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5 Iron Flowers: Proletkult Creation in the Arts
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Revolutionary Experiments

The intricate relationship between artistic form and content was not a central theme for Proletkult artists and critics during the early Soviet years. Indeed, many participants seemed to believe that art with a revolutionary content—new words to old ballads, new images in the ode or sonnet, or even old plays in new contexts—was a sufficient expression of the proletarian spirit. Bogdanov, a foe of stylistic innovation, insisted that true socialist art would be "simple in form but enormous in content." He protested against some works by proletarian artists that were stylistically so complex that even intellectu-


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als had a hard time grasping them.[80] Ilia Trainin, another opponent of experimentation, believed that proletarian art first and foremost meant a revolution in content. From this a new form would eventually emerge.[81]

However, a vocal minority in the movement was convinced that revolutionary messages needed innovative modes of expression. They sought new formal methods that would distinguish their creative products from those of other classes. In the field of music, for example, the Moscow Proletkult opened a small scientific and technical sector where experimental musicians like Arsenii Avraamov and Nikolai Roslavets worked to create a seventeen-note scale. They also studied the use of industrial objects as instruments, anticipating the concerts of factory whistles sponsored in part by the Proletkult during the 1923 celebration of the revolution.[82] The local music studio in Penza put on a "collective concert" without a conductor in 1920, a forerunner of the leaderless orchestras that gained popularity later in the decade.[83]

Literature circles tried their hands at collective writing projects, one venture that had the hearty endorsement of the central organization. A Moscow studio produced a collective poem, "In Memory of the Fallen," to honor those killed in an attack on the Moscow party center in the fall of 1919.[84] Mikhail Gerasimov worked together with Sergei Esenin and Sergei Klychkov to compose a poem commemorating Sergei Ko-


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nenkov's monument to the martyrs of the revolution. The poem was then put to music and performed by the Moscow Proletkult choir when the sculpture was unveiled in November 1918.[85]

Theater workshops also experimented with collective works. In Rybinsk members wrote, directed, and performed an agitational play called Don't Go (Ne khodi ), which depicted the confrontation of a Red Army soldier with his wife who did not want him to fight in the Civil War. Central leaders continually cited this play as the best example of collective creation, and it became a standard part of the Proletkult's theatrical repertoire.[86] In Saratov a club theater put on improvisational evenings. People in the audience would shout out themes, such as "taking over an apartment" or "why I became a Communist," and studio members would act them out on stage.[87] Improvisation became the basis of all theatrical work in Proletkult clubs during the New Economic Policy; members were encouraged to create their own skits and mock trials about the problems of everyday life.[88]

Collective readings were another innovation employed by drama studios, a solution to the problem of repertoire and to the poor preparation of Proletkult students for public performances. The head of the Petrograd theater, Mgebrov, was an enthusiastic supporter of this technique. He adapted nondramatic material for the stage, fashioning poetry into elaborate scripts with very detailed choreography. Individuals read small parts of the poems, but the majority of the work was declaimed by the chorus. Mgebrov hailed this as an original, collective artistic form.[89]


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Moscow theatrical studios launched their own experiments, opening a special division for "tonal-plastic movement" in 1920. Based on rigorous physical training and group readings, tonal plastics aimed to educate actors to work together as a mass, a rejection of the individualistic methods of Stanislavsky's theater. In late 1920 Sergei Eisenstein, who was later to become a film director, introduced the avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold's system of biomechanics. It made integrated movement and conscious body control, rather than subconscious feeling, the basis of acting. Neither technique originated in the Proletkult. Meyerhold developed the basic principles of biomechanics years before the revolution, and tonal plastics drew on the ideas of the Swiss composer and choreographer Jaques-Dalcroze.[90] However, Proletkultists saw both techniques as methods to create a new collective theater.

Despite widespread denunciations of futurism, select local circles produced "futurist" work. The art section in the short-lived Proletkult in Barhaul was led by Nikolai Tarabukin, who was influenced by the work of Malevich and Altman. When Tarabukin went to Moscow to work for Narkompros's experimental Institute for Artistic Culture, he also became an instructor in the Moscow Proletkult.[91] The Saratoy art division was led by the avant-garde artist V. Iustinskii, who believed that the proletariat had to find new artistic forms. He designed the completely abstract cover for the Saratoy Proletkult publication, Waves (Vzmakhi ).[92] This journal, and espe-


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cially its cover, got a very unfavorable review in Proletarian Culture for its "futuristic tendencies." Despite this critique, the Saratov organization did not change its direction. In a 1920 report one participant complained, "I do not know why they have stuck a futurist label on our art studios. They should be glad that our students do not demand teachers from the old school."[93]

Some Proletkult students found their way to modern styles on their own. A young peasant woman who worked with Timofei Katurkin in Belev was amazed by the paintings of Picasso and Matisse she discovered when invited to a conference in Moscow. This exposure convinced her that she had to go to study in France, where she eventually became a professional painter and married Fernand Léger.[94] A Moscow member, Aleksandr Zugrin, became one of the Proletkult's most visible artists. Although his teachers were realists, Zugrin's work sometimes showed the influence of cubism. His engravings and linoleum cuts adorned the covers and pages of journals such as Furnace (Gorn ), Create! (Tvori! ), and Creation (Tvorchestvo ), as well as the book jackets of many collections of proletarian poems.[95]

Artistic experiments got their widest acceptance when the Moscow Proletkult gave its support to production art, a direction first suggested by the avant-gardist Olga Rozanova in 1918.[96] Rather than making rarefied objects for museums or


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the beautification of private spaces, the advocates of this approach believed that proletarian artists should turn their attention to the public sphere. They should bring an aesthetic sense to the mass production of objects for general use, for example, textiles and furniture.[97]

In the first issue of Furnace , published in mid-1918, the Moscow art studio organizers explained that the main goal of production art was the fusion of artistic creation and industry. Unions should send the Proletkult talented workers who would then be trained in artistic skills closely connected to their trades. Builders would be taught architecture and weavers textile design.[98] Such a course would lead to the end of "bourgeois" forms like museum art and easel art, argued Boris Arvatov, one of the foremost theorists of this pragmatic aesthetic. He became involved in the Moscow Proletkult in 1919 and under his influence art studios increasingly turned toward practical and industrial design.[99]

Production art appealed to Proletkultists because it was firmly grounded in the factory, which gave it good proletarian credentials. This approach aimed to bring art into daily life, fulfilling the Proletkult's promise to change the function of art in society. Proponents of this highly utilitarian direction rejected the strict delineation between art and life and also that between artists and other producers. By focusing on objects with obvious social uses, including posters and banners, production art helped to justify the Proletkult's existing emphasis on agitational forms.

Initially, only some Moscow art studios embraced production art, but it steadily gained influence. In 1919 Anna Dodonova urged the national organization to pursue this direc-


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tion in all its artistic programs. She contended that many workshops were in danger of perpetuating a "handicraft" (kustarnyi ) approach to art. Rather than continuing in the old way, it was imperative to tie art to industry.[100] Eventually, production art was accepted as the Proletkult's official aesthetic platform, a move that was resisted by many local circles that found it too utilitarian and cold.[101] Although this approach never completely dominated local practice, the central Proletkult's endorsement revealed the organization's affinity to the avant-garde, a link that would only become stronger in the 1920s.


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