Pro Eto’s Wound:
Photomontage and the Constructed Punctum

 by Hannah Gadbois

When presenting a version of this paper at a conference on photography, the majority of my questions centered on the continued use of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida in scholarship written in the digital age. It is precisely Barthes’s prominence in photographic scholarship, alongside his interest in the significance of emotion in photographic reception, that interested me. As the reigning voice on the pre-digital phenomenology of the photograph, Barthes speaks to the life of the photograph in newspapers, as evidence of scientific discovery, and as fragments of history. But, above all, Barthes isolated the importance of photographs as the intimately singular and ultimately unshareable: the photograph as a fragment of love. Barthes openly shares an explication of his relationship to a photograph of his mother, yet, and this is significant, chooses not to reproduce this photograph on the grounds that it could not have any emotional power for the viewer. Barthes believed that at its heart, photography could be defined by phenomenological similarities but that the relationship to the photographs themselves would never be transferable. Though scholars have disagreed with Barthes on a variety of points over the course of the last half-century, the idea of the personal emotional significance of the photograph, especially the personal portrait-style photograph, remains generally uncontested.

Written in 1980, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida theorizes a phenomenology of photography that prioritizes viewer experience over the technical, creative, or operational aspects of the medium. Divorced from both the scientific and artistic practices in photography, this text nearly eschews photography as a medium entirely, treating it instead as a phenomenon to be studied from the viewer’s perspective. That Barthes’s phenomenology became the dominant way of thinking about the photograph, however, was never inevitable. In opposition to Barthes, this paper sets out to analyze an alternate future of photography as proposed by Mayakovsky and Rodchenko in their collaborative 1923 photobook, Pro Eto. Published by Gosizdat, the Soviet Union’s State Publishing house, and earlier the same year in the magazine LEF, this work features a collaboration between Vladimir Mayakovsky’s lyrical poetry and Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photomontages. While the text meditates on the potential role of the individual artist in the Soviet Union, the photomontages contain traces of the artist’s hand at every seam. Pro Eto was published just five years after the 1918 political revolution with the hope of a corresponding cultural revolution still on the way. In fact, the book speaks at length about the necessity of revolution in the lives of everyday people.

I begin this paper by addressing the relationship between artistic mediation and emotional resonance, focusing on Pro Eto’s structure as a didactic arm of the Soviet push for mass cultural literacy. Fundamentally, I oppose Barthes’s idea of the internal emotional process of looking at photographs to the exteriorized, directed emotional experience of Pro Eto. Much like the movement towards shared visual experience, the poem ruminates on the necessity of moving away from individualized, personal love towards a broader and more communal love. In my discussion of this, I focus on the ways that Mayakovsky and Rodchenko disperse Mayakovsky’s subjectivity, allowing him to have the multitudinous and fragmented self that Barthes identifies as inherently separate from the photographed self. Thus, this paper sets out to read Pro Eto as an attempt to eschew the boundaries between artist and audience, public and private, in order to create a new, communal everyday.

Barthes’s Blind Field

Arguably the most practically applicable and commonly referenced concept  from Barthes’s text is that of the punctum. Placed in opposition to the studium, the punctum is the lingering force in a photograph, that which wounds. Notably, Barthes characterizes the studium as aligning with a photographer’s intentions, sharing with the viewer a general field of interest. Barthes writes: “The studium is a kind of education which allows me to discover the Operator, to experience the intentions which establish and animate his practices.”1 For Barthes, any intention or purposefully-conveyed information can only arouse a flicker of interest. More particularly, Barthes situates the operator’s photograph within the keyhole of sight through the camera, limiting their domain to the momentary selection of a scene from life. The chemical processes of development produce the spectator’s photograph which is, consequently, always divorced from context.2 Thus, the communicative ability of the visual is severely limited. Being separated from the author, the photograph’s power instead resides in the experience of the spectator. This power initially presents itself in the form of a pricking or wounding sensation; the viewer is struck. At this level of perception, Barthes focuses on the lack of mediation and identifies the central accidental quality of the punctum.3 To be affected by this wound the viewer must feel like they are not being manipulated but are instead experiencing a detail built on their own emotional associations.

