A Sentimental Robot – Kazimierz Podsadecki
In the early 1930s, Kazimierz Podsadecki’s art revolved mainly around American cinema. In Kurier Filmowy, a supplement to the Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny weekly newspaper, he published essays discussing Hollywood films; additionally, he created a photomontage series and American America (1932) collages, as well as A Sentimental Robot (1933). The latter was dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, who, at the time, was considered not only to be the first celebrity, but also a true icon of the international avant-garde.
Chaplin was arguably the first example of a significant influential film actor, onto whom artists projected notions of collective imagination. This small, poor man, wearing his characteristic derby hat, oversized pants, a moustache and holding a cane, was seen as the hero fighting against the law, rules, aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and its authorities, which is how he won the acclaim of artists warring against old art. People fascinated by his film creations were mostly leftist creators from Russia, Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The A Sentimental Robot cycle perfectly fits into the avant-garde perception of Chaplin’s figure as a one-of-a-kind ‘machine era’s romantic’ and the ‘anarchist dancing with the machines’.
In Soviet Russia’s art, a Chaplin-robot figure appeared as soon as in the early 1920s. Nikolaï Foregger, the choreographer of the so-called ‘Dances of the Machines’, considered Chaplin’s body to be an ‘impeccable mechanism’, while Wiktor Szkłowski argued that it is the mechanicality of his movements which is the most hilarious element in the American comedian’s films. Alexander Rodchenko emphasised that Chaplin’s acting was influenced by communism and modern technology, while Varvara Stepanova dedicated a series of illustrations to him, in which she attempted to utilise the mechanical quality of his body. Finally, Fernand Léger made the cartoonish Chaplin the hero of his film Mechanical Balet (1924) for good reason – the French avant-garde artist confirmed Chaplin’s affiliation with the reality of machines. He clearly implied that his actor’s craft was on the one hand a display of the machine’s anthropomorphisation and on the other a hinted of human mechanisation.
The Polish avant-garde also recognised Chaplin as the machine era’s important figure-metaphor. One of the best-known examples along these lines was Aleksander Wat’s Unemployed Lucifer (1927), in which the Polish avant-garde poet presented the story of Lucifer, unable to find a job in the modern, godless world, which is why he finally becomes a film star – Charlie Chaplin. He is talked into becoming an ‘anarchist dancing with a machine’ by one of the employers, from whom he hears an important prophecy:
Your arms will become America, a machine, Taylorism, biomechanicity. And the discord between the face’s soul and the mechanised movements will show humanity its own caricature.
Similarly, Podsadecki’s A Sentimental Robot (1933) fits into the perception of Chaplin as a tragic but optimistic symbol of the machine era. The very title indicates a legible paradox. It opposes the ‘robot’, a mechanical figure, with the adjective ‘sentimental’, which describes a sensitive human harbouring many emotions. A gigantic heart, wearing a derby hat and a bow tie, and to which Chaplin, cropped out of 1923’s The Pilgrim, prays, dominates the Charlie collage. The silent-era film mocked the clergy’s hypocrisy and the common man’s thoughtless belief easily manipulated by clergymen. In Podsadecki’s collage, an effigy of a false priest, praying to the heart ‘dressed’ in a derby hat and an ‘aristocratic’ bow tie, perhaps displays a critique of the duplicitous relations between the toffs and the church.
In the collage titled Takie Buty! (editor’s translation: Well, Well!, literally: Such Shoes!), Chaplin’s image from the City Lights (1931) appears. It shows a film frame, in which the vagrant lies on the table prior to a boxing bout for which he is going to earn some easy cash. In the feature, Chaplin collects money to pay for his beloved partner’s eye operation and undertakes various challenges to gather the funds in the shortest time possible. He is weak in the knees and trembles in fear before the fight, but ultimately, thanks to his cleverness, he manages to defeat the professional boxer. In Podsadecki’s photomontage, in the upper-right corner, gigantic and cartoonish spring-legs dominate Charlie’s effigy. On the one hand, they show nervous shivering preceding the bout, and on the other they function as an indicator of his machine-like physiognomy.
In 1933, alongside the self-arranged collage series, Podsadecki published a fictional interview with Chaplin in Kurier Filmowy. He titled it Bunt Chaplina: Wywiad Fantastyczny (Chaplin’s Mutiny: A Fantasy Interview). The chagrined comedian spoke in it:
I’m fed up with this, I no longer want to be poor Charlot, kicked through the door all the time. (…) I’m going to make films about the poetry of machines, about steel, high and long jumps and strong people, a journey into the gold rush’s stratosphere.
Podsadecki commented on his words:
Today there is no more need for pity, love, and sacrifice. Society replaced all this with appropriate inventions and institutions.
Naturally, Podsadecki’s fictional interview was a paraphrase and a reversal of the message found in Chaplin’s films, which, in reality, by imagining a future world heading towards complete mechanisation, clearly emphasised the importance of humane, sentimental feelings. As soon as in 1936’s Modern Times, one of his most popular films, Chaplin defended humanistic values in a world dominated by machines and mass production. This feature was often seen as the one which anticipated world’s absolute dehumanisation a few years prior to the World War II.
In a similar manner, Podsadecki’s 1933 series diagnoses man’s place in a world dominated by civilisational progress, and also poses a question about the future role of human feelings in the face of the progressing life mechanisation.
Originally written by Przemysław Strożek, October 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, November 2017.Culture.pl