Art, Architecture and Visual Culture

This chapter introduces the concept of the ‘aesthetic turn’ to describe the gradual broadening of the meaning of aesthetics after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the greater openness of the USSR to the outside world that followed. The aesthetic turn resulted in the formation in the USSR of what philosopher Jacques Rancière calls an ‘aesthetic regime of arts’ – a mode of identifying different arts as equal and valuable in their specificity. The chapter analyses the new aesthetic regime of arts by highlighting its key concepts: realism, contemporaneity and taste. These concepts acquired new meanings during the 1950s–early 1960s: realism was now seen as a specific quality of things, not depictions; contemporaneity appeared as a measure of social relevance of an object’ and taste became a tool for probing the limits between authenticity and appearance.

in Comradely objects
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Design and material culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s–80s

The major part of this book project was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 700913.

This book is about two distinct but related professional cultures in late Soviet Russia that were concerned with material objects: industrial design and decorative art. The Russian avant-garde of the 1920s is broadly recognised to have been Russia’s first truly original contribution to world culture. In contrast, Soviet design of the post-war period is often dismissed as hackwork and plagiarism that resulted in a shabby world of commodities. This book identifies the second historical attempt at creating a powerful alternative to capitalist commodities in the Cold War era. It offers a new perspective on the history of Soviet material culture by focusing on the notion of the ‘comradely object’ as an agent of progressive social relations that state-sponsored Soviet design inherited from the avant-garde. It introduces a shared history of domestic objects, handmade as well as machine-made, mass-produced as well as unique, utilitarian as well as challenging the conventional notion of utility. Situated at the intersection of intellectual history, social history and material culture studies, this book elucidates the complexities and contradictions of Soviet design that echoed international tendencies of the late twentieth century. The book is addressed to design historians, art historians, scholars of material culture, historians of Russia and the USSR, as well as museum and gallery curators, artists and designers, and the broader public interested in modern aesthetics, art and design, and/or the legacy of socialist regimes.

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in Comradely objects

This chapter shows that just as VNIITE designers had built a theoretical basis for action by the late 1960s and started developing new prototypes for modern household objects, such as vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, they also started to recognise the inadequacy of the object as a basic unit of socialist material culture. Following the theorists of the Ulm School of Design (1953–68, a school critical of American styling and promoting an interdisciplinary approach to design), VNIITE designers tended to see environments, and not objects, as the ideal end products of their work. Without abandoning the avant-garde’s idea of a comradely object, after the late 1960s Soviet designers and theorists dwelled upon another notion of the avant-garde: the artist as the organiser of all aspects of society’s life, including the material environments of work and leisure. After discussing several projects for home appliances from the early 1970s, the chapter explains the notion of a design programme – an elaboration including systems of objects, environments and labour processes. By analysing two cases of design programmes, one from the early 1970s and another from the 1980s, I demonstrate that this type of design was flexible: it intended to regulate broad areas of human activity but also left space for consumer activity and variation.

in Comradely objects
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Soviet things that talk

The introduction surveys the approaches of material culture and objects starting from the 1920s avant-garde and ending with recent critical inquiries. It situates the book’s subject in relation to the avant-garde both as a historical precedent and a theoretical framework, reinvigorated by the recent material turn. It explains that the concern for things was at the forefront of Soviet designers’ professional ambitions and attitudes towards the socialist system, and, therefore, things can say a lot about late Soviet professional and intellectual culture. The introduction then proceeds to outline the story of Soviet design activities and institutions between the state’s repudiation of the avant-garde and the death of Stalin in 1953. Further, the introduction describes the methodology and sources of the book: how different materials are approached and brought together. And, finally, it critically engages with the key terms – ‘avant-garde’, ‘material culture’, ‘design’, ‘decorative art’ – and outlines the content of the following chapters.

in Comradely objects

This chapter considers the identity crisis of the 1970s–early 1980s, experienced by decorative artists in the state-sponsored infrastructure including factories, workshops and exhibitions. It shows the joint attempt of artists and critics to renegotiate the position of decorative art vis-à-vis industrial design, industrial production, craft and easel art. The proposed solution – the creation of a vigorous interdisciplinary production culture based on mutual respect between artists, engineers, technicians and administrators – proved insufficient to satisfy the decorative artists’ creative and critical urges. Even factory-employed artists tended to dissociate themselves from the state-run campaign to improve consumer products and living standards, instead promoting anti-utilitarianism, and focusing on consumers’ ‘spiritual needs’. I illustrate this tendency using the case of the non-pottery ceramic group One Composition, which was active in Leningrad from 1977 to 1986 and proposed the notion of ‘image-ceramics’ as opposed to pottery.

