Utopia and Dystopia in Modern European Art
- Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us today. My name is Jake Gagne and I'm the Jock Reynolds Fellow in Public Programs here in the Gallery's Education Department.
I'm very happy to welcome all of you to this E-Study Tour, the first of 2021, which will address the topic of utopia and dystopia in modern European art. Our speakers today are Jenna Marvin and Elissa Watters. Jenna Marvin is the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in the Department of Photography. She has a BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel hill, and an MA in art history from Williams College and the Clark Art Institute.
Jenna's research interests span the full history of photography and its intersections with science and the American South. Elissa Watters is the Florence B. Selden Fellow in the Department of Prints and Drawings. She received a BA from Dartmouth College and an MA in art history from Williams College. Elissa's research interests include European modernism, artists' books and the history of printmaking.
Jenna and Elissa will each give a presentation of about 10 minutes followed by a talk back. And then we'll have a question and answer period of about 20 minutes. We invite you to use the Q&A feature to submit questions for our speakers. And you can also use the chat feature to share comments or reach out to a staff member about any technical issues. Finally, I would just add that everyone here today will receive a follow-up email, with some information about the artworks in today's presentations and a link to a short survey that will help us as we develop future programs. Thank you again for joining us and I turn it over to Jenna Marvin.
- Thank you, Jake and hello everyone. Welcome to our first E-Study tour of the spring. At the gallery, both Elissa and I are very involved with the James E. Duffy Study Room for prints, drawings and photographs located on the fourth floor of the Louis Kahn building. Normally the study room is extremely active with visits from classes, students, scholars and members of the general public who make appointments with us to see various objects, in the gallery's prints and drawings and photography collections.
We also frequently host public programs in this space, including monthly thematic tours. While we're conducting today's program virtually, we hope that when the study room reopens, you'll visit the space and see the objects that we're discussing today or other works with interest to you in person. Today I will be presenting a case study of a work in the Yale University Art Gallery's collection, a photograph by artist, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, that can help us think through Utopian ideas about childhood in the early Soviet Union.
We are greeted by two figures. There's stiff paper arms raised as if in greeting, there are smiling faces and literally hollow eyes stare outside the frame. They wait to be activated in play. The Russian artists, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova crafted these paper figures and photographed them as illustrations for a poem by the Russian writer and playwright Sergei Tretyakov in 1926. The poem entitled Samozveri, or in English, Auto Animals, was never published, but the collaboration between Rodchenko and Stepanova and Tretyakov was intended to be an illustrated whimsical book for children about homemade paper animals.
Though the poem and accompanying photographs were never published together. Rodchenko and Stepanova's prints were published as a two-page spread in the journal, the new LEF. You can see the figures and the print in Yale's collection are also present in this image on the left side of the spread. The new LEF, successor to the famed LEF, or left front of the arts journal, which was the official publication for the Russian constructivists from 1923 to 1925. Stepanova and Rodchenko were both vocal and influential constructivists, working across a variety of media.
The constructivists believed that artists were first and foremost laborers, professionals, not enlightened individuals who made art because of a spiritual calling. This positioning of the artist as laborer is consistent with the reorganization of Russian society as a whole, that occurred after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The constructivist sought to break with old fashioned and elitist modes of representation, to usher in a new kind of universal art for the people. In 1927 Sergei Tretyakov the author of the poem Samozveri revived the publication, dubbed it the New LEF and published Rodchenko and Stepanova's over his photographs of his poem and its inaugural issue.
Rodchenko's photography was also included on the additions cover. The Tretyakov's poem is not printed alongside these photographs, the text is key to understanding these images. The poem describes eight different animals and how a child would play with, and imagine a world with a paper version of that animal. You can see some of the animals figured here, a horse, an elephant, a giraffe, and an ostrich. Let's look together and an English translation of the first stanza. Have I fallen from the moon? Elephants are awalk in the room I see a kangaroo does bound behind the kennel of the hound with the cuttlefish goes the seal along the hall I see them steal, the kitchen door stands ajar, a pair of turtles crawls quite far, ah, help! Against the door I throw my bulk crushed beneath the elephant's hulk with my head against a beam, suddenly there comes a scream there coward ah! How silly can I be surely they will not eat me, these animals, auto animals.
Tretyakov imagines the speaker, most likely a child, surrounded by wild animals. which are later revealed to be made of paper. Words and phrases like kitchen door and along the hall signal to us that the child is not in nature with these animals, but in a domestic space. with the poem in mind, I wanna turn our attention back to Rodchenko and Stepanova's illustrations. What is perhaps most striking is the presence of paper people.
In his poem, Tretyakov imagines paper animals, and human children engaging in an imaginative game. But Stepanova and Rodchenko imagine what it looks like a stage set with props and dramatic lighting populated by paper children and animals together. Rodchenko and Stepanova's decision to create theater like displays for these paper figures is intriguing considering that Tretyakov was a renowned playwright. During the same period that Tretyakov was writing Samozveri He was also writing and revising a play about raising children titled I Want a Baby. While heavily revised at least once in order to appease the communist party sensors, the plot centers around a woman named Milda, who wants to have a child on her own, free from the burdens of middle-class morality and family life.
