When Soviet Artists Turned Textiles (Scarves, Tablecloths & Curtains) into Beautiful Propaganda in the 1920s & 1930s

Americans swim in propaganda all the time, even those of us who think the word refers to some exotic form of foreign authoritarianism rather than our own good ol’ home-cooked variety. But the sad fact—admittedly very far down the list of rather tragic facts—is that U.S. propaganda is particularly crude, obnoxious, and unappealing. Contrast, for example, the symbol of the pantsuit, or the casual racism, misogyny, and homicidal fantasies on trucker hats, t-shirts, and beach towels with the alarming pageantry of Maoist China, Stalinist Russia, or name-your-showy-totalitarian-regime.

In the early days of the Soviet Union, state propaganda received a special boost from a cadre of eager and willing avant-garde artists, including poet, actor, director, etc. Vladimir Mayakovsky, who wrote Soviet children’s books, and a number of Russian Futurists who seized the opportunity to promote the new order with totally incomprehensible poetry and art.

In no way regimented or standardized, as were later Socialist Realists, early Soviet propagandists used politics as another material in their work, rather than its primary raison d'être.

These pioneers were joined by experimental composers, filmmakers, and even textile designers, who had a brief moment under the shining Soviet star between 1927 and 1933, when, as one publication from a wealthy collector notes, “a fascinating experiment in textile making took place in the Soviet Union. As the new nation emerged and the Communist party struggled to transform an agrarian country into an industrialized state, a group of young designers began to create thematic textile designs.”

Their designs—adorning tablecloths, sheets, curtains, and scarves and other items of everyday, off-the-rack wear—showcase bold, striking patterns, many, writes Dangerous Minds, “thematic of classical Russian art: you see lush color, dense scapes and even the odd Orientalist trope.” They are also filled with “delightfully propagandist imagery,” notes Marina Galperina at Flavorwire, “of revving tractors, smoke-pumping factor pipes, and babushka-clad women taking a sickle to wheat… woven in between opulent florals and pretty, constructivist squiggles.”

Factory gears, war machines, athletes, and scenes of industry were popular, as were the expected state symbols and iconography—as in the Lenin linen at the top, framed at the top by Marx and Engels; Trotsky at the bottom left has been purged from the textile record. See many more examples of early Soviet textiles at io9, Flashbak, and Messy Nessy.

via English Russia and @TedGioia

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Did Akira Kurosawa Make Such Powerful & Enduring Films? A Wealth of Video Essays Break Down His Cinematic Genius

No Japanese filmmaker has received quite as much international scrutiny, and for so long, as Akira Kurosawa. Though now almost twenty years gone, the man known in his homeland as the "Emperor" of cinema only continues to grow in stature on the landscape of global film culture. Film students still watch Rashomon, swords-and-sandals fans still thrill to Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, midcentury crime-picture buffs still turn up for screenings of Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, and many a Shakespeare buff still looks in admiration at his interpretations of Macbeth (as Throne of Blood) and King Lear (as Ran).

How did Kurosawa and his collaborators imbue these and many other acclaimed pictures with such enduring power? An entire subgenre of video essays has emerged to approach an answer to that question. At the top of the post we have one from Tony Zhou, creator of the well-known cinematic video essay series Every Frame a Painting, on Kurosawa's "innate understanding of movement and how to capture it onscreen."

His staging also demonstrates a highly developed sense of space, which Zhou reveals in the short essay just above by breaking down a scene from 1960's corporate-corruption drama The Bad Sleep Well.

All of those film students watching Seven Samurai may not consider it a true action film, at least by their ultra-modern standards, but the way Kurosawa's best-known picture tells its story through artfully rendered movement and violence has stood as an example for action filmmakers ever since. Lewis Bond, the video essayist behind Channel Criswell, draws out the lessons Seven Samurai still holds for action cinema today, in the essay above. But what happens in the frame also gains much of its impact from the construction of the frame itself. A video essayist by the name of Mr. Nerdista looks at Kurosawa's unusual mastery of the art of framing, as seen in Rashomon, in the essay below.

But no film, no matter how skillfully made, could cross as many historical and cultural boundaries as Kurosawa's have with aesthetics alone. The strong moral sense at the dramatic core of his work — a characteristic, too, of the Shakespeare plays from which he drew inspiration — will keep it forever relevant, not because it presents the audience with simple lessons about what to do and what not to do, but because it forces them to consider the most difficult moral questions. This comes most clearly to the fore in 1963's modern-day ransom story High and Low, examined in the Jack's Movie Reviews essay below.

