Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Russian Constructivist Architecture as an Urban Carnival: The Creation and Reception of a Utopian Narrative(1)

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Russian Constructivist Architecture as an Urban Carnival: The Creation and Reception of a Utopian Narrative(1)

Article excerpt

FOR A NATION in the process of revolutionary redefinition, such as Russia following the 1917 revolution, culture becomes a critical player in the formation and propagation of national narratives. More than the recipient of the stories or ideologies which the state seeks to communicate, the creators of visual culture devise strategies which embody, as process and product, new national myths, even as they infuse these myths with variations and prescient anticipations of future myths. As Barbara Stafford has argued, "imaging, ranging from high art to popular illusions, remains the richest, most fascinating modality for configuring and conveying ideas" (Good Looking 4). But where she goes on to assert that traditionally, the word has been overvalued and the image trivialized, I argue that in post-revolutionary Russia, the image was feared. State efforts to control the image, to render it subservient to the word, culminated in the aesthetic ideology of socialist realism. The constructivist image of utopia, an image and process which postulated the existence of an "engaged" public, and an image of fragmentation and grotesque complexity,(2) predicated on a carnivalesque and dialogical reality, may have been particularly vulnerable to this fate.

To the extent that utopia is envisioned and understood as a tropic state, rather than as a static condition, the idea of utopia becomes a metaphor for understanding Russian culture of the revolution, even as that culture engaged in the production of utopia. But a utopian narrative in a state which believes itself engaged in the action of creating utopia will impose a critical and creative dynamic on artists such that their work will be scrutinized and face rejection for the utopian narrative it embodies; concurrently, artists, to avoid this censorship, may reframe their narratives either through the language of representation or the content of the form. This act of reframing itself became a part of the constructivist utopian expression: an expression of utopia as the instrument of change. A utopia of process, a utopia in which dialogue is endemic to a fragmented world of almost irreconcilable conjunctions: the constructivist utopia was the utopia of an urban carnival and the magical machine.

Although the carnival has been acknowledged as an influence on Russian culture, especially the culture of festivals and, to a lesser extent, of artists' exhibitions (see, for example: Kelly; Pospelov; Sartori; Swift), it has not been identified as a central and formative component of constructivist culture--its architecture and stage design. Traditionally, the constructivist stage set and constructivist architecture have been analyzed in terms of industrial and machine metaphors and images. Characteristic of this response was the reception accorded the paradigmatic constructivist stage set: Velikodushnyi Rogonosets (The Magnanimous Cuckold; designer Liubov' Popova, producer and director Vsevolod Meierkhol'd, 1922/3) (Fig. 1: photograph of 1923 performance, Bakhrushin Theater Museum collection). Referred to as a "machine for the actor's playing" (Rakitina; Pozdnev 9), the stage set makes an explicit but unnoticed reference to the design for a people's pantomime theater production of the late 19th century. This design, which closely parallels Popova's eventual stage set, depicts a "magic mill which turns old women into young" (Fig. 2: unpaginated illustration in Alekseev-Iakovlev).(3) Without asserting the carnival as its only source, we can nevertheless view the production of the Magnanimous Cuckold as a precedent for the influence of folk and people's theater, along with fantasy, on a developing constructivist strategy of uniting low and high art and technology--or more specifically, a union of the carnival and the machine--and as a model for a new relationship of the stage set to the play, of the audience to the work of art, and ultimately, of people to society.

[Figures 1-2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

From a visual perspective, a union of the carnival and the machine may seem untenable. …

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