The Measures Taken

A defunct site housing papers, articles and lengthier disquisitions by Owen Hatherley, now blogging only at Sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


The Children’s Book as a Revolutionary Object

Walter Benjamin and Constructivist Pedagogy

A Plasticine Benjamin, from the exhibition Schrift-Bilder-Denken, 2004

In the Diary of his trip to Moscow in 1926 and 1927, Walter Benjamin writes of how the sheet ice and bustling crowds of the city’s streets immediately sweep away the most elementary achievements of education and adulthood. In order to move on the pavements, Benjamin finds himself re-learning to walk. At the same time he was teaching himself the basics all over again, many of the avant-garde artists of the city were working in children’s literature, trying to create a proletarian and Constructivist education through the creation of mass produced objects.

El Lissitzky, 'One Goat', 1919

The designer El Lissitzky was a prolific composer and illustrator of children’s books. They run from illustrations of Yiddish folk tales to a Constructivist maths textbook. The two I’m going to look at are from 1919-20, when Lissitzky was producing propaganda for the Reds in the Russian Civil War. The earlier book, One Goat, is an illustration of a song recited on Passover which outlines a cyclical history of life and death. Its forms are jagged, its colours bright and discordant. The framing and simplified figures evoke the traditional Russian wood block, the Lubok, while the turbulence of the compositions align it firmly with the futurist-primitivism that was rife at the time in revolutionary Germany and Russia. Though the old tales are being re-told, they are reinvigorated with the air of an expectant messianism, of finality and total change, as in the image of the creative hand and observing eye of God sweeping away death.

El Lissitzky, A Tale of 2 Squares, 1920

The later, A Tale of Two Squares on the other hand, has no compunction about showing the new world in all its radicality and initial incomprehensibility. Here there are no more figures, no more creatures, replaced with geometry and the play of non-objective forms. These forms, however abstract, are not meaningless, and reflect the social turmoil of the time. As in his poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’, the colour and form is political - the red square must, of necessity, triumph over the grey and black mass in order to usher in the new world. Benjamin was a life-long collector of children’s books. The mythic-aesthetic co-ordinates established here – the relationship of politics and aesthetics, a militant communism combined with Jewish Messianism, and a use of the child’s optic to interpret and elucidate these phenomena – have such obvious correspondences with his thought that it’s rather a shame that, as far as we know, he was unfamilar with these books, though he was aware of Lissitzky. However, his writings on toys, children’s books and education in the 1920s are interesting in the light they throw on the Constructivist educational project. An early draft of these writings is a piece on ‘A Child’s View of Colour’ from 1914, which interprets the childish desire to daub in terms that evoke the fauvists and Expressionists that made up the avantgarde at the time. Colour here has no necessary concomittance with form, instead runs free as a liberated chromaticism. In Lissitzky’s earlier work this can be seen in the primal tone and apocalyptic sweep of his line and the wildness of the colour. The Expressionist activist group Arbeitsrat fur Kunst exhibited children’s drawings for similar reasons, in that these works exhibited the ‘pure vision’ the early Benjamin talks about.

A Tale of 2 Squares

The development of this aesthetic from this conception of subjectivism and eternal verities into one more technologically and politically oriented comes with Benjamin’s turn to Marxism after the German inflation of 1923, which threw the most simple transactions into such turmoil that again, the basics of adulthood had to be re-learnt. In 'Old Forgotten Children's Books', a review in 1924, he points out that children have no affection for what adults regard as childlike. Instead he sees children’s books and play in terms of construction and of active labour – cutting out, tearing up, and building. Hence the admonition on the cover of El Lissitzky’s Tale of 2 Squares - ‘don’t read - get paper and posts and boards. Put them together, paint, build’. Children are for Benjamin little Constructivists, taking the detritus of capital and assembling them into new forms. He writes: ‘in waste products they recognise the face that the world of things turns directly to them.’ The child works as an impeccably modernist montagist or bricoleur, yet at the same time provides a link with the past, in the same way that the fairytale is the waste product of the Saga.