She eventually succeeds and her child wins an award at the "exhibition" of children for being an exemplary Soviet citizen. Ultimately, the play was never performed and banned because its message was ambiguous and it was deemed to quote unquote formalist and out of step with the regime's new socialist realist aesthetic. This new aesthetic is worth exploring in some detail as Tretyakov, Rodchenko and Stepanova would all have to amend or alter their working methods to stay in the good graces of the censors. Starting in the late 1920s, the Soviet regime began to favor images of everyday life with clear pro communist party messages. This was at odds with the angel of the constructivist artists like Rodchenko and Stepanova who saw universally understood truths often through abstraction. This state issued poster dated circa 1920 reads "Join the preschool campaign, bring about communist change, build a new way of life."
The faceless and unspecific children in the sky seemed to be modeling the kind of play the Tretyakov describes in Samozveri. The architectural blocks bear a strong resemblance to the stage like paper prompts that Rodchenko and Stepanova crafted for their photographs. Let's compare this poster with another dated 10 years later in 1930. This poster depicts unacceptable quote unquote "backbreaking labor" on the left side of the image with a "reasonable and healthy labor" on the right.
The style of this poster conveys a clear message, tired children on the left with content children on the right. The colors are bright and cheerful on screen and pleasant landscape. The emphasis on play is no longer present. The caption states, "by working within reason, a child strengthens his health and acquires abilities necessary for his life."
While this poster seeks to address children to work specifically and not play or education is changing style and tone is striking compared with the poster from 1920. With some understanding of how Soviet ideas about children's work, education and play are changing at this time, we can return to Rodchenko and Stepanova's illustration of Tretyakov's poetry. We must again ask ourselves why did the artists make paper people to activate the paper animals, when Tretyakov so clearly stages play between real children and paper animals.
Of course, this work is a collaboration between three people who undoubtedly bring personal nuanced views to the subject. I believe that the difference between Tretyakov's real children and Rodchenko and Stepanova's imaginary and idealized paper children is a productive one. Utopia, the topic of today's discussion literally means 'no place,' or in other words, a place that is unachievable a daydream. Indeed, we know that sometime after the series was completed Rodchenko and Stepanova decided to experiment with the images as an animated film, hence the tight cropping and green tint, that has been applied to the print in Yale's collection. Shifting away from Tretyakov's, real children and paper animals Stepanova and Rodchenko sought to create the ideal playful child in a fantastical and cinematic world. I look forward to your thoughts, ideas and questions when we move into our discussion.
And with that, I will hand it over to my colleague Elissa who will be speaking to us about Dystopia as a theme in feminist art in Europe. - Thank you Jenna, for that fascinating talk I'm really looking forward to our conversation later and hello everyone. Auto animals actually provides the perfect segue into my talk today.
Particularly when put next to Fortunato Depero's mechanical dancer. The Utopian ideals of the Russian constructivists Italian futurists and others would soon falter. World war one, which left 20 million dead, 21 million wounded and countless cities leveled. Called into question the benefits of modern technology whose recent advances had enabled such fast destruction.
A sense of dystopia emerged across post-war Europe. Germany is a particularly apt locus, I think for examining the sense of Dystopia. In addition to losing nearly 2 million men in the war and seeing millions more casualties, including an estimated 67,000 amputations, Germany subsequently suffered from extreme shortages of food and fuel, the 1918 flu pandemic and huge hyperinflation and unemployment.
And so it's to German artists and specifically female German artists that I'd like to turn now and particularly their engagement with technology to offer feminist critiques of modern society. German artists, Angelika Hoerle's work of the early 1920s epitomizes the disillusionment that emerged after world war one. In this drawing entitled "Head with sign, hand, wheel, and auto horn," A figure composed of a fusion of human mechanical and plant-like forms appears disabled and dysfunctional. Instead of eyes, the figure has a sign or license plate. Instead of arms, it has a car horn on one side and a detached arm rooted in the soil nearby on the other.
And instead of a torso and legs, it has a wheel that surely can roll downhill. But what about uphill? There appears to be no motor for powering its movement against gravity nor a steering wheel or other means of controlling the direction in which the figure might move. While Hoerle's androgynous semi mechanical figure recalls the disfigured male bodies visible in everyday post-war life, it also seems an apt representation of female disenfranchisement.
During the war women had become a substantial part of the German workforce, and had gained physical economic and social autonomy. In 1918, they had also gained suffrage. And yet they continued to be paid less than their male counterparts, underrepresented in government and otherwise constrained. Hoerle's figure similarly appears on the one hand to move freely and easily and on the other to be rooted in one place by the arm, or if mobile at the mercy of the slip of the ground.
The collages of dada artists Hannah Hoch, similarly engage the products of mechanization to highlight both female empowerment and female disenfranchisement. In this collage of 1919 to 1920, entitled "Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany," the head of female artist Käthe Kollwitz hovers above the body of female dancer, Niddy Impekoven suggesting a dichotomy between women as intellectuals and women as sexualized physical bodies. Below Impekoven appears again, bathing acclaimed male artist John Heartfield, infantilizing him. In a map at the bottom right, a map at the bottom right Identifies the European countries where women had gained suffrage.
