncharova. The Forest (1913)

But if we follow the usual Modernist narrative, the Paris to Moscow tale, which has privileged French art, assuming that paintings from the familiar “isms” perpetrated in Paris brought “culture” to the Russians, we will see the “avant-garde,” and totally miss the “Russian” aspect of the art world. In fact, Futurism was already alive and well in Moscow before Cubism arrived, but this is a Futurism that was created at a great remove from Italy. It is important that it was in Moscow where so-called “Cubo-Futurism” and then “Suprematism” were invented, because this was a city deep inside Russia. In fact, when Lenin moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow, it was not only because the port city was in danger during the civil war but also because having Moscow as the new capital sent a signal that Russia was no longer looking outward, towards the West and would turn inward, seeking its essence. The Russian artists, even before the Revolution, were dedicated to transforming the ideas coming in from Europe into Russian concepts or ideas that reflected the very nature of the Russian soul and mindset. Going back to the earlier statement that both Italy and Russia were technologically backward nations, carried into the twentieth century by a few pockets of modernism, the Futurists were interested in speed and dynamism in very literal ways, seeking to replicate the motion of fast objects, such as cars and trains, on the static canvas. The Russians, in contrast, translated the idea of “dynamism” into abstract forms, indicating a shift from the material to the spiritual.

Certainly, the Russians were aware that the pace of modern life was quickening and as in Italy this incursion of modernity would have been a sharp contrast to the motionless and becalmed regime of the Czar. The poet the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky remarked in 1914, on the edge of the Great War that, “In Russia the nervous life of cities demands quick, economical abrupt words.” It is important to stress that, in Russia, Futurism predated Italian Futurism and was always a linguistic exercise in finding a new form of expression. Kazimar Malevich (1878-1935) learned basic lessons of the appearance of the European avant-garde works in his series of paintings in the so-called “Cubo-Futurist” style but his understanding was surface only. These paintings, oddly enough, often focused on subjects that are anything but modern, the traditional Russian peasant. In foregrounding the peasant, Malevich was stressing his Russian heritage but there are political overtones as well in his presentation of a group long exploited by the government. The painting show that he was far removed from the theoretical underpinnings of either Cubism or Futurism and this separation allowed him to seize upon a visual vocabulary, rather than an intellectual concept, and translate Cubist semiotics and linguistics from an exploration of space and time to a leap into the spiritual realm. Suprematism, based upon the Latin word “supremus” which means “extreme” or “highest” and of course “supreme.” Malevich’s version of Cubism, especially his take on collage, did not rest upon fragmentation but upon the idea of combination.

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Kazimir Malevich. Bureau and Room (1913)

For Malevich, Cubism was unsatisfactory, not just because its basis was strictly material, but also because any understanding of the style depended upon an exercise of logic in which the viewer accepted the premise that the object was being depicted from multiple points of view. But for the Russian artist, logic was limited and he sought something beyond logic, outside the materiality of the object itself. Malevich proposed a stance called the A-logic or the non-logical, stating, “The ‘Alogical’ movement has been created to free it from preconceptions.” In other words, the exercise of logic creates certain preconceptions which then limit thought and consequently burden art as well. The notion of the alogical was borrowed from the modern movement in poetry and referred to the “zaum” or the idea that words must be freed from their task of having to make meaning. The word, divested of its traditional role, could transcend spiritually. Malevich himself explained that his leap into the void of painting, manifested by the Black Square of 1913, was out of a desire to throw off the “ballast of objectivity.” Once Malevich had made the leap, he had launched his own personal premature Revolution, if you will, preceding the actual political changes just a few years in the future. As he said of Suprematism:

The Suprematist square and the forms proceeding out of it can be likened to the primitive marks (symbols) of aboriginal man which represented, in their combination, not ornament, but a feeling of rhythm. Suprematism did not bring into being a new world of feeling but, rather, an altogether new and direct form of representation of the world of feeling..The new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer these forms from the surface of canvas to space..Only with the disappearance of a habit of mind which sees in pictures little corners of nature, madonnas and shameless Venuses, shall we witness a work of pure, living art.