Describing the phenomenological progression of the punctum, Barthes writes: “once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is divined): on account of her necklace, the black woman in her Sunday best has had, for me, a whole life external to her portrait…”4 After the pricking, the viewer retreats into themselves to imagine a narrative for the referent. The photograph must remain static in order to facilitate this internal process. The photograph has to be passive in this experience, allowing the viewer to direct an internal experience based on their emotional particularities and singular interests. Our central experience of an image is blind; it is life running outside the photograph.

Pro Eto and Artistic Mediation

Neither passive nor accidental, Pro Eto’s photomontages propose an alternate mode of interaction. Although the photomontage is composed of photographs and thus inevitably contains the referent in its “weightless, transparent envelope,”5 there is no place with an absence of mediation. In works like Pro Eto, this mediation even seems intentionally apparent. Looking closely at the cover of the work in places where the title interacts with the head of Lili Brik, Mayakovsky’s lover, the lines are all slightly uneven (Figure 1). In comparison with the clean lines of font, the bumps and ridges of the interaction between text and photograph remind the viewer of Rodchenko’s labor. In the advertising posters that Mayakovsky and Rochenko collaborated on, the seams are markedly different from those in Pro Eto.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto, © 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY.

Figure 1. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto,
© 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

In an advertisement for Gosizdat that also features Lili (Figure 2), the interaction between word and image is seamless. A thin line of white rims Lili’s mouth, allowing the clean background for the text to flow seamlessly away from her face. Throughout Pro Eto, clean machine lines like those of their advertising work are eschewed in favor of hand-cuts and tears. Amongst these marks of Rodchenko’s hand, Barthes would have no space to picture the photograph as a referent to an unaltered moment. For Barthes, not only is the ideal photographer absent, the ideal photograph itself should be invisible: “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.”6 He situates this value in the ability of the photograph to facilitate emotional communion between the referent and the viewer, unimpeded by knowledge or context.7 In an essay on Barthes, the art critic Michael Fried links the issue of the punctum to the fundamental problem of seeing versus being shown by the photographer.8 The punctum thus functions as a guarantee of authenticity, of emotional resonance or truth that exists independently from the intention of the photographer.9 The issue of being shown, of purposefully directing emotion, however, would have a fundamentally different connotation for Mayakovsky and Rodchenko.

Figure 2. Aleksandr Rodchenko, advertising poster for Gosizdat entitled “Books,” © 1924. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY.

Figure 2. Aleksandr Rodchenko, advertising poster for Gosizdat entitled “Books,”
© 1924. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. 

In discussions of Soviet art’s function in the 1920s, culture was called upon to provide social models for the population, alter traditional values, and narrow societal gaps.10 At the center of this debate was the heavily mythologized new Soviet reader, the site of efforts to culturally revolutionize the Soviet public.11 In concert with these efforts in the realm of literature, debates also raged over the issue of Soviet sight. The People’s Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, argued: “Just as every forward-looking comrade must have a watch, so must he be able to handle a camera. This will surely happen with time. Just as the USSR achieved universal literacy in general, so too will it have photographic literacy in particular.”12 Rodchenko explicitly agreed with this aim, writing that the goal of the artist is to free photography from its subservience to painting in order to teach the public the ability to see from all sides.13 As Soviet artists searched for an alternative to painterly abstraction, photomontage appealingly intermixed fragments of reality with artistic intervention. An anonymous essay, likely by Osip Brik, published in LEF in 1924 described photomontage as a composition that uses the photographic shot as medium, writing, “the photographic snapshot is not the sketching of a visual fact, but its precise record. This precision and documentary character of the snapshot have an impact on the viewer that a graphic depiction can never attain.”14 A 1928 essay by Varvara Stepanova, an artist and the wife of Rodchenko, spoke specifically about Pro Eto, arguing that it is the finest example of photomontage and performs the ideal role of the medium: to record and fix reality.15 The pairing of photomontage, or the fixing of reality, with explanatory poetic text allows the artist to train the Soviet audience in photographic literacy. Following the model of the disjointed text, readers would learn to read the photomontage.