A Tale of 2 Squares

This thing-world is experienced directly: in the 1926 essay ‘A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books’ he claims that rather than the objects of the book entering everyday life, the child enters the book and interacts with its objects. These objects may hold a utopian element precisely because they are often antiquated: in 1928 he writes of the simplified toys of the Weimar Republic, perhaps thinking of the radically reductive toy designs of the Bauhaus, as an ‘authentic longing to rediscover the relationship with the primitive’. Alternatively, the macabre toys of the 1910s were like ‘looking the hideous features of commodity capital in the face’, concerned with disaster and horror, a ‘hellish exuberance’. In ‘Toys and Play’, again in 1928, he notes that the toy disproves the idea that ‘primitive’ necessarily means ‘older’, and here we are still very much in the world of the earlier Lissitzky, a reinvigoration of the old tales for the benefit of the future.

Bauhaus toys

In 1929 Benjamin wrote two short pieces on Communist educational theory, though curiously he doesn’t relate this to the object-world he discussed in his essays on toys and books – instead his ‘Communist pedagogy’ is centred on action, and specifically on the theatre and the acting out of class conflict. Again running though it we have this concommitance of the primitive and the futurist: ‘what is today revolutionary is the secret signal of what is to come that speaks from the gesture of the child’.

'A Children's Meeting', poster, 1922

The fairytale for Benjamin still has some sort of emancipatory potential, as it did for Ernst Bloch, who wrote that it was ‘not only filled with social utopia, in other words, with the utopia of the better life and justice, but it is also filled with technological utopia, most of all in the oriental fairy tales. In the fairy tale ‘The Magic Horse’ from the ‘Arabian Nights’ there is even a lever that controls the up and down of the magic horse- this is a ‘helicopter’’. The technological element of the fairytale continues in a peculiar way in the books, by the writers like Samuil Marshak or Mikhail Ilin, which were illustrated and designed by Constructivists such as Vladimir Lebedev or Mikhail Tsekhanovsky. These are in line with the educational policies of the Soviet educational authority, or ‘Commissariat of Enlightenment’, which advocated the elimination of the fairytale in favour of fables of science and technology, the world outside Russia, systems of communication such as the post, and naturally of industry.

Tsekhanovsky, Topotun and the Book

The first thing to note in the illustrations is the affirmation of the new. The robot protagonist of Tsekhanovsky’s illustrations for Ilya Ionov’s Topotun and the Book (1926) is made from detritus, typographical fragments and industrial cogs and parts, like an assemblage by one of Benjamin’s child-constructors. The robot guides a boy through the world of a print-factory, though the moral – take care of your books! - seems to exclude the active construction advocated by Lissitzky and Benjamin. Lebedev’s illustrations for Yesterday and Today by Marshak juxtapose the grim, grimy shadow-world of the past with a present of mechanised humanity, clarity, strength and power, which you can see here marching leftwards. The clutter of the past is replaced with the open space of the suprematist nonobjective world- in Circus the figures float through space, with no necessary referent in the physical, busy being transformed beyond recognition. In Marshak’s text for Yesterday and Today itself however the thingworld becomes animated – a lightbulb talks to a candle, a waterpipe with a bucket and so forth.

Lebedev, Yesterday and Today

Marshak and Ilin’s children’s books are like a junior version of the ‘making strange’ advocated by the Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky and later taken up by Benjamin and Brecht. The most mundane objects are shown to be magical, each having a story, their production and utility having their own tale to tell. Mikhail Ilin’s book 100,000 Whys- a Trip Round the Room (1929) encapsulates this by making strange the most typical objects hanging round a kitchen, taking everything from soap bubbles – which Benjamin had already written of as an exemplar of the child’s view of chromaticism - to shelves and stoves, and explaining their hidden life. Seemingly stupid questions are asked of its reader, such as: ‘what is a potato? Why, everybody knows what a potato is, you will say’ before going into a scientific-political explanation of exactly just what a potato is. This corresponds to the total technical education envisaged by Benjamin in his sketch for ‘A Communist Pedagogy’ (1929), where universality and totality are the conditions of an education ‘new, nonhumanist and noncontemplative’. The manner in which these stories were to replace the old tales is encapsulated in Marshak’s A Ring and a Riddle of 1925, where a young Ivan moves through a phantasmagoric thingworld, which is later revealed to be a perfectly explicable modernity: a talking horn turns out to be a radio, a magic mirror is a TV, and a ‘crystal apple that shines at night’ is a lightbulb.