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Kazimir Malevich. Self Portrait in two Dimensions (1915)

Thus the “zaum” and Surpremtist art were closely related to the idea of translational poetry, being developed in literary circles. The poet, Aleksey Kruchenykh, who was the first poet to use the non-word, “zaum,” explained in 1915, “Writing and reading must be instantaneous,”or in other words, visual, graspable at a glance. The notion of the fourth dimension, time, was a popular one, much buited in intellectual circles, and, like many artists early in the twentieth century, Malevich was interested in the possibility of totally freeing artistic forms from “objectivity” or reality. In creating what he called Sprematist “Zero Forms,” Malevich slipped the bonds of logic and was able to mobilize forms without any worldly reference points on to his canvases. The artist had complex and deeply felt concepts which explained and justified his extreme art, blank forms, so shocking at the time, and he invested an enormous amount of time in polishing his rarified positions. Out of the large group of Avant-Garde artists, Malevich had created his own uniquely Russian spiritually based approach to art. Without the competition of Mikhail Larionov and Nataliya Goncharova, after the Great War began, Malevich was the leader of the avant-garde in Moscow; a leader with followers and a new Russian style. But fate intervened, and a Revolution, political and social, suddenly exploded, demanding new art, an art that was practical and useful for the new state regime. After 1917, the fate of Malevich and his art was on the line.

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The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part One

Artist and Revolution

Art at Ground Zero, Part One

In 1981, the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a remarkable exhibition, selections from the collection of an otherwise unknown individual, George Costakis (1913-1990). Born in Russia, a nation he considered his home, Costakis was the son of Greek parents who did business in Russia. He was “Greek” and had a Greek passport, but he lived most of his life in the Soviet Union, working at the Canadian Embassy, where his job was organizing the service staff for the ambassador. According to one of his biographers, Bruce Chatwin, Costakis wanted to do “somethimg” to make his life worthy and began collecting art in Moscow around 1946, a time of hardship when a number of privately held goods came up for sale. Undoubtedly there are entire stories attached to each object he purchased–pieces from collections sold off by “white” Russians fleeing the “reds,” and later, perhaps even art looted from Germany, unmoored from provenance, but the total collection grew into something impressive and unprecedented. However, his interests changed from traditional classical art to an obscure view of “modern art” when Costakis was introduced the the brightly colored works of long forgotten artists, once part of the then forgotten “Russian Avant-Garde.”

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The 1981 Guggenheim Museum Catalogue

Under Stalin, abstract art was banned and Socialist Realism ruled as the desired mode of communication. No one wanted, much less remembered, the art produced by a disgraced and discarded group of artists, many of whom were dead. The Guggenheim Museum described how Costakis was impacted by his discovery of the avant-garde: “One day he was shown a brilliantly hued abstract painting by Olga Rozanova, an artist of whom he had never heard. Its impact upon him was instantaneous: ‘I was dazzled by the flaming colors in this unknown work, so unlike anything I had seen before.'” Stunned by finding a neglected body of art by Russian artists, Costakis began to hunt for the paintings of Kandinsky and Rozanova and Popova, searching like a detective on the trail of treasure for lost works of art. In the fifties, there was no competition for these works, and Costakis, as a Greek, was able to amass an impressive collection, which lined the walls of his home, covering all available space, stacked in piles, and numbering in the thousands of objects. Over the years, his Moscow apartment on Bolshaya Bronnaya Street became a place of pilgrimage as the grip of Stalinism slackened and people began attempt to fill in the early Revolutionary years lost to unending oppression.

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Olga Rozanova. Battle of the Futurist and the Ocean (1916)

In his biography of the collector, Peter Roberts, who saw the collection in 1957, recounted his experience:

In 1957 I was not alone in my ignorance of the avant-garde. Few people other than art historians, and not many of those, had any detailed knowledge of this movement. Except for those such as Chagall and Kandinsky who had gone abroad at the time of the revolution and had become famous in the West, the artists who comprised the movement were largely unknown. Most of them were dead by 1957; few of them had continued painting after 1934, when their brilliant style was peremptorily suppressed and forbidden by Stalin.

In his book, George Costakis: A Russian Life in Art, Roberts indicated that the unorthodox collecting of the Greek citizen working at the Canadian embassy using Canadian money attracted the attention of the KGB, which may or may not have understood what he was doing but were concerned at the growing numbers of foreigners who wanted to view the collection put together by a person who was considered “crazy.” However, those in the art world, curious as to the contents of his apartment, and those in the museum circles of Russia, were aware that the art was potentially very valuable–not in Russia, of course, but outside in the West. By 1978, Costakis was officially considered a “traitor” and was forced to leave the Soviet Union, his lifetime home. Because he was allowed to take only one thousand two hundred works from his collection out of the USSR, under duress, he generously gave a large portion of his collection to the State Tretyakov Gallery and departed for Greece.