Figure 3. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto, © 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY.

Figure 3. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto,
© 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

At the point in the poem where Mayakovsky searches for Lili at a Christmas party, Rodchenko pictures bourgeois decadence through the language of Western advertising (Figure 3). Scattered around the montage are commodities: liquor bottles, dishes, shoes, and cigars the size of people. At the bottom of the image, a German logo reads “Original Jazz.” Paired with the text on top of the image, the whole montage could serve as an advertisement in a capitalist magazine. Lili dances in the center of the scene, her head only barely attached to a corresponding body that stands in the arms of a man whose eyes are wide open, as if in terror. Lili, on the other hand, looks calmly out from under her brow. Allowing no sense of excitement or fervour, the corresponding text describes the scene as repetitive. Everyone speaks in “the same old screech.”16 Mayakovsky regrets having “sacrificed a year to this dreary nonsense… with its domestic murk.”17 The text repeats “And again… And again… And again”18 three times in the single page that describes the scene. Pairing scenes of luxury with hopelessness, loss, and boredom, Rodchenko and Mayakovsky train the viewer in the illusions of Western advertising. In the context of a photobook that pairs text and image, that pulls the viewer through a narrative, it becomes much more difficult to ruminate on memories of the elegantly stamped cookies from the upper right corner, or dreams about the life of the beautifully clad woman at the bottom left.

In the cacophony of visual and textual information, engagement with the photographs consists of following the narrative rather than idling in the private reflection that Barthes prioritizes. In his essay on advertisement, Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes describes the methods by which advertisers anchor the ambiguous meanings of photographs with captions and visual connotation. Though a consummate scholar of cultural systems, Barthes would place these analyses firmly in the realm of the studium. When it comes to the punctum, or any photograph that had emotional messages, Barthes insisted on his independence from societal systems. Barthes writes “I am a primitive, a child - or a maniac; I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own.”19 In the early Soviet Union, where art set out to train a revolutionary audience, this inheritance of sight lies at the basis of Rodchenko’s practice. If an artist cannot instruct a citizen how to see, their place in the new society would be very small indeed. Using the tools that Barthes identifies so clearly in the realm of advertising, Mayakovksy and Rodchenko attempt to combine a directed visual experience with emotional resonance. Picturing a multitude of moments in succession alongside the gripping, highly emotional text, Mayakovsky and Rodchenko attempted to restrain the viewer from retreating into the Barthesian blind field. Life runs inside the photomontages.

Pro Eto’s Proposition for the New Everyday

Not only does Pro Eto work to direct the viewer’s reception, it also proposes a new model of life to their readers. In Leon Trotsky’s Problems of Everyday Life, published in 1923, the same year as Pro Eto, Trotsky interrogated the problems of traditional marriage, friendships, and consumer practices in the Soviet Union. More particularly, he struggled with the problem of how to go about fundamentally changing the practices of everyday life in the absence of effectively imposing change from above.20 From 1917 onwards, the Bolshevik Party supported efforts to introduce new patterns of everyday life and theorists, journalists, and politicians debated over the new status of sex, love, and family.21 As a text about both the individual artist and the struggle between personal and universal love, Pro Eto is in direct dialogue with these issues. The central love story in the poem involves Mayakovsky and Lili Brik, a married woman. Lili, her husband Osip, and Mayakovsky were in a long-term ménage à trois relationship, though Pro Eto follows a period of separation from late 1922 into early 1923.22 This model of sexual freedom and non-traditional relationships, however, was not entirely in line with Mayakovsky’s feelings. Osip Brik wrote, “Mayakovsky understood love this way: if you love me, you are with me, for me, always, everywhere, in all circumstances… Love must be a constant, like a law of nature which knows no exclusions.”23 With this tension in mind, it is no surprise that the first section of Pro Eto is entitled “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a reference to Oscar Wilde’s poem that closes, “all men kill the thing they love.” Mayakovsky clearly struggles with his more conservative instincts, especially because they were not aligned with the Party’s own deconstruction of the normative everyday.

