Positioning Peasant Women as Pre-Cinematic Spectators

Michele L. Lowery, University of Southern California

In his book Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception, Yuri Tsivian addresses how various spaces, machines, and techniques influenced and created a semiotics of film viewing in Russia. Tsivian traces the associations made at the time between film viewing and theater as a way to understand how viewers perceived the images on the screen. My paper will explore what I believe to be a precursor to film viewing and consumption in pre-Revolutionary Russia, namely, advertising. The evolution of the print-ad informed future filmgoers of the art of looking, reading the image and consuming the product.

More specifically I will look at how turn-of-the-century women, who were primarily non-educated and lived in urban settings, were taught the art of looking through the evolution of advertising. Because of the influx of women from the countryside into the cities at the turn century looking for work, the urban setting becomes an important cite for women’s cultural education. Another reason for looking specifically at urban settings lies in the fact that print ads would have been more abundant there, not to mention the fact that the majority of film viewership took place in the city.

The paper will explore the precursors to the print ad in Russia—primarily, the shop sign and the Russian art form lubki (wood cuts). Tracing the lineage of advertising will illustrate that the existence of visual culture in Russia was not determined by the privilege of literacy. The paper will address various questions in an effort to discern a connection between advertising and female spectatorship in the cinema at the turn of the century in Russia. When did advertisements in Russia start addressing women? Were the ads designed for women in general or women of a particular class (was reading a requirement)? How were the ads structured? How did the ads create a system of looking? Can this system of looking be applied to film?

Ultimately, I would like to show, much like Vanessa Schwartz illustrated in France, that in Russia a visual culture existed which prepared viewers for looking and understanding cinema.