May Day, Leningrad 1931. A constructivist set design depicting the global forces of reaction — a capitalist with a Howitzer coming out of his hat, an Orthodox priest mounted on top, a policeman straddling a swastika — serves as the centerpiece for a parade outside the Winter Palace in Leningrad. One can see from the pictures in the gallery below that these sets were mobile, adaptable, and collapsible, with different fitted parts allowing for various juxtapositions and transformations.
The group responsible for this monstrous mise-en-scène was IZORAM (the Young Workers’ Visual Arts [Изобразительное искусство рабочей молодежи]), a Leningrad collective that combined theatrical constructivism with strong Proletkult overtones. It was led by the rather brilliant Moisei Solomonovich Brodskii, who’d begun his career as a popularizer of cubism in Russia. Didn’t last long, though; founded in 1928, IZORAM would dissolve by the end of 1931. Presumably, this coincided with the forced unionization of the different independent art organizations throughout the USSR, a measure that allowed the Stalinist regime to impose its prescribed brand of “socialist realism” on practitioners.
If the swastika was “mobilized” toward antifascist ends for Soviet parades (though this should not be mistaken for détournement avant la lettre), then it could quite easily be “mobilized” toward fascist ends as well. Principally by the fascists themselves. Seems the Nazis took to the idea of using the swastika as a gigantic mobile prop, as can be seen from a photograph taken in Hamburg during a speech in 1933. Behold:
The swastika could be positively “mobilized” by yet another means — namely, as mass ornament. Siegfried Kracauer, a German cultural critic who mentored the young Theodor Adorno, explained:
In the domain of body culture, which also covers the illustrated newspapers, tastes have been quietly changing, The process began with the Tiller Girls. These products of American distraction factories are no longer individual girls. but Indissoluble girl dusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics. As they condense into figures in the revues, performances of the same geometric precision are taking place in what is always the same packed stadium, be it in Australia or India, not to mention America. The tiniest village, which they have not yet reached, learns about them through the weekly newsreels. One need only glance at the screen to learn that the ornaments are composed of thousands of bodies, sexless bodies in bathing suits. The regularity of their patterns is cheered by the masses, themselves arranged by the stands in tier upon ordered tier.
Whereas the mass ornament for Kracauer contained a hidden or subliminal emancipatory kernel, signifying the transformative possibilities represented by mass movements in modern society, the National Socialist mass ornament would travesty this potential. Like the Tiller girls described in the famous essay, the Hitler Youth at Nuremberg would march in the formation of a rotating oversized swastika, expressing the “dark” side of capitalist development. Rationally organized means were directed toward toward consummately irrational ends.
Of course, the Nazis weren’t the only ones that reveled in such grandiose displays. The Italian fascists, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, loved to aestheticize their politics. Several of these images have surfaced on the web in recent years, especially of Mussolini’s frightening visage staring down from his fascist headquarters in Rome, 1934. Another interesting example, less well known, is the podium outside the FIAT Lingotto factory in Turin. You get a great semiotic interplay between the antique and the modern here: the Etruscan fasces that adorn the platform, with a massive anvil plopped down in front of the microphone. Enjoy.