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What about Revolution? Three Lectures on Aesthetic Practices after 1917

Still from Sol Svanetii (Salt for Svanetia) (1930), by Mikhail Kalatozov. Courtesy of National Film Foundation of Russian Federation.


Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy Street
Cambridge MA

On the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, this lecture series brings to campus three internationally distinguished historians of modern art to discuss the role that artists and filmmakers played in the revolutionary reorganization of social relations in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ’30s. How did their utopian imagination take on spatial and pictorial form? How did their work help to engender processes of emancipation and social transformation? And what role has their example played in the intersection of radical aesthetics and leftist politics ever since?

This series is offered in conjunction with the installation What about Revolution? Aesthetic Practices after 1917, on view in the University Teaching Gallery at the Harvard Art Museums through January 7, 2018. The installation presents three new models of avant-garde aesthetic practice that developed in the wake of the revolution and includes works by El Lissitzky, Sophie Küppers, Kazimir Malevich, and Aleksandr Rodchenko. The series is organized by Maria Gough, the Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Professor of Modern Art, and co-sponsored by the Department of History of Art and Architecture, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and the Harvard Art Museums.

Today’s lecture:
“Feeling Revolution: Cinema and the Emancipation of the Soviet Senses”
Emma Widdis, Reader in Russian Studies, Trinity College, University of Cambridge

In The Third Manuscript of 1844, Karl Marx suggested provocatively that the end of private property (socialism) would bring about an “emancipation of the senses.” In his view, capitalism creates a rupture between the human body and the world: hence, capitalist senses are impoverished. Socialist revolution then must, and would, create socialist senses; the human subject would gain a heightened sensory appreciation of the material world. Revolution would be felt—and lived—through the body.

This ambition had particular resonance in Soviet Russia during the first decades after 1917. In this lecture, Widdis will examine cinema’s role in this anticipated Soviet sensory revolution. Still a new medium in the early 20th century, film seemed able both to discover the world afresh and to model a new way of inhabiting (or sensing) it. Filmmakers exploited the textures and surfaces of material on screen and experimented with film’s potent all-body impact on the spectator to provoke new, and specifically socialist, sensations.

Widdis will explore some of these “socialist sensations” through the figure of the craftsperson and will consider the ambivalent status of hands and handwork in the emerging Soviet revolutionary aesthetic. Alongside, and even within, these iconic Soviet “production” movies and their ubiquitous machines, we find potters, weavers, shoemakers, and carpenters. Widdis will attempt to answer why the traditional “maker” was a starting point in the search for a newly sensate model of human subjectivity.

This lecture will be preceded by a screening of Mikhail Kalatozov’s Sol Svanetii (Salt for Svanetia) (1930) on October 1, in Menschel Hall.

Please also join us for the final talk of the series, “How Can a Work of Art Be Revolutionary? Case Studies in the History of the Left,” given by Leah Dickerman on November 6.

The lecture will take place in Menschel Hall, Lower Level. Please enter the museums via the entrance on Broadway. Doors will open at 5:30pm.

Free admission, but limited seating is available. Tickets will be distributed beginning at 5:30pm at the Broadway entrance. One ticket per person.

Complimentary parking available in the Broadway Garage, 7 Felton Street, Cambridge.

After the lecture, the installation What about Revolution? Aesthetic Practices after 1917, in the University Teaching Gallery on Level 3, will remain open until 8pm.

Support for this program is provided by the M. Victor Leventritt Fund, which was established through the generosity of the wife, children, and friends of the late M. Victor Leventritt, Harvard Class of 1935. The purpose of the fund is to present outstanding scholars of the history and theory of art to the Harvard and Greater Boston communities.

Modern and contemporary art programs at the Harvard Art Museums are made possible in part by generous support from the Emily Rauh Pulitzer and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art.