Contest of Realism. Novyi Lef.

Post image for Contest of Realism. Novyi Lef.

by Rachel Furnari on Tuesday, March 11, 2014

in 20th-Century,Art,Design,Film,Graphic Design,Photography,Poetry,Politics,Russia,Typography

Novyi Lef. Zhurnal Levogo Fronta Iskusstv. Year 1, No. 1 (January 1927) through Year 2, No. 12 (December 1928) (all published). 24 issues, published in 22 vols. as issued, comprising a complete first edition of the Soviet avant-garde monthly designed by Alexandr Rodchenko under the editorial direction of Vladimir Mayakovsky, followed by Sergei Tret’iakov, each issue with 4 pp. of reproductions of photographs or photomontages by Rodchenko and others bound in. 4to. Orig. illus. color wrpps. by Rodchenko. Moscow (Gosizdat) 1927-1928. (47801)

“We must revolutionize people by making them see from all vantage points and in all lights.” [1. Alexandr Rodchenko. Novyi Lef, No. 6 (June 1927), trans. by Gail Harrison Roman.]

The nationalist pageantry of the Sochi opening ceremony drew vivid attention to Constructivism and the legendary achievements of the Russian avant-garde. A monumental locomotive steaming through the darkened stadium surrounded by dramatically lighted industrial and geometric fragments was an improbable homage to the groundbreaking aesthetic strategies of artists like Alexandr Rodchenko whose photomontages, bold graphic design, and splintered vision celebrated technology and foreshadowed the artist as an “avatar of the information age.”

From 1927-1928, Rodchenko’s extraordinary innovations and those of other early Soviet avant-garde luminaries were presented and contested in the essential arts journal Novyi Lef. Published by the Left Front of the Arts, an association of writers, theorists, critics and filmmakers, Novyi Lef  sought to reconcile the radical aesthetics of the Futurist and Constructivist movements with the social goals of the revolution, shaping experience through art.  The magazine’s pages were truly the battleground on which formal experimentation was defended as a countermodel to the ascendancy of Socialist Realism, and the end of its publication coincided with the beginning of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan and the cultural revolution that brought a brutal end to this stunning period of intellectual activity.

An earlier iteration of the magazine had folded in 1925 after only 7 issues, but Rodchenko and revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky returned, respectively, as art director and editor-in-chief, to redefine the theory and practice of the avant-garde in reaction to the most recent Communist Party rhetoric emphasizing the collective subject (rather than the individual protagonist) and realism (as opposed to fiction). The stakes could not have been higher for the new journal and it was immediately a forum for intense debate, including manifestos, polemics and critical articles on photography, film, theater, architecture, and design, by contributors including Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Viktor Shklovsky, Varvara Stepanova, Nikolai Aseev, Osip Brik, Boris Kushner, and Sergei Tret’iakov (who became editor after Mayakovsky’s resignation in July 1928).

The journal championed photography and film as the most suitable forms for postrevolutionary art, and set a program for literature that would be similarly “factual”, dispensing with the bourgeois illusion of authorship in favor of nonfiction and first-person, journalistic writing. Tret’iakov instructed the reader, “To the easel painting, which supposedly functions as a ‘mirror of reality,’ Lef opposes the photograph—a more accurate, rapid and objective means of fixing the fact… In literature, to belles lettres and the related claim to ‘reflection,’ Lef opposes reportage, […] which breaks with literary traditions and moves entirely into the field of journalism […].” (No. 11-12, 1927, p. 1). This emphasis was extended from Rodchenko’s iconic illustrated covers to the four pages bound into each issue reproducing additional photomontages, photo essays, film stills, and photomechanical designs. At its best, the multiple viewpoints, tilted horizons, disorienting perspectives, and abstracted forms of his photos served as an alternative model for realism, challenging the grand, monumental style that was quickly dominating official Soviet art.

Left: Novyi Lef No. 6 (1928); Right: Novyi Lef No. 3 (1928)

Novyi Lef No. 8 (1928).

“Comrade N.K. Krupskaia at a meeting—Photograph from the revarchiv of A.R. In contrast to portraits where people pose for the photographer and are taken against a special background, Lef is for the shot of the person in the circumstances of his usual work. That is why the included photograph of N. Krupskaia seems more valuable to us than those photographs where she is isolated from her surrounding environment.” Translation by Devin Fore, October 118 (Fall 2006), p. 58.

Of course, it is this very commitment to the revolutionary potential of a fragmented but dynamically interrelated archive of images—rather than the unified, heroic narrative characteristic of socialist realism—that would become such a problem for the artists associated with Novyi Lef, including Rodchenko who was forced to defend himself in the magazine against claims that he had imitated the bourgeois formalist László Moholy-Nagy.

Lef’s ambitious attempt to challenge myth with fact, to represent history through a collective vision of simultaneous and conflicting perspectives, was ultimately unsupportable in the political environment surrounding Stalin’s consolidation of power and increasing state control of the arts. The group disbanded and publication ceased in December 1928.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Louise Wednesday, April 5, 2017 at 8:18 AM

Hi there, are the images free to use? Or should they be licensed, and if yes, by who?
We’d possibly like to include one of these covers in an ArtReview publication on Russian Art.

Thanks and best
Louise

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