by Catherine Walworth. The Pennsylvania State University Press, October 2017. 231 p. ill. ISBN 9780271077697 (h/c), $94.95.
Reviewed March 2018
Stephen J. Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, Frick Art Reference Library, email@example.com
In her contribution to the series Refiguring Modernism, Catherine Walworth, curator at the Columbus Museum of Art, explores the margins of Russian constructivism (1918-1929). She deploys Claude Lévi-Strauss’ contrast between the “bricoleur” and the “engineer.” Whilst the typical constructivist, photographed at their desk with setsquare, rule and pen, might fit the type of the engineer, in fact, many constructivists, because of lack of access to materials, had to adopt the tactics of the bricoleur. But it is to the bricoleurs, largely unsung in traditional accounts of constructivism, that Walworth pays most attention. Her introduction also includes a brief historiography of constructivism, through Camilla Gray to Christina Lodder and Christina Kiaer; new sources have become available since then, including the yet un-translated account of the State Porcelain Factory, Artistic Porcelain (1938) by Elena Danko, and Esfir Shub’s autobiography. She also mines the weekly magazine Krasnaia niva (1923-1931).
After the October Revolution, the State Porcelain Factory had a surplus of white porcelain blanks bisque-fired with imperial marks, and they became possible sites for Communist propaganda. At first the imperial marks were overpainted, but as the value of earlier Romanov signatures increased abroad, they were often left alongside a new stamp of the hammer and sickle with a cogwheel mark. Although many of the World of Art artists became involved, there are some memorable constructivist and suprematist designs by Altman, Chashnik and Suetin before 1924. Walworth is at her best describing individual pieces and their context. But how this episode amounts to a constructivist achievement of mass production is not convincingly argued.
A strength of this book is the exploration of the work of Nadezhda Lamanova, a former socialite dressmaker to such figures as Tsarina Aleksandra Fedorovna. After the Revolution, Lamanova promoted simple, functional clothing, often rectangular as the most economical in its use of scarce material. Whilst it is possible to see connections with the theoretical constructivist concepts of faktura and tektonica, the use of craft and peasant towels was anathema to constructivists; the promotion of designs through the magazine Art in Everyday Life was a revival of domestic industry, rather than the mass industrial production that the constructivists championed.
Chapter four examines the work of filmmaker Esfir Shub, who produced un-acted films such as The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Whilst her use of found film brings her into Walworth’s bricoleur category, Shub was close to the center of constructivism. Married to the constructivist theorist Aleksei Gan, her approach to film was debated in LEF and Novy LEF.
This is an important multi-disciplinary publication and should be in any library with readers interested in film, fashion, and ceramics, as well as early Soviet history and culture.