The collage medium itself also plays into Hoch's commentary on gender roles and rights, tearing apart images produced and circulated en masse, usually under the direction of men, and rearranging them in fragment and rearranging the fragments. Hoch's collages deconstruct and reconstruct both the products of modern technology and the gender constructs they represent. Austrian artist Stefi Kiesler's Typo-Plastic works such as this one, also challenge common conceptions of women in post-war European society using a machine, the typewriter as not just an artistic tool, but quite literally her artistic arm. Kiesler dismantles notions of the female typist as row worker and instead positions her as a creator. Just imagine the amount of time and effort it must have taken to feed this page through the typewriter, setting it up so that the letter blocks aligned to create each sparse, but extremely precise line of type.
Not only do the horizontal rows of axis and overlapping W's and M's appear perfectly aligned. But so to do the column of exclamation points and the diagonal line of dots. The resulting image is void of semantic meaning. Instead it reveals the creative possibilities of individual alphabetic units as purely visual geometric artistic forms. Merging randomness and order, Keisler's Typo-Plastics seem to exist at the border of freedom and confinement embodying the female condition of the time. The horrors of the third Reich and world war II only heightened a pan-European sense of Dystopia felt particularly strongly in Germany.
Surviving pen and ink drawings by little known German artist Renate Geisberg-Wichmann depict ravaged landscapes bombed out buildings, soldiers, refugees, and dead or dying bodies. Though drawn from the imagination these drawings capture war torn scenes in an almost objective documentary way. And yet at the same time, the striking tonal contrast and the stormy skies that rage above stilled, silent scenes of devastate pull at our emotions. We know a little about Geisberg-Wichmann, but imagine a female artist making drawings critical of the reigning totalitarian regime in secret in her home in Borgloh a town in the Northwest part of Germany where her artist husband and her two sons lived during the war. Each two by three feet, the drawings are large for works made during the war when paper was in short supply.
Moreover- they were enormous for woodblock prints, which is what the artist likely intended for them to become. Several woodcuts after other drawings of this scale survive. The two by three foot woodblocks must've been extremely heavy.
Geisberg-Wichmann must have had help lifting and manipulating them, but still the very physicality of the work she was doing, challenges traditional conceptions of the role of women, mothers and female artists alike. In the post-war era, a desire to forget the recent past and start a new clashed with the impossibility and irresponsibility of oblivion. This drawing by Geisberg-Wichmann dated 1951 illustrates the lasting physical and psychological impacts of the war.
A woman seen from behind and in silhouette looks down upon ruins. I always wonder when I see this drawing, is she returning home only to find it destroyed? Or is she leaving it behind in search of a new place to settle. Either way the drawing proves the impossibility of realizing a new Utopia in Germany after the war. It demonstrates that the notion of a so-called zero hour was a myth. The end of the war did not mark a new beginning in which the actions and principles of the Nazi regime could be forgotten. Six years after the war had ended Geisberg Wichmann and others were still grappling with tangible reminders of the war, memories of it and related feelings of responsibility, guilt and loss.
Dystopia could not be so easily shaken. Thank you. And now Jenna, and I will have a conversation after which we'll turn things over to Jake to moderate the Q and A. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop them in the Q and A feature at any time.
- Thank you, Elissa for that really thought provoking talk. I kinda thought of pick up right where you left off actually that, last Geisberg Wichmann print, drawing is absolutely striking. And I kind of wanna hear more about the idea of the zero hour for Germany that you were talking about. - Yeah it's such a- It's like such a bizarre concept in my mind, the idea of a, a zero hour kind of starting complete starting over. It's kinda like a total blank slate.
And actually the term had also kind of been applied, to world war one. It's interesting that it's a repurposed term and, I'll throw this back to you in a few, like a moment and you can talk about it in the Russian context, but it's interesting that the idea of there being multiple zero hours is also kind of perplexing. But, yeah literally this idea that, May 8th 1945, when the war, the war effectively ended as this kind of starting over this kind of zero hour, I think is really, it really shows just how, how difficult it was for Germans and really all of Europe, but particularly, Germany to kind of grapple with what had just happened. Both to, German civilians who were still living and to victims of the Holocaust and others. It was really this kind of, just impossibility.
I think it was so hard just even to see the physical landscape so ruined and to have kind of gone through that kind of, that kind of horror. And then to kind of in retrospect, start to kind of figure it out, how it even happened. I think that was so difficult that there was this real attempt to completely dissociate from what had just happened and start over. And it was kind of a part of that, there was this idea of kind of German victimization where Germany very much positioned itself as a victim of a lot of what had happened.
For example, as victims of the allied bombings, in which, thousands, hundreds of thousands of German civilians have been killed. What a lot of prisoners of war had undergone, German prisoners of war, had undergone at Soviet hands. All of these kind of instances in which Germans had, been the victims kind of became the underlying narrative in many ways of the war.
