French Resistance or Russian Revolution? Disseminating Modernist Performance

Irena R. Makaryk, April in Paris: Theatricality, Modernism, and Politics at the 1925 Art Deco Expo (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 298 PP.

Working at the intersection between design history, modernist studies, and performance studies is sometimes a lonely place, so I was glad to find out about Irena Makaryk’s new book, April in Paris: Theatricality, Modernism, and Politics at the 1925 Art Deco Expo, on theatricality at the Paris International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. The exhibition, which took place in 1925, was an influential endeavor that gave rise to the term “art deco” and the stylistic variants associated with it. Unfortunately, in art and design history scholarship it is often presented as a cautionary tale of the avant-garde being overtaken by a brand of “kitsch,” or “department store modernism” as one well-known volume describes it.(Hal Foster et al., Art Since 1900 (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), p. 220.)

The exhibition’s marginalization has been examined by scholars such as Nancy Troy and Tag Gronberg, who have laid bare the exclusionary means through which canon formation functions in the realm of avant-garde and modernist artistic practices.(Nancy J. Troy, Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France. Art Nouveau to Le Corbusier (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1991); Tag Gronberg, Designs on Modernity. Exhibiting the City in 1920s Paris (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2003).) In particular, Gronberg has investigated the event’s approach to staging both its exhibits and the city of Paris itself through performative means drawn from both the theatrical stage and the shop window, and how this has contributed to its marginalization. The “anti-theatricality” of modernist discourse has also been alluded to by performance studies scholars and constitutes the starting point for Makaryk’s book.(Martin Puchner, Stage Fright. Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002); Alan L. Ackerman and Martin Puchner, eds., Against Theater. Creative Destructions on the Modernist Stage (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).) Makaryk, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, has a broad range of research interests in the realm of theater studies, having published both on Shakespearean drama and on Soviet modernism. In April in Paris, she points out that modernism in the theater arts is “still vastly understudied” and “often subsumed or overshadowed by literary studies of modernism” (p. 20). Then as now, modernism was an elusive term, and in Makaryk’s view, the organizers of the exhibition were attempting to circumscribe it “by insisting that historicism was to be avoided and only the ‘new’ was to be exhibited” (p. 19). Thus, Makaryk’s volume is filling a doubly important gap: examining the presence of theatrical innovation at the 1925 Paris exhibition, which was also the first time that the theater arts were included as a significant part of an international event of this kind.

The volume’s protagonists are both France, the organizers of the event, and the USSR, a new state eager to make an impression. The first three chapters of the book are devoted to setting up this dynamic, examining urban modernization in both countries, and outlining their preparations and expectations for the exhibition itself. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on French and Soviet theater displays at the exhibition, while the final two chapters address the event’s reception in the United States in the mid-to-late 1920s, and its subsequent enduring influence.

The volume begins by considering the theatricalization of urban space in Chapter 1, comparing Paris, on the one hand, and Moscow and Petrograd, on the other. The French capital was transformed during the exhibition into a spectacular citycape, “a Cubist dream city” (p. 36), through the means of electrical illumination and temporary structures. Whereas previous fairs had left behind some symbolic (and physical) presence, such as the Eiffel Tower, the 1925 exhibition was completely ephemeral, creating only a passing illusion of “newness” amongst Paris’s historical city center. Similar concerns dogged the Soviet authorities, who likewise had to rely on temporary interventions in the urban space instead of the sweeping change they would have preferred. Due to financial constraints, they had to be content with mass festivals and spectacles or utopian artistic projects, such as Vladimir Tatlin’s maquette for the Monument to the Third International (part of the Soviet exhibit in Paris), an enormous towering structure that was never built. For both nations, the electrification of the urban space had a certain symbolic value, constituting what David E. Nye terms an “ideology of progress” (p. 40).(David E. Nye, Electrifying America. Social Meanings of a New Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).) For the Soviet authorities, it was a marker of the desired industrial and societal advancement as yet confined to utopian artistic experiments, while for the French organizers of the exhibitions it allowed them to “edit out the unimportant and the ugly […] by leaving these in obscurity,” just as spotlight illumination functioned on the theater stage (p. 39).

Significantly, the pavilions of French colonies were also relegated to the marginal spaces of the exhibition, but Makaryk does not dwell sufficiently on these important exclusions and inclusions. Instead, she moves on to examine the exhibition’s raison d’être in Chapter 2: “to fix a specific meaning or direction to […] a new modern spirit” (p. 59). This is something to which the author returns frequently, as the book is also a self-confessed attempt to trace how modernism was disseminated internationally as a style. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that the exhibition organizers had a master plan of this magnitude, certainly not in the sense of a worldwide artistic revolution. More likely they had pragmatic goals, as Makaryk herself shows later in the chapter, such as ensuring French commercial success at a time of economic difficulty, creating trade partnerships, and reaffirming the nation’s superiority in the face of rivals such as Germany. The latter country was invited late in the process and declined, whereas the USSR, an equally late addition to the fair, was only too pleased to take up a place in the spotlight. (As the author later reveals, the USSR participated in thirty-two international exhibitions between 1924 and 1929).

