Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 4, 2018
Catherine Walworth Soviet Salvage: Imperial Debris, Revolutionary Reuse, and Russian Constructivism Series: Refiguring Modernism. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017. 248 pp.; 34 color ills.; 66 b/w ills. Hardcover $94.95 (9780271077697)

Catherine Walworth’s Soviet Salvage: Imperial Debris, Revolutionary Reuse, and Russian Constructivism is an unusual entry in the literature on early Soviet art, which is sure to puzzle many readers and (in all likelihood) infuriate at least a few. Readers of academic books are familiar enough with such responses, immersed as we are in the unceasing drive for self-criticism and revision that dulls the polemical sting to a tickle. Walworth’s book is no argument for argument’s sake, however; it neither delights in overturning accepted interpretations nor revels in hyperbole. Instead, it explores the possibility of discarding key distinctions honed by generations of scholars.

Walworth, a curator at the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina, and a specialist in Soviet decorative arts, has selected an array of unlikely companions for Soviet Salvage. The book’s five chapters link well-known Constructivists Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Liubov Popova, and Aleksei Gan (Walworth calls them the “canonical Constructivists”), with closely allied artists such as Esfir Shub, fellow travelers like the couturier Nadezhda Lamanova, and outright opponents linked to the Mir iskusstva, or World of Art movement, which Walworth labels “a second tier of Constructivist artistic practice” (15). As one would expect from a scholar with Walworth’s interests, designs for porcelain and printed fabrics are a major focus of her study, but these are rather unexpectedly linked to the compilation film—a genre almost single-handedly invented by Shub with her 1927 opus, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty—through the theme of salvage.

The conceit of Soviet Salvage is that the disparate objects produced by an array of artists, in the most varied styles and materials, share a Janus-faced structure of reuse that roots them firmly in the past, even as they face an unknown Soviet future. Blanks from the Imperial Porcelain Factory in storage for almost a century, the home movies of Tsar Nikolai II, and a spare table runner and towels are the true protagonists of Walworth’s study. As the author puts it, “In arguing for an alternative set of Constructivist goods on the movement’s periphery, I stay in the slow, cool shadow of physical objects rather than straying down the rabbit hole of critical theory” (4). She is true to her word: although Walworth occasionally gestures toward Claude Levi-Strauss’s ideal types, the bricoleur and the engineer, as figures who might approximate the patterns of systematic and improvisational thinking that mark Constructivist practice, she has no abiding interest in structural anthropology as a heuristic. More than universal tendencies, these objects show Walworth “the NEP era’s ideological and material contradictions” (85) by fixing in unique combinations the disparate elements of capitalist commodity and communist ideology that co-existed during Lenin’s New Economic Policy (1921–28).

Can such objects be classed as Constructivist, even on a “second tier”? Walworth herself is of two minds on the subject.

In favor of an inclusive position stands what might be called Constructivism’s grandfather clause. Vladimir Tatlin has long been regarded as the progenitor of Constructivism: his counter-reliefs adopted the principles of Picasso’s constructed sculpture but discarded its representational function in favor of sheer material juxtaposition. Found materials, initially valued for their tactile qualities and often of an industrial cast, suddenly opened the door to a non-painterly exercise in montage, without which Constructivism could hardly have come into being. In Walworth’s study, Tatlin is treated as the prototypical bricoleur and Constructivist: “the independent Tatlin [would not] officially join Constructivism. The fact that art historians generally label him a Constructivist sets a precedent, however, for extending the boundaries of the movement’s core logic to other artists working at close range” (20). Tatlin has indeed been central to our most influential accounts of Constructivism, from Christina Lodder’s pivotal 1980 study to Christina Kiaer’s 2005 Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism. Though Kiaer is careful to distinguish between what Tatlin called the “culture of materials” and Constructivism itself, her pioneering focus on the objects produced under NEP’s hybrid economy—from Tatlin’s design for a cooking stove to Popova’s Constructivist flapper dress—exerts a particularly strong influence on Walworth’s book.

Yet Walworth is not really willing to say that the artists in her book should count as Constructivists, either. Lamanova, the focus of the book’s third chapter, is introduced as “a savvy fellow traveler on the movement’s fringe” (90). One of the most prominent couturiers of Imperial Russia, Lamanova was briefly imprisoned in the aftermath of the Revolution before resuming her trade in service of the Soviets’ contrary ideals. In the early 1920s, her clients included both Lilia Brik, the wife of critic Osip Brik and sometime muse of Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Aleksandra Khokhlova, the celebrated actress championed by Viktor Shklovsky and Sergei Eisenstein, who was married to Lev Kuleshov. Both women modeled Lamanova’s designs of the 1920s, which experimented with motifs from Rodchenko’s paintings. Walworth disclaims any intent “to argue that Lamanova was by any means a canonical Constructivist,” while stressing that the “spheres [of Lamanova’s work and Constructivism] were not, however, antagonistic or mutually exclusive” (90, 98). Such an interpretation is hard to maintain. The Constructivist Stepanova also participated in Lamanova’s projects, but even as she did so, rejected the very principles of applied decoration on which they rested. Pace Walworth, the two artists’ proximity makes for a revealing case study because antagonism was essential to the definition of the Constructivist position. This is true even if, as Walworth correctly notes, Stepanova’s own fabric designs failed to transcend the decorative paradigm she criticized.