The text of Pro Eto follows Mayakovsky’s isolation at the beginning of the novel, tracking his personal emotions, before transitioning into a larger consideration of the necessity of universal love.  He describes this universal ideal as an abandonment of “marriages of lust-and-potatoes”24 and calls for his comrades to “Curse beds, get up you supine fool. Let love make its universal music […] Not sacrificing our lives in domestic holes and corners.”25 In the beginning of the text, however, Mayakovsky still finds himself constrained by a conservative, individualized love. He describes himself as transforming into a jealous troglodyte when Lili declines his call.26 In the corresponding illustration, Mayakovsky’s struggle with jealousy and isolation dehumanizes him, morphing him into a monster, initially pictured as a dinosaur and later as a polar bear. This period of seclusion serves as the initiating problem for Mayakovsky’s poem, introducing the reader to his strained relationship with possessive personal love.

Figure 4. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto, © 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY.

Figure 4. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto,
© 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Following a trip to the Soviet Union in 1926, Walter Benjamin reflected on the nature of private space, concluding that the interior of a home serves as a protective layer for the individual in the face of the normative public sphere of capitalism. In contrast, the Soviet Union associated the private and the individualistic with the negative, inauthentic, and foreign, in conflict with the collective nature of Soviet life.27 In opposition to the Western private interior, Benjamin characterizes Soviet life with the lack of private space, communal apartments, and the collapse of traditional relationships.28 In the first photomontage of the text (Figure 4), Rodchenko pictures Lili Brik’s private room. Standing on an ornate bed, lying on a luxurious divan, Lili’s room is awash in bourgeois goods. Mayakovsky reduces himself to an object in her life: “She lies in bed. While he on the table is a telephone.”29 The multitudinous Lilis all look confrontingly at the viewer from the well-furnished apartment. From the beginning, Mayakovsky’s personal love is associated with bourgeois luxuries and a westernized private interior.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto,                                      © 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY.

 Figure 5. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto,
© 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Towards the end of the poem, when Mayakovsky has died and gone to a future full of universal love, Rodchenko crafts a very different image of Lili (Figure 5). She now smiles at the viewer, gazing coyly from the top left corner. The caption reads: “She too –  she used to like animals – will come to the Public Gardens.”30 Beside her, a polar bear, the earlier symbol of Mayakovsky’s possessiveness, paces in a cage. Now, freed from the trappings of bourgeois comfort, Mayakovsky’s personal love for Lili merges into the public space. Writing about the importance of Mayakovsky’s lyrical, personal works, Viktor Shklovsky argued: “The gypsy romance is no small matter. Yet, it remained with the man in his room a faithful, lyrical dog. It must be changed, its very heart should be invaded; the private room must be entered. One must write about love so that people would not perish or drown in the ripples of scribbling.”31 Picturing a world where all love becomes public, Pro Eto’s plot is premised upon the possibility of entering private rooms and freeing love.

Significantly, Barthes’s Camera Lucida also centers on love, particularly Barthes’s love for his mother as embodied by a photograph of her in her youth. Barthes chooses not to reproduce this photograph, believing that it could have no punctum for the viewer. Despite speaking of his mother at length only in the context of a single photograph, in A Lover’s Discourse, love is much more diffuse. Reflecting on a scene much like the beginning of Pro Eto, Barthes writes: “From the lover’s point of view, the fact becomes consequential because it is immediately transformed into a sign: it is the sign, not the fact, which is consequential. If the other has given me this new telephone number what was the sign of? [...] My answer itself will be a sign, which the other will inevitably interpret, thereby releasing, between us, a tumultuous maneuvering of images. Everything signifies.”32 Despite the importance of every act of the loved one, Barthes barely speaks of the woman at the center of his book . She is not seen and is described in depth only in a single moment. Thus, the reader is kept out of the photograph and at a remove from Barthes’s emotion. In contrast, Lili, a central embodiment of Mayakovsky’s love, is pictured again and again in Pro Eto, in a variety of scenes, moments, angles, and emotions. Every facet of her role is examined in the text and pictured in the images. Mayakovsky guides the reader through the significance of her every action: that her rejecting the phone call transforms him, that her mere presence on the other side of the telephone line sends lightning down the wire. We can do more, as readers and viewers, than imagining him picturing his wound; we can look it in the face.