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Vassily Kandinsky. Red Square (1916)

Almost immediately, his collection, or what was left of it, became available to the West, supplementing what little was known of the suppressed Russian avant-garde movement, such as the foundational work by Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art. 1863-1922, published in 1962. In a 1963 review of this seminal and pioneering book, Mary Chamot wrote in the Burlington Magazine, “Armed with a knowledge of Russian, and an immense amount of courage and determination, Camilla Gray has succeeded in contacting the few survivors of the artistic groups she writes about; she has also had access to a number of documents to be found only in Russian libraries and, perhaps most difficult of all, she has managed to see and obtain photographs of the works of art closely guarded in Russian Museum Stores.” Other reviewers were less kind, pointing to the limitations in the book, caused, for the most part by Gray’s decision to begin in 1863 and end in 1920, but the research was undoubtedly shaped by the amount of access to materials in Russia obtainable by a scholar in a period when the Cold War was at its peak. That said, the book would have provided at least a platform or a foundation upon which to build a study of Russian art, and the arrival of the Costakis collection would have literally thrown open the doors to the wide range of artists involved in the avant-garde movement before they were suppressed by Stalin. Commenting in 2011 on the slow revelation of revolutionary art and the difficulty of building a discourse on unavailable art, Owen Hatherley wrote for The Guardian,

(Costakis) created what has been called a “futurist ark”, buying up drawings, paintings and sketches by artists who were dead, discredited, forgotten, prohibited, or who had moved on to the very different “socialist realism” prescribed from the 1930s onwards. Until Costakis’s collection went public, there was only a vague idea that something extraordinary had happened in the former Russian empire – perhaps a couple of mentions of Kasimir Malevich or Alexander Rodchenko, usually in connection with the German artists they had inspired. Costakis’s work was aided from the 1970s on by the archaeological research of the Soviet historian Selim Khan-Magomedov and the late English architectural writer Catherine Cooke; it’s no exaggeration to say that without this small group of people, the current prominence of the “Russian avant garde”, which has featured in seemingly dozens of exhibitions on the heroic era of modernism over the last decade, would have been impossible.

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Aristarkh Lentulov, Kislovodsk Landscape with Gates (1913)

Obviously, what happened the the Russian Avant-Garde? is a compelling question, as is the question: what happened to the artists? The traditional attempts to understand these long-lost artists have usually relied upon the connections, both stylistic and intellectual, between the West and the Russian artists. As pointed out in earlier posts, there is a distinct break in the narrative of the progression of avant-garde art in Russia, and it is the trauma and freedom of the Revolution that severs the artists from the West, forcing them to produce not “Russian” art but “Revolutionary Art.” Before the War broke out, the artists responded to art from Paris and Berlin but translated what they saw into objects that were semiotically “Russian.” During the War, the artists continued mining and developing their pre-war ideas with little interruption. But the Revolution changed everything for these artists, isolating them from any ties to Western Europe they might have had, and, indeed, the authorities were inclined to force them to stay in their homeland. Signs of governmental oppression were apparent from the start of the Revolution and it quickly became clear that if one wanted to work, one needed permission and support from Communist leaders. The artists with pre-existing European connections were the first the leave, signaling that the first phase of “the Russian Avant-Garde” had ended. The great ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev chose to not return to Russia after the Revolution and, strangely, the famous Ballet Russes never performed in their homeland. Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov left for Paris when the Great War began. Marc Chagall left his homeland in the early twenties and only with special permission. Kandinsky left at the same time as Chagall, taking a job at the Bauhaus. None of these artists would ever return to Russia, except for Chagall, who made a quick visit in 1973, only to find the world he left behind gone forever.

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George Costakis with his collection in the 1970s

From the time of the Revolution, especially the October Revolution, the artists who stayed behind were at ground zero, a site where an old world had violently ended with such finality that the old art, once thought so darling in front of the backdrop of the anachronistic regime, now was “bourgeoisie” and out of step with the brave new world that had to arise from the ashes. For a few brief years the artists had tentative government permission or benign neglect to create new art for a new world. Although they threw themselves into the task with great and naïve enthusiasm, those in power had no definitive concept of what the role of art should be in the Communist proletariate society and no instructions to give to artists. Over time, the Soviet Union would have very specific guidelines, but in the beginning, the officials were preoccupied by the internal civil war between the Reds and the Whites. As intellectuals, the artists were always on the side of revolution, which is to say they wanted change and they relished the opportunity to be part of the vanguard of a new visual language. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out earlier, the artists themselves were internally conflicted, split off into different factions and went in multiple directions. Some wanted to continue bourgeois painting, while others wanted to experiment constructively as engineers rather than create as artists, still others wanted to contribute to the production of an art dedicated to the Revolution.

