A British Artist in Moscow
Cliff Rowe at the Tovarishchestvo, 1932 - 1933
Joe Thornberry | Lancaster University
When the 28-year old Cliff Rowe arrived in Moscow in May 1932 on a seven-day visitor’s visa it was with the intention of finding employment. As an artist and freelance graphic designer in London, he had been hard hit by the Depression but had found some work producing publication designs for the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He was soon drawn to the Party’s politics and became intrigued by what was happening in the Soviet Union where, in contrast to the capitalist West, there was full employment, and artists were held in high esteem. On the last day of his visitor’s visa, he managed to find work with a publisher situated just off Red Square.
Rowe’s new employer was the Izdatel’skoe tovarishchestvo inostrannykh rabochikh v Soyuze SSR, the ‘Co-Operative Publishing House of Foreign Workers in the USSR’. It had been established in March 1931 as the publishing arm of the Comintern (Communist International) whose headquarters was in Moscow. Publications were primarily aimed at foreigners living in the Soviet Union but large numbers of its books and pamphlets were sent for distribution abroad. It had several national sections and was published in 16 languages. On the strength of his work for the CPGB, Rowe was taken on as a graphic designer for the English language publications.
The Tovarishchestvowas located in a former convent on Nikolskaya Street in a part of the old city popularly known as Kitaigorod or ‘Chinatown’. We can get a sense of what it was like from the accounts of other foreigners who also worked there. An American journalist Edmund Stevens worked as an editor in the English language section and recorded his initial impressions:
….the offices and hallways of the publishing house felt and smelt as if they had never been properly cleaned and aired since the revolution. Body odor and tobacco smoke seemed to blend with the faint traces of incense in the fetid atmosphere.
He remarked on the number of Brooklyn accents and it appears that most of those employed in the English section came from the United States. Many of them were from Russian and Ukrainian Jewish families who had fled the pogroms earlier in the century and were now returning to build socialism in the old country. One of them was Mary Leder, a Jewish American Communist whose family came from Ukraine. She describes a hierarchy dominated by “the senior translator editors and editors of Marxist literature”, followed by the second-rank editors, then by the proofreaders and typists, with the copyholders at the bottom. The top echelon was composed exclusively of individuals who were also members of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) and who were expected to exert ‘political guidance’ over the rest of the section. This did not always go down well with the other staff, especially the American Communists who resented the assumption that ‘Soviet Communists were ideologically superior’.
A notable feature of working life at the publishing house was the frequent after-work meetings which everyone was expected to attend – trade union meetings, meetings with other sections and general organisation meetings. There were also monthly production meetings which often became an arena for bullying, as Edmund Stevens described:
[production meetings were] a free-for-all, the main purpose of which seemed to be to expose and humiliate anyone who had had the misfortune to have made or overlooked a mistake at any stage of the of the publishing process.…..Official reprimands, salary deductions and demotion was the penalty.
In addition, staff was expected to engage in voluntary work in their own time to help other State enterprises in the city. In Rowe’s case, it meant supporting the production of the ‘wall newspaper’ of a Moscow factory that had been ‘adopted’ by the publishing house.
Rowe’s design work for the Tovarishchestvoshows the influence of the Constructivist movement, that great flowering of Russian art and architecture that had begun before the Revolution, exemplified by El Lissitzky’sgroundbreakingposter Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919(Figure 2). However, by 1932 the Constructivists had fallen out of favour, as Socialist Realism – promoted by Stalin - was on its way to becoming the new orthodoxy forSoviet art and literature. The intention was to make art more accessible to the masses through the promotion of positive socialist messages using realist style of presentation. In practice, this often meant the depiction of heroic and happy workers and peasants labouring to build socialism under the wise guidance of the Party. Rowe, however, had deep reservations about Socialist Realism, which he saw as being little better than the Victorian naturalist art so loved by the bourgeoisie and so at odds with the genuinely revolutionary art of the Constructivists.
The Constructivist style did not disappear completely and carried on as a major influence on Soviet poster art for many years to come. Rowe believed that Constructivist-inspired posters and illustrations were far ahead of anything he had seen in Britain. He observed later that their continuing survival was largely because the simplification of form saved considerably on the costs of printing, while allowing the artist far more freedom of design than the ‘naturalism’ favoured by Socialist Realism. It also made for far more effective propaganda:
[Constructivist] artists and architects such as [Vladimir]Tatlin, El Lissitzky, [Lyubov] Popova, [Alexandr] Malinovsky and [Vladimir] Mayakovsky led a movement completely breaking with the naturalistic school and introducing asymmetric in the place of symmetric composition, the fragmentation and reassembling of images, the use of symbolism and formalistic design, including typography as part of the graphic effect, the emphasis on movement and change. It was an entirely new concept of realism, but so unlike naturalism that the authorities could not recognise it as any form of realism.