In his reflections on Pro Eto following its publication, Mayakovsky first characterized the work as focusing on love. In later explanations, he described the work as explicating the problem of byt,33 or the normative everyday. The tension between the sociopolitical ramifications of his work and his highly personal material was a common source of trouble for Mayakovsky. Famously, Trotsky characterized Mayakovsky’s individualist tendency, writing:

Just as the ancient Greek was an anthropomorphist and naively thought of the forces of nature as resembling himself, so our poet is a Mayako-morphist and fills the squares, the streets and fields of the Revolution with his own personality. True, extremes meet. The universalization of one’s ego breaks down, to some extent, the limits of one’s individuality, and brings one nearer to the collectivity – from the reverse end [...] The poet is too much in evidence.34

Figure 6. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto, © 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY.

Figure 6. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto,
© 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

In Pro Eto, we witness that dispersing subjectivity quite literally. In the portion of the poem where Mayakovsky transforms, due to jealousy, into a bear and his tears form the Neva river, Rodchenko pictures many Mayakovskys in a single scene (Figure 6). At the top right, standing atop a bridge, an enormous Mayakovsky looks down over the whole scene. This Mayakovsky likely represents the past Mayakovsky from the text, the one from the poem Man who is lashed to the bridge. Below him, another Mayakovsky stands crouched on an ice floe, covering his ears. The text reads: “I paw at my ears… my very own voice… bores through my paws.”35 The text and image contradict each other, making it so his hands are simultaneously the paws of a jealous beast and his own human hands. Beside him, two bear-y Mayakovskys stand idly. Thus, we witness Mayakovsky from before the poem, from several points within the poem, and in various states of emotion.

Just as Mayakovsky’s subjectivity disperses and rejoins in the text, single words fracture and recompile themselves. In a moment where Mayakovsky attests his selfhood to a passersby, he says, “Да ведь я медведь [You see, it’s just me the bear].”36 The “ведь [you see]” joins the “я медведь [me the bear]” in a repetition of sounds and symbols that literally merges the viewer’s witnessing into Mayakovsky’s transforming selfhood. In this way, the photomontages do not merely illustrate the plot of the text, they function alike, recombining fragments to form cohesive selves that speak through conjunctions and meetings. Allowing text, images, and selfhood to burst and reform, Mayakovsky and Rodchenko perform the transformation that they are asking of the viewer: a fluidity of selfhood that allows for communal identification.

Writing about posing for a photograph, Barthes insisted:

What I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my (profound) “self”; but it is the contrary that must be said: “myself” never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn and “myself” which is light, divided, dispersed.37

In Pro Eto, Rodchenko takes the index of the referent and disperses it, allowing Mayakovsky to divide and shift. Speaking between the many poets, Mayakovsky asks: “Can you still kiss? Eat? Grow a paunch? You, with your fixation on entering their lives…”38 The continual switching between the many subjectivities of the poet both in image and his address begins to disorient the reader. It is not always clear whether Mayakovsky addresses himself, Lili, or, naturally, the reader of the text. In the confused ‘you’s and the many subjects, it is possible to answer Mayakovsky’s questions yourself. Have I grown a paunch? What behaviors have I been repeating in this new society? How long have we been lashed to this bridge?

The Death of the Authors

In Camera Lucida, Barthes reflects that “the private life is nothing but that zone of space, of time, where I am not an image, an object.”39 For Barthes, “life consists of these little touches of solitude.”40 In writing about an immensely personal subject and allowing his images to be replete in the illustrations, Mayakovsky allots himself no pure solitude. Barthes conceptualizes that sharing as an objectification. This is not surprising in the context of Barthes’s larger work. In Death of the Author, he writes, “... writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing […] the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.”41 For Barthes, production is inevitably linked with objectification, and thus death, compared to the emotional, intensely subjective experience of viewing. Although Mayakovsky edited the manuscripts of Pro Eto to emphasize optimism towards the future of the collective,42 Mayakovsky seems to struggle with what Barthes later identifies as the birth of the reader and the corresponding death of the author. The subjectivity of the one requires the mortifying objectification of the other.

