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Watching the red dawn: The American avant-garde and the Soviet Union

Watching the red dawn: The American avant-garde and the Soviet Union

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Watching the red dawn: The American avant-garde and the Soviet Union

384 pages
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Apr 29, 2016


This book offers the first sustained examination of the cultural relations of the American and Soviet avant-gardes in a period of major transformation.
Apr 29, 2016

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Watching the red dawn - Barnaby Haran


Introduction: the red Atlantic

This book concerns the cultural responses of the American avant-garde to the Soviet Union during the period from the foundation of the USSR to its recognition by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s government in 1933. The Americans in this study who watched the ‘Red Dawn’ were variously artists, architects, designers, writers, curators, collectors, critics, and journalists, all of whom were fascinated by the epic transformations of revolutionary Russia and enthused by the possibilities for new forms of art that would match this epochal social experiment. In practice, I examine American reporting on Soviet culture and the exhibition, largely in New York, of post-revolutionary works, and also discuss how the American avant-garde received Soviet ideas and styles in the conception of its own practices, whether in polemical, utopian or formal terms.

All of this activity occurred in an avant-garde milieu that was interdisciplinary in its practices and, like many coeval European groupings such as the Bauhaus and the Surrealist movement, was aesthetically and ideologically sympathetic to the radical cross-pollination of culture in the Soviet Union and its putative irruption of art into everyday life. For this reason alone it is crucial that this book is an interdisciplinary account that explores these interconnections in several media. However, these Americans typically specialized in one medium, fanning their practices out into other areas, and therefore I respect media concentrations in the chapter structures. The chapters do provide surveys up to a point, but the organization is episodic and each chapter consists of an in-depth discussion of a small selection of case studies, of moments and movements that demonstrate the complexities and contradictions of this particular form of international cultural traffic.

Yet, beyond this practical remit, there were a number of motifs and tropes that operated across media, of which the most prevalent was that ubiquitous cipher of the early twentieth-century avant-garde: ‘the machine’, or more specifically, the American machine. Watching the Red Dawn addresses a curious scenario whereby Americans witnessing the incorporation of the Soviet Union, going ‘into the future’ as Lincoln Steffens notoriously trumpeted, expected to find an unprecedented society but instead encountered an archaic, impoverished nation of Russians looking wistfully to America, lauding American modernity and fetishizing its machines in contrast to their own antiquated technologies.¹ Americans might not have invented the machine, but by the 1920s the United States was firmly established as the world’s technological leader and as such signified the mechanized future society that other countries aimed to become. While ‘Américanisme’ in France and ‘Amerikanismus’ in Germany connoted a multiplicity of American novelties – including Jazz, cowboys, and Hollywood – that offered appealingly fleet and modish alternatives to Europe’s weighty and sedimented High Culture, ‘Amerikanizm’ in Russia was more notably concentrated on America’s technological modernity; for Soviets, America was synonymous with the machine.

Fascination with American technology was not just the province of the avant-garde of the Soviet Union. The leaders of the Bolshevik Party fervently argued that American capitalist systems of production should be the model for generating communist society from the wreckage of Tsarist Russia, with its diminutive industrial sector and minimal technology, its ancient social order, engorged bureaucracy, stunted private sector, large peasantry and comparatively small working class. Although asserting that the USA was the Revolution’s enemy, Leon Trotsky said that ‘the technology of America, joined with the Soviet organization of society, would produce communism, or in any case, the conditions of life approaching it’.² The Soviet leadership and the avant-garde, united in the figure of the playwright Anatoli Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightening, admired America’s rationalized technological processes and methods, colloquially known as Fordism and as Taylorism after Henry Ford’s assembly line and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s labour efficiency studies respectively, and appropriated them to instil new mechanistic mentalities that would engender rapid modernization. Curious cultural outgrowths ensued, such as Taylorist ballets and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s development of rationalized biomechanical stage movements, which he modelled on Taylor’s organization of labour: ‘the methods of Taylorism may be applied to the work of the actor in the same way as they are to any form of work with the aim of maximum productivity’.³

Meyerhold’s theatre was perhaps the most high-profile manifestation of Constructivism. In the early 1920s, the experiments of the Constructivists aimed to bring the machine to the masses and thereby stimulate a new Soviet subject by reconfiguring culture, a process that involved breaking down the artwork into its constituent materials and beginning anew with unprecedented visual and verbal languages. Emerging from the intensive experimental firmament of the 1910s that birthed Suprematism and Futurism, and melding the philosophical treatise of Formalism with the mass-engaging praxis of Proletcult, the crystallization of Constructivism marked the first post-revolutionary avant-garde and heralded a Soviet machine age, a technophile workers’ state in which artists were producers and art was an everyday life currency of the masses rather than the luxurious property of the elite or the sacred ornament of the Orthodox Church. Constructivism witnessed a rethinking of the experience of the object in which the rational, communitarian mechanics of the engineer replaced the mystical genius of the expressive maker, although this revision tended to fetishize the machine to the point of quasi-religiosity.

