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Fabric Cybernetics

The work of the Soviet textile designer Anna Andreeva, recently rediscovered by New York's Museum of Modern Art, is an insight into Soviet cultural diplomacy, right down to a commemorative scarf made for Queen Elizabeth II.

Telling the histories of Soviet socialism is bound up with archives: annals closed and opened, public stories made private and vice versa. There are as many revisionisms to be staked out as there are sources to be uncovered. For art historians, a case in point is the nascent reappraisal of the life and times of Anna Andreeva (1917-2008). A leading artist at Moscow’s Red Rosa silk factory for several decades after the Second World War, Andreeva’s private archive was opened by her family in late 2018; her pioneering designs, which marry Constructivism, op art, and mathematical algorithms, will soon — Covid permitting — be displayed at MoMA.

Andreeva’s story brings together several aspects of the Soviet experiment deserving of closer attention: the function of industrial design, the culture of the factory floor, the careers of female artists, legacies of the avant-garde. Her work was both thoroughly ‘domestic’, mass produced for Soviet everyday life, and explicitly elite and outward-looking, part of high-end cultural diplomacy. MoMA’s interest of Andreeva — the archive opening was motivated in part by their curators’ requests — is no doubt well-meaning, in its own grand institutional way. In their words, they see the artist as representative of a history they have thus far ‘underrepresented’, her designs a chance to ‘paint a more nuanced and varied picture of how modernism took shape.’ But folding a figure like Andreeva into a neatly catalogued, universalist Modernist (capital M) narrative does risk obscuring the particularly socialist (lower case S) contours of her career. Andreeva was far from a committed Bolshevik, but her personal history does tell us something about the material culture of socialism, and the directions it could have taken. It is a question of which threads to pull on.

Andreeva was born a few months before the October Revolution, the seventh child of a wealthy family. Her early life was marked by its coincidence with the revolution, and by a commingling of art and science. Her merchant grandfather amassed a sizeable icon collection; her father opened one of the first photography labs in Russia and turned the façade of their house into a canvas for his painting. Forced to relocate to Moscow when the Bolsheviks requisitioned the family’s Tambov estate, Andreeva’s background returned to haunt her in the mid-30s when she was barred from studying architecture for lack of working class bona fides — the result of Stalinism’s ‘proletarianisation’ drive. Instead, she enrolled at the Moscow Textile Institute.

The Institute was able to take in ‘compromised’ students at the height of the Purges because textiles were not an important enough discipline to the rapidly industrialising state to require intense scrutiny. They provided a niche for unconventional theory and practice — a role filled at other points in Soviet cultural history by similarly boutique fields like children’s literature and animated film. This kind of quasi-oppositional reading does rely on a caricatured view of the Soviet ‘mainstream’, but it is true that Andreeva established at the Textile Institute a real connection to a utilitarian avant-garde tradition that had largely been curtailed by the advent of cultural Stalinism in the 1930s; one which would inform her strikingly abstract and geometric post-war designs, and which the likes of MoMA can use to posit her as a modernist missing link.

Like the Architectural Institute that has denied her entry, the Textile Institute was one of the schools that had swept up the faculty of the state art and technical college VKhUTEMAS after it was dissolved in 1930. VKhUTEMAS (‘Higher Artistic and Technical Studios’) had been the epicentre of the Constructivist and Suprematist avant-gardes — often lazily referred to as the ‘Soviet Bauhaus’, its holistically conceived syllabus delivered by luminaries familiar to Modernist fanboys and fangirls everywhere: Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitsky, Gustav Klutsis. The school’s textile department had been run by Stepanova and Lyubov Popova, later supplemented by Lyudmila Mayakovskaya, elder sister of revolutionary poster-boy poet Vladimir. It was Mayakovskaya, among other survivors of the ‘20s, who gave Andreeva the education that would in 1941 land her a position at Red Rosa, the flagship of the Soviet textile industry, named for Rosa Luxemburg. After the hiatus of the war, Andreeva was finally in position to put her ideas into practice.