Figure 7. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto, © 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY.

Figure 7. Aleksandr Rodchenko, photomontage from Pro Eto,
© 1923. Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / UPRAVIS, Moscow / ARS, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Throughout the text, Mayakovsky continuously identifies an inability to communicate with the audience. In the party scene, he speaks about how his words “struck people’s foreheads and plates like peas,” as they “listened with a smile to the famous clown.”43 Meanwhile, their comments viscerally wound Mayakovsky. As he stands atop the Kremlin, in the moments before he is murdered by the crowds, they “Pour rumour in his ears! Shove slander down his throat!”44 In the corresponding photomontage (Figure 7), the crowd mills harmlessly before the Kremlin where Mayakovsky holds his hands out as if crucified. Only a few small children direct a tiny cannon towards Mayakovsky, in comparison to the multitudes of guns in the text. In all the montages of the poem, Mayakovsky is either pictured alone or abutted by objects. While Mayakovsky positions himself as a victim of the crowd, a martyr for the cause of universal love, Rodchenko pictures a poet, standing colossal atop the Kremlin, immensely wounded by his separation from the public.

In the text corresponding to the scene of his death, the climax of the novel, Mayakovsky laments “What am I but a cripple infected with love. A sort of empty vessel you can fill with your shit. I will not stop you. What use are these insults. I’m just a poem; I’m just a state of mind.”45 Similarly, Barthes wrote: “for what society makes of my photograph, what it reads there, I do not know… others – the Other – do not dispossess me of myself, they turn me, ferociously into an object, they put me at their mercy, at their disposal, classified in a file…”46 In the conceptualization of art in which only the viewer-reader may be subjective, in which no emotion can be purposefully communicated, the one who is pictured is inevitably objectified. When art is understood as being an empty vessel, the fate of the artist lies entirely in the hand of the viewer. However, Mayakovsky does not remain dead following his martyrdom at the hands of the crowd.

The New Everyday

In the following photomontage, the viewer receives a very sentimental view of the poet. Mayakovsky, pictured at the bottom left as a young man, stands beside four children. One, directly aligned with his face and in a similar upturned cap, inevitably encourages the viewer to read Mayakovsky’s innocent face. The corresponding text reads: “Four times I try - four times a child again getting myself all ready for the tomb. If I have to die I’ll go down singing.”47 The reader, likely a member of the Soviet audience, would thus be implicated in Mayakovsky’s public death only to witness him aligned with the purity and hope of youth. The children are particularly angelic: one young boy seems to lean forward on his toes as he carries a basket and a stick, the picture of bucolic nostalgia; a young girl at left sits before a microphone, as if struck by her duty to speak. If Mayakovsky will live this life again and again, singing every time, the viewer must learn to listen eventually; surely they could not be so cruel as to doom these new Mayakovskys. The text ends with an immensely hopeful plea to the audience: “I have so much living still to do. Let there be no more love like a timid handmaiden… Let love make its universal music… Let the whole planet turn with one cry: – Comrade! – Not sacrificing our lives in domestic holes and corners.”48 In picturing his own death, Mayakovsky pictures his wound quite literally; he shows exactly what pain and danger lie at the heart of ignoring his rallying cry against byt. If the world continues to be unwounded by his words, to allow them to bounce off their faces like peas, they will never learn to reject the isolation of the private everyday in favor of the communal everyday.

In Pro Eto, Mayakovsky and Rodchenko picture many forms of Mayakovky’s subjectivity. Throughout the body of the text, as he debates his relationship with Lili, he is pictured in many moments and in conversation with himself as dispersed and multitudinous. At his death, he becomes a single public figure, an empty vessel divorced from power. After Mayakovsky’s death, he returns to this dispersed self, speaking from across lifetimes. While in Camera Lucida, Barthes does not show the photograph of his mother, Mayakovsky pictures his wounds again and again. We see him staring out from amid byt, surrounded by everyday slime, longing for his private love, and even in the moment of his death. Working with the explanatory and emotional nature of the text, the audience is given direct access to Mayakovsky’s private pain as it relates to the shared problem of the Soviet public: the isolation of love within the capitalist everyday. Although Lili is pictured frequently, likely as a symbol of Mayakovsky’s personal love, his own wound is that which pierces the viewer. If that punctum cannot be transmitted, Mayakovsky will stand martyred in a Soviet square.

