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'Art that is on the level with socialist industry’: visions of the city in the photomontages of Gustav Klucis

24 February 2014 | By Ellie Pavey

Gustav Klucis, Dynamic City, c. 1919, cut and pasted photographs, paper, aluminium foil, gouache, and pencil on paper, 37.6 x 25.8 cm (State Museum of Art, Riga, Latvia)

This was in part due to the efforts of Klucis, who credited himself with being the first to use photomontage for ideological means in his composition Dynamic City. This new collage technique, bringing together often-disparate photographic images to create a new picture, fully exploited the status of the photograph as a trustworthy factual document. As a result it became a crucial device in the construction of propaganda, allowing artists to create an impression of the promised Utopia at the heart of the communist vision that was both aesthetically arresting and tantalisingly believable. Photomontage, as practised by Klucis, sought to provide a model for this reconstruction of life through its unique ability to distil complex notions of time and reality in a way that conformed to the doctrine of the state and was easily digestible for the proletariat.

Lenin himself stated as early as 1913 that ‘cities are the centres of economic, political and intellectual or spiritual life of a people and constitute the chief promoters of progress.’ It is no surprise therefore that the image of the city, with its affiliations to modernity, construction and advancement, attracted the interest of the avant-garde artists, architects and thinkers charged with initiating the cultural and social overhaul demanded by the party. Like many of his colleagues and students at VKhUTEMAS, Klucis concerned himself with the image of the metropolis as a metaphor for social reconstruction and progress; almost always presenting the city as a future construct.

Whether Dynamic City really was the first instance of photomontage in the USSR is debateable but it is certainly exceptional in its combination of the pure, non-objectivity of Suprematism with photographs of the ‘real’ world. The inclusion of a recognisable image of a worker in this instance makes the idea of the utopian future appear more tangible and less alien. This was an important step in Klucis’ development as an artist; he recognised the ability of photomontage to render the complex ideas of the avant-garde more comprehensible to a proletariat audience.

Design for the poster Socialist Construction (Sotsialisticheskaia Konstruktsiia),ca. 1927, Cut-and-pasted photographs, paper, gouache, and varnish on paper, 31 x 23.9 cm (State Museum of Art, Riga, Latvia)

Perhaps Klucis’ most successful tactic for engaging the proletariat was never to present the city as a completed structure and this is the fundamental difference between his visions of the metropolis and those of his peers. His works almost always depict an urban environment during a moment of transition or construction, which is then presided over by a recognisable set of propagandistic character tropes such as the worker or the figure of Lenin. Even in this primary experiment (Dynamic City) Klucis uses the image of the worker to emphasise that this is a world in the process of construction for eventual human habitation. The emphasis is on the power of the collective to reshape the future; the act of building becomes a unifying action.

His design for the poster Socialist Construction shows another cityscape under construction, presided over by a heroic team of workers. The design appears to owe a lot to techniques used in Soviet Cinema. The juxtaposition between the monumentally large and very small was also explored in the films of Dziga Vertov, Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein, who all practised and theorised the technique of montage.

Klucis was closely connected to these directors through his participation in ARK (Revolutionary Association of Cinematographers) and ODSK (Society for the Friends of Soviet Cinema) and he was doubtless familiar with the latest developments in the genre. In Man With the Movie Camera, Vertov, like Klucis, monumentalises his ‘hero’ individual, in this case the cameraman, by superimposing his image over a crowd scene of significantly smaller figures. Just as Vertov depicts the process of the film being made, so Klucis depicts the city being constructed.

Dziga Vertov, Man With The Movie Camera, (film Still), 1929

The motif of the city, and the plethora of conceptual and political ideas that surrounded it, undoubtedly permitted Klucis to fully explore the communicative possibilities of the fragmented and collaged photo image. Perspectives could be skewed and multiplied, opposing objects and events brought together across time and space, whilst alternate realities were created. In his manifesto Klucis made clear that his version of photomontage was to be associated specifically with the worker and the construction of the socialist state. In fittingly provocative style he declared it to be ‘ART THAT IS ON THE LEVEL WITH SOCIALIST INDUSTRY’, to which he added: ‘the proletarian industrial culture, which has advanced the most expressive methods of effect on the masses, uses the method of photomontage as the most aggressive and effective means of struggle.’

Effectively he gave the proletariat an image of themselves, reflected by a mirror of the future, as the collective constructors of the perfect Soviet city. This was at the same time an easily comprehensible metaphor for the wider goal of spreading Communism across the globe. The fact that the city was always depicted as under construction made the task of building this new socialist society less daunting and more plausible. If the period between 1917 and 1930 was the age of ‘utopian daydreaming’, then it was through the photomontages of Gustav Klucis that this dream was expressed in its most vivid and seductively believable form.