Tsekhanovsky, Post (1927)

A Ring and a Riddle is a meta-fairytale, which explicitly appropriates its dreamworld for the construction of the new: the end runs 'long ago, people used to make up fairytales of such things. Now they really exist', and the congruence of dreaming and construction would fulfil the newer fairytales, such as visits to to other planets, controlling the weather and providing enough food for everyone, etc. This new world, the fulfilment of dreams, was very much a work in progress, yet the Constructivist children's book, as a desirable object, would act as a piece of the future, a fragment of another world illuminating its possible forms and relations. That this had an ambiguous role can be seen from the anntinaturalism of the illustrations. In the work of Lebedev or Tsekhanovsky we can see a process where the face is simplified or is non-existent, where collectivity and industry replace the individual, and where the figure is reduced to schematic and diffuse parts. Evgeny Steiner quotes a report on the effect of one of Lebedev’s children’s books in the 1920s, and notes how the children immediately fasten onto the destructive element - ‘why is everything all apart’?

Lebedev, Circus

The Constructivist book uses popular science to usher children into the world of industry, which would be fulfilled in an unexpectedly brutal way: such as in the child labour that was used in some Five Year Plan projects, as can be seen in the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White. This obviously adds ballast to the critiques by Boris Groys and Evgeny Steiner of the Constructivist project, where the Stalinist reduction of man to machine is seen to be prophesied in every illustration. There is another, unfulfilled element to the Constructivist children’s book however. Alexander Rodchenko wrote of the necessity of a socialist material culture developing a new relation to the object, one not based on ownership - instead, he wrote, ‘the things in our hands should be equals, comrades’. Accordingly, a book by Ilin and Tsekhanovsky on the utilitarian stanley knife was called Pocket Comrade. In the avant-garde’s approach to children’s books there are all kinds of possible beginnings and potentialities rather than a closed off experiment: from futurist primitivism to a fairytale fulfilled by technology. Most importantly, this was not attempted at the level of rarefied debate, but at that of the most elementary building blocks of the everyday.

i don't really approve of the word "influence" but the echo of the look and feel and spin of these books can still be found in children's publishing 20 and 30 years later far outside circles where you'd (from present day perspective) except an awareness of eg constructivism -- in a benjamian (?) sense i think the work was carried quietly on (at the level of the line on the page, the choice colour) unpoliced and uncelebrated for a surprsingly long time, in surprising places (most of my grandparents books are at home at my dad's and anyway i don't have a scanner so proof is a little tricky)

there is also a really weird dialectical twist out of 1890s morris-ish arts-and-crafts medievalism (morris as pioneer of the beautuifully illlustrated "art" book as a important precious gift for children) (but also morris the pioneer british marxist) into this next generation's love of a kind of, what, Magicalised Geometry? the second is a reaction against the first -- but sometimes it feels as if it's the reaction the first was willing itself to produce
yes, I am aware of your war on 'influence'...

absolutely spot on about morris: wonderful passage in moholy-nagy's von material zu architektur where he endorses morris' entire project except for the hostility to mass production.

when i was doing a Q&A after doing this as a paper i mentioned the Early Learning Centre as an obvious correspondent to/carrier on of a bauhaus/constructivist approach to toys, children's books...and you can't get much more Constructivist than Meccano.
I just like to say thanks as I was looking for some info. on 1,00,000 Whys!
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