And I think that also played into this idea of we can forget, we can just kind of say it's over and to move on, undergo denazification, demilitarize and all that, and just kind of start a new. Which of course was a total myth. There was just no way to kind of start a new and it would have been irresponsible to do so and all that.
Yeah, so throwing it back at you, I would just kind of be curious, I know when we were talking yesterday you mentioned that the terms zero hour has been applied in the Russian context so I'd be curious to hear more about that. - Yeah, it's really interesting and it ended up kind of being an unintentional point of contact between our objects and our talks I think that the Soviet union has its own sort of zero hour in 1917 though, it's interesting that it's not talked about in quite the same way. I think your invocation of the term forgetting is really important. The kind of memory and history rewriting that occurred after the Bolshevik revolution has been referred to as memory management, or a memory crisis, it's a year zero, it's a fresh start, but of course it's no such thing, really exists. And that was something that I explored a lot in my research for this talk was thinking about the ways that the Soviet union was successful and unsuccessful in that regard in trying to rewrite Soviet history, but also acknowledge that it's a complete break with the history before the Bolshevik revolution.
Creating a narrative and also expunging a narrative. It's hard for those two things to happen simultaneously. And that concept of a year zero is actually really helpful, I think, to apply to the idea of what the constructivists were trying to do. They're trying to break with the past. They're trying to create a new kind of art that is abstract and yet universal it's hard to do all of those things at one time and it's hard to create easily digestible history. And we're also talking about a time, where it's considered a mass media revolution.
It's easy to make and distribute photographs and films And importantly, I think for both of us, prints and with that, I actually wanted to ask you if you would provide maybe a little bit of context for the Soviet posters that I mentioned in my talk, I know that you've worked with them more than I have, and maybe you have some insight into their circulation, display, and their material. - Sure, yeah it's an amazing collection that we received from Allan Chasanoff, an artist who actually recently passed away just a couple months ago, but he gave us a collection of about 1200 Soviet posters, dating from the whole span of the Soviet time period. Basically it's like 1920s through the 1980s and I find them so fascinating 'cause like you said, these were, this was an era of mass production of printed materials. And the poster was just like rose to fame, in Russia and really across Europe, especially in the kind of early 20th century and the Soviets really put it to use and they were highly censored materials.
They were- usually if not always state sponsored. And they were often produced in the hundreds of thousands. Each individual, there were thousands of posters produced, but each individual poster design, could be printed into the hundreds of thousands and they were posted all over. You could find them in schools, in factories, on the street I mean, they were really everywhere. I think that, it's really what you said about kind of circulation and the power mass produced prints in particular to disseminate information, whether for good or for bad, whether accurate or mythic is really apt in the Soviet poster context. And just talking about like posters and thinking about ephemerality, cause a lot of these posters weren't really meant to last, the whole kind of collection fad came into being a bit later and the idea of collecting posters is kind of its own kind of interesting, and kind of quirky topic.
But I would be curious to think a little bit more about like ephemerality and really I was struck by the fact that, Auto Animals is made of paper and the idea of a children's toy being made a paper, I find really intriguing because I would think that, someone actually where to play with it, it would be destroyed in like two minutes. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more in that context about ephemerality and what it means to be making these toy constructions out of paper. - Yeah, definitely and Jake, can we, yeah, that's great that's the slide I want to see. Something I would love to know is whether- and this children's book was unrealized, so we don't have a copy or a manuscript to refer back to, but I would love to know whether Rodchenko Stepanova and Tretyakov were thinking about including instructions on how to make the paper animals as part of the book.
It wasn't uncommon for children's books in the Soviet union especially in the early years, maybe through the mid 1930s, which is kind of the year range that I'm thinking about, it wasn't unusual for them to include sort of DIY instructions on how to make handicrafts that could be toys, like model buildings, even model factories. I've seen, and underneath that, there's this idea that children's skills can, they can be honed that they're little constructors in some ways it's seen as being a sort of primer to what would make a good Soviet citizen, what would make a good Soviet worker. And it's a little bit unclear to me exactly how the authors thought of the paper animal, but it seems to me like it would be pretty ephemeral like, paper wrinkles, all it takes is an errant hand or an errand foot to smash these paper toys and so I imagine that it really is about honing that skill because you would have to continually be making paper animals from paper, paper animals in this case. And then Rodchenko and Stepanova imagining paper people. It would be a continuous sort of struggle to keep your toys populated, without wrinkles and tears. A question I've had while thinking about this is also where does the creative process come in, are these very, kind of concrete and rigid instructions on how to make paper things or would they have been a little bit more open-ended, make different animals, experiment with different ways of making them? In what ways does creativity, mental creativity not so much the creative impulse to make something with your hands, like in what way does that play in? Which is really interesting and I wish I knew the answer, but I don't think it exists, unfortunately.
- That is really interesting. And I've been wondering about that and just thinking about communism and the communist state and, obedience is really the way a communist state, functions, you're supposed to listen to the authorities and if everyone kind of does what they're told and give us the proper portions back to the state, then everything works, but otherwise things kind of sort of fall apart. I have been wondering about that, like thinking about toys and this idea of creativity and even the poem that you read is so creative. It's kind of the weirdest scenario, especially the ending it's kind of bizarre this idea of the animals on those being threatening, but yeah, I've been wondering, what the relationship between creativity and obedience is in a communist state.