The Constructivist machine aesthetic was the channel through which the American avant-garde encountered its Soviet opposite, but the signals in this communication were distorted, as if an actual transatlantic transmission had passed through a mid-Atlantic storm. Crucially, the aims of American and Soviet avant-gardes diverged; few Americans genuinely considered abandoning art altogether, although many were attracted to Constructivism’s millennial, almost magical, rhetoric on the machine. In one respect, a subtext of Watching the Red Dawn might be the emergence of a putative American Constructivism, but such an abortive phenomenon only materialized partially in certain media, notably theatre and film, and lacked the acute theorization, evident in Soviet discourses, of the revolutionary properties of form. One crucial question concerns the degree to which Constructivism was amenable for transnational migration, or whether instead it was contingent upon a sui generis revolutionary situation to secure its social promise.

Russian machinolatry of American technology strongly shaped the American avant-garde imagination of the Soviet Union. If American technology served as a template for a Soviet machine aesthetic, then many American visitors were astonished and bemused at the extent of Russian fascination with their country’s capitalist production systems, which as communists or bohemians they often derided and even despised. As a proponent of machine art in the early 1920s, the Russian-born American artist Louis Lozowick was well placed to assess this conundrum. Visiting the Soviet Union in 1922 and liaising with the protagonists of its avant-garde, he recalled in his autobiography that in Moscow ‘almost everyone evinced immediate interest in America, not, however, in its art but in its machines … the two names heard most often in this connection were Ford and Edison’.⁴ He recalled a typical comment: ‘Ah, America, wonderful machines, wonderful factories, wonderful buildings; give us time – we’ll have as much and more.’⁵ For these visitors, there was a paradox that lay in the contrast of the American sojourn in Paris, which Malcolm Cowley characterized as an ‘escape’ from standardization, with the Russian journey, undertaken by many former Americans in Paris who now confronted an intellectual, political, economic, and cultural discourse that saw the keys to Soviet success in industrialization, rationalization and efficiency.⁶ Fleeing America in Paris, they found Amerikanizm inescapable in Russia.

Yet, even as many Americans travelled to Russia, Paris remained of great importance as a gateway into Europe and beyond, just as Berlin represented a gateway to the East – when Lozowick travelled to Moscow in 1922, he passed through Paris but resided mostly in Berlin. As both a destination point and a portal to the USSR, Berlin was also the metropolis whose exponential growth and intensive modernization positioned it as most similar to the American city yet nonetheless disparate, as the invaluable collection Berlin-New York, Like and Unlike: Essays on Architecture and Art from 1870 to the Present demonstrates.⁷ Much of the early information about the USSR and Constructivism came to the USA via Germany, carried by figures such as J. B. Neumann, Katherine Dreier, Lozowick, Boris Aronson, the editors of Broom (which was based in Berlin for a time), and Frederick Kiesler. From Berlin Dada to Bertolt Brecht’s barbed satire, ‘Amerikanismus’ was ubiquitous in Weimar culture, and was the site of numerous angry debates.⁸ Yet Berlin’s geographic proximity to Russia and the radical politics of many of the German avant-garde, from Hannah Höch to Hannes Meyer, meant that the Soviet Union rivalled America in the German cultural imagination. However, the German avant-garde did not especially preoccupy Americans with the same conceptual urgency as Soviet culture, and although many American cultural journals covered German films and buildings the discussion did not contextualize these objects within a comparable socio-political vision. As an interzone between America and Russia, the German cultural world of the 1920s and early 1930s has a vital intermediary role in this discussion.

Berlin was an important staging post on the map of the international communist movement. Therefore, in contrast to the established transatlantic model, New York and Paris were not just the terminal cities of an oceanic voyage but coordinates on a radical cultural network that extended from Mexico to Moscow. This ‘red Atlantic’ journey was not necessarily a literal one, undertaken by any number of individuals (although the Mexican Diego Rivera did travel to Moscow in 1927, and Sergei Eisenstein filmed in Mexico in the early 1930s), but existed rather as a network of exchanges in the ‘little magazines’ and in international exhibitions, such as the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, the Machine-Age Exposition, and Film und Foto in Stuttgart in 1929. As such, the international span of the avant-garde was most effectively generated and sustained through transnational exchange.

