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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every­thing You Need to Know About Mod­ern Russ­ian Art in 25 Min­utes: A Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to Futur­ism, Social­ist Real­ism & More

A Dig­i­tal Archive of Sovi­et Children’s Books Goes Online: Browse the Artis­tic, Ide­o­log­i­cal Col­lec­tion (1917–1953)

Watch the Sur­re­al­ist Glass Har­mon­i­ca, the Only Ani­mat­ed Film Ever Banned by Sovi­et Cen­sors (1968)

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

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