A.O. Scott selected High and Low as a New York Times "Critic's Pick" back in 2012, and you can see him discuss the movie's virtues in this video. It appears as just one of a roundup of Kurosawa-related videos at akirakurosawa.info, a selection that also includes Scott on Rana Criterion Collection clip of Kurosawa experts on the violence of Seven Samurai, a look at Kurosawa's evolution as an artist through four of his best-known movies, a two-part essay on Kurosawa's influences as well as those he has influenced. For as much as all these videos have to say about Kurosawa's movies, though, few of them reference the details of Kurosawa's life. The Emperor, who once wrote that, "there is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself," would have approved.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Visionary Notebooks Now Online: Browse 570 Digitized Pages

Quick, what do you know about Leonardo da Vinci? He painted the Mona Lisa! He wrote his notes backwards! He designed supercool bridges and flying machines! He was a genius about, um… a lot of other… things… and, um, stuff...

Okay, I’m sure you know a bit more than that, but unless you’re a Renaissance scholar, you’re certain to find yourself amazed and surprised at how much you didn’t know about the quintessential Renaissance man when you encounter a compilation of his notebooks—Codex Arundel—which has been digitized by the British Library and made available to the public.

The notebook, writes Jonathan Jones at The Guardian, represents “the living record of a universal mind.” And yet, though a “technophile” himself, “when it came to publication, Leonardo was a luddite…. He made no effort to get his notes published.”

For hundreds of years, the huge, secretive collection of manuscripts remained mostly unseen by all but the most rarified of collectors. After Leonardo's death in France, writes the British Library, his student Francesco Melzi “brought many of his manuscripts and drawings back to Italy. Melzi’s heirs, who had no idea of the importance of the manuscripts, gradually disposed of them.” Nonetheless, over 5,000 pages of notes “still exist in Leonardo’s ‘mirror writing’, from right to left.” In the notebooks, da Vinci drew “visions of the aeroplane, the helicopter, the parachute, the submarine and the car. It was more than 300 years before many of his ideas were improved upon.”

The digitized notebooks debuted in 2007 as a joint project of the British Library and Microsoft called “Turning the Pages 2.0,” an interactive feature that allows viewers to “turn” the pages of the notebooks with animations. Onscreen glosses explain the content of the cryptic notes surrounding the many technical drawings, diagrams, and schematics (see a selection of the notebooks in this animated format here). For an overwhelming amount of Leonardo, you can look through 570 digitized pages of Codex Arundel here. For a slightly more digestible, and readable, amount of Leonardo, see the British Library’s brief series on his life and work, including explanations of his diving apparatus, parachute, and glider.

And for much more on the man—including evidence of his sartorial “preference for pink tights” and his shopping lists—see Jonathan Jones’ Guardian piece, which links to other notebook collections and resources. The artist and self-taught polymath made an impressive effort to keep his ideas from prying eyes. Now, thanks to digitized collections like those at the British Library, “anyone can study the mind of Leonardo.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear the 150 Greatest Albums by Women: NPR Creates a New Canon of Albums That Puts Women at the Center of Music History

What is it with all the trendpieces on great women artists, writers, directors, singers, etc.? What, indeed. To ask the question is to acknowledge the premise of such pieces. Why should they need to be written at all if women in these fields received fair representation elsewhere? That lists and articles can be written in the hundreds puts the lie to phony claims that "great" women do not exist in every field in numbers. This is especially true in the 20th century, when hard-won political gains opened cultural doors unimaginable to many previous generations. But those gains did not fundamentally alter how cultural histories have been written.

Music critic Anne Powers and Lincoln Center program director Jill Sternheimer recently considered this problem, one which, Powers writes at NPR, persists even in the ways “music history’s being recorded and revised in the digital age.”

They wondered, "why... was the importance of women so often recognized as a trend instead of a source of lasting impact? We came to a conclusion that, in 2017, will likely strike no one as a surprise: that the general history of popular music is told through the great works of men, and that without a serious revision of the canon, women will always remain on the margins.”

This is a truth reinforced in many different ways: by the shelves weighed down with books about Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, while only one or two about Aretha Franklin or Patti Smith sit nearby; by the radio playlists that still only feature women once or twice every hour.