Watching the Red Dawn is the first account of the transnational phenomenon of the American avant-garde reception of the Soviet Union. As a way of articulating cultural traffic between nations, ‘transnationalism’, while not a cogent discourse, has been an important theme of cultural studies in recent years, and many accounts, notably Wanda Corn’s The Great American Thing and the collected volume Nexus New York, have usefully elaborated on the transatlantic, transpacific, or transcontinental traffic of forms and ideas at this moment.⁹ The most famous transnational relay was the New York to Paris circuit, a modernist silk road that took Marcel Duchamp, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein et al., back and forth in the process of germinating American Modernism. This book concerns the less attended ‘red Atlantic’, whereby in the 1930s the American in Moscow supplanted the Parisian expatriate as a transnational paradigm (rivalled perhaps in the later decade by the internationalists in Spain).

Many of the protagonists in this book were either Russian-born or the children of immigrants, and belonged to a generation of Jews who had fled anti-Semitism in Imperial Russia, among the millions passing through Ellis Island and settling in the ghettoes of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. It is important to recognize that for these Americans the sojourn to Russia was a return voyage, and as such we can trace the ‘red Atlantic’ back to the great wave of immigration from Russia in the first decade of the twentieth century. The notional ‘American Constructivism’ of Watching the Red Dawn was therefore a diasporic phenomenon, part of a longer social narrative of the migration of Jewish people and culture from Russia to America, and was a cultural hybrid as much as a transnational avant-garde trend. It was arguably the critical response to the discontents of capitalism felt by marginal citizens who held both insider and outsider perspectives on American society, whose Americanisms were conflicted between the fascination of the machine, the metropolis, jazz, and Hollywood, and anger about immigrant poverty in the tenements, segregation in the South, and the rule of the Boss. Drawn to avant-gardism and left-wing politics in the early 1920s, their vestigial Russian links solidified an identification with the nascent Soviet Union and its epic cultural transformations.

The magazine New Masses occupies a central place within this narrative, appearing frequently throughout this study.¹⁰ New Masses’s editors and contributors, such as Mike Gold, Joseph Freeman, Joshua Kunitz, William Gropper, and Lozowick, were first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants from Russia or Eastern Europe. Following in the footsteps of The Masses and The Liberator, important radical magazines of the 1910s and early 1920s respectively, New Masses was distinct from its forebears as well as other ‘little magazines’ because it amalgamated the avant-garde machine aesthetic with the broad aims of the communist movement, and although not initially tethered to the Communist Party of the United States of America it nonetheless synthesized art and politics, for example reporting simultaneously on American strike activity and Soviet culture. New Masses responded to Constructivism’s machinolatry with its own discernible machine aesthetic, most evident in Lozowick’s covers and illustrations and the Constructivist stagecraft of the New Playwrights Theatre, a group that included Gold and mainstay contributor John Dos Passos. As the magazine was increasingly closely aligned with the communist movement, the shifting editorial policies and cultural identity of New Masses echoed developments in Soviet culture that corresponded with the epochal transformations of the USSR in its first decades. For instance, when the so-called ‘Third Period line’ heralded the Cultural Revolution in 1928, witnessing a drive towards communism proper from the partial free-market economy of the New Economic Policy in the form of Five-Year Plan’s intensification of industrialization and agricultural collectivization, New Masses incorporated the attendant proletarian culture directives into its editorial identity.¹¹ In this climate, a new rhetoric of militant class struggle replaced the broad church ethos of its first two years, as Gold summoned untutored working-class writers to foment a proletarian front against bourgeois culture.¹² The output of this ‘worker renaissance’ of the turn of the 1930s is a theme of several chapters of this study that consider theatre, film, and photography.

Above all, New Masses was fundamentally interdisciplinary, binding together many different cultural practices by a galvanizing rubric of politicized aesthetics meeting political journalism. As the ‘red Atlantic’ crossed disciplines as well as borders, Watching the Red Dawn is purposefully interdisciplinary, befitting the careers of Lozowick, who made art for galleries, designed store displays and theatre sets, produced posters and advertisements, and wrote and lectured widely on theatre, film, and architecture; or Ralph Steiner, a commercial photographer who exhibited in galleries and gravitated towards experimental and documentary filmmaking, collaborating with members of the Group Theatre, before emerging as a photography critic. The majority of cultural historians addressing the works of this period operate firmly within their subject areas, albeit occasionally extrapolating across media, and this categorical focus often yields excellent disciplinary accounts with developing problematics specific to discrete practices. There have been a handful of specific cultural studies of the phenomenon of American engagements with the Soviet Union. Vladimir Petric’s 1973 doctoral study (at New York University) of the dynamic interactions between the American and Russian film practices, ‘Soviet Revolutionary Films in America (1926–1936)’ remains an exemplary account that highlights the need for similar studies on the American reception of Soviet theatre, literature, fine art, graphic arts, and architecture. The most penetrating interdisciplinary studies in this area are Susan Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West and Terry Smith’s Making The Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America.¹³ With their respective focuses on the utopian projection of a mass mind and the discourse on the machine, these two books have been thematically and methodologically influential upon the present study.

