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The Commissar Vanishes in Fine Style: Pamela Jill Kachurin on Red Interiors

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Soviet Textiles: Designing the Modern Utopia
Pamela Jill Kachurin
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

Imagine a massive purge of all textile design studios, with any designs deemed ?too bourgeois? not only banned, but destroyed ? sketches, samples and all.

It may sound like a fantasy sequence from Anna Wintour?s secret diary, but it really happened in the early days of the Soviet Union.

After the rise of the Bolsheviks and founding of the Soviet Union in 1922, the Communist party faced the challenge of bringing a vast population of peasant farmers, most of whom couldn?t read, up to speed. A strong visual language for party ideas already existed, developed for the broadsides distributed in Russian cities, and by June 1918 ? mere months after the revolution ? Russia?s textile mills had been nationalized. All it took was for someone to put two and two together and realize that images printed on textiles could become ammunition in the war of ideas. Imagine: your very own party ideology on pillowcases, curtains and throw pillows in homes throughout in the nation!

This beautifully illustrated book details the circumstances surrounding this strange episode in Soviet history, and Kachurin, resisting the temptation to crack jokes, brings a satisfying sense of focus to her examination of the birth of the Soviet Union through the narrow lens of one small economic sector. The communist party?s interaction with the textile industry ground its way through an epic series of historical events in microcosm ? beginning with hotheaded idealism and drastic reform, maturing to feverish debate and the birth of fringe factions, and finally dying an appropriately bureaucratic death.

Kachurin brings to life the strange dilemma faced by Russian artists at the time, when the choice was essentially between emigration or going to work for the state (Russian Constructivists who stayed included Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova, as well as a textile designer named Lya Raisa, who, extreme in her embrace of the new state?s ideology, argued that ?all decorative ornament was bourgeois and therefore none belonged in Soviet textile design.?)

Those who stayed faced strange restrictions on their creative output. Floral motifs and images of hunting parties or strolling ladies were deemed poisonous relics of the old aristocracy, while geometric designs were encouraged, being clean of hidden class associations. Other approved motifs included ?the glorification of industry, the celebration of agricultural pursuit, and the promise of youth.? Images of the ideal Soviet person ? strong, stoic, up to his chiseled features and broad forearms in bountiful harvests of wheat, minding the gears of idealized turbines ? proliferated accordingly. Naturally, an ?All-Union Textile Syndicate? was formed which approved or rejected textile designs ?on the basis of both political and aesthetic merit.?

The textile designs included in the book are from a brief period, 1927-1933. Many were never mass-produced; those that were did not produce the desired result. As Kachurin writes: ?In many cases, there was a vast disconnect between the utopian vision reflected in the fabrics and the harsh realities of Soviet life, which was characterized at that time by famines, a severe housing crisis, and mass arrests. This incongruity may partly explain why Soviet consumers were less than enthusiastic about the textiles, decidedly rejecting their thematic designs.? While this paragraph led this reviewer to wonder whether patterns depicting mass arrests would have been better received, perhaps some of history?s questions are destined to be left unanswered.

The final chapter, titled ?The End of Thematic Design,? describes just that: ?On December 18, 1933, the Council of People?s Comissars published a resolution titled Inadmissability of the Goods Produced by a Number of Fabric Enterprises Using Poor and Inappropriate Designs, thus putting an end to thematic textile design,? thus proving the ancient adage: He who lives by the committee, dies by the committee.


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