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What about Revolution? Three Lectures on Aesthetic Practices after 1917

Maria Bri-Bein, Woman Worker and Woman Collective Farmer, Join the Ranks of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 1934. Lithograph on paper. Ne boltai! Collection, Prague.


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:
“Revolution Every Day”
Christina Kiaer, Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Northwestern University

Most of us are sure that Russian revolutionary posters are propaganda, including those made by renowned artists of the Russian avant-garde in their attempt to bring “art into life.” At this retrospective moment—on the 100th anniversary of the revolution and in the midst of renewed struggles between the (alt-)right and left—Kiaer’s talk proposes that we need to question the certainty about the nature of the propagandistic image. We do so by distinguishing between the aspirations that animate its production and the operations of power that employ it.

Bringing together well-known avant-garde posters with unknown realist ones, such as Maria Bri-Bein’s depictions of vividly drawn women workers and aviators, Kiaer argues that the poster, as a particular kind of image, came to constitute its own visual and discursive field in Soviet art of the early 1930s, with its own institutional and critical apparatus. Her examination of censors’ reports as well as accounts of workers’ focus groups revealed an enclosed world of constant self-assessment that challenges not only the familiar oppositions between avant-garde and socialist realism, or art and propaganda, but also the masculine cast of revolutionary imagery. Many poster artists were women, and their works often imagined a community of self-possessed women who transcend the burden of the everyday. Reassessing this particular field of the Soviet image can reclaim what is most aspirational about revolutionary art in general and can restore the agency of the actors within it, as they mobilize a ubiquitous, mass-produced art form to conjure revolution every day.

Christina Kiaer is co-curator, with Robert Bird and Zachary Cahill, of the exhibition Revolution Every Day at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago (September 14, 2017–January 14, 2018). She is the author of Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (MIT Press) and the forthcoming Collective Body: The Lyrical Prospects of Socialist Realism (University of Chicago Press), as well as the volume Everyday Life in Early Soviet Russia: Taking the Revolution Inside (Indiana University Press), co-edited with Eric Naiman. She served as consulting curator (and contributor to the catalogue) for the exhibition Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test at the Art Institute of Chicago (October 29, 2017–January 15, 2018).

Please join us for the second talk in the series, “Feeling Revolution: Cinema and the Emancipation of the Soviet Senses,” given by Emma Widdis, on October 2. Widdis’s lecture will be preceded by a screening of Mikhail Kalatozov’s Sol Svanetii (Salt for Svanetia) (1930) on October 1, in Menschel Hall.

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.