- Definitely I would say creativity or play like in what, in what ways is play, a sort of subversive activity, right. And I don't know the answer to that of course, but, the idea of play both in children's play and play for adults as sort of intellectual experimentation or writing, or kind of subverting state control of written and creative materials. Like the idea of play when transferred to adults seems far more threatening, for a really centralized communist party. It's an interesting thing to think about is the way in which children's play can kind of be seen as a microcosm for larger issues that the Soviet union is struggling with, at this time and eventually, I talked a little bit about Soviet realism, the kind of really figural and literal aesthetic that, Stalin's government is enforcing.
Essentially, it kinda gets away from that idea of creative play when the sort of aesthetics that one has to use to convey information become smaller and smaller and smaller that the possibilities are less and less as time goes on. But yes, it's definitely a link that I've been thinking about. How can you take children's play and sort of use that as a case study to think more largely about the Soviet union at this time. Definitely yeah. - Also interesting in the poster context just to think, or just art in general to think about like what art under sensor extreme censorship means, what element of creativity we could even call it play in creating art, is allowed if you're highly in this highly censored environment where you're being asked to make posters, for example, for a very specific that kind of promote a very specific message or image.
- Right, definitely. And I mean, and there's some similarity between what the Third Reich is doing at the same, or slightly later in late 30s and 40s about, co-opting certain artists were, can taking it out of context, but also it has its own sort of aesthetic, regime as well. And I don't know how much that you can or want to talk about that cause you didn't really touch on it in your talk, but it's definitely a point of contact, I think. - Yeah, it's definitely, it's definitely there. I think that would be a whole, we could do a whole another talk about state sponsored art, across time and across place.
But that might be a little bit beyond our scope, but definitely yeah, definitely. And actually an artist that I cut from the I cut from the talk, Käthe Kollwitz, although I mentioned her, 'cause she comes up in the Hannah Hoch piece. she's an example of like a German expression, a female German expressionist actually who's producing art that is, socially- it has to do basically with social justice issues. And the Nazi regime kind of co-opts a lot of her, some of her work, to their own ends. Yeah, no art, whether it's state sponsored or just kind of the state ends up kind of appropriating and kind of twisting the message behind the art it's kind of an interesting other topic.
- With that, Jake, do you wanna ask some of the audience questions? - Sure we've gotten some questions already a couple of them are more quick and factual, so maybe let's start there. One audience member writes "Absolutely fascinating talk, thank you. I am blown away by the typewriter piece. Did she make more of these or was it a one-off?" - I'm so glad you asked about this, this is one of my favorite pieces in the gallery we have four of them. Stefi Kiesler is really, I think an under-recognized artist, she's so fabulous. And so we have five works that are very similar to this and I'm not sure whether she made more or not.
These works to us through Katherine Dreier, An artist and kinda collector of her own right in New York, New York, Connecticut, and the Société Anonyme name group, and Kiesler, I'm just trying to think, okay. She produced these objects when she studied in Vienna, she moved to Paris with her husband and I think the early to mid 1920s, and she was there for a little while before she relocated to New York. She made these pieces I believe when she was in Paris and some of them were published in a journal publication called De Stijl, De Stijl is also the name of and a kind of an art movement.
At the time and so when Kiesler published them, this I find fascinating, She used as a male pseudonym Pietro de Saga. We already have an artist that is obviously kind of drawing on a sort of feminist, this idea of the woman as typist, and kind of twisting that and subverting that, and then she's publishing these drawings, which are one-offs each one is a one-off, even though she made multiple, and she's publishing them under a male pseudonym. I find all that interesting and also the idea that they were published.
And so they were kind of made reproducible, even though the art kind of original artwork is a singular piece, is kind of an interesting point of contact between the singular artwork and the reproducible or the reproduction of the artwork. And just kind of an interesting, an interesting point here. And then there was one more thing I wanted to say on this. Oh, I know what it was. These are actually on typewriter paper, which I guess makes sense.
'Cause they were made using a typewriter, but if you just think of making these pieces, I'm sure she went through many trials before she actually got the final works the way she wanted them, because the amount of precision it must've taken and the different types of the different ink colors, the black and the red ink and then the overlaying of the letters she must've made mistakes. Yes, the final pieces are one-offs, but I think that there was a very labor- intensive process for producing them. And then later they were reproduced in multiples probably in some sort of, I don't know, as lithographs or something I don't know, something more reproducible. Great question.
- Elissa I might add to that too thinking about her life in New York, she was a librarian for the New York public library for many years, right. The typewriter for her, it's also part of her daily life and work. She's a woman who worked in the 20th century and I'm sure did a lot of typing that was not like this. That the medium has, strong work connotation for her as well.
- Absolutely. - Yeah, great, interesting. - Do we know-this is another audience question- what type of typewriter Kiesler would have used? - I have no idea. (laughing) Great question. I'm sure someone could figure that out, but yeah, no, I have no idea.
