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Book of the Week — Moscow


“Somewhere within their walls shall all that forwards perfect human life be started,
Tried, taught, advanced, visibly exhibited.
Not only all the world of works, trade, products,
But all the workmen of the world here to be represented.”
— “Song of the Exposition,” Walt Whitman

Moscow
Alexander Rodchenko (1891 – 1956)
Moscow and Leningrad: State Art Publishers, 1939
First edition
DK601.5 M66 1939

Published for the Soviet Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Moscow features beautifully illustrated photos captioned in English. A great example of Soviet propaganda, this carefully curated book exhibited the virtues of Moscow and the U.S.S.R through images of its impeccable streets, buildings, landmarks, industry, citizens, and more.

The photographs and design of the book are attributed to Alexander Rodchenko, a prominent Russian artist, sculptor, photographer, graphic designer, and one of the leading founders of Constructivism. Working as a painter and graphic designer in the early twentieth century, Rodchenko was heavily influenced by the avant garde of Europe: Cubists, Futurist, Dadaists, as well as Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions. During his early years, he collaborated closely with other famous figures of the Russian avant-garde, such as poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, artist El Lissitzky, and socialite and muse, Lilya Brik.

Rodchenko began to experiment with photography and photomontage in the early 1920s, impressed by the work he had seen from the German Dadaists. His first published photomontage appeared in 1923, illustrating Mayakovsky’s poem, “About This” with a dramatic portrait of Lilya Brik. Brik also appeared in what is considered to be Rodchenko’s most recognized work: an advertisement for the publishing house which features her cupped hands shouting, “books in all branches of knowledge.” Over the last hundred years, this image has inspired artists and musicians alike, appearing in variation on album covers from bands like The Ex, Mike and the Mechanics, and Franz Ferdinand.

To enhance the relationship between image and text in his work, Rodchenko eliminated unnecessary detail, emphasized dynamic diagonal composition, and was particularly concerned with the placement and movement of objects in space. His unique style caught the attention of the Bolshevik government, which commissioned Rodchenko for publications, exhibitions, and other creative work. Rodchenko was appointed Director of the Museum Bureau and Purchasing before becoming Secretary of the Moscow Artists’ Union. During this time, he set up the Fine Arts Division of the People’s Commissariat for Education, co-founded the Institute for Artistic Culture, and reorganized the structure of art schools and museums to fit the new Bolshevik narrative. In a little more than a decade, the guidelines within the party began rapidly shifting, governing artistic practice in favor of Socialist Realism. By then, Rodchenko had left his abstract avant-garde work behind to concentrate on sports photography and images of parades.

Artistic production under Stalinism — which lasted from 1927 to 1953 — has been an issue of contention for many art historians, with some disregarding it as “subservient to oppressive forces” during a time of “monolithic repression,” thereby lacking meaningful statements or creative invention. But, as in the case of Rodchenko, that is not entirely true. Until his death in 1956, Rodchenko undertook a wide range of commissions, with projects varying both in form, political implications, and artistic constraints. His opus includes books, magazines, exhibitions, and murals, some of which were in collaboration with his wife and fellow artist, Varvara Stepanova.

Of his many projects, Rodchenko and El Lissitzky worked extensively on designing USSR in Construction, a propaganda magazine that promoted a favorable image of the Soviet Union abroad. Published monthly between 1930 and 1941, the magazine appeared in five editions and languages: Russian, German, English, French, and Spanish. Although it was intended primarily for a foreign audience, its distribution with the Soviet Union also encouraged support for state policies and practices. Part of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, USSR in Construction projected an optimistic image of Soviet achievements, generous rights and entitlements for Soviet citizens, and a shared vision of the future among the diverse ethnic and national groups that had been incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Much like the magazine, Rodchenko’s Moscow reflected “in photography the whole scope and variety of the construction work now going on in the USSR.” Presented at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, Moscow was yet another method to portray the nation as an emerging industrial power that could (and should) command respect from other industrialized nations. Photographs of bridges, metro stations, apartment buildings, parks and cultural centers, workers, school children, and the like, were printed by rotogravure, an intaglio technique that creates a rich texture and soft-focus, giving the images a heightened dramatic effect suited for the book’s rhetorical objectives. In order to give the subjects of his photos a heroic cast, Rodchenko frequently framed his shots from below or up close, emphasizing the shadows and enlarging the faces.

