A Symphony in Steel: Vera Mukhina, from the Paris Salon to the Stakhanovite Movement5 min read

 In Culture, Opinion, Russia
The 25-meter (78-foot)-tall figures of a man and woman stride boldly forward, the man holding a hammer in his left hand and the woman, a sickle in her right. Their respective right and left arms swing out behind them, counterbalancing their long step, and their right and left legs extend far back, making a pyramid of the two. He wears overalls over a bare chest, while she wears a long, plain dress and holds a scarf in her left hand. It billows out behind her in an arc that envelops the two of them and gives the sculpture an air of lightness despite its massive size.

Vera Ignatievna Mukhina’s Worker and Collective Farmer are one of the most recognizable couples of the 20th century, well-known to anyone who ever watched a movie produced by Mosfilm after 1947. Debuted at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, the Worker and Collective Farmer crowned the pavilion of the Soviet Union, designed by Boris Iofan. Once erected atop the building, the two brandished their hammer and sickle at the Reichsadler [Imperial Eagle] attached to the façade of Das Deutsches Haus – Albert Speer’s pavilion for Nazi Germany

The dramatic, visual confrontation between the two pavilions featured on many a commemorative postcard and journalistic account of the fair. Additionally, close to two million fairgoers would visit the Soviet Pavilion, among them poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Living in Paris at the time, Tsvetaeva wrote that the German Pavilion “was a crematorium plus Wertheim,” referring to the late-19th century Berlin department store building famous for its historicist architectural style. “The first [pavilion] was life, and the second, death– not my life, mind you, and not my death,” wrote the émigré, alluding to her exile and feelings of ambivalence about the USSR, “but all the same, life.”

Despite the remarkable longevity of Mukhina’s sculpture as a symbol of Soviet antifascism, Soviet engineering, and the Soviet culture industry, Mukhina herself remains relatively unknown outside the former Soviet Union. 

Born in 1889 in Riga, Mukhina was already 28 years old and on her way to an established artistic career by the time of the Russian Revolution. She had studied under prominent painters Konstantin Yuon and Ilya Mashkov in Moscow, both of whom were active in pre-Revolutionary, avant-garde artistic circles centered around the visual art magazine Mir Iskusstva and the “Jack of Diamonds” artists’ group. These positioned themselves against the outsized influence of the Peredvizhniki [The Wanderers], 19th-century social realist painters, on Russian art. Instead, they championed lyricism, exoticism, formal experimentation, and abstraction.

From Paris to Paris

In 1912, Mukhina traveled to Paris, where she studied at the legendary Académie de la Grande Chaumière with sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, a figure straddling the turn of the 20th century and its turn from the neoclassicist, Beaux-Arts style to more stylized and expressive, Modernist ones. In Paris, Mukhina formed a friendship with painter and designer Lyubov Popova, an important champion of the post-Revolutionary Constructivist movement, which lasted until the latter’s untimely death in 1924. 

Between 1915 and 1916, Mukhina worked in theatrical costume design in Moscow as an assistant to painter and stage designer Aleksandra Ekster, associated with the pre-Revolutionary avant-garde Cubo-futurist movement, as well as early Constructivism.

Mukhina received her first public, monumental commission in 1918, as part of the Plan for Monumental Propaganda initiated after the Revolution by the Sovnarkom [the Council of People’s Commissars] in an effort to replace czarist monuments with memorials to revolutionaries from around the world, as well as reform-minded figures in Russian history. Like most of the works commissioned under the Plan, Mukhina’s proposed monument to Enlightenment-era Russian journalist Nikolai Ivanovich Novikov was never realized due to strictures imposed on the nascent, Bolshevik government by the economic devastation of World War I as well as of the Civil War immediately following the Revolution

Mukhina is best remembered for Worker and Collective Farmer but by 1937, she was no stranger to the World’s Fair format. In 1925, Mukhina collaborated with fashion designer Nadezhda Lamanova on ‘Art in Everyday Life,’ an exhibition and accompanying pattern booklet for the 1925 International Exposition of Modern and Decorative Art in Paris, an exhibition credited with the inauguration of the term Art Deco, itself. Art in Everyday Life would make good on the Constructivist dream, inaugurated by artists like Mukhina’s friend Popova and Varvara Stepanova, of experimentally integrating art, industrial production, and everyday Soviet reality.

Stakhanovite Symphony in Steel

Worker and Collective Farmer are undoubtedly a continuation of the celebration, seen elsewhere throughout the Pavilion, of the Stakhanovite Movement and the Second Five Year Plan. There is more to them than that, however. Mukhina’s insistence on including the Collective Farmer’s seemingly anti-gravitational scarf, for example, seems as much a poetic homage to her background in theater and fashion design as a spectacular show of the Soviet Union’s industrial capabilities.  The scarf counterbalances the physical weightiness of the two figures and increases their dynamic thrust forward. In so doing, it underscores the artist’s investment in instilling in the viewer a sense of awe that extends beyond Soviet technological development under the ongoing Five-Year Plan. 

The scarf associates Soviet industrial power with wonderment, lightness, and beauty. In a 1962  publication devoted to the creation of the sculptural group, Mukhina’s biographer Nikita Voronov describes the reception of the finished statue by those who worked on it as a moment of shared joy and warm recognition: “All stand and look. The workers animatedly interject their observations. —’I made that piece!’ —’And I made that one!’”

Voronov also noted the ways in which the sculptural group, once mounted atop Boris Iofan’s pavilion, changed color under different light conditions. Appropriately, a word that figures again and again in Voronov’s and Mukhina’s accounts of the creation of the sculpture is “risk.” As though the possibility of the work having been impossible to complete is in some way essential to its aesthetic success, and as though aesthetic success could be measured by the audience’s affective investment in the work of art itself. “At first we were hesitant about using steel,” writes Mukhina, “but now it was like putty in our hands.”

Featured image: The art of Vera Mukhina / Amanda Sonesson
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