Tim Harte, Fast Forward: The Aesthetics of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture

By Ruthers, Monica | Kritika, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Tim Harte, Fast Forward: The Aesthetics of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture


Ruthers, Monica, Kritika


Tim Harte, Fast Forward: The Aesthetics of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture, 1910-1930. 328 pp. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0299233242. $29.95.

Corinna Kuhr-Korolev and Dirk Schlinkert, eds., Towards Mobility: Varieties of Automobilism in East and West. 220 pp. Wolfsburg: Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft, 2009. ISBN-13 978-3935112345. 24.90 [euro].

Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile. 328 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. ISBN-13 978-0801446382. $49.95.

Reviewing two volumes on cars together with Harte's study on speed in early Soviet art proves to be quite challenging, since neither of the car volumes refers to the more abstract symbolic meanings of mobility, speed, and advancement, whereas Harte never mentions the Soviet car industry. Yet the books seem to have an important common denominator: progress. (1) The term was coined in an era when industrialization proceeded in parallel with social emancipation in many European countries. Freedom of the spirit, scientific innovation, and technological advancement would help humanity dominate the forces of nature and bring about a glorious future. Ever since, discourses on progress are characterized by the motifs of mobility, speed, and social dynamics.

In Fast Forward, Tim Harte explores the speed cult of the Russian avantgarde and the early Soviet era. By linking different types of art such as painting, poetry, and film, the book aims to trace the far-reaching aesthetization of speed. Harte regards the notion of acceleration as fundamental to his period of analysis (1910-30). This cult of speed, based in the futurism of 1909, was the leitmotif of the modern era. Critics of modernization regarded the rapidly growing cities of the industrial age as incubators of diseases such as hysteria and of general human degeneration. For them, speed represented a particular danger for the body and soul, and they proclaimed an "age of nervousness." (2) For others, speed signified the overcoming of space and time, as it was associated with the future and social utopias. Scientific insights such as the idea of the speed of light figured large in artistic works. Speed-induced blurred vision enabled better (in)sight. (3) Both lyric poetry (Blaise Cendrars) and the performing arts (Robert Delaunay) dealt with speed. Just as perception of the landscape changed while riding fast on the train, so film transformed the possibilities of vision. The linking of the locomotive, landscape, and speed was a frequent motif in poetry (David Burliuk) and in avant-garde cinema. The train figured as a mechanical double for silent cinema and as an ideological symbol of the "proficient means of communication and transportation that Soviet society hoped to achieve" (214). Harte guides us through the films of the avant-garde, in particular those of Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Viktor Turin. The "Express" as a harbinger of revolution leads us into the new era, exemplified by the film Turksib (1929). In his conclusion, Harte uses a close reading of Valentin Kataev's 1932 novel Vremia, vperea! (Time, Forward!) to draw a distinction between the avant-garde and Socialist Realism. In the era of the five-year plans, speed was incorporated into a Stalinist model of modernization through purposeful progress. This linear approach, Harte argues, had little in common with the dynamic and experimental concepts of speed of the avant-garde. In this regard, Harte differs from Boris Groys, who highlights the motif of speed as a linking theme between the avant-garde and Stalinism.

Accounts of the hypermodern age were accompanied by forms of extreme mobility, and not only in the science fiction works of Aldous Huxley and Evgenii Zamiatin. Speed meant progress but also success: it came to signify individual advancement. In today's societies, the car is the closest we have to a universal symbol of individual advancement and status. …

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