2017 marks the centenary of the two Russian revolutions that irrevocably altered the Russian political system and had broad and lasting impacts on the course of the twentieth century. The anniversary of the toppling of Tsarist autocracy and the institution of communism provides an opportunity to reflect on the vast ramifications the events of 1917 had on Russian culture, and the diverse forms of artistic expression that were born amidst this upheaval. Numerous art exhibitions this year are thus examining these early avant-garde experimentations that happened during the period before Stalin instituted Socialist Realism as an official state doctrine; amongst those on offer on the English-speaking borders of the Atlantic are Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (opening February 11), A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (running through to March 12), and Red Star Over Russia at the Tate Modern (opening November 8). The centenary similarly offers scholars of Soviet history the occasion to consider social, economic, and ideological points of connection between the early years of the Soviet Union and our contemporary world. The past exhibition to which I devote my attention in this essay, Cologne’s 1928 Internationale Presse Ausstellung (Pressa), occurred just one year before the devastating Wall Street Crash of October 1929. Its bold assertions about communist ideology therefore grew in significance as capitalism plummeted into its worst crisis of the twentieth century. Since the 2008 financial crash, as the world experiences crisis anew, much of the world has seen a resurgence of the social, economic, and political ideas and debates that influenced the early twentieth century. To consider the cultural expression of the young Soviet state, and its associated ideological assertions, therefore seems particularly worthwhile at this moment.

In 1928, El Lissitzky designed the Soviet pavilion for the Pressa exhibition, which displayed advances in modern press, publishing, and advertising from countries worldwide. Lissitzky’s designs, applauded at the time as a radical and dynamic departure from the staid pavilions of other participating countries, celebrated innovations in the Soviet press and glorified the achievements of the young Soviet Union. Creating a dramatic environment that combined typography, photomontage, architectural elements, and cinematic effects, Lissitzky destroyed the boundaries between spectator and artwork and forced the audience to engage actively with this dynamic installation and the radical experiments of the Soviet avant-garde.

Organised in twenty sections, the Soviet pavilion was a design feat, intended to overwhelm the visitor with the accomplishments of the young Soviet state. In the entrance hall, intermingled with enormous letters that read USSR and rotating on constant loops, were six floor-to-ceiling transmission belts showing examples of the Soviet press. Immediately beyond these belts stood a three-dimensional red star, above which hung a vast elliptical disk and six constellations. According to the Pressa catalogue, “this construction visualises the basic principles of the Soviet constitution,”[1] with the disk representing the Russian landmass and the constellations symbolising the six republics. Circling the construction were the words “Workers of the World, Unite!” Behind this grand construction was an enormous photofrieze, titled “The Education of the Masses is the Main Task of the Press in the Transitional Period from Capitalism to Communism,” which covered the entire upper span of one wall. The entirety of the pavilion was designed to demonstrate not only the technological advancements in the Soviet press, but also to serve as both a monument to, and evidence of, the righteous power of the new government and its foundation in new Soviet ideology. As one contemporary critic observed, Soviet Russia was “magnificent in her exposition of her social situation, this being actually done with mechanical apparatus, moving belts, crazy cubist zigzags, and exciting emotion through the fierceness of her forward thrust, which is illustrated boldly and boastfully, and always in a glaring red […] Class-consciousness to the fray!”[2]

Image 1: Installation view of the red star at Pressa, 1928

The Pressa exhibition came at the perfect time to broadcast Soviet growth. In 1928, Stalin announced the First Five Year Plan, which intended to stimulate economic growth and industrialisation to make the USSR entirely self-sufficient. “We are advancing full steam ahead along a path of industrialisation to socialism,” Stalin declared in 1929, “We shall yet see which countries may then be ‘classified’ as backward and which as advanced.”[3] With this new focus on industry and technological advancement came a new direction in Soviet art. Artists were encouraged to participate in the construction of this new modernity and capture a vision of urban living, creating art that was “intelligible to the millions.”[4] Photography was increasingly relied upon as a tool for agitational, educational propaganda; Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, declared in 1926 that “every progressive comrade should have not only a watch but also a camera.”[5] Increasingly, photographers captured scenes of industrial manufacture, memorialising the growth of factories and plants and celebrating the success of socialism. Photomontage became popular as the new visual language used to express the feeling of rapid change and modernisation in the Soviet Union, and began to function as a sociopolitical tool to garner support. Lissitzky’s Pressa designs utilised these new, popular techniques, not only displaying visions of modern Soviet life but also advertising Soviet socialist progress in photography, publishing, and design.