Michael Leja has noted that ‘Smith’s text is insistently dialectical, constantly acknowledging contradictions and tensions, notably the strong backward-looking tendency that is an integral component of modernizing discourses’.¹⁴ In the present study, a dialectical analysis finds that the machine aesthetic was inherently riven with contradictions – whether old and new, communist or capitalist, spiritual or scientific, abstract or figurative, or even American and Russian. Thus, while some members of the avant-garde presented the machine as a unifying motif, it was more often a site of conflict and thereby curiously resistant to meaning. Indeed, my argument is that no cultural product can have a unitary meaning, and that each and every sign contains within it an inner contradiction that frustrates any singular message; yet art works, and products of visual culture more generally, are nonetheless ciphers of ideological struggles. The Soviet linguist Valentin Voloshinov divined an ‘inner dialectic quality’ in these contradictory or, as he put it, ‘multi-accentual’ signs, whereby this conflictual signification is a site of ideological contestation.¹⁵ Given the profound identification of Soviet culture with American proletarian consciousness, this book necessarily addresses the ideological arena of class antagonisms during this period, and while methodologically conceived in dialogue with Marxist cultural theories, its attentions extend beyond issues of ideology, hegemony, and determinism. This study engages strongly with the theme of the transnational movement of people, ideas, and forms that marked the international avant-garde networks; a phenomenon about which social theories of culture as yet offer acute, if partial, explanations. However, I approach transnationalism as a methodology with caution as it risks being an amorphous cultural meme, and address the significance of its relational interflows in conjunction with the historical phenomenon of internationalism, which received its most incisive articulation within the matrix of cultural vangardism and the Marxist critical tradition.

Finally, the avant-garde itself remains a disputed category, and therefore some clarification about my usage here is necessary. For this study, the avant-garde constitutes a hypercritical entity of culture formed in the dialectics of negation and construction, refuting extant standards and limitations to imagine and forge new socially ameliorative forms of communication, in some instances emanating from its experimental milieu to the masses, from micro- to macrocosm, in other cases remaining within discrete enclaves. There is perhaps a dubious mythology of geographical and temporal hotspots whereby c. 1910–30 – the golden age of the avant-garde – burned brightest in places like Berlin, Moscow, or Milan, throwing everywhere else and all since into darkness, a nostalgic trope that bespeaks historical tourism above radically open relations of past, present, and future. Rather than cohering into an alternative bloc facing down official culture, the avant-garde of the interwar years constituted a site of contest of powerful ideologies – appearing less as the militations of the phalanx of a smaller rebel army confronting the forces of tradition and social control, and more as the most conflictual area of the battleground. In this study, American and Russian radicals communed, discoursed, and debated in the expanded field of the international avant-garde, manifested in the transfer of magazines and books, and the curation of exhibitions, across the ‘red Atlantic’. Watching the Red Dawn tracks the reception of the Soviet avant-garde by its less canonical American counterpart, and in doing so aims to highlight the multiple Americanisms of American, and indeed international, culture of this period.


1.  Steffens also used variants of this phrase, including ‘I have seen the future and it works’, in conversations and correspondence. Quoted in Thomas C. Leonard, ‘Foreword’, in Lincoln Steffens, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1931), p. xvi.

2.  Leon Trotsky, Pravda (29 November 1926), quoted in Jeffrey Brooks, ‘The Press and its Message: Images of America in the 1920s and 1930s’, in Sheila Fitzpatrick, Alexander Rabinowitch, and Richard Stites (eds.), Russia in the Era of NEP: Explorations in Soviet Culture and Society (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 242.

3.  Vsevolod Meyerhold, ‘Bio-Mechanics’ (1922), in E. Braun (ed. and trans.), Meyerhold on Theatre (London: Eyre Methuen, 1969), p. 197.

4.  Louis Lozowick, Survivor from a Dead Age: The Memoirs of Louis Lozowick (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1997), p. 226.