In Chapter 3, Makaryk introduces the Soviet presence at the exhibition, revealing the use of similar “tools of propaganda and public diplomacy” to those evinced by the French (p. 92). With its walls made of glass and a bold red-and-white color scheme, Konstantin Melnikov’s famous pavilion, for example, “adhered to the same ‘shop-window’ manner of display that characterized most of the Exposition” (p. 104). The large transparent surface proffered an invitation to the passerby akin to the strategies of modern Parisian commercial displays brought to the fore by the exhibition. Thus, according to Makaryk, the Soviet discourse at the fair walked an uneasy line between condemning Western bourgeois culture and seeking to re-establish political and trade relations with Western countries. To this end, the boundaries between the terms “Russian” and “Soviet” were blurred within exhibition materials, and folk art exhibits were included to provide a recognizable link to a “Russian” past for exhibition audiences. Nonetheless, animosity occasionally burst forth from behind this façade of bonhomie: the Soviet display also included a Ukrainian porcelain plate with a modern design that featured the slogan “We will grind you all into dust! USSR” surrounding a soldier striding forward with a bayonet (pp. 98, 100).

Having set the scene, Makaryk turns to the theater arts, the core of the book. Chapter 4 focuses on the organization of the theater section of the fair and the French presence within it. The French theater display itself was a disappointment to many observers, containing mainly theater furnishings by trade suppliers and two dressing rooms designed by Paul Poiret and Jean Lanvin, leading to the withdrawal of more experimental participants such as Jean Cocteau. Makaryk does not dwell too much on this, focusing instead on what is to my mind the book’s strongest section, a gripping account of the struggle to furnish the fair with a purposely built innovative theater space, which was ultimately not used to its full potential. Designed by the architect Auguste Perret, the theater building had a stark grey interior, swivelling seats for the audience, and a three-part stage that could also be divided in height by an additional floor. From the very beginning it did not bode well for theatrical modernism that the newly built theater was located away from the main area of the fair, thus signaling its marginalization in a very literal sense. Furthermore, exhibition participants were expected to lease the space for performances at a costly fee, which few could afford. Thus, the theater’s pioneering space did not welcome the experimental productions of Alexander Tairov or Vsevolod Meyerhold, or even those of French theater directors such as Gaston Baty or Jacques Copeau, who complained to the organizers about the prohibitive costs. Instead, its stage was mostly given over to folkloric or amateur performances, and regional theater groups.

This state of affairs placed the Soviet theater display center stage by comparison, so to speak. Discussed in Chapter 5, the exhibit consisted of over 300 theater maquettes, costume and stage designs, and photographs of experimental productions. However, Makaryk’s account of the Soviet theater display at the fair is disappointing, especially at it purports to be one of the book’s main contributions. It was unclear to me whether any actual performances took place at the fair, or how the theater display was spatially and thematically connected to the rest of the Soviet display (which contained, as we have seen, items such as revolutionary porcelain and Tatlin’s Monument). Makaryk’s account of the contents of the display is sporadic, containing for example a lengthy biographical account of Alexandra Exter’s career, but not that of the other exhibiting artists, amongst whom were Liubov Popova, Alexander Vesnin, Vadym Meller, and Isaak Rabinovich. There is some discussion of the critical reception of the display, which reveals that reviewers tended to focus on classic drama such as Rabinovich’s set for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata or Vesnin’s designs for Phaedra. The familiarity of the texts provided a stepping stone towards the seemingly eccentric designs, whereas the novelty of Popova’s sets for Fernand Crommelynck’s The Magnanimous Cuckold was rendered even more challenging by the unfamiliarity of the play itself. Yet in the end, Makaryk concludes that the Paris exhibition did not succeed in bringing about truly radical change.

It did, however, produce some aftereffects, an important one being the 1926 International Theater Exhibition that took place in New York and to which Chapter 6 is dedicated. Thanks to Jane Heap, editor of the influential publication The Little Review, much of the Paris theater exhibit was brought to the United States by Austrian architect and designer Frederick Kiesler. A section was added to the exhibition to highlight American theater design, resulting in a fairly comprehensive display of theatrical modernism featuring over 2,000 exhibits from nineteen countries exhibited in the opulent marble showrooms of the Steinway piano building. The exhibition caused a stir amongst American artists and intellectuals, while press commentators hovered between admiration for the new techniques in acting and stage design and concerns about “bolshevism in stage craft” (p. 176). But the true star of the exhibition, and of this chapter, was Kiesler, who in my mind deserves a much larger spot in the pantheon of the twentieth-century avant-garde. Makaryk paints him as delightfully eccentric, arriving in New York with twenty-eight crates of exhibits in tow. Once there, he created a modern modular display to showcase the exhibits, and also presented his own innovative Optophon Theater installation where onstage action was replaced by air-bound colored light patterns projected into the audience. Kiesler also believed that previous theatrical practices were “born in the spirit of imperialism” and attempted to set up laboratories for theater research that would work to develop the responsiveness of both actors and audiences (p. 204).