Vassily Kandinsky, a traditional Expressionist artist out of place in Russia, complained in 1920: “Even though art workers right now may be working on problems of construction (art still has virtually no precise rules), they might try to find a positive solution too easily and too ardently from the engineer. And they might accept the engineer’s answer as the solution for art—quite erroneously. This is a very real danger.” Unlike Vassily Kandinsky who was still involved with German ideas, Kazimir Malevich was more the native son referred to the Productivists and Constructivists as “lackeys of the factory and production.” He equated utilitarianism and Constructivism, which he disparaged as “subsistence art.” On the other hand, the new antagonist to Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin declared, “The influence of my art is expressed in the movement of the Constructivists, of which I am the founder.” But he rejected the Moscow group of constructivists and its leading figure, Rodchenko, and went his own way. The result of the dissension about the use of art and its role in social change was a splintered art movement that failed to present a either a united front or an ordered or an orderly slate of solutions to the government.

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Kazimir Malevich. Portrait of M.V. MatyUshin (1913)

The government, for its part, had issues more pressing than coming up with an art program for the artists, but, on the other hand, those in charge also recognized the importance of art, its power to do harm or good, support or undermine the ideals of the revolution. At first the most obvious reform to make was the extrication of the production of art from the bourgeois class and freeing art from the mechanisms of capitalism. Art should be in the service of the people, the state and removed from the corrupting effect of being a decorative luxury item. As the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, also known as the Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, issued a new definition for art very early after the Revolution: “The Proletariat must finally eradicate the sharp difference between life and art that has concerned the ruling class of the past. From now on art for art’s sake does not exist. In the hands of the Proletariat art will become a sharp weapon of communist propaganda and agitation. In the hands of the proletariat art is a tool, the means, and the product of production.” In other words, art would become art for everyone, not a consumer good for the wealthy elite, and, therefore, its role would change from passive to active, suggesting a reduced role for painting and an enlarged role for graphic design.

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

As we move to the next posts on Russian Revolutionary Art, it is important to remember that, in the minds of the intellectuals, the Revolution itself was based in Marxist philosophy. They assumed that the Revolution was the result of the thesis-anti-thesis of capitalism and the failure of capitalism and class warfare. Having succeeded in bring about the inevitable collapse of the government, the Communists dreamed of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Without class hierarchies, everyone would be part of the proletariat or urban lower classes, the true revolutionary foot soldiers. The state would wither away, as Marx predicted, and the people would govern themselves. In her book, The Russian Revolution, Sheila Fitzpatrick noted that the most fervent dreamers imagined a cold, clinical and impersonal state, run by machine-like bureaucrats. The steely mind-set, devoid of personal (bourgeois) feelings and full of ideology imagined that the state would be a “well ordered machine.” In this new world, the family was secondary to the state and it was a given that, within marriage, women were oppressed. Children were recruited by the state to watch their nostalgic parents for any lingering bourgeois sentiments. The entire world was to be economically remade according the what the Revolutionaries considered to be Marxist beliefs and socially reexamined in terms of their interpretations of Engels. To be an artist in this utopian era was to be a righteous radical. As Fitzpatrick wrote,

Avant-garde artists like the poet Vladirnir Mayakovsky and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold saw revolutionary art and revolutionary politics as part of the same protest against the old, bourgeois world. They were among the first members of the intelligentsia to accept the October Revolu- tion and offer their services to the new Soviet government, producing propaganda posters in Cubist and Futurist style, painting revolutionary slogans on the walls of former palaces, staging mass re- enactments of revolutionary victories in the streets, bringing acrobatics as well as politically-relevant messages into the conventional theatre, and designing non-representational monuments to revolutionary heroes of the past. If the avant-garde artists had had their way, traditional bourgeois art would have been liquidated even more quickly than the bourgeois political parties. The Bolshevik leaders, however, were not quite convinced that artistic Futurism and Bolshevism were inseparable natural allies, and took a more cautious position on the classics.