5.  Ibid.

6.  Malcolm Cowley, Exile’s Return: A Narrative of Ideas (New York: Viking Press, 1934), p. 229.

7.  Josef Paul Kleihues and Christina Rothgeber (eds.), Berlin–New York, Like and Unlike: Essays on Architecture and Art from 1870 to the Present (New York: Rizzoli, 1993).

8.  See Beeke Sell Tower, ‘Ultramodern and Ultraprimitive: Shifting Meanings of Americanism in the Art of Weimar Germany’, in T. W. Kniesche and S. Brockman (eds.), Dancing on the Volcano: Essays on the Culture of the Weimar Republic (Elizabethtown, NY: Camden House, 1994); Mary Nolan, Visions of Modernity: American Business and the Modernization of Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

9.  Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999); Deborah Cullen (ed.), Nexus New York: Latin American Artists in the Modern Metropolis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

10.  For useful accounts of New Masses, see: Virginia Hagelstein Marquardt, ‘New Masses and John Reed Club Artists, 1926–1936: Evolution of Ideology, Subject Matter, and Style’, The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts (Spring 1989), pp. 56–75; Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926–1956 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 7–24; Rachel Sanders, ‘Experiment and Propaganda: Art in the Monthly New Masses’, in Warren Carter, Barnaby Haran, and Frederic J. Schwartz (eds.) Re-New Marxist Art History (London: Art Books, 2013).

11.  Nikolai Bukharin coined the ‘Third Period’ in 1926 at the Seventh ECCI Plenum to follow the First Period (War, Revolution, Civil War) and the Second Period (New Economic Policy). The Third Period involved a ‘shift to the left’ to complete the transition to socialism, and the appellation of ‘social fascism’ to describe social democratic tendencies that were perceived as an obstacle. Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Agnew, The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin (London: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 69–70.

12.  Michael Gold, ‘Go Left, Young Writers’, New Masses (January 1929), p. 3.

13.  Terry Smith, Making The Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

14.  Michael Leja, ‘Review of Making The Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America’, The Journal of American History, 81:1 (1994), p. 315.

15.  Valentin Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), trans. L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), p. 23.


Constructivism in the USA: machine art and architecture at The Little Review exhibitions

For Americans, the picture of Russian art in the first decade and a half following the Revolution was chequered, and attempts to disseminate Soviet artworks in books, articles, and exhibitions were sporadic and uneven. Too often a pre-revolutionary rationale determined the discourse on post-revolutionary work by situating the works within the amorphous and increasingly institutionalized figure of modern art. Therefore the treatment of Constructivism, the most far-reaching cultural phenomenon of the early Soviet Union in its abandonment of art for new forms of production, was unrepresentative because it typically reversed its collapse of disciplines and merging of art into everyday life, ultimately delimiting its social promise. However, there were some occasions when the American avant-garde seemed to grasp the utopian possibilities, if not always the revolutionary politics, of Constructivism

Chiefly, two exhibitions took place in New York that engaged thematically with Constructivism – the 1926 International Theatre Exposition and the Machine-Age Exposition of the following year, both of which were hosted by The Little Review, an avant-garde magazine edited by Jane Heap.¹ If both exhibitions were international and interdisciplinary in scope, between them they contained the largest concentration of Soviet cultural works, of theatre and architectural designs respectively, shown in the United States to date. While the exhibitions were not specifically concerned with fine art, in its traditional disciplines of painting, sculpture, and printmaking, they were in important ways Constructivist in ethos. The International Theatre Exposition belied the localism of its title by exploring the entire scope of experimental theatrical work, while applying new modes of display so that the exhibition design itself invoked Constructivism. The Machine-Age Exposition situated architectural designs and works of art alongside actual machines according to the Constructivist nexus of artists, architects, and engineers. Uniquely, the exhibitions synthesized Russian and international cultural works within a framework that was thematically informed by Constructivism. However, unlike the theatre and film groups discussed in the next two chapters, these exhibitions diverged from Soviet analogues at the point of political intent. Heap, the curator of both shows, had limited comradeship with the Revolution, and importantly promoted Constructivism in the United States as ‘machine art’, minimizing its revolutionary contingency. This was because her conception of machine art derived mostly from her dialogue with Theo van Doesburg, the leader of De Stijl and a pioneer of ‘International Constructivism’. Indeed, the importation of Constructivism into the United States, most evident in Heap’s expositions, was imprecise because even in the Soviet Union the term was contested.

The emergence of Constructivism

Constructivism principally involved the remodelling of the arts following the Revolution. It emerged within the new state institutions, taking shape in INKhUK, the Institute of Artistic Culture (Institut khudozhestvennoi kultury), which was an organization within Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat of

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