Challenging exhibits and ideas such as Kiesler’s, some of the Soviet offerings, as well as the modernist typography and oblique rhetoric of the 1926 International Theater Exhibition labels and program caused a stir, but also prevented the above exhibition’s ideas from reaching a broader audience. As Chapter 7 reveals, changes took place gradually. In the aftermath of the Paris exhibition, both American museums and department stores began to hold regular exhibitions of new design. Hollywood also contributed to the popularization of design modernism through its films. Kiesler himself began to use his skills to create theatrical shop windows on Fifth Avenue and wrote an influential book on commercial display entitled Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and Its Display (1930). He believed that modern art and design would not flourish through lengthy discussions in “academies and art schools, but simply by planting [their] creations down in the commercial marts” (p. 205). Rather dishearteningly, Makaryk concludes her endeavour by joining critics of the 1925 Paris exhibition in bemoaning its impact within the realm of commerce and consumption, which in their mind diluted the radical agenda of the modernist artistic practices presented at the event. According to Makaryk, the subsequent diffusion of these practices through the means of consummer culture meant that they were “completely shorn of their agitational, revolutionary import” (p. 209).

The reality was much more complex and, as briefly mentioned in the introduction to this review, a wide range of scholarship that challenges the stigma attached to performativity and commerce within the context of modernism has been emerging over the past few decades. On the one hand, these studies have legitimized the heretofore “unacceptable (and indeed largely unacknowledged)” modernism of the French contribution to the Paris 1925 exhibition, revealing some of the problematic ideas that underlie the criticism directed at it.(Gronberg, Designs on Modernity, p. 18. Critique of the exhibition’s more commercial aspects was often intended to discredit newly empowered female designers and consumers, linking them to theatricality and surface decoration, as opposed to the “rational,” “masculine” modernism of Le Corbusier or Melnikov. See also Troy, Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France and Marjorie A. Beale, The Modernist Enterprise. French Elites and the Threat of Modernity, 1900-1940 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).)On the other, they have shown that Soviet artists also engaged with consumer culture in order to disseminate their ideas, designing advertising and shop window displays, or even geometric textiles for mass production.(Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge; London: MIT Press, 2005).) So much so, that in his review of the exhibition the Soviet critic Yakov Tugendhol’d wondered why Constructivist aesthetics looked so at home in Paris: “Does this mean that the revolutionary ideology is conquering the bourgeois consciousness, that it is entering the bourgeois world or, on the contrary, that these principles are not so revolutionary?”(Quoted in J. E. Bowlt, ed. “Constructivism and Early Soviet Fashion Design,” in Bolshevik Culture, A. Gleason et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 203–19, p. 217.) As John Bowlt notes, such arguments ultimately led to the downfall of Constructivism and the rise of Socialist Realism.(Ibid.)

Ultimately, one may also point out that the USSR participated enthusiastically in a whole array of Western exhibitions, despite the association of such international fairs, from the very moment of their nineteenth-century inception, with nationalistic hubris, colonial domination, and racism. While Makaryk mentions this problematic past briefly in her introduction (p. 18), April in Paris would have benefitted from a more nuanced engagement with this issue and the ones outlined in the previous paragraph, especially as the book purports to focus on marginalized artistic practices. Nonetheless, Makaryk’s book is a useful addition to literature on both the Paris 1925 Exposition and theatrical modernism and its dissemination, and it is especially heartening to see these topics addressed together. Long may the revolution continue.


Alexandra Chiriac
Alexandra Chiriac is an art historian and curator specializing in the history of modern applied arts and design, with a focus on identity, gender, and ethnic minorities. She completed her PhD at the University of St Andrews, with her thesis Putting the Peripheral Centre Stage: Performing Modernism in Interbellum Bucharest 1924-1934. Her publications examine transnational design and performance history, the most recent being "Ephemeral Modernisms, Transnational Lives: Reconstructing Avant-Garde Performance in Bucharest" in the Journal of Romanian Studies (2020), "Romanian Modernism and the Perils of the Peripheral" in Borders of Modernism (University of Perugia, 2019), and "Myth, Making, and Modernity: The Academy of Decorative Arts and Design Education in Bucharest" in Caietele avangardei (2018). Chiriac previously worked for GRAD, a non-profit cultural platform for Russian and Eastern European arts based in London, curating a series of exhibitions on Soviet design history.