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Meyerhold’s 1922 production of Sukhovo-Kobylin’s The Death of Tarelkin

It is customary to begin any discussion of the avant-garde made during the Revolution to begin with Constructivism and Productivism, with a side bar about the quarrel between Malevich and Tatlin, but it is also useful to shift the focus away from elite art and to investigate popular culture and how certain artists embedded themselves in the vernacular in order to coin new visual currency in the service of the revolution. The raw materials, the foundational alpha and omega for the new language seeking to communicate with the proletariat and the isolated peasants in the rural regions, were sophisticated and effective at the same time. The next post will discuss the ROSTA art in ROSTA windows, a fleeting attempt at agitprop.

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Marc Chagall at War

Marc Chagall and the War, Part Two

Vitebsk as an Art Center

When the Great War began, like all eligible and fit young men, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was conscripted for military service to his motherland, the Russian Empire. A more unsuitable soldier could hardly be imagined. The young artist, in his mid-twenties, had been stranded in his childhood home of Vitebsk, located behind the lines of The Pale of the Settlement. Chagall was merely visiting from Paris, a city he must have already considered his home. Letters to friends in France reveal his dislike of his plight and in a rather unpatriotic move, Chagall even applied for a visa to leave. His plea was ignored and, thanks to the kindness of his wife’s brother, he was posted to the safety of Petrograd where he worked as a clerk. Bella Rosenfeld was part of a wealthy family of jewelers and Jews of wealth were allowed some status in Russia. In addition, after the War began, Jews, presumably out of necessity, were mobilized which automatically granted them relative freedom of movement outside the Pale. The capital city, St. Petersburg, was renamed “Petrograd” a more Russian sounding name in contrast to “Petersburg,” which was distinctly German. Now patriotically renamed, Petrograd, as the capital city, would have been one of the major military centers where command and control was located. Yakov Rosenfeld was in charge of an army economic department located in the bureaucracy inside an entity called the Central War-Industrial Committee. The brother-in-law saved Chagall’s life by giving him a job that demanded little of him and allowed him to continue his work as an artist. As a result Chagall’s output during the War was split between his recordings of the sights he saw in Petrograd and the flights of fancy inside his head which were totally disconnected from the war.

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Sisters of mercy and wounded men in the hospital of the Pokrovskaya Commune. Petrograd

In Petrograd, the wounded and dead poured in from the Eastern Front and the Winter Palace became a hospital. An Anglo-Russian Hospital was set up at the beginning of the war with equipment and staff coming from England by 1915 to help the Russians to cope with the casualties. The Russian Empire was utterly unprepared for war and food had to be shipped into the city by rail. But refugees coming into the city added to the civilian population and by 1915, the citizens were literally starving begging on the streets for food, standing in line for food forty hours a week.

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Marc Chagall. A Group of People ()

It would be no coincidence that the Russian Revolution would start in Petrograd, exploding from a march by women demanding food in 1917. In November of that year, Vladimir Lenin slipped secretly into the Petrograd, arriving at the Finland station and the Revolution was underway. A year later, in 1918, when Petrograd came under military threat, Lenin would be forced to move the capital to Moscow.

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Marc Chagall. On the Stretcher (Wounded Soldier) (1914)

It was in the midst of such misery that Chagall painted the early years of his married life, the bliss of being in love, the birth of his first child, as if Ida were not crying for milk and aggravating the new father.

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Marc Chagall. The Bathing of a Baby (1916)

Revolution was brewing even as strictures against free movement were ending and Jews were beginning to travel freely. The city was full of prisoners of war, who, were not allowed in shops but were allowed fairly free movement, if they were escorted. These new people and the modern crowds of strangers swirled on the streets lined with elegant neoclassical buildings, designed to evoke the grandeur of the past. Given the presence of military hospitals in the city, wounded soldiers were everywhere, living reminders of the catastrophic causalities suffered by the army. Most of Chagall’s response to the war were black and white sketches of soldiers, apparently based upon sights he had seen in the city–departing soldiers, wounded soldiers–the sights of war.

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Marc Chagall. Wounded Soldier (1914)

This format, reminiscent of the lubok tradition, the limitation of color to stark contrasts, was totally uncharacteristic of Chagall who had been know for his vivid colors, but the approach was wholly in concert with the way in which Russians reacted to the War.