Lissitzky’s primary desire in constructing the Soviet pavilion was to engage the viewer actively in an immersive experience of art. Lissitzky was one of many artists during the period who decried the passivity of the audience in the presence of art and he sought throughout his work in the 1920s to energise the viewer and make them more than a mere observer. In creating truly modern art for a radically modern socialist society, Lissitzky hoped to eradicate the inertia he believed inherent in the traditional reception of art and encourage viewers to participate in works suitable for the new Soviet society. When designing Pressa, Lissitzky drew upon his earlier artistic experiments and achieved a certain dissolution of passivity by introducing movement into the structure of the room itself. The vast photofrieze, “a complex rhythmical and spatial organism,”[6] had a dynamic relationship with the wall on which it was exhibited. Segmented by architectural support beams, sections of the frieze recessed or protruded in dialogue with the architectural layout of the room, creating a dynamic and constantly changing background. The moving bands of image and text, the flashing lights and glowing red star that towered over the room, and the sculptures overlaid with easily legible text all served to engage the visitor and involve them in the marvel of the Soviet press. A.B. Khalatov further elaborated on this intention in the catalogue for Pressa:

“The exhibition seeks to reflect this constant movement – in its expression by the press – in the exhibited objects with their various forms of physical and visual movement, their lights flashing on and off and their humming engines. In this way, it seeks to turn dry statistics and diagrams into living things.”[7]

Lissitzky’s intention in dissolving the boundaries between art object and spectator was to engage the spectator in a form of art which he believed to be indistinct from everyday life. During this period, Constructivist artists like Rodchenko and Tatlin argued for the use of utilitarian social objects that played a role in everyday routines, thereby connecting art with a proletarian audience and driving the intended social changes of the revolution. Although Lissitzky took a more utopian position than these artists, he strongly believed that his art played a role in the construction of the new Soviet society, and he believed he could involve them in this process by making spectators interact dynamically with this art. “All are creators and there is no reason of any sort for this division into artists and non-artists” Lissitzky stated in “Suprematism in World Reconstruction” (1920). Visitors to the Soviet pavilion at Pressa, therefore, could play an active role in this new, dynamic Soviet art.

Image 2: Installation view of a segment of the photofrieze, “The Education of the Masses is the Main Task of the Press in the Transitional Period from Capitalism to Communism,” at Pressa, 1928

The concept of breaking down the barriers between spectator and art was further elaborated on by Jan Tschichold, a German typographer and friend of Lissitzky’s, who observed after visiting Pressa:

“[…] by bringing a dynamic element into the exhibition by means of continuous films, illuminated and intermittent letters and [a] number of rotating models… The room thus became a sort of stage on which the visitor himself seemed to be one of the players.”[8]

Interestingly, Tschichold compares his experience of Pressa as akin to performing on a stage, and this reference to theatre is crucial to understanding Lissitzky’s conception of the Soviet pavilion. Lissitzky had demonstrated an ongoing interest in theatre design and issues of spectatorship and the stage throughout the 1920s. In 1926, he designed stage sets for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s (never realised) production of Sergei Tret’iakov’s I Want a Child. Meyerhold’s own adaptive use of the stage, in which he removed the stage curtain entirely to minimise the barrier between spectator and actor, seems to have inspired Lissitzky, who proposed a radical restructuring of traditional theatre design to create a “total theatre.” Lissitzky’s extensive description of this project is revelatory:

“After Meyerhold did away with the stage curtain and thereby the division of stage from auditorium, I took the next step and completely superseded the stage. The stage is fully merged with the auditorium by the construction of an amphitheatre. For the play itself a new area in the theatre is created, a “ring” that rises from the orchestra pit. The actors emerge from below, from the depth of the orchestra pit, from above, out of the balconies, and from the sides across bridges: they no longer have anything to do with the stage. Props roll down ropes from above and disappear into depth after every scene. Light sources move together with the actors, who perform on a transparent floor. The new arrangement of the acting surface brings the actor closer to the spectator in the balconies, thus devaluing what used to be the front stalls.”[9]

Essential to Lissitzky’s design was a dissolution of the inherent barrier between actor and spectator in traditional theatre, an emancipation that relates to his ongoing desire to activate the viewer. Spectatorship meant being passive and Lissitzky believed that revolutionising the space of the theatre would force the viewer to engage in the work of art. The contemporary scholar Jacques Rancière has posited the same theory, arguing in  “The Emancipated Spectator”:

“What must be pursued is a theater without spectators, a theater where spectators will no longer be spectators, where they will learn things instead of being captured by images and become active participants in a collective performance instead of being passive viewers.”[10]

Rancière’s assertion that a new theater without spectatorship is necessary to dismantle the inherent divide between observer and actor aligns with Lissitzky’s repeated attempts in Pressa to draw the viewer into the performance. The interactive Soviet pavilion, which Lissitzky designed while concurrently working on his “total theatre,” was his grand attempt to create something entirely new: “Surrounded by the performance, dragged into the circle of the action,”[11] visitors to the Soviet pavilion were, as Tschichold described, actors in a new, radical performance space.

Image 3: Film still from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, 1929

The vast array of multiple mediums in dialogue with one another in Lissitzky’s Pressa designs demonstrate his interest in a wide variety of artistic practices and his indiscriminate simultaneous exploration of numerous modes of production. Lissitzky’s designs were clearly informed and inspired to some degree by techniques used in contemporary cinema. Avant-garde Soviet film emerged during the late 1910s and early 1920s as an enormously popular revolutionary form of art that had the potential to capture modern life in a manner unlike any other medium (it was also later capitalised on by Stalin, who understood cinema’s vast propaganda potential). Sergei Eisenstein, one of the pioneering Soviet directors of the period, declared that film evolved from theatre but improved upon its limitations: “The next dimension of means of expression,” film enabled “the broadening of the palette, the inclusion of real objects, of genuine elements of reality.”[12] Avant-garde artists were drawn to the newly invented montage technique, which revealed “life caught unawares.”[13] Kazimir Malevich praised the ability of montage to capture the dynamic and evolving Soviet world, commenting that “the person responsible for the montage of the film magnificently understood the idea of the task of the new montage, which expresses a shift that did not exist previously,”[14] while Aleksei Gan proclaimed “Long live the demonstration of everyday life!”[15] Aleksandr Rodchenko, who had worked for Gan’s magazine Kino-Fot since 1922, designed posters for Dziga Vertov’s Kinoglaz (Cine-Eye) and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin.

Lissitzky similarly saw the potential of film montage. In his major publication Die Kunstismen (The Isms of Art), published in 1924, he provided a survey of the linear progress of art movements since 1914. The book culminates with a discussion of radical Swedish avant-garde filmmaker,Viking Eggeling, and abstract film (and a question-mark for the future), thus emphasising Lissitzky’s belief that film and photography were the future of artistic exploration. Lissitzky had been interested in adapting his work for cinema since 1922, a year in which he initiated plans (which were never carried through) to interpret his book About Two Squares: Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions as a film. He had also long followed the career of Dziga Vertov, one of the pioneering directors of montage film with whom he later became close friends, and proclaimed that Vertov had “truly discovered a new path in cinematography.”[16] By the time Lissitzky designed the Pressa installation, he had become increasingly interested in the potential of film montage and was eager to apply the new techniques to his own work.