This isn’t a problem of “representation”—the term we so often hear applied to casting decisions and awards shows. Powers isn’t making a case for diversity in hiring, but for accuracy in writing the historical record. To that end, Powers and Lincoln Center, together with “nearly 50 women who play a role in NPR… compiled and voted” on a list: "Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums by Women.” You can hear nearly all of those albums in our Spotify playlist below. Calling the list “an intervention, a remedy, a correction,” Powers writes, “These albums were released between 1964, the year The Beatles invaded America… and 2016, when Beyoncé arguably ushered in a new period with her ‘visual album’ Lemonade.”

The point is to offer a view of popular music history with women's work at the center. The list does not represent an "alternate history." It stands for music history, touching upon every significant trend, social issue, set of sonic innovations, and new avenue for self-expression that popular music has intersected in the past fifty years.

Against the argument for “affirmative action”—or simply rewriting old “great album” lists to include more women—Powers argues, “once a canon is formed, it gains an aura of immutability.” Plenty of lists include female artists. Almost none of them include women in the top spots, suggesting that “the paradigms that define greatness remain masculine at their core.” Tokenism, no matter how well-intentioned, does not make for “a shift in perspective beyond the simple mandate to adjust the numbers.”

Ava Duvernay has made a similar argument against mandated “diversity” in Hollywood as a mollifying tactic that maintains status quo power relationships. “The fact that the mainstream starts to gaze at this space doesn’t make it a moment,” she tells Hollywood Reporter, “it makes it a moment for them.” As Powers writes of the way Joni Mitchell was often treated by the rock establishment, "the female musician is a dream, a surprise and a disruptor. She can claim the center of attention, but her rightful point of origin, and the place to which she returns, is a margin."

Instead of marginal inclusion in existing cliques, Powers argues for a cultural shift, a “new canon,” that isn’t hedged with the usual standards that often exclude women on arbitrary purist grounds. Keeping “wide parameters,” the contributors “left room for acknowledged rock-era classics as well as pop hits dismissed by others as fluff.” That disclaimer aside, there’s precious little “fluff” on this list—meaning it’s hard to find albums here that wouldn’t qualify for “greatest” status on more narrowly-defined genre lists. It is a list, that is to say, of 150 great albums, written, recorded, and released over the course of fifty plus years, by some of the most talented writers, players, and musicians in modern music history.

"Lists have their limitations," Powers admits, "They reflect biases and whispered compromises." She and her contributors offer this one "as the beginning of a new conversation" rather than an authoritative statement. At such depth and breadth, however, "Turning the Tables" makes room for nearly every possible genre, from all over the world. Read the full list of 150 albums, with commentary, here. A few of the 150 albums, including Lemonade, Bikini Kill's Yeah Yeah Yeah, Joan Jett's I Love Rock 'n' Roll, Joanna Newsome's Ys, and Laurie Anderson's Big Science aren't on Spotify, so didn't make our playlist above. The top ten albums on the list are:

  1. Joni Mitchell, Blue (Reprise, 1971)
  2. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1998)
  3. Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You (Philips, 1956)
  4. Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You (Atlantic, 1967)
  5. Missy Eliot, Supa Dupa Fly (The Goldmine/Elekra, 1997)
  6. Beyoncé, Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia 2016)
  7. Patti Smith, Horses (Arista, 1975)
  8. Janis Joplin, Pearl (Columbia, 1971)
  9. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (Island, 2006)
  10. Carole King, Tapestry (Ode, 1971)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The British Museum Creates 3D Models of the Rosetta Stone & 200+ Other Historic Artifacts: Download or View in Virtual Reality

Back in 2015, The British Museum gave the world online access to the Rosetta Stone, along with 4,700 other artifacts in the great London museum. But that access was only in 2D.

Now they've upped the ante and published a 3D model of the Rosetta Stone and 200+ other essential items in the museum's collections. "This scan was part of our larger attempt to capture as many of our iconic pieces from the collection — and indeed the unseen in store objects — and make them available for people to view in 3D or in more tactile forms,” Daniel Pett, a British Museum adviser told Digital Trends.

Other 3D models you might want to check out include the granite head of Amenemhat III, a portrait bust of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, and a statue of Roy, High Priest of Amun.

