Review of Soviet Salvage: Imperial Debris, Revolutionary Reuse, and Russian Constructivism
Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 2017
248 pp., illus. 66 b&w, 34 col. Trade, $94.95
This book is informative, full of well-chosen imagery, and ultimately inspiring too. At the beginning, historical context is given in The Economic Shaping of Constructivism, a style too often presented ahistorically but rooted in designers' and artists' optimism, then hardships, in 1920s Russia.
A Blank Slate: The First Years of Soviet Propaganda Porcelain describes how crockery in the inventory of the Royal Porcelain Factory was given new decoration, with Soviet messages and imagery, often in innovative modernist typography and visual style. Nadezhda Lamanova: On the Elegant Fringes of Constructivist Dress tells the story of a successful pre-Revolutionary designer who reinvented herself in the new regime with simple patterns intended for mass production as sensible but attractive workers' clothes. While published (think of the old Simplicity and Buttericks patterns in fabric stores) and created in prototype, they never saw mass manufacture and adoption by the public.
Cineastes and film scholars will appreciate the chapter Esfir Shub: “Magician of the Editing Table”, which brings to light an unappreciated figure in the history of Russian cinema, respected by her filmmaking peers and for whom Eisenstein had worked as an editor. I'd only heard of her 1924 feature "Aelita, Queen of Mars," but Shub made use of repurposed newsreels and the Romanov royal family's own home movies, re-cut and with new inter-titles for political effect. A pampered, wealthy lady of the recent past daintily daubing her brow after dancing is juxtaposed with an exhausted agricultural worker wiping away sweat. In our time that kind of remix, mashup and bricolage proves effective in digital media, but Shub made use of it out of necessity when fresh film stocks were difficult to obtain. I am reminded of low-rent Punk sensibility in collage cinema like Craig Baldwin's 1991 "Tribulation 99", where old horror and industrial films were repurposed to comment on US foreign policy in Latin America.
The Five-Year Plan Prompts a Fire Sale unspools rolls of terrific textile patterns of factories, threshers, zeppelins, hydroelectric plants and high-voltage towers of rural electrification, all of which the petit-bourgeois dandy writing this review craves for his summer shirts. As art history is too often presented as a sequence of statues, cathedrals and paintings, Catherine Walworth's well-researched and illustrated volume adds to our understanding of a vital corner of material and visual culture. While Joseph Stalin's limited taste dictated an end to this kind of modernist innovation, and 1989 saw the end of Soviet communism in Europe and Eurasia, perhaps the optimistic but plain-spoken democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn will spark new, equally exciting visual strategies. Soviet Salvage gives us all some hip and elegant seeds of hope.