Although Rodchenko’s images conveyed a Soviet Union that was democratic, unified, and productive, the publication of Moscow coincided with the end of Stalin’s brutal trials and purges. At the World’s Fair, visitors were introduced to the U.S.S.R as a multicultural industrial paradise, but back home tens of thousands of citizens were being arrested and murdered at the hands of the regime. Rodchenko was like many other artists and writers who were engaged in creating Soviet propaganda during the “purge years” and thus implicated in maintaining the status quo; and like many other artists, Rodchenko decided that opposition to Stalin’s tactics was simply not an option.

Grover Whalen, the President of the New York World’s Fair, Incorporated, had signed up thirty-three U.S. states and every large nation in the world except for China and Germany to participate in the World’s Fair of 1939. It was claimed that 90 percent of the world’s population would be represented. Whalen and other New York City businessmen hoped the international exposition would boost the city’s economy, which was, at that time, stunted by the Great Depression. Looking for investors abroad, Whalen worked with Russian ambassadors in Washington to persuade Stalin to build an enormous pavilion. Stalin, looking for an opportunity to highlight the Soviet Union’s achievements, rose to the challenge and contributed four million dollars toward the U.S.S.R pavilion and the fair.

The U.S.S.R pavilion was extravagant. Topped by a giant statue standing 79-feet high, its central pylon was the tallest structure at the Fair, second only to the Trylon — the Fair’s thematic center spire. The outer facade of the pavilion, shaped like a ‘C’, was divided into eleven sections that represented the eleven constituent republics of the Soviet Union. Inside, there were numerous exhibitions including the airplane which made the first transpolar flight from the U.S.S.R to the United States, a huge map of the Soviet Union created out of precious and semi-precious stones, and a life-size interior reproduction of the Mayakovskaya Metro Station, designed by Alexey Dushkin. This design won Dushkin the Grand Prize of the 1939 World’s Fair. In addition to the featured exhibitions there were also paintings and sculptures, handicrafts from different regions, Soviet cinema showings, performances by the Red Army Ensemble, local cuisine and drink. Confined within the 1,216 acres of the fairgrounds, the world seemed glamorous, full of ambition, innovative. Most importantly, there was the illusion of peace and harmony among nations.

Looming amid the pavilions, however, was the prospect of war and the growing Nazi threat. Countries under the pressure of the Axis powers, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France, exhibited a special nationalistic pride in their pavilions. In the case of Poland, most items were, in fact, sold by the exiled Polish Government operating in London. Within six months of the Fair’s opening, World War II began. In the following 1940 season the facade had dropped. Ten of the nations that had previously participated dropped out, including the U.S.S.R, whose withdrawal was announced only days after the Soviet invasion of Finland. In the absence of their grandiose pavilion, the empty lot was re-purposed into the “American Commons” — a two-and-a-half acre square dedicated to the perpetuation of a democratic idea. By this time, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, officially known as the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the U.S.S.R., had stymied Russia’s American defenders, and for most, the Soviets were not missed.

The 1939 New York World’s Fair was the most expensive American world’s fair of all time, second only to the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. It was the first fair to be focused on the future, and in it’s two seasons, open from April to October each year, it attracted over 45 million visitors, generating roughly $48 million in revenue. Yet even with these numbers, it was ultimately a financial failure, and with an extensive debt the Fair’s Corporation declared bankruptcy. Despite being constructed out of the shadows of war and economic strife, the 1939 World’s Fair did leave its visitors with a positive message. From the official guidebook, Whalen declared:

“The talents and genius of many men and women — architects, engineers, industrialists, businessmen, civic leader and educators — have been assembled to give graphic demonstration to the dream of a better “World of Tomorrow”: that world which you and I and our millions of fellow citizens can build from the best of the tools available to us today. We show you here in the New York World’s Fair the best industrial techniques, social ideas and services, the most advanced scientific discoveries. And at the same time we convey to you the picture of the interdependence of man on man, class on class, nation on nation. We tell you of the immediate necessity of enlightened and harmonious cooperation to preserve and save the best of our modern civilization. We seek to achieve orderly progress in a world of peace… ”

Suggested Reading:

The Struggle for Utopia
Margolin, Victor
University of Chicago Press, 1997
xN6494 M64 M36 1997

Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair, 1939
New York World’s Fair
New York : Exposition Publications, 1939
xT785 A1 1939

1939: The Lost World of the Fair
Gelernter, David
The Free Press, 1995
xT785 B1 G45 1995

Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator

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