Khidekel and the cosmist legacy of suprematism in architecture

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The following is a brief extract from an interview Elena Dobriakova conducted with Regina Khidekel, the daughter-in-law of the great suprematist painter and speculative architect Lazar Khidekel. It touches on the subject of Russian cosmism, a philosophical current which has become a renewed topic of interest thanks to George Young’s new book on The Russian Cosmists, as well as some of the materials published on e-flux by Benedict Singleton and Anton Vidokle.

Following this extract there is a short article by Regina Khidekel on suprematism in architecture. See also a post by Martin Gittins as well as Enrique Ramirez’s work on cosmism and flight in modern architecture, “Rocket Talk.” The interview translation is my own, but feel free to reproduce it. Click on any of the images below to see them in higher resolution.
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Khidekel and cities of the future

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Elena Dobriakova:
 How has suprematism withstood such a serious test of time, in your opinion?

Regina Khidekel: When the founder of suprematism Kazimir Malevich arrived at this Black Square, he soon understood that suprematism — or, that is to say, geometric abstraction — is the terminal stage of abstract art, that this art that is connected with the cosmos, with cosmic vision. The plain fact of the matter, technically speaking, is that Malevich grasped the property of this new space when, according to the story, it escaped beyond the horizon. In this fashion, the laws of linear perspective for were repealed, and before the artist opened an immeasurable expanse, which then became the space of the suprematist painting and, as Lazar Khidekel phrased it, the infinite plane of the canvas. That’s why in the early stages of suprematism the forms fly into the unknown of cosmic space. This is to speak only of the formal aspect. After this came the further development of suprematism, which Malevich saw as the creation of modern architecture. The students of Malevich sought to introduce this art to the limits of life during the early 1920s — and above all Khidekel, who was to Malevich the most active, energetic, and congenial. Chashnik called Khidekel a revolutionary suprematist as early as 1921, meaning a “real, genuine suprematist.” And Khidekel introduced suprematism into architecture, not as a utilitarian, elementary style, but as revolutionary-innovative vision.

For Malevich’s students, including Lazar Khidekel, these forms have been converted into space stations. Structures and volumes were perceived by them as the cosmic dwellings of future earthlings. This is another story: that of Russian cosmism and its mystical philosophy of the “common cause,” capable of uniting mankind in the task of overcoming death and resurrecting our forefathers, for whom these space colonies were designed. By the way, this was the motive behind Tsiolkovskii’s scientific research.

Елена Добрякова: Каким образом супрематизм, по вашему мнению, выдержал столь серьезную проверку временем?

Регина Хидекель: Когда основоположнику супрематизма Казимиру Малевичу пришел этот черный квадрат, он очень скоро понял, что супрематизм, или, иначе, геометрическая абстракция, и есть последняя стадия абстрактного искусства, что это искусство связано с космосом, с космическим видением. Дело в том, что чисто технически Малевич осознал свойство этого нового пространства, когда, по его словам, вышел за линию горизонта. Таким образом, законы итальянской перспективы были отменены, и перед художником открылся безмерный космос, который стал пространством супрематической живописи и, как сформулировал для себя Лазарь Хидекель, бесконечной плоскостью полотна. Вот почему на первой стадии супрематизма формы летают в безвесии в космическом пространстве. Это если говорить о формальной стороне. Затем последовало развитие супрематизма, которое Малевич видел в создании современной архитектуры. Студенты Малевича, и в первую очередь Лазарь Хидекель как самый активный, деятельный, конгениальный Малевичу, в начале 1920-х годов стремился ввести это искусство в пределы жизни. Чашник еще в 1921 году называет Хидекеля революционным супрематистом, что означает «подлинный, настоящий супрематист». И Хидекель ввел супрематизм в архитектуру, не утилитарной составляющей стиля, а революционно-новаторским видением.

Ученики Малевича, в том числе и Лазарь Хидекель, стали эти формы превращать в космические станции. Структуры и объемы воспринимаются ими как космические жилища будущих землян. Это отдельная тема — русский космизм и его мистическая философия общего дела, способная объединить человечество для решения задач преодоления смерти и воскрешения наших предков, для которых и проектировались эти космические колонии. Кстати, это было побудительным мотивом и для научных разработок Циолковского.

Lazar Khidekel:
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The trajectory of suprematism;
between sky and earth

Regina Khidekel

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The cosmic “gene” of Suprematism, the philosophy of Russian Cosmism in Malevich’s interpretation and his cosmological concepts, fell on fertile ground. The adolescent, who, by his own account, “walked the streets late at night, staring at the sky, the moon, and the clouds waiting for the coming of the Messiah, who…appeared floating in the clouds of the dark sky,”[1] soon encountered the art of his first teacher, Marc Chagall, where the flight over the city and the life on the roofs perfectly accorded with the Vitebsk reality.

From the Chagallian metaphorical ascent over side streets familiar from childhood, he was already within arm’s length of the systematized flights into the endless limits of Suprematist space. Malevich’s destruction of Renaissance perspective and the horizon line led to the revelation of another space — that of the boundless cosmos, which became the space onto which Lazar Khidekel would project his Suprematist compositions. Here, between sky and earth, having overcome gravity, geometricized structures were formed in weightlessness. Before becoming the volumes of futuristic cities above the Earth, these structures drifted into the status of space stations of earthlings.

It is this trajectory of Suprematist development into the cosmos and subsequent return to Earth, with a stop in the aerial city of the future, that determined the artistic and architectural development of Khidekel’s Suprematism. Because of the unique character of Lazar Khidekel’s extensive archive of surviving materials, all periods of his oeuvre are well documented through artworks, documents, and publications, as well as manuscripts and articles written by the artist himself. The archive enables one to study the stages of Khidekel’s Suprematist training at the Vitebsk Art School and UNOVIS (Affirmers of the New Art), including his early artistic education: drawing classes with Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, painting directly under Marc Chagall’s supervision (1918), learning the basics of architectural drafting and design in El Lissitzky’s architectural studio (1919-20), and one-on-one study of Suprematism with Kazimir Malevich himself (according to the UNOVIS questionnaire, he was the only student in Malevich’s “Dynamic” studio).

He quickly absorbed the Suprematist system, whereas most of the students never managed to cross the threshold of abstraction. In the Vitebsk Art School, there were only four students — Chashnik, Suetin, Chervinka, and Khidekel — to do so. Despite that fact, for Chashnik, referred only to Khidekel as a truly “revolutionary Suprematist.”[2]

As noted by Charlotte Douglas, one of the first and most important American scholars on Suprematism, these artists succeeded in further developing Suprematism in different directions. “Khidekel’s distinction was that this initial vision of Suprematist structures floating in space remained a central part of his art and architecture for the next forty years, and richly informed his later development as a professional architect.”[3]

The recent opening of the GINKhUK (State Institute of Artistic Culture) and GIII (State Institute of the History of Art) archives, combined with the publication of materials on Malevich’s legacy, have led to the appearance of numerous documents confirming Khidekel’s significant role in the development of Suprematism in his post-Vitebsk period.

In the second half of the 1920s, when Malevich returned to figurative painting, Khidekel continued his spatial odyssey into the clouds of futuristic cities. But even more important, throughout his whole life, he singlehandedly developed the pictorial-spatial concepts of Suprematism, anticipating the