- Fair enough. Question for Jenna about the auto animals, two questions. "How did the poem rhyme in Russian and in English and what is the actual size of the paper figures?" - Those are both really great questions. As far as Russian and English I actually have not read the poem in Russian. I'm not a Russian speaker.
So I relied off of an English from the 1980s by a translator Susan Cook Summer. Translation is not an exact science, there's no one-to-one across any language of word to word. And so exactly what decisions, Cook Summer made throughout translating it's a personal decision on her part, whether she massaged certain words and phrases to make them rhyme.
I don't know, it's personal decision, on the part of the translator. Not entirely sure, and what was the second question? - The actual size of the paper animals. - That's right, based on some of the other photographs that I've seen, I think they're roughly, maybe six to 10 inches possibly; they're meant to kind of be held in the hand of a child.
They're not terribly large, doll size essentially, kind of within the realm of toys, yeah. - Awesome, thank you. This is a question-and I don't know if you wanna answer this now or maybe this is for a follow-up email- but someone asked for a bibliography or reading suggestions on both the general themes of today's talk and also about constructivism.
- I can start with constructivism then Elissa maybe you and I can collaborate (laughing) on Utopia and Dystopia. There are a couple of really, really great books on Soviet photography in particular. The first being "The Soviet Photograph, 1924 to 1937" and that's by Dr. Margarita Tupitsyn.
And we can add that a link to that book in the follow-up. She's very much thinking about how writers and critics are thinking kind of together with artists photographers, and thinking about how words and images, are a really important sort of collaborative process within Soviet art. It's definitely relevant to the kind of work that I'm thinking about today with Tretyakov and the accompanying photographs. There was also a really great exhibition in, I believe it was 2017 and it is called Soviet Art Put to the Test. The exhibition catalog is great. It's, definitely thinking through Soviet art and constructivism on the Centennial of the 1917 revolution and it's definitely worth a look and I can add that link to the post survey as well, yeah.
And Utopia and Dystopia. (laughing) - It's a big topic. - Yeah, I would say that this is perhaps very in the weeds, but one of the most important documents books I was thinking about when writing this talk was Utopia by Sir Thomas More, and it's way out there outside of the time period that we're discussing today. It was written in the 16th century in England. By Sir Thomas More, who was a statesman and humanist writer, and part of Henry VIII's court.
And it's kind of seen as the beginning of the genre of thinking about Utopia as a place that's too good to exist. And it was a very important book to the Bolsheviks. He was highly venerated in Russia and actually technically St. Thomas More, he was canonized by the Catholic church in the 1930s, right around this time.
It's a book written about 16th century European life That held a great amount of sway, at this time. I was constantly going back to More, to think through what I thought Utopia meant in this context. And perhaps, maybe what it meant, to some of the constructivists as well. - Yeah in terms of dystopia, I've actually been, I guess maybe this is just more like my specific research process, but I've been reading more about kind of Nazi Germany. And that's like my focus right now. Actually the final two drawings that I talked about by the two Geisberg Wichmann, that's kind of the focus of my current research project.
And so I've been reading a lot about Nazi Germany, which isn't the same as reading about Dystopia, but they're so relevant and there's so much written, especially now there's so much new research on trauma, and notions of trauma. I've been doing a lot of reading about that. And kind of on the Utopian side, I've read quite a bit about Italian futurism, and Christine Poggi at the IFA at NYU has done some really great research, on that, just kind of thinking about Utopia and the Italian futurist context.
Those are just some ideas. - Fabulous, thank you both. That's great we can definitely put some of that in the follow-up email that you'll get. Another attendee asks, "Any linkages or echos on the dis to Utopia spectrum with the Bauhaus?" - Would you like to go first or would you like me to go first, Elissa? - You go first. - There's great concrete link between what the constructivists are doing and Bauhaus. There's sort of the, a very similar design school in Moscow called the, I hope I'm not butchering the pronunciation for Vkhutemas and, Rodchenko was an instructor there as well Stepanova, she taught textiles I believe, and he taught construction.
Thinking through constructivist principles and sort of, a national form of design art fusion. There's definitely at least in the early Soviet union, there's a lot of communication between artists who are working in both that that does tend to tighten up as Stalin rose to power in the 1930s. But that link definitely does exist and there is a sort of Utopian notion and Bauhaus and Vkhutemas as well as this fusion between the everyday the functional, and how we design and construct, the objects and things in our life. And it is sort of a Utopian gesture in a way as well. It's a great question. And I would just bring up, I find it's, I think it's very relevant that the Bauhaus kind of forms in 1919, so right after world war one, and it goes until 1933 more or less when the Nazis shut it down.
And so there's a sort of, it's interesting because when we were putting this talk together, I was like, "Oh dear, like, let's not, let's try not to make it. Oh, pre-World war one is Utopia and post-World war one is Dystopia because it's not that clean." And I think your mention of the Bauhaus really nails that on the head. It's like the Bauhaus was during the interwar period.