Rowe’s designs for the publishing house were in many respects a homage to Constructivism. A key influence was the work of Gustav Klutsis, who pioneered the use of photomontage in poster design (Figure 3). Rowe uses the same flat colour background, overlapping photographs and diagonal typography to add immediacy and dynamism to his pamphlet covers (Figures 4 and 5). Klutsis was shot in 1938, a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge.
Rowe’s front and back cover for In a Ring of Fire (Figure 6) the Civil War memoirs of Ivan Ovcharenko, though rendered in a more orthodox style also carries references to Ivan Andreevich Malyutin’s 1920 poster On the Polish Front (Figure 7). Rowe reimagines Malyutin’s soldier as a charging Bolshevik sailor, with the background explosive action in the same swirling motif, and the sailor’s tattered trousers suggesting the streaming hair of the Malyutin figure.
The cover of Tales of the Soviet Fleet (Figure 9) references the work of two Constructivists. Rowe bases his image of a Soviet warship on Constructivist architecture, specifically Moisei Ginzburg’s modernist building Narkomfin, a Moscow apartment block designed for communal living built in 1932.
Rowe had met Ginzburg when he first arrived in Moscow and had visited the newly built Narkomfin, an experience that sparked in him a life-long interest in modernist architecture. Ginzburg’s design for the end wall (Figure 10) is transformed by Rowe into the superstructure of his warship. His arrangement of masts and spars is a nod to Alexandr Rodchenko’s abstract two- and three-dimensional works (Figure 11).
Rowe’s cover for Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism (Figure 12), a collection of articles written by Josef Stalin, Lazar Kaganovitch, and Pavel Postyshev (Figure 13), also demonstrates Constructivist influences with its bold typography and bright colour. His deconstructed hammer-and-sickle – ‘the fragmentation and reassembling of images’ -gives this design a modern look that looks forward to the iconography of the 1960s political Left. Rowe adds a subtle touch with the rendition of the sickle as a question mark, a direct reference to the book’s title.
It is not known how Stalin viewed this presentation of his work (he did take a very close interest in anything connected to his name), but he was not an admirer of Constructivist style. He later had Postyshev shot as a suspected ‘Trotskyist’, so possession of this pamphlet in Russia might have become problematic in future years.
Rowe’s career with the Tovarishchestvo came to an abrupt and unexpected end in 1933, occasioned by his work with the factory ‘wall newspaper’. Such newspapers were a common sight in Moscow, with information, articles, and discussion items displayed for public consumption. They could also be a means of voicing criticism but there were limits to what was acceptable, and Rowe went beyond those limits. He posted cartoons lampooning both the management and the Party organisation in the factory. Complaints were made and, as a result, he was dismissed from his post in the publishing house. Without a job and with little prospect of getting another one, he had no choice but to return to England.
Rowe’s stay in Russia coincided with a crucial period in the development of the Soviet Union. Following the factional turmoil of the 1920s, Stalin had consolidated his power and a period of stability seemed to be at hand. Even the excesses of the feared OGPU security police appeared to be curbed at last, and Stalin’s ruthless Five-Year Plan was at last bearing fruit. Rowe himself had experienced hardship and deprivation, though as a foreigner he had access to privileges denied to most Soviet citizens. He knew of the arrests, the executions, the horrors of forced collectivisation and famine, some of which he recorded in his sketchbooks. He had also been disturbed by the growing personality cult surrounding Stalin. Despite all this, and despite the manner of his departure from the Tovarishchestvo, he believed that Soviet Communism held the best hope for the future of humankind and decided to commit himself fully to the cause. His first act on his return to London was to join the Communist Party of Great Britain, a commitment he maintained to his death in 1989.
Matthew Cullerne Bown, Art under Stalin (New York, Holmes & Meier, 1991)
John E. Bowlt (Ed.), Russian Art of the Avant-Garde (London: Thames & Hudson, 2017)
Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism (USA, Oxford University Press, 2000)
Cheryl Heckler, Accidental Journalist: The Adventures of Edmund Stevens 1934-1945, (Colombia, University of Missouri Press, 2007)
Violet Lansbury, An Englishwoman in the USSR (Glasgow: The University Press, 1940)
Mary M. Leder, My Life in Stalinist Russia (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001)
Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (London: Pan Books, 2010)
Brigitte Studer, The Transnational World of the Cominternians (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
Joe Thornberry is a PhD student in the History Department at Lancaster University. He is researching the life and work of his late father-in-law, the artist Cliff Rowe (1904-1989)