Lissitzky’s absorption with film techniques is particularly apparent in the vast photofrieze, “The Task of the Press is the Education of the Masses”. In this, he overlaid huge images of Soviet people, industrial scenes, grand profiles of Lenin, and snapshots of everyday life in an irregular and seemingly random formation, a technique later observed in Vertov’s overlaying of multiple themes simultaneously in The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). The frieze displayed multiple moments in space and time concurrently, effectively collapsing any potential narrative and instead bombarding the viewer with recognisable scenes of Soviet life. This technique, with its emphasis on capturing snapshots of reality and freezing them for the viewer, is similar to Vertov’s “The Birth of Kino-Eye” (1924), in which the author describes his struggle to capture all that his senses experienced:

“And one day in the spring of 1918…returning from a train station. There lingered in my ears the sighs and rumble of the departing train…someone’s swearing…a kiss…someone’s exclamation…laughter, a whistle, voices, the ringing of the station bell, the puffing of the locomotive…whispers, cries, farewells…And thoughts while walking: I must get a piece of equipment that won’t describe, but will record, photograph these sounds. Otherwise it’s impossible to organize, edit them. They rush past, like time. But the movie camera perhaps? Record the visible…Organize not the audible, but the visible world.”[17]

Lissitzky’s juxtaposition of close-ups and distance shots, his overlaying of images, and his splicing of scenes together to interrupt the narrative and revolutionise perspective were all techniques utilised in film montage, particularly by his friend Vertov. Furthermore, the grand scale of the frieze, which showed a multitude of images, was a radical departure from the traditional viewing of individual photographs one at a time. Instead, these photograph segments were meant to be viewed as a sections of a filmstrip, part of a rapid and ongoing transmission of information. Other interactive elements of the pavilion also recalled cinematic effects; particularly the vertical “transmission belts” which moved on a continual loop displaying examples of the Soviet press, resembling film stills being viewed in slow motion.

The similarities between Lissitzky’s photofrieze and contemporary cinema lie not only in production methods, but also in the content of the images themselves. Both “The Task of the Press is the Education of the Masses” and movies such as Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera captured the volatility and modernisation of the Soviet Union, as the newly established country underwent a radical transformation. An emphasis on the dynamism of urban life, rapid industrialisation, and a celebration of the machine is apparent across artistic mediums during the period and are particularly apparent in the work of Lissitzky and Vertov. A Man with a Movie Camera presented a world of mechanisation, with masses of people diligently working in factories, like cogs in a machine. The film touched on basic themes of everyday life – birth, work, marriage, death, etc. – and emphasised industrialisation as the backbone of this happy and desirable Soviet existence. Lissitzky was attracted to film montage’s ability to furnish “a new perception of the world,”[18] in Vertov’s words, and his photofrieze reflects this same interest. Smiling crowds of workers in factories, vast metal constructions, buildings being erected, scenes of strong, able-bodied Soviet men in workshops, all deliberately juxtaposed with photographs of Lenin standing proud over his nation, exalted the new Soviet society and celebrated the mechanisation and rapid industrialisation taking place. Lissitzky employed montage’s ability to combine multiple visions into one frame to create a palpable sense of dynamism, and in doing so sought to capture the energy of life in the early days of the U.S.S.R.

Lissitzky was also, however, aware of the limitations of film and the cinematic form of spectacle; to a certain extent he used it as a negative model. He realised that monumental photography and typography held the potential to achieve something beyond the capabilities of film. The inherent barrier that exists between spectator and screen and the immobilisation of the viewer for the duration of the film, preventing active participation in the work of art, is antithetical to the new form of viewing experience that Lissitzky was trying to create at Pressa. Furthermore, the cinematic experience is limited in the sense that it does not allow for a simultaneous comparison of multiple images. By juxtaposing photographs and sculptures with text, Lissitzky exceeded the capacities of cinema, capitalising on its dynamic effects but subverting its inherent distance from the spectator. This appropriation of the best elements of multiple mediums to create a multi-functional work of art is typical of his methodological approach.

Image 4: Installation view of the transmission belts at Pressa, 1928

Lissitzky’s focus on monumental photomontage work and vast exhibition design planning reflects the wider social and political context in which he was working. With the vast cultural changes transforming the Soviet Union, increasingly artists were called upon to produce art that was accessible to the masses. Lissitzky recognised the capacity of large-scale photography to reach a mass audience and engender “simultaneous collective reception,”[19] in a similar manner to film, which could reach a wider viewership and had multiple channels of dissemination. Vertov similarly understood the importance of adapting to this radically altered new world; while explaining his new montage cinema, he declared that through this artistic evolution he had “brought the movie screen closer to the uneducated viewers.”[20] The structure of Pressa, which encouraged viewing works of art as a whole and strove to appeal not on an individual level, but to the masses, reflects Soviet ideology and way of life the Communists sought to engineer: promoting universality and uniformity rather than individuality.