Having risen through the Red Rosa ranks, and conducted her own forward-thinking studies into the qualities and capacities of various fabrics, her ‘60s and ‘70s works are simultaneously forceful and subtle, playing with thread thickness, interwoven intervals and patterns, and geometric motifs. They update Constructivist abstraction to reflect post-war advances in production and consumption. If Andreeva described textiles as her ‘territory of freedom’, then she was also fascinated by the creative potential of grids and algorithms, revelling in the depersonalisation of the industrial process. In the 1970s, she collaborated with her daughter Tatiana to integrate mathematical formulae into her patterns, a kind of fabric cybernetics. (When questioned on this work by the authorities, Andreeva’s line was that this wasn’t bourgeois deviationism — the lines simply made Soviet women look slimmer.) She was a decidedly urban artist, insisting on keeping her apartment above the noise and pollution of Moscow’s Tverskaya thoroughfare because she wanted to feel and witness the rhythm of the city. Much of her most striking work is closely bound up with technology: electrification (the title of a 1967 series that would later decorate the interiors at the Soviet Radio Workers’ Club); cinematography (as in her designs for scarfs and palantines produced to celebrate the Moscow Film Festival); radio waves (the title of a 1974 series of colourful criss-crossed diagonals).

This being the ‘60s, space flight was also key. Andreeva designed the commemorative scarf gifted to the Queen during Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 visit to the UK — a trip that Andreeva tagged along for, despite refusing to join the Party and being the object of constant low-level KGB suspicion. It was here that she was introduced to the works of Victor Vasarely, whose influence is clear in Andreeva’s Sovietised take on op art. (A visit to a Manchester factory also left her shocked at the hazardous conditions and exploited immigrant labour of British industry, more than a century after Engels had observed the same.)

This UK tour is perhaps the clearest example of the oxymoronic nature of Andreeva’s career. Most of her work was intended for mass production, meant to become part of the domestic everyday. At the same time, she was personally commissioned to produce one-off pieces to ‘represent’ the USSR abroad at the heights of elite-led cultural diplomacy. Her designs featured at Expos from 1958 onwards, the 1963 World Congress of Women, the 1980 Olympics. As such, her audiences were both ordinary Soviet citizens and handpicked foreign dignitaries. Not just Her Majesty, but Antonioni and Sophia Loren took her silks home. Alongside her significance as an industrial designer, Andreeva was arguably one of the most important figures in Cold War cultural diplomacy, a field only recently afforded the academic attention it deserves.

Her story thus demonstrates is just how reductive a monolithic understanding of ‘official’ Soviet culture is. Whether we think that such a culture resided in domestic industry, or we understand ‘official’ culture to mean the Soviet Union’s self-presentation to the wider world, then in either case Andreeva shows us how collaborative, radical, and open to non-Soviet and non-conformist traditions that culture could be. Indeed, the very fact of ‘cultural diplomacy’ suggests that any ‘official’ Soviet socialist culture was produced interdependently, with and by the West.

In any case, if we’re looking to Andreeva for lessons in socialist culture-making, we needn’t pay too much attention to Queen Liz’s gift bag. For a certain audience, her designs are thrilling precisely because they hark back to the glory days of the Constructivist 1920s, presumed lost to Stalinism and war by the time Andreeva came around; indeed, if MoMA’s acquisition does prompt fresh hype around Andreeva, this will likely be the reason. But while instructive, this kind of schematic art historical approach tends to fixate on aesthetic resemblance at the expense of the actual motivating ideas behind Constructivism. (It also lionises only those parts of Soviet modernism that most closely resemble the Western canon.)

The Constructivists turned to the utilitarian culture of ‘everyday’ life in the 1920s in an attempt to manufacture a new, non-alienated relationship between citizen and consumer object. This would be achieved, they argued, by making the production process transparent within the finished item. Stepanova and Popova were interested in textile design because they believed its marriage of the conceptual, the sensual, and the practical contained the seeds of this new material culture. And in a way, they were right: despite the canonical status of their (male) colleagues, only Stepanova and Popova of the core Constructivist clique succeeded in actually getting their designs mass-produced and distributed. In Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, Christina Kiaer describes Stepanova and Popova’s work in terms that capture something of Andreeva’s own interplay between technology and the textile: ‘in its dynamic, optical quality, this piece of cotton fabric, designed for women’s dresses, embodies the Constructivist ideal of a mass-produced object of everyday life that has been penetrated and transformed by the processes of production… [conveying] the invention and creativity of the industrial production process through its very visual form [and] lending the fabric itself the animation of its makers.’

Like her forebears, then, Andreeva helped to shift textiles from the more easily dismissed, marginalised world of decorative arts into industrial production, unsettling preconceived notions about ‘feminine’ artistic traditions and the masculine totems of Modernism. Of course, this could all be dismissed as long-debunked early-20th-century utopianism. But we don’t need to relitigate the New Economic Policy to acknowledge that an archive like Andreeva’s has something to teach us. The underlying questions, after all, remain sound: which artefacts of material culture matter? What might socialist fashion look like? How do we change our relationship to the material we produce and consume? Are we still capable, as Andreeva described her own method, of ‘learning from the fabric’?