The same ambivalence animates Walworth’s chapter on Soviet propaganda porcelain, which focuses on designs produced under the art direction of the Mir iskussnik Sergei Chekhonin from 1919–23. Walworth herself asks and answers the question: “What could possibly make these ad hoc decorative plates ‘Constructivist’ in nature? . . . the Program of the First Working Group of Constructivists from 1921 defined tektonika as ‘the expedient use of industrial material’ tempered, or reformed, from the properties of communism—the reappropriation of industrially manufactured whiteware, decorated with communist propaganda, arguably fits this definition.” Perhaps. But Walworth herself concedes that the “Mir iskussniki, at the helm of the State Porcelain Factory (but at the conservative fringe of avant-garde art production) . . . created a final product that is an interesting counterpoint to constructivist goals” (62). The argument for “alternative” or “second-tier” Constructivism is entertained, but quickly withdrawn.

The most viable candidate for inclusion in an expanded class of Constructivists is Shub. Not only was Shub married to Gan, the mouthpiece of Constructivism, she was a formidable influence on the movement’s embrace of photography and film who credited “the school of constructivism” as an inspiration for her work, in turn (129). An editor at Goskino who recut foreign films to correct their ideological slant, Shub pitched a feature-length compilation film to Sovkino before chancing upon the home movies of the Romanovs. Walworth’s chapter provides a biographical sketch of Shub, a brief account of her re-edited version of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (on which Sergei Eisenstein served as her assistant), and a few choice instances of her radical reframing of the Romanovs’ intimate moments to show the antinomies of Imperial Russia in The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. By and large, it is the depth of Shub’s relationship to Constructivism and the compelling analogy between her material and the other remnants of Imperial Russia treated in the book that make Soviet Salvage an intriguing project. But is Walworth comparing like with like? The analogy bears closer examination—and a short detour down the rabbit hole of theory.

At bottom, Walworth’s study deals with predication. Recognizing that the decorative arts apply predicates to subjects will bring us to the heart of Constructivism’s embattled relationship with decoration: some predicates are just more essential than others, and the Constructivists wanted to do away with all but the former. Hegel thought these essential predicates were one with the subject’s “Notion,” which for him was also identical with the genesis of knowledge: the Notion proceeds from essence to external realization before finding its individuality and is, in the end, nothing but that history. This is what Gan’s call for “communist expression of material structures” means: Constructivism was communism’s Notion (in theory, at least). Do the various remnants treated by Walworth follow this model? Shub’s seem to. Externalized on film, the Romanovs’ leisure was negated by the mass medium to the same degree as the peasant labor that supported it: film mediated the necessary unfolding of a mass society. By comparison, the relationship between the blank unused stock of the Imperial Porcelain Factory and the propaganda designs applied to it in the early years of the Soviet era is arbitrary. Only ideologically were the new designs at odds with the rarified handicraft production of Imperial-era decorative arts. The Soviets were well aware that to the affluent collectors who bought it, at least, the product was still Imperial Porcelain and, as Walworth recognizes, they exploited that shared understanding (76). Under the Soviets, Imperial porcelain was not reused; it was simply used. Lamanova’s practice falls somewhere between these two extremes; the sale of artworks from Imperial collections, treated in Walworth’s fifth chapter, is another matter entirely.

Of course, it is not enough to say that Constructivism is what Constructivists made, and Walworth is right to protest that we can’t simply define Constructivism as the art of “INKhUK debate members, signatories of the original Constructivist program, and early exhibitors at a handful of exhibitions” (12). Beyond Tatlin, commentators have noted that the art produced by certain Constructivists is at times indistinguishable from that of their opponents in UNOVIS, El Lissitzky, and Gustav Klutsis. The Constructivists complained that their name had become all but meaningless by 1924, but they were probably not its sole creators, either (the title “First Working Group of Constructivists” is a tell). Like UNOVIS, which also toyed with the label, they had adapted it from the discourse surrounding painters like Picasso and Kandinsky. Perhaps Constructivism is a kind of bricolage after all, and the Constructivists only bricoleurs dreaming, as Derrida might say, of becoming engineers. It also happens that they were illiberal liquidationist bricoleurs, who desperately wanted to destroy the decorative and applied arts so that Constructivism could take their place.

Samuel Johnson
Assistant Professor and Carole & Alvin I. Schragis Faculty Fellow, Department of Art and Music Histories, Syracuse University