Throughout his career Lissitzky remained idealistic at heart, actively believing in the potential for a utopian Soviet Union. Lissitzky sought time and again in his designs to “transform the architecture of everyday life,”[21] imagining a new world for the liberated Soviet peoples. A young, active artist during the Revolution, Lissitzky was a member of an avant-garde group that believed they had the ability and the duty to assist in the restructuring of society, and saw the potential for a new kind of Soviet art that would revolutionise everyday life. In “Ideological Superstructure,” Lissitzky wrote that the artist was participating “in the construction of the new world,” striving to “create a social order: that is to say, to raise the instinctive into consciousness.”[22] This utopianism is apparent throughout the designs at Pressa, where Lissitzky received his first opportunity to broadcast the achievements and potential of the Soviet Union to a vast audience. Demolishing hierarchical distinctions between artistic mediums, Lissitzky created an interactive, dynamic, and immersive Soviet Pavilion at Pressa, a bombastic display of Soviet prowess and achievement in the press. Reconsidering the Pressa exhibition provides the opportunity to reflect on the manner in which the achievements of the Soviet Union are celebrated or critiqued today, and furnishes a historical reference point as we observe how Russia, and the rest of the world, chooses to commemorate this momentous year.

Images: Lissitzky-Küppers, Sophie. El Lissitzky; Life, Letters, Texts. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968.

[1] El Lissitzky, 1890-1941: Catalogue for an Exhibition of Selected Works from North American Collections, the Sprengel Museum Hanover and the Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg Halle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museum; Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1987, p.35.

[2] Quote in the Berliner Tägeblatt, 26 May 1928, reproduced in Myroslava M. Mudrak, “Environments of Propaganda: Russian and Soviet Expositions and Pavilions in the West.”

[3] Joseph Stalin, ‘A Year of Great Change’, Pravda, 7 November 1929.

[4] Phrase taken from a resolution by the Conference of Sovkino Workers in December 1928, quoted in Ian Christie “Film as a Modernist Art.”

[5] Anatoly Lunacharsky, Soveskoe Foto, no.1,1926.

[6] Boris Brodsky, “El Lissitzky;” in S. Barron and M. Tuchmann [eds.], The Avant Garde in Russia 1910-1930, New Perspectives.

[7] A.B. Khalatov, Pressa catalogue entry, 1928.

[8] Jan Tschichold, “Display that has Dynamic Force. Exhibition Rooms designed by El Lissitzky,” Commercial Art , January 1931.

[9] Lissitzky, “Der Innen-Aufbau des Theaters Meyerhold-Moskau für Tretjakows ‘Ich will ein Kind,’” Das neue Frankfurt vol. IV, no. 10, 1930.

[10] Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator.” Artforum, vol.45, no.7,March 2007.

[11] Ibid., p.274.

[12] Sergei Eisenstein, quoted in Richard Taylor [ed.], The Eisenstein Reader.

[13] Dziga Vertov, “The Birth of Kino-Eye,” 1924.

[14] Kazimir Malevich, “Painterly Laws in the Problems of Cinema,” 1929.

[15] Aleksei Gan, “Konstruktivizm,” 1922.

[16] El Lissitzky, quoted in Margarita Tupitsyn, El Lissitzky; Beyond the Abstract Cabinet: Photography, Design, Collaboration.

[17] Vertov, “The Birth of Kino-Eye.”

[18] Vertov, “The Cine-Eyes: A Revolution.”

[19] Benjamin H.D Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography,” 1984.

[20] Dziga Vertov, “On the Significance of Nonacted Cinema,” 1923.

[21] Maria Gough, “El Lissitzky, Architectures of Everyday Life;” in Matthew Witkovsky [ed.], Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life.

[22] Lissitzky, “Ideological Superstructure,” 1929.