The dead in living color

Chromatic modernism in
the USSR, 1920-1935

Modernism is often criticized for its allegedly dull monochromes, the ostentatiously unpainted surfaces of its buildings and the desaturated stillness of their black-and-white photographic representation.

Part of this was intentional, for either promotional or artistic reasons. Thus one gets the rich black-and-white photos of brutalist buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, still colorless despite the availability of new technologies. As such, it’s just as much a part of brutalism’s brooding aesthetic as anything else. (Don’t believe me? Take a look through Fuck Yeah Brutalism’s archives). Or else there’s the deliberate intradisciplinary gesture, as in constructivist tekstura, which insists that the material components should be fully exposed, not concealed beneath “artificial” coloring. Either way, the naked white of plaster or the gray-on-gray of concrete, polished metal through untinted glass.

Another part was, of course, incidental. For a long time color photographs weren’t practical, and so much of early modernism’s more chromatic creations were lost to the general public — or at least, to anyone who couldn’t visit them in person. Color printing was available for illustrations, of course, but only on rare occasions. For the most part, only magazine covers and maybe the first few pages featured a palette beyond black and white. While this meant that those pages that were chosen for color were usually used to good effect, on the whole formatting and layout were constrained.

Besides, the early architectural avant-garde generally embraced the photographic medium, which didn’t allow for multicolored printing. The carefully balanced color schemes of, say, Le Corbusier — following his painterly innovations alongside his fellow Purist Amédée Ozenfant — would only come through in gradated grayscale. This is to say nothing of Gerrit Rietveld or Theo van Doesburg in Holland, inspired as they were by the Neoplasticist paintings of Piet Mondrian. In their drawings and sketches, however, the contrasting hues and tones of the architecture they envisioned is preserved.

With the Soviets it was no different. Though there were certain tensions between the constructivist and suprematist schools of art, the architectural constructivists had by the mid-1920s assimilated many of Malevich’s teachings through the work of artists-turned-architects like Lissitzky and Leonidov. As Owen Hatherley notes, OSA’s bimonthly periodical Modern Architecture devoted a whole issue in 1929 to an exploration of color in architecture. Stunning reproductions of the work of the cubist Fernand Léger were also included.

Here are a number of color drawings, paintings, and sketches produced by the Russian architectural avant-garde. They’ve been cobbled together from various sources, too diverse to name here. Many appear here for the first time, at least online.

7 thoughts on “The dead in living color

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