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Marc Chagall. Departure for War (1914)

As Aaron J. Cohen wrote,

There was something in the air, a psychological aspect to their war that led some artists to return to conventional aesthetics. War’s stark and unpleasant reality challenged those at the front and the millions left at home to consider existential questions. Thinking about war fostered an atmosphere of sobriety and reflection..Traditional motifs allowed viewers and artists to comprehend the trauma of mass war and the mystery of mortality and the presence of familiar classical, romantic, or religious images in the popular culture of the war in Europe attests to a universality of sorrow and bereavement. Russians of all stations in life expressed feelings of nostalgia and grief through symbols that echoed the pat in content and form..The war’s emotional impact was important in changing the art of Marc Chagall..he began to drop the cubist and expressionist leanings of his Parisian work for a series of pictures that used more conventional perspective, color and composition..The great conflict itself attached his eye and inspired him to engage war through his art. In a striking series of ink sketches, the artist memorialized wounded soldiers whom he saw around him..

Chagall’s output during the war was inconsistent, deviating from his personal history, his marriage, his life with Bella, and the sights and sounds of War that were everywhere. His life was bifurcated as well. On one had, he was a soldier of sorts, serving as a clerk, on the other hand he was still a practicing artist. It was during the war years, that Chagall was able to establish himself as an artist in Russia. Certainly his reputation as a Parisian based painter added to his luster and according to Jonathan Wilson, he showed twenty five paintings in Moscow at the Michailova salon and sixty three paintings at the Dobitchina gallery. In addition, Wilson added, Chagall sent forty-five works to the famous “Jack of Diamonds” show in Moscow.

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Marc Chagall. Strawberries, Bella, and Ida at the Table (1916)

Wilson does not stipulate but we can assume that the bulk of the work exhibited in Russia was work executed since his return from Paris. But in a letter to Aleksandr Nikolaevich Benois, the designer for the Ballets Russes, Chagall himself wrote, asking for help on the eve of the Revolution, referring to his time in the military: “..in those three years I did almost no work (I do not count the Vitebsk series made in the middle and end of 1914, before my army service.” It seems probable that Chagall, in Vitebsk on a temporary visit, did not bring a great deal of art with him, and that his is referring to the work he did in his home town before he married Bella and moved to Petrograd in 1915. So it is the Vitebsk works about which the reviewers appear to be writing.

The anthology, Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, provided reviews of Chagall’s work, not all of which were positive in a nation known for its anti-semitism: “Why do Jews have to be so dirty, with such idiotic and animal works! Odessa anecdotes are disgusting, but these Vitebsk anecdotes are even more intolerable. And a whole Hall was given over to them! This is what the most modern art is like!” Another, kinder reviewer from Moscow wrote, “In the exhibition “The Year 1915,” there are works by a young artist, almost unknown in Moscow but famous abroad, Marc Chagall. Among the unbridled bacchanalia of “Plastic Rayonism” and painterly bric-a-bric, they seem to be be modes, almost ‘retrograde.’ But this is characteristic of any authentic art, that is moved not by the demands of an aesthetic fashion, but by the inner and timeless necessity of an artist soul.”

When Russian was plunged into Revolution, Chagall’s role in the army came to and end and once Lenin arrived in Petrograd, Chagall and Bella, fled to Vitebsk to avoid the upheavals of the Revolution. Now “redundant” in the army’s terms, Chagall returned home and wrote to the Director of the Dobychina Gallery in Petrograd, “Now I am here it Vitebsk. This is my town and my tomb..” The decision would be a wise one. As Jackie Jackie Wullschlager wrote,

On the 26th of October, Lenin’s Bolshevik forces stormed the Winter Palace, announcing at 5 a.m. that they had seized power. By the end of October, the provisional government had toppled, street fighting erupted around the Kremlin in Moscow..In Petrograd, mobs went on the rampage and looted shops, while soldiers wrecked and robbed bourgeois apartments, killing as they went. The capital emptied out..the population of Petrograd fell from 2.5 million on the eve of the revolution to 700,000 in 1919.

Although most young artists from Russia wanted to see a regime change, most remained under the radar and few were overt revolutionaries. Chagall, an artist who had every intention to return to Paris and make his life and career there, cannot be called a political individual when it came to Russian politics. But, as a Jew, he could not help being captured by the romance and excitement of a Revolution which offered, not a regime change, but a new way of life that promised emancipation for the Jews. The intelligentsia, which had learned to be discrete, were suddenly liberated and, in their enthusiasm for the Revolution, were politicized. Many artists, as shall be seen, put their art in the service of the Revolution, declaring themselves to be “engineers” and art to be “dead.” Chagall, on the other hand, seemed more interested in serving, not the Revolution, but the people through free artistic expression. His old friend from Paris, Anatoly Lunacharsky was now the “People’s Commissar of Enlightenment” (also known as an acronym Narkompros), after years of living in exile in Paris. And he was given the task of changing the education of Russian people and the direction of their culture away from Czarist goals and towards the desires of the Revolution.