And it was in many respects, there were a lot of Utopian ideals, embedded in its teaching approach. And for those of you don't know, the Bauhaus was a school, an art school in Germany that really focused on functionalism. Or that was one of their-there was a lot of variety within it-but one of the kind of main tenants was this idea of like functional art for the people, this idea of democratizing art, and integrating art into everyday life, in Germany and beyond. And it was an international art school. People came from all over Europe to study there and some of the big names were like Gropius and Max Bill. But yeah, I think this idea that there was a sort of Utopian Utopianism, even in the interwar period, post-World war one is something really important to keep in mind and kind of hand-in-hand with that is the idea that there was a sense of Dystopia to a certain degree before, world war one.
I mentioned Käthe Kollwitz and a lot of her work. And one of the reasons I kinda initially wanted to talk about her in this talk, is that the German expressionists in general were often really interested in issues of social, and in social issues, predominantly with the workers, like the coal, the coal workers, the coal miners in the rural region of Germany, there were a lot of kind of issues with and revolts, because of the way they were treated. And that was something that was imaged a lot, or featured a lot in imagery of the German expressionists pre-World war one. Just to kind of thing, but just to guess, I guess complicate the notions of Utopia and dystopia and to make it clear that there isn't a clear line, or a clear shift from one to the other, it's a give and take. - Yeah, I think it's a great, great point.
We have a more, sort of longer interpretive question about the auto animals. This visitor writes, "Thank you for these fascinating talks. Concerning the Russian auto animals, I wonder whether placing the figures of the animals along with paper people, isn't a form of Utopian shift. The poem is actually rather frightening. The idea of wild animals inside a house is frightening.
If you've ever had a raccoon in your house, you will know what that means. Adding people into the paper animal group makes a quote, unquote, good place, a land of Cockaigne, a land of peace, a world of play in which animals and humans now get along together and where those who manipulate them, i.e the children are allowed creative freedom. I don't know if you would like to respond to that, Jenna? - You know, it's something that I actually, I wrestled with something similar to that, while I was writing this talk.
Thank you, this is a great question. I knew that I wanted to pick a work to do this talk. It was a collaboration between many people, because I don't think that we can pull one interpretation out of it. I think that there are many different ways to read both Tretyakov and Stepanova and Rodchenko's contributions to this.
And I don't think that they're consistent in some ways. I think that the decision to make an animated film is in fact Rodchenko, and Stepanova kind of moving away from the original source material to make it their own and kind of put their own stamp on what, the idea of children's play and constructing paper animals means to them. And so I have so many thoughts.(laughing) The poem is I understand the poem is quite frightening.
It's a little strange. It kind of feels, like this child is sucked into another world. And then at the end of the first stanza, you see that everything is all right, there's this idea of child play, being so immersive that it can become real, which I think can be interpreted as Utopian. And I think that is sort of made manifest in the photographs that the child and the animal exists on equal plane. There is a sort of totally imaginative aspect of it.
It's not paper animals in a child's world. They exist together on equal footing. If that sort of answers the question. That's a great, it's a good question, definitely. - Yeah these questions are all very great thoughtful, so thank you all for, for contributing.
This is a question for Elissa about the Kiesler. "Is it possible that the typewriter keys could be X's with M overlaid or vice versa?" - Oh gosh I'd probably have to look at it again in the gallery. We're still working remotely. I probably have to look at it in person just to kind of try to splice that out. For some reason, I thought it was M's and W's, but it's possible that it's X's and M's.
- Great and so turning back to the auto animals for a second, one visitor writes, "Do little girls still play with paper dolls? Is there any relationship, even a very distant one between those and the paper toys, or is there no relationship other than their material?" - Could you read that one more time? - Yes, "Do little girls still play with paper dolls? Is there any relationship between those paper dolls and the paper toys, or is there no relationship other than their material?" It's like, I guess the question is, was in this context, were paper dolls a popular toy. - You know, this is also thank you for this question because it's something that I actually went and asked a native Russian speaker about the translation for Samozveri, because auto animals, to me seemed-I really liked that translation- I think that the invocation of auto is really important. It kind of brings that sort of constructor, mechanized, sort of viewpoint into the actual language, which is great. But I was thinking, is there no, is there no term in Russian like paper dolls that we have, we understand what paper dolls mean in English that has a kind of web of connections. We understand that there, for kind of fashion plates and usually they're associated with girls, not my boys and we have this whole sort of web, is there a similar concept in Russian and is that what Samozveri actually means and the answer is no. The literal translation is self beasts or DIY beasts, which is really interesting when you think about it.
In some ways I wanna say that the paper is sort of, incidental, but it's also interesting to think about, the kind of changes that happened in children's lives since 1917, 1918. the work by Varvara Stepanova that I showed briefly in the presentation is actually, a sketch for a unisex clothing. There is a real emphasis in children's play to kind of take it out of the domestic space. Dolls are not encouraged. This sort of genderless idea of play is really, really, I don't wanna say the word popular cause that's sort of trivializing, but it's definitely part of the Soviet ideology at this time, but the society is moving past this idea of gender play, racialized play and toward a more, a universal and unisex definition of what a toy is.
