The American avant-garde and the Soviet Union
Author: Barnaby Haran

Watching the red dawn charts the responses of the American avant-garde to the cultural works of its Soviet counterpart in period from the formation of the USSR in 1922 to recognition of this new communist nation by USA in 1933. In this period American artists, writers, and designers looked at the emerging Soviet Union with fascination, as they observed this epochal experiment in communism develop out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. They organised exhibitions of Soviet art and culture, reported on visits to Russia in books and articles, and produced works that were inspired by post-revolutionary culture. One of the most important innovations of Soviet culture was to collapse boundaries between disciplines, as part of a general aim to bring art into everyday life. Correspondingly, this book takes an interdisciplinary approach by looking at American avant-garde responses to Soviet culture across several media, including architecture, theatre, film, photography, and literature. As such, Watching the red dawn considers the putative area of ‘American Constructivism’ by examining the interconnected ways in which Constructivist works were influential upon American practices.

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The red Atlantic
Barnaby Haran

This chapter sets up the book by considering another of introductory themes. ‘The red Atlantic’ involves an American-Russian transnationational interchange across several media in relation to the aesthetic of the machine as a signifier of the influence of American technology on Soviet communism. For the Soviets, America represented the means to construct communism in the USSR, albeit without a capitalist economy. It asserts the need to think beyond the Franco-American paradigm as a means of figuring the emergent radical culture of the 1930s. The putative area of ‘American Constructivism’ mainly involved cultural interrelations of American communists and Soviet counterparts. Finally, there is a consideration of methodology including assessments of transnationalism, Interdisciplinarity, and the avant-garde.

in Watching the red dawn
Machine art and architecture at The Little Review exhibitions
Barnaby Haran

This chapter considers the putative area of ‘American Constructivism’, a formation that did not have any organisational substance but existed as a number of respectively interconnected and discrete tendencies. Two exhibitions organised by The Little Review—the International Theatre Exposition (1926) and the Machine-Age Exposition(1927)—contained the largest amount of Constructivist works on display in the USA in the interwar years, in the form of theatre and architectural designs. The chapter charts the emergence of Constructivism and its reception in America. For the most part, the introduction of Constructivism into the USA involved the depoliticisation of the original Soviet version. Whilst largely apolitical, the exhibitions organised by The Little Review were unique in terms of the organisers’ grasp of Constructivist discourses and techniques, being informed by the International Constructivism of De Stijl via Austrian émigré Frederick Kiesler. The Machine-Age Exposition was notable for its detailed presentation of Soviet architecture, and therefore the chapter includes an extensive analysis of debates around functionalism, culminating in a consideration of the development of the International Style at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

in Watching the red dawn
The New Playwrights Theatre and American radical Constructivism
Barnaby Haran

This chapter looks at the most substantial manifestation of ‘American Constructivism’, which took shape in the radical theatrical productions of the New Playwrights Theatre, a short-lived group that operated between 1926 and 1929. The NPT was closely affiliated with the communist cultural organ New Masses, and included the magazine’s most prominent editor, Mike Gold, amongst its number. The chapter charts the emergence of theatrical Constructivism in the USA, noting its origins in the radical and Expressionist theatrical culture associated with The Masses. The NPT differed from these earlier versions by emulating the machinolatry of Soviet Constructivism, drawing in particular from the experiments of Vsevolod Meyerhold. If Soviet Constructivism aimed to reach the masses, then the NPT mixed the machine aesthetic with specifically American phenomena such as Jazz, racial politics, and automobile production. However, unlike Russian theatrical productions the NPT betrayed a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards the machine, demonstrating residual Expressionist machinephobia. Arguably the most sophisticated writer of the NPT was John Dos Passos, whose concept of New Realism is considered in depth. Finally, the chapter includes a summation of the legacy of the NPT in the radical theatre of the 1930s.

in Watching the red dawn
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Soviet montage and the American cinematic avant-garde
Barnaby Haran

Alongside the radical Constructivism of the New Playwrights Theatre, the American avant-garde’s most sympathetic engagement with Soviet revolutionary culture was in cinema. Unlike Soviet theatrical productions, Russian films were fairly widely viewed by Americans, especially in the years before sound technologies partitioned national cinemas, and received extensive commentaries in American publications, from specialist magazines to newspapers. This chapter considers the cinematic productions and discourses of radical Left in terms of a sustained response to Soviet cinema, in particular relation to the enthusiastic reception of montage. One key instance was the 1929 screening of Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera at the Film Guild Cinema in New York, a building designed by Frederick Kiesler. In Experimental Cinema, a short-lived magazine that ran from 1930 to 1934, montage developed from a machine aesthetic myth into the standard in a cinematic battle against Hollywood. Alongside some sporadic experiments, the Experimental Cinema group developed a textual form of montage scenario. The magazine was affiliated with the Workers Film and Photo League, a group that considered film as a ‘weapon in the class struggle’, and used a rudimentary form of montage to attack American capitalism and the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations.

in Watching the red dawn
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The worker photography movement and the New Vision in America
Barnaby Haran

In contrast to the prolific commentary in the United States on Soviet cinematic montage, there was negligible coverage of Russian still photography. There was some consonance and correspondence in ‘worker photography’ movement, which included both American and Russian photographers. Yet, in less tangible ways there were corollaries between American and Soviet photographers, such as in the strong aesthetic and thematic consonance of their photographs, especially where the subject was industrial or urban. In this regard, American and Russian leftist modernists were variants of the ‘New Vision’, the apex of which was the 1929 Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart. A further point of intersection involved the visits of American photographers to the USSR, in particular Margaret Bourke-White, who produced a book called Eyes on Russia. In this chapter I consider all of these strands in relation to debates on photographic veracity, especially in terms of photography’s role in political propaganda.

in Watching the red dawn
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Red train journeys
Barnaby Haran

This final section assesses some accounts of American visitors to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s in terms of modernist travelogue writing. The poets Langston Hughes and E.E. Cummings, who were respectively black and poor and white and privileged, both reported in their experiences of the Soviet Union of the Five Year Plan. The responses of Cummings and Hughes were almost exactly opposite to one another—the former’s horror equalled the latter’s praise. Yet both figures were enmeshed within the pages of Literature of the World Revolution, the communist organ of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, which was from 1932 called International Literature, in ways that betray the complex cultural politics that accompanied the pilgrimage to the land of the Bolsheviks. This epilogue functions as a means of considering the intensification of politics in the 1930s and the increase of a barricade mentality that disrupted the broad base that characterised 1920s modernism.

in Watching the red dawn