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Marc Chagall. Jew in Bright Red (1915)

Although he had initially been invited to take part in the Revolution as an artist, Chagall backed away, but over time he became more enthusiastic about the changing times and literally became a new man. With a new haircut, close cropped and without curls, Marc Chagall returned to Petrograd and approached Lunacharsky with a suggestion for am art college in August of 1918, a few months before the War ended on the Western Front. Lunacharsky responded by appointing his friend a “Plenipotentiary for the affairs of the Province of Vitebsk,” a rather heady title, but not an uncommon one. For example, Aleksandra Ekster was given the same title for Kiev, and many of the other appointments came from among the Jews who were suddenly elevated in this new Russia, where they were being integrated into the culture. The attention from Lunacharsky, following upon the heels of Chagall’s exhibitions in Moscow would have consequences. Here was Chagall, an artist who had acquired prestige in Paris, a burnishing that few could match, invading the tight knit world of the Moscow artists and challenging them with art that was conversely based in Russian culture and in Jewish folklore. As the “Plenipotentiary for the affairs of art of Vitebsk,” Chagall needed a place for his art school and began his planning during a time of transition and turmoil.

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Marc Chagall. The Marketplace. Vitebsk (1917)

In March of 1918, the new Soviet government moved the capital away from Petrograd to Moscow, an act that was on one hand practical–the fighting have shifted far too close to the city–and a symbolic act, signifying a turning away from Europe, for Petrograd, a port city, faced West. The new capital of Moscow located far inside Russia, announced an inward turn towards the indigenous culture and away from European ties, but Lunacharsky stubbornly stayed in Petrograd, apparently disregarding the signals so clearly given. And then there were ruthless actions. The Russian Revolution churned up strong feelings and otherwise decent people did unfortunate acts. The building confiscated by the new government for the art school was owned by a wealth Jewish banker, an action in which Chagall apparently participated. The banker, Israel Vishnyak, had done little to deserve his fate, which would be tragic. The banker was a philanthropist who gave back to Vitebsk for years, sharing his wealth. But his good deeds counted for nothing–he was from the old world of patronage. The house was nationalized or taken over by the government in November 1918, one day before the Armistice. With few apparent qualms, the artist moved himself and the family into the now empty mansion, where the faculty lived on the third floor. The former banker’s home was now the People’s Art College and Art Museum. Far from home, Vishnyak died destitute.

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People’s Art College, now Vitebsk Museum of Modern Art

For Chagall, the first years in Vitebsk, when he was in charge of his own school were happy ones. His war was over and it seemed as if a new world had opened up. His paintings returned to their mode of happy fantasies, full of a joyous spirit so beloved one hundred years later. But Lunacharsky commanded that Chagall and the other Plenipotentiarys to celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution in October 1918. Chagall, in response, passed on the command and summoned all artists and sign painters to the public cause. “All artists, decorators and painters are required to appear every day at the commission for the decoration of the city of Vitebsk for the October festivities to register and be assigned various tasks as requested by the commission. Those who do not appear will be considered conscious evaders.” Most of the Plenipotentiarys responded by producing street art, designed for the public in a proletariate style–popular culture replacing elitist “fine art,” in response to Lunacharsky’s vision of streets decorated with lengths of canvases with “lovely colors” to celebrate the anniversary. In Petrograd and Kiev, swathes of cloth shrouded old buildings, suggesting oppression and the end of aristocratic rule, now dead and buried with joyous new clothing.

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Marc Chagall. War on Palaces (1918)

In Vitebsk, Chagall followed suit, but his own paintings dominated the décor and the charming animals in non-natural colors and his folk art approach puzzled Communist officials who had expected portraits of Marx and Lenin. The most doctrinaire image by Chagall, War on the Palaces depicted a peasant overthrowing–literally–a palace once occupied by a wealthy capitalist. His friend the critic, Aleksandr Romm wrote, “His posters were magnificent, perfectly matching everything that was needed on the street: strange, shocking, radiant with colours. They bespoke a refinement of thought and taste, similar to what is found in the great paintings executed in the leftist (i.e., avant-garde) style.”