And so the doll comparison, it's there to us, I think, as modern, viewers of this, but for someone in Soviet Russia in the 1920s, I don't know if that connection would have been the same, I can't say for certain, but it's definitely an interesting concept to think about what ways are modern definitions of dolls and paper toys sort of inflect backward, onto these objects. But it's a really good question. - That's great. I love "DIY beasts," that's lovely. This is more of a, like sort of general or meta question for both of you. I think you've, you've touched on the idea that dystopia and utopia are kind of slippery concepts that shift and are like historically specific and always contain kind of contradictory elements.
I guess like thinking about how we are discussing art in the context of this tour, as a way to kind of like both illustrate concepts, but also like actually think through concepts and refine them as we go, as you were picking artworks to talk about today, how did you, what were you looking for? Or like what sort of working ideas and definitions guided you, and do you feel like preparing this tour has changed your thinking or opened up new questions for you? I know that's very broad, but whatever, wherever you'd like to enter that question. - That's a really good question. - Yeah and just-because I think you both touched on so many themes in your talks, like gender, labor, childhood, politics, seem like there's any number of entry points. I'm just curious how you found your way into the topic. - I can start, Elissa, if you want.
- Sure. - Well, I brought up Sir Thomas More and thinking through the book Utopia, because I wanted to think about why that book that's written in 1516 has held such sway. I had to read it in high school. I think that was one of the earliest things I read in high school rather than Shakespeare probably, at least in European literature.
And so why does this book hold an incredible amount of sway? Why is St Thomas More canonized by the church? And I think part of the reason returning to that book is seeing that Utopia is like you said, so slippery, it's impossible to pin down an interpretation of that book. It's hard to see exactly in what ways is Thomas More critiquing 16th century English society and saying things should be this way, or what is he pointing out to say, this is a ridiculous idea. Like where does critique and satire, where does that line fall? And I think because we have no idea that, that is actually a really important concept to Utopia that it's different for everyone. Everyone has a different idea of what is thinkable or unthinkable, what is possible and impossible.
And that is why I wanted to work on, a piece that was a collaboration because every person who contributed to this project had a different idea of what was thinkable and what was not. And so the kind of slippage, or kind of conflict between the different iterations of this project we see is because what is thinkable and unthinkable changes with every person and changes within their context, right? What year is it, what nation do they live in? it's very slippery and deeply personal to everyone. That was a long, convoluted answer. - I guess in a similar vein, I think that one of the things this talk made me realize, and I think we sort of knew it to begin with, we came up with top of the, the title, Utopia and Dystopia in modern European art.
We were like, okay, there's no way we can cover all that ground. Jenna decided to kind of focus on Russia and I decided to focus on Germany and I think that's just has to do with, at least for me, it had to do with my research interests at this moment. But I think it was really interesting to think about how you really can kind of, I don't wanna say you can slot all of, modern art into this dichotomy because that would be extremely limiting to modern European art, but there is a way in which so much of modern European art is dictated, or is any dictated, isn't the right word, but is shaped by world war one and world war two. I mean, these two wars just devastated many portions of the European population and had a huge kind of physical and psychological impact.
And so I think that, Dystopia and Utopia are slippery terms when it comes to like large scale war of that scale. There, Dystopia is kind of, I don't know if anyone's gonna argue with that term being applied, to, the European landscape during those years. And artists are really responding to that. And you can think about Dada and Surrealism would be one way of kind of thinking about like the ultimate kind of in many ways, breakdown or kind of crisis that people went through.
What does the world, like, what does life mean? What is going on here, how do we make sense of this? And then on the flip side you have artists like Kandinsky or the Italian futurists or the Bauhaus who are, taking kind of a slightly different approach and saying, okay, well let's oh, they're kind of like either in the prewar periods, sometimes they're just thinking about technology as a good thing, And spiritualism is kind of providing a new way of looking at the world in a positive way. In the interwar period, you kind of have this focus on functionality and this kind of return to order so to speak. And that comes back a little bit in post world war II. But I think that Utopian and Dystopia provide kind of an interesting lens for looking at kind of all of modern European art, just because they do provide sort of a way into grappling with the issue of war, which I think is just something that we've a really hard time wrapping our heads around. 'cause it's just, it's such a, it just, it's so hard to imagine all the different or to really like fully grasp all the different ramifications of that, that scale of war or destruction. Yeah, I guess that's kind of what I've been thinking about is, how this may be provides a slightly different way of looking a slightly different, but in many ways, all encompassing way of looking at modern European art.
- Yeah, exactly I think these philosophical-political issues issuesthat you've identified are world-historical in scale. Utopia and Dystopia can help us maybe parse them out a little bit. We are at 1:30, and I want to be respectful of everyone's time, but thank you so much, Elissa and Jenna, for your fascinating presentations and for taking questions, I think it's been a really illuminating session. And if anyone in the audience has follow up questions, is it okay if they reach out to you with...? Yeah,
just to get more about the works or discuss further. And again, we'll send a follow-up email with some of the artworks discussed today and then the book recommendations that were discussed earlier. Thank you all for coming and we hope to see you at future programs and have a lovely Friday. - Thank you all. - Thank you, Jake.