when the russian avant garde suggests captain america and guru dutt...
while going through a couple of boxes in my storage space i found a magazine i bought in the late 1980's called the journal of decorative and propaganda arts. this 1987 summer issue had a special "russian/soviet" theme, and i'm guessing i originally bought it for the articles on the ballets russes ( around that time i was pretty obsessed with cocteau, satie, and nijinsky), and early russian avant garde book design.
the strange thing about looking at something i last looked at 23 years ago - during a kind of nether-moment between undergrad and grad school - is seeing what might have inspired me then, and what inspires me now. certain things, such as lev bakst's beautiful costume drawings, seemed very important to me 23 years ago, but i can't for the life of me now figure out how they might have impacted my work and thinking then. looking through the magazine now, there are also things that i don't remember ever seeing, which means i felt they were irrelevant towards my interests then, but which now feel much more relevant to my work and interests, but were simply outside of the scope of my own vision then.
there is one work in the magazine that i remember killed me then, and still kills me now. this is the 1913 watercolor by mikhail larionov pictured above, which was created as a cover design for alexei kruchenykh's book of poems called pomade. in 1987 i was just entering a stage painting that looked like "pure abstraction" on the outside, but was really constructed of images and symbols much more reflective of narrative on the inside. thus at the time, the visual language of the russian avant garde provided a lot of inspiration for me, particularly the pre-constructivist works.
this watercolor by larionov, still feels somehow as if it is straddling the space between abstraction and image, even though the piece is clearly an image. at a time when i was moving away from the aggressive and violent imagery of a former punk rocker heavily influenced by the language of german expressionism, i was finding my way towards quieter and more introspective explorations, fueled by the discovery of rilke, and arthur dove. larionov's picture seemed to signify, for me, this shift. the way he deals with image seems to riff away from blue rider and german expressionist tendencies, towards more visual freedom, softness and a bit closer (although tentative) towards abstraction.
seeing larionov's image now, it feels even more powerful. as a maker, i realize that the simplicity is completely deceptive, and on top of everything that i have learned about history over the last 20 years or so, the image still has the ability to bring more conversation to the table, such as how much it suddenly seems related to early modernist japanese painting. but none of these connections are what set me to wanting to write about larionov's piece. i wanted to write about it because it suggested something to me that has nothing to do with art history, something outside of larionov's own intentions, and yet the minute my eyes fell upon that image, my mind flew towards a 1957 film still, which of course, seemed totally unrelated.
larionov's watercolor, was originally made for a book titled "pomade", and the image seems to be of an angel (or a four armed man) rubbing/massaging another person's head, and it left me thinking of a scene from one of my favorite films of all time, guru dutt's 1957 masterpiece pyaasa. one of the classic scenes in the film consists of johnny walker standing in a park, massaging a gentleman's head with oil, while singing a song. the scene is somewhat hilarious as walker not only massages the man's scalp, but includes some bongo type "drumming" upon his head in sync with the music and walker's song.
i know it would be a ridiculously unrealistic leap of faith to think that dutt might've been inspired to write the scene after seeing larinov's cover piece for pomade, but dutt was certainly schooled in art history, and he did "borrow" ideas from other things. one of the main plot devices in pyaasa was stolen from the hollywood film sullivan's travels. in both films the main character loses his coat to a bum,who then gets hit by a train and dies; which leads everyone to think that the main character has died. dutt loved hollywood films, and was clear and "transparent" in his use of preston sturges' earlier plot device; but of course, i have never read anything by him that mentions larionov's drawing as an influence on the johnny walker pomade scene.
the magazine also contains a photograph of a "sports costume" designed by varvara stepanova from the early 1920's. i don't remember this image from my first encounter with the magazine, but does seem strange for a russian design to resemble an american flag, and even more so to resemble some of the patriotic clothing rural americans wore in homespun fourth of july parades and festivals in the late 1800's. the dress, as you can see above, is red, white, and blue, and contains a star in the center and a number of stripes. like larionov's pomade drawing, what surprised me wasn't so much the reference to the american flag, but again to something seemingly unrelated, the superhero outfit of captain america.
as with larionov's image, i have no idea where, when, or if images of this dress ever traveled, but i can't help but wonder if jack kirby and joe simon , who created captian america in 194o to combat the rising tide of hitler and nazi-ism, ever saw stepanova's design. russian avant garde designs and artworks were certainly known in the usa by the 1940's, but how much of it was exhibited in museums or published in magazines i have no idea. of course, all of these thoughts are quite a stretch, and my thoughts are simply founded upon intuitive connections as opposed to academic or scholarly research, but perhaps it is simply setting the table for more connections between seemingly disconnected things, or at least suggesting some amount of the potential viability of following one's own path through things...