Note: If you put your mouse on the objects and swivel on your trackpad, you can see different sides of the artifacts. Created with a company called Sketchfab, the 3D models are all available to download. You can also see them in virtual reality. (Look for the little "View in VR" icon at the bottom of each image.)

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

via Hyperallergic

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H.R. Giger’s Tarot Cards: The Swiss Artist, Famous for His Design Work on Alien, Takes a Journey into the Occult

The first tarot cards appeared in Europe in the mid-fifteenth century, and those who used them used to play simple card games. But as the art of the tarot deck developed to incorporate a host of historical, philosophical, and astronomical symbols, their imagery took on more weight, and a couple hundred years later the cards had become popular instruments of divination. From the late eighteenth century on, one could obtain tarot decks specifically designed for occult purposes, and their artistic variety has only expanded in the 250 or so years since. In the 1990s, the imaginative world of tarot collided with an equally rich set of visions: those of H.R. Giger.

Giger, a Swiss artist who first gained worldwide fame and influence with his design work on Ridley Scott's Alien (up to and including the terrifying alien itself), united the biological and the mechanical in a distinctive and disturbing fashion.

After seeing Giger's art in his first book of paintings Necronomicon, a Swiss occultist by the name of Akron understood its potential as tarot imagery. The collection's title picture, Akron writes, showed a "fascinating monster" called Baphomet, "the symbol of the connection between the rational and irrational world," the same function performed by the occult tarot deck itself.

When Akron approached Giger proposing to collaborate on a deck, according to i09's Lauren Davis, "Giger felt that he didn't have the time to create new works that would do the deck justice. So he selected 22 of his existing, previously unpublished pieces" for the cards' faces. In a later interview, "Giger says that he never studied Tarot cards and in fact, had no interest in having his fortune told with them. (Giger claimed he was too superstitious, though he describes Akron's descriptions of the individual cards as 'sometimes crazy, but funny — but not probably very serious.')" His "mix of occult iconography, demonic organisms, and his trademark biomechanical aesthetic make for apt, if unusually dark Tarot illustrations."

You can see more of Giger and Akron's tarot deck, available in both English and German, at i09 and Dangerous Minds. Or better yet, pick up your own deck of cards. While browsing, do keep in mind two things: first, that Giger's visions, even those selected to represent age-old tarot arcana, can certainly get NSFW. Second, even though the artist specialized in nightmarish imagery (hence his popularity on the grimmer side of science fiction) we should resist interpreting them too literally as representations of the future. After all, the cards, as a much more lighthearted production once joked, are vague and mysterious.

via io9

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Iggy Pop & Debbie Harry Sing a Swelligant Version of Cole Porter’s “Did You Evah,” All to Raise Money for AIDS Research (1990)

Quick survey: Who’s best fit to get at the heart of Cole Porter? The suave sophisticate who was born in a tux, martini glass clutched in his infant fist? Or punk royalty? “Well, Did You Evah!” from the 1939 Broadway musical DuBarry Was a Lady, is the brattier cousin of such Porter hits as “You’re the Top” and “Let’s Do It.” Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby performed a boozy cover of it for the 1956 film High Society, but for my money, the definitive version is one Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry recorded for a Cole Porter themed AIDS benefit album, Red Hot + Blue.

Some Porter classics–“Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “So In Love”–demand sincerity. This one calls for a strong dose of the opposite, which Pop and Harry deliver, both vocally and in the barnstorming music video above. They’re dangerous, funny, and anything but canned, weaving through rat-glammy 1980s New York in thrift store finery, with side trips to a cemetery and a farm where Pop smooches a goat.

As Alex Cox, who brought further punk pedigree to the project as the director of Sid and Nancy and Repo Man told Spin: "Iggy had always wanted to make a video with animals and Debbie had always wanted to publicly burn lingerie so I let them."

They also filled Pop’s palms with stigmata and ants, and swapped Porter’s champagne for a case of generic dog food.

There are a few minor tweaks to the lyrics (“What cocks!”) and the stars inject the patter with a gleefully louche downtown sensibility. Mars rises behind the Twin Towers, for a swelligantly off-beat package that raised a lot of money for AIDS research and awareness. Other gems from the project:

"It's All Right with Me" performed by Tom Waits, directed by Jim Jarmusch

"Night and Day" performed by U2, directed by Wim Wenders

"Don't Fence Me In" performed and directed by David Byrne

Related Content:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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