By the beginning of 1919, the new Art School could begin. As Chagall wrote, “Let the petit bourgeois malice hiss all around us, we hope that new artists-proletarians will soon emerge from those working people.” The artist had gotten the nomenclature of revolution down but he was not a savvy politician. Perhaps few could survive on the constantly shifting ground of the Revolution, but at first it seemed as if Chagall was organizing the school well. He was able to recruit artists to come to Vitebsk because the city had food, something that other locations, even Moscow, lacked. Therefore, a rather complex group of disparate artists, including Chagall’s former teacher, Yuri Pen, the critic, Aleksandr Romm, Ivan Puni, El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich arrived and started teaching. Suddenly a city of the Pale became a major center of avant-garde. It is important to stress that the artists came to Vitebsk for food and shelter in an uncertain world turned upside down..and they also saw an opportunity. The artists did not necessarily come to Vitebsk to work with Chagall, an individual with whom they had little in common, either artistically or culturally. The artist had studied in St. Petersburg with with Léon Bakst (Lev Rosenberg), instead of studying in Paris and in Paris he had taken his own path. The other artists were honed in Moscow, a world very different from Paris. Malevich was more doctrinaire and was “Russian” in a very different way from Chagall, practicing his own “ism,” Suprematism.

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Chagall and his Students at Vitebsk

In his review of Vitebsk: The Life of Art, Joshua Cohen explained the situation in Chagall’s school. At first, the artist was very well connected. As Cohen noted, “..the painter David Shterenberg, who’d occupied neighboring studio space to Chagall at Montparnasse’s debauched La Ruche, recalled himself to Russia, straightened his tie, combed his hair and was made head of Narkompros’s Department of Fine Arts, which was known by the acronym IZO.” Chagall’s work in Vitebsk was devoid of Parisian influences and he returned to his Jewish roots, asserting the Russian-ness of being Jewish, an approach that fit very well into his vision that the School would train lower class people, especially Jews, like himself. For a time, he became very prominent, and at the first State Exhibition of Revolutionary Art in Petrograd, Chagall had two rooms to himself.

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Marc Chagall. Above the City (1918)

But, as sincere as he might had been, Chagall, was caught in the middle. On one hand, there was the thicket of politics, which expected the art school to educate the people about communism, not to educate people about art. On the other hand there were the artists who taught at the school. Chagall seems to have been totally unprepared for the backstabbing so common in rivalrous academic settings. As Cohen related in his article, “In the Beginning, There was Vitebsk,” the downfall of Chagall began with

“..a Smolensk Jew named Eliezer (Lazar) Markovich Lissitzky left home to work and teach not in any of the Russian capitals but in Vitebsk, renamed himself El and, with the arrival of his future mentor, painter and theorist Kasimir Malevich, the depiction of the local rabbinate and landscapes took a sharp turn for political tracts and geometry. In the fall of 1919, two Octobers after the October Revolution, as it was now being called to distinguish it from the Revolution of February of the same year, the school hosted the arrival of Malevich — whose art was apparently the logical, super-planar, supra-dimensional extension of such concepts as “Cézanneism,” “Cubism,” “Cubo-Futurism,” “Futurism,” and “Constructivism.” Malevich’s “Unovis” group eventually ousted the retro Chagall from the school; “students” became communist “apprentices” — and so would invent their own movements and histories.

Accounts of what happened between Chagall and Malevich vary. It seems that the students of Chagall were, in the end, more attracted to Malevich and his vision of Suprematism. What ever the truth, the shift of the students had been preceded by quarrels with the faculty and Chagall and after only a year, the artist lost control of the School. True, the artist’s fame often took him to Moscow where he was involved in the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, and while he was out of town, Malevich took advantage of his absence and ousted Chagall, renaming the school, the Vitebsk Artistic and Practical Institute.

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Marc Chagall. Over Vitebsk (1922)

Less that two years after his appointment, in 1920 Chagall resigned from the school he had founded and never returned to Vitebsk in his life. Chagall worked for the Theater for three years, during which the instability in the newly founded Soviet Union became more unstable. Lenin suffered rehabilitating strokes died in 1922, which allowed Josef Stalin to slide into power, out maneuvering Leon Trotsky. By the time Lenin died in 1924, Chagall’s supporters had lost power and the government was no longer supporting him. But the artist had returned to Paris, which would become his permanent home.

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

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