I wrote this rather long piece on the enduring presence of Russian Avant-Garde art in the United States for Bomb a couple of years back. At the time it was whittled down by their able editors to just longish captions accompanying a slide show of some works by Alexandr Rodchenko. I've decided to post the whole original essay here because it's a pretty good example of what I want this blog to be about.
Big Faces: The Cool Kids of the Russian Avant-Garde
Recently, while walking down Broadway, I noticed a banner hanging off of a building with that arresting wide-eyed woman’s face from the cover of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s long poem Pro Eta—or “About This.” You know it—whether you know who the woman is or not, or even if you don’t even know the poem, you probably recognize the face—sure you do. Of course that’s Lilya Brik, a former dancer, filmmaker, and general darling of Russia’s avant-garde in the years straddling the revolution. Brik was the muse for Mayakovsky’s poetry for some 15-odd years, and she would also inspire the pioneering photographer and graphic designer Aleksandr Rodchenko, the man who took that famous picture for Mayakovsky’s book, as well as many others of her.
It struck me then how iconic that image had become—this time it was being appropriated by a commercial video-editing company, an absolutely appropriate thing to do with a Rodchenko image. People might not know who Lili Brik was, but the image has come to represent the Russian Futurist and Constructivist arts movements for people who don’t even know a thing about the Russian Futurist and Constructivist arts movements—and that’s probably all that matters for the “cutting-edge,” or perhaps “avant-garde,” Broadway ad firm Red Car.
Then I recalled that some years ago a billboard-size poster of Lilya’s first husband, the critic Osip Brik, once himself loomed just around the corner at Houston and Lafayette. A close-up portrait with Cyrillic letters spelling “LEF” pasted on his round, thin-rimmed glasses, the occasion for that billboard was for the incredible Rodchenko retrospective at MoMA during the summer of 1998. The billboard was all the more striking to anyone who knew that the man behind this seemingly all-seeing big face with the dandy’s mustache towering above the entrance to one of Manhattan’s most recognized shopping districts worked openly for the Cheka, Russia’s state security apparatus, while also as a booster for avant-garde artists like Mayakovsky and Rodchenko. In his memoir My Futurist Years, Roman Jakobson, a Formalist linguist and friend of the Briks, Mayakovsky, and the Rodchenkos, recalls poet Boris Pasternak saying of this casualness: “Still, it’s become rather terrifying. You come in, and Lili says, ‘Wait a while, we’ll have dinner as soon as Osya comes back from the Checka.’”
In April 1924, Rodchenko made a series of six studio portraits of Mayakovsky. In 1926 he used two of the pictures in collages for the front and back covers of Mayakovsky’s book A Conversation with the Finance Inspector about Poetry. Another, showing a seated Mayakovsky with at least a dozen pens crammed into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, can be found as a postcard in bookstores everywhere, and still another showing the poet confident in a heavy coat and stylish hat with an upturned brim. When in 1935, five years after the poet’s suicide, Stalin proclaimed Mayakovsky a “hero of the revolution,” and added ominously that “indifference to his memory and to his work is a crime,” those images took on a new, greater significance than just photographs of the artists friends. Following that proclamation, and printed larger than before (often in romantic tones), Rodchenko’s portraits became icons of the mythic propaganda surrounding the poet and his circle. I received my first Mayakovsky postcard in 1994 from a girlfriend who had bought it in San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, and I bought another one at the Brown University bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, a few years later. Just up Thayer Street on Providence’s East Side, you could pick yourself up a T-shirt with Lili’s face silk screened on it. A testament to the cultural influence of Stalin the dictator or of Rodchenko the artist and consummate ad man? Obviously, the relationship between a work of art and the social and political situation within which it is produced is invariably complex and difficult to reduce to a simple cause and effect. But I’d still say that both Stalin and Rodchenko, as well as a post-Cold War Western generation hungry for some way to ascribe meaning and appropriate context from geopolitical events that were beyond their control for so long, were at play.
The “LEF” pasted across Osip Brik’s eye in the MoMa billboard stood for “Left Front of the Arts,” whose name stressed the link between leftist politics and progressive art. Led by Mayakovsky and Osip Brik, the LEF circle included the writers Nikolai Aseev and Sergei Tretiakov; filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov; stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold; and Formalist literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. But let’s face it, LEF was Mayakovsky and the Briks, with Rodchenko and his wife, the artist Varvara Stepanova. They were the public face of the movement—the cool kids—and they seemed to be having fun doing it. Whether of the Briks or of Mayakovsky, Rodchenko’s portraits were widely incorporated into photomontages for LEF posters, pamphlets, and publications. The most familiar and widely reproduced image of the era is a poster for a soviet publisher, Gosizdat, in 1924, which shows a kerchiefed Lili, with hand to wide-open mouth, shouting “BOOKS!” Most recently it was appropriated and adapted by the band Franz Ferdinand for the cover of their second album, “You Could Have It So Much Better.” And before that, the Dutch punk band The EX published a series of 7” singles, each with a variation on the Lili Brik portrait theme.
According to the catalog accompanying the MoMA show, which I remember as quite a big deal in New York at the time, “The unadorned directness of the portraits...corresponds to the unpretentiousness of the ordinary identity photo. This short circuit between the vocabulary of advanced art and the most elemental qualities of vernacular photography is characteristic of the photographic modernism that Rodchenko and his contemporaries developed in the 1920s.” In 1998 New York City, any subway passenger was exposed to these images on a daily basis. Why, just the other day in front of the Cooper Union, a young Russian girl wearing a kerchief much like Lili's entreated upon me to buy a reproduction of the Pro Eta poster from her, “It’s Russian poster, about art.” Nonetheless, art and politics aside, Rodchenko’s photographs of Mayakovsky and the Briks document a love triangle between three remarkable figures dominating the Russian art world from the years just before the Russian revolution and well into the 1930s—a love triangle writ large on the era’s visual landscape.
On both sides of the revolutionary divide, artists enjoyed a surprising degree of political autonomy, and the Briks were at the very heart of Russia’s art world. According to Lili Brik, in July 1915, She and Osip, already a well-known critic and publisher of daring poetry and purveyor of controversial literary ideas—he had a strongly anti-author stance, once going so far as to say that if Pushkin had not written Eugene Onegin, somebody else would have—prepared their St. Petersburg apartment for one of their famous salons. Lili’s 19-year-old sister, Elsa, was bringing her ex-boyfriend, the then-unpublished poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose poems and controversial performances were delighting fellow young avant-gardists in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The newcomer, tall and handsome, announced his latest poem, “Cloud in Trousers,” and stood up to read a long, intense work on the heated subjects of love, revolution, religion, and art, written from the perspective of a spurned lover. It brought the house down, and Osip Brik offered to pay the poet then and there to publish his poem, which was very well received indeed when it came out a couple of months later. Lili was so entranced that she fell for Mayakovsky before he could put the cloud back in its trousers.
The affair between Mayakovsky and Lili Brik was public but she kept it low-key around her husband. Then, in 1918, Lili wrote in Literary Heritage, her collected letters with Mayakovsky, “After testing my feelings for the poet, I was able to tell Brik with confidence about my love for Mayakovsky. We all decided never to part and to pass our lives remaining intimate friends, closely tied by mutual interests, tastes, and work.” They arranged a life “in the Chernyshevsky manner”—a reference to the nineteenth-century radical thinker who was an early advocate of “open marriages”—and lived as a family. Mayakovsky even had a room of his own in the Briks’ apartments.
During this time, Rodchenko, Mayakovsky, and the Briks collaborated on posters, or “windows” for the Russian Telegraph Agency (Rosta), the state news organ. Rosta windows were stencil-replicated propaganda posters created by artists and poets within the Rosta system, under the supervision of the Chief Committee of Political Education during 1919-21. Usually displayed in windows, hence the name, the designs featured graphics suitable for viewing easily from a distance and often used simple sequences of pictures according to some plot, similar to modern comics.
In the late 1920s, after having lived and worked together for so long, Lilya wrote to Mayakovsky that she found their lives “too routine,” and during a break he began an affair in Paris with a young Russian model, Tatiana Yakovleva. By that time Osip was involved with the woman who was to become his second wife, Eugenia Sokolova-Zhemchuzhnaya, but the troika continued to share their lives. And in Moscow in 1928 Lili and Mayakovsky eventually got back together. He embarked on an intensely productive period of writing and Lili, meanwhile, had passionately re-engaged with film-making. But looming overhead—like Osip Brik’s head—was the State’s increasing repression of avant-garde artists as Stalinism demanded a shift to Socialist Realism and a reining in of the avant-garde that had helped usher in the revolution.
In the spring of 1930, Mayakovsky shot himself in the head—though it can’t be said whether it was because of the crackdown or just plain old manic-depression. Either way, Lili was devastated. Nonetheless, she spent the ensuing months furiously editing Mayakovsky’s collected writings. That same year as Mayakovsky’s suicide, having by now divorced Osip, she married a Soviet military officer Vitaly Primakov—some say she only did this to garner influence with Stalin for state acknowledgement of Mayakovsky’s place in history. Whether this is true or not, the timing is convenient. In 1938, with Mayakovsky declared by Stalin to be a “hero of the revolution,” she divorced Primakov and married a young literary critic, Vassily Katanian, with whom she remained until her death in 1978. Stalin said that Mayakovsky was a hero, et voilà: Rodchenko’s photographs were transformed into icons worthy to hang beside any of Andrei Rublev’s—even beside portraits of Lenin, and Stalin himself.
Chances are, if he hadn’t shot himself, the state would have gotten around to Mayakovsky sooner or later—though Stalin did have trouble killing poets. Despite making their lives extremely difficult, he spared a few of Russia’s greatest, including Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, to name a prominent two. Osip Brik lived on a bit longer than Mayakovsky but did not escape the tide that had turned against him. In 1945, his career reduced to scratching out a living by writing articles about Mayakovsky and the odd book review, he died of a heart attack while climbing the stairs to his apartment. Thirty-three years later, in 1978, bed-ridden after a fall, Lili, too, took her own life. No one stays cool forever, but cultural icons do, on occassion, come back in vogue. One is still likely to see Rodchenko’s images of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Osip and Lilya Brik hanging—perhaps, like the cool kids they are, a bit more self-consciously—alongside any tourist’s rousing bust of Lenin or kitschy portrait of Stalin—monumental propaganda to a remarkably enduring ménage à trois.