It is difficult to say whether Mayakovsky and Rodchenko’s work succeeded in their lofty goals of simultaneously educating, emotionally engaging, and transforming the audience. Published in a small run and later forgone by the Soviet canon in favor of Mayakovsky’s more political poems, Pro Eto has had limited interactions with the masses. Of course, it is clear that we have not attained universal love and liberation. However, in structure, much of Pro Eto’s work reflects our contemporary experience of the photograph. Standing in a continuous stream of digital images, every photograph is supplied with the context of text, of the poster’s life, or even just the inadvertent archive of the feed. The issue of alienation from the audience, of true access to someone’s personal everyday, of course, is still in question. Like Barthes, many still find themselves mortified by the pose.

Hannah Gadbois is a PhD student in the Art History department at University of Illinois at Chicago. She received her BA from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth in 2016 and her MA from Boston University in 2019. Hannah researches modern art with special interests in photomontage and the revolutionary potential of abstraction.

1 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), 28.
2 Ibid., 10 .
3 Ibid., 42 .
4 Ibid., 57 .
5 Ibid., 5 .
6 Ibid., 6.
7 Ibid., 7.
8 Michael Fried, ”Barthes’s Punctum,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 3 (Spring 2005): 546.
9 Ibid., 547.
10 Stephen Lovell, The Russian Reading Revolution: Print Culture in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000): 25–26.
11 Ibid., 29.
12 Katherine M. H. Reischl, Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018), 8.
13 Ibid., 124.
14 [Gustav Klucis?], “Photomontage,” in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, ed. Christopher Phillips (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989): 211;
Leah Dickerman attributes this quote to Osip Brik in “The Fact and the Photograph,” October 118 (Fall 2006): 135.
15 Varvara Stepanova, “Photomontage,” in Photography in the Modern Era, ed. Phillips, 236.
16 Vladimir Mayakovsky, Pro Eto, tran. Larisa Gureyeva and George Hyde (Lancashire: Arc Publications, 2009), 109 .
17 Ibid., 115.
18 Ibid., 111.
19 Barthes, Camera Lucida, 51.
20 Christina Kiaer and Eric Naimain, eds., Everyday Life in Early Soviet Russia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006): 4.
21 Ibid., 63.
22 Magdalena Dabrowski, ed., Aleksander Rodchenko (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 105.
23 Osip Brik quoted in Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, I Love: The Story of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1979), 68.
24 Mayakovsky, Pro Eto, 161.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid., 45.
27 Kiaer, Everyday Life, 9.
28 Ibid., 220.
29 Mayakovsky, Pro Eto, 31.
30 Ibid., 159.
31 Viktor Shklovsky, Mayakovsky and His Circle, trans. Lily Feiler (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972), 173.
32  Roland Barthes, A Lovers Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 2010), 63.
33 Edward J. Brown, Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973): 232.
34 Leon Trotsky, “Futurism,” in Literature and Revolution, trans. Rose Strunsky, (New York: Russell & Russell, 1957), https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/ch04.htm.
35 Mayakovsky, Pro Eto, 61.
36 Ibid., 70–71.
37 Barthes, Camera Lucida, 12.
38 Mayakovsky, Pro Eto, 63.
39 Barthes, Camera Lucida, 15.
40 Ibid., 3.
41 Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), 142.
42 Brown, Mayakovsky, 233.
43 Mayakovsky, Pro Eto, 97.
44 Ibid., 135.
45 Ibid.
46 Barthes, Camera Lucida, 14.
47 Mayakovsky, Pro Eto, 147–149.
48 Ibid., 161.

Journal der Freien Universität Berlin

Berlin, 2024