in Comradely objects

The chapter identifies an artistic tendency that emerged in the 1960s that I call, following art critic Iurii Gerchuk, ‘neodecorativism’ — a set of artistic strategies to redefine the meaning of decoration and reconceptualise applied art as decorative. Comparing works of applied art from the early and the late 1960s, the chapter reveals the techniques that the artists used to criticise the state-sponsored campaign to improve consumer culture. Far from being a tool of the Party and the government, Soviet decorative art in the late 1960s became a forum for commentary on the fundamental challenges of Soviet modernity and explored the language of postmodernism. It raised such questions as the place of individuality in the world of uniform mass production and consumption, the fate of traditional crafts in the industrial age, the role of diverse folk motifs in Soviet cultural internationalism and the meaning of sincerity and spirituality in a socialist society guided by Party dogmas. Working within the framework of Soviet institutions and policy guidelines, decorative artists and critics of the 1960s advocated the personal freedom of artists and of ordinary people without, however, explicitly resorting to the language of human rights and civil society.

in Comradely objects

Starting from the late 1950s, Soviet applied artists, architects, critics and philosophers engaged in an ardent debate about the borders and relations between easel, decorative and applied art, techniques, and everyday material culture. The chapter demonstrates how this debate paved the way for theorising industrial design under state socialism, while some of its complexities became rapidly outdated with the institutionalisation of the design profession by the government. The concrete form of this institutionalisation was the All-Union Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics, or VNIITE, staffed by different specialists, through whom the state intended to control the totality of things and their influences on consumers. The ‘TE’ of this institution’s acronym, ‘technical aesthetics’, was promoted as an interdisciplinary science defining the ‘laws of artistic activity in the sphere of technology’ (in the words of the VNIITE director Iurii Soloviev) and optimising the production of consumer goods. Through analysing the methodology of VNIITE at the initial stage of its operation, the chapter addresses the contradictions of the Khrushchev-era vision of the perfect order of things.

in Comradely objects
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Soaking up the rays’ methodological focus on visual material brings new insights to the inception and growth of light therapy during early twentieth century Britain, introduced in this chapter by an exploration of a special 44-page supplement of The Times on light and health. The 1928 supplement presents a fascinating - even confounding - array of images, at once explaining and driving popular interest in the therapeutic value of light, and signals The Times’ overwhelming support of light as a panacea to improve national health. By 1928 light therapy reached its zenith of public acclaim, but even then its value and successes were being challenged by sceptics. Paying close attention to the many and varied representations of light therapy within the supplement, this chapter traces the earliest articulations and anxiety-ridden efforts to legitimise this nascent therapy back to the 1890s, when Danish Nobel laureate Dr Niels Finsen’s experiments prompted Queen Alexandra to introduce, and institutionalise, light therapy in Britain. In doing so this introductory chapter identifies major British practitioners and protagonists, key institutions, manufacturers and other overlooked agents (notably female nurses), discusses secondary sources, and lays out the aims and approaches of the book.

in Soaking up the rays
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Contained within the closed stores of the Wellcome Library is an unusual painting about light therapy, made by a now-obscure British artist, Beatrice Langdon. In 1938 she painted the Light Department of the Royal London Hospital, a work commemorating the impact of the Finsen lamp in the battle against tuberculosis of the skin (lupus vulgaris). Produced almost four decades after the institutionalisation of light therapy in Britain (1899), Langdon’s painting depicts the original, and by now obsolete, version of Finsen’s carbon arc lamp at a moment when the London Hospital was to refit new, smaller and more efficient lamps. The exact reasons for Langdon’s painting are, however, unknown, and this concluding chapter leads off from the mysteries and loose threads surrounding the work to discuss the many other silences, absences, and dead ends in the history of light therapy. It also explores contemporary images - a photograph by Danish photographer Nicolai Howalt and a campaign poster by Cancer Research UK and Nivea - to consider the UK’s ongoing ambivalent relationship with actinic light, which remains at once a source of health and of risk.

in Soaking up the rays