May 2014 Features

The Cult of Speed

Associate Professor of Russian Tim Harte discusses his new book on early-20th-century Russian avant-garde culture.

Interview by Nancy Brokaw

Tim Harte, chair and associate professor of Russian. Photo by Jim Roese.

Tim Harte, chair and associate professor of Russian. Photo by Jim Roese.

In 1914, the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky contemplated a world newly transformed by technology—airplanes, automobiles, industrial machinery—and declared, “The rhythm of life has changed. Everything now has become lightning quick, rapidly flowing like on a film strip.”

In his book Fast Forward: The Aesthetics and Ideology of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture, 1910–1930, Chair and Associate Professor of Russian Tim Harte looks at the avant-garde aesthetics forged by Mayakovsky’s generation. Inspired by the cult of speed first articulated by the Italian Futurists in 1909, the Russians took the Italians’ exaltation of the speeded-up modern condition and, as Harte argues, ran with it.

What was the impact of modernity on the avant-garde in general and in Russia particularly?

Harte: At the turn of the 20th century, society speeds up exponentially with breakthroughs in science and technology—airplanes, sports, trains, automobiles, telephones, telegraphs. Life is never again the same. Artists of the era respond: in particular, the Italian Futurists, led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who originate “the cult of speed.”

The Russian avant-garde takes these Western ideas in a new direction, putting a distinctly Russian accent on the Futurists’ innovations. They draw on the neo-primitive strain in Russian culture—peasant culture, icons, mysticism—so while some of their work is derivative, many of these artists go in far more interesting directions than the Italians did. History has shown, I think, that Russian Futurism had a much greater impact on the development of art and cinema.

How did these two ideas—the “cult of speed” and neo-primitivism—play out?

Harte: Take [Kazimir] Malevich. He based his Suprematist Black Square painting [literally, a black square painted on a white background] specifically on the Russian icon. He hung it in the corner, in the krasny ugol, as it’s called, in the same way peasants would hang the icon in the upper corner of their home. The Black Square becomes an icon of modernity.

If you look at Malevich’s writings, he’s constantly talking about speed. Yet he ends up with this completely abstract art—the Black Square—that doesn’t seem like it’s moving at all. Out of speed comes this abstraction: It’s as though you’re on a train zooming through the landscape and moving so quickly that the landscape eventually becomes abstract. After a while, things are moving so fast that you can’t tell that they’re moving fast—and you end up with Malevich’s Suprematism.

Bookcover-HarteHow did writers deal with this new aesthetic?

Harte: It’s most difficult to see how this idea plays out in writing because you can convey speed more easily in a visual medium than in words. Mayakovsky, in particular, talks about the speeded-up world and embraces it in some ways, but the paradox is that to read about speed in his work, you need to slow down. He uses shifting images to convey, say, the sensation of moving down a street on a tram, and if you don’t read very slowly, you can be overwhelmed.

Another unconventional attempt to create a sense of speed is the ferroconcrete poetry of Vasily Kamensky. Using typographical innovations, his poems are visual arrangements that are seen rather than read, almost like architecture made from words. Kamensky was influenced by Apollinaire and Marinetti, but another poet, Aleksei Kruchenykh, created something wholly original: transrational poetry. Based on neologisms, or nonsense words, these poems don’t mean a thing in Russian. Reading them, you read quickly, spit out sounds unthinkingly, and don’t take time to try to make sense of what you’re reading. While clearly modern, they are almost a chant, with ties to the primitive.

What happens when the Soviets come to power?

Harte: With the Revolution, art and society merge—in Constructivism. In sculpture and design, you see an emphasis on man becoming machinelike. In the cinema, you see montage. Before the Revolution, Russian cinema moves at a snail’s pace, but now they realize that they can cut and edit. They can create a fast-paced, transformed view of the world, and they can create propaganda. They can manipulate what we see through montage, which quickly moves to the forefront of cinema worldwide.

As Stalin comes to power, though, he implements the Five-Year Plans, and they are to be completed in three years. Speed becomes state-sponsored, an imposed speed. In the conclusion to Fast Forward, I look at a Socialist Realist novel, Time Forward, which describes a situation where everyone must work in sync. So this new form of Soviet speed—Stalinist speed—makes no room for experimentation. It’s not about the experimental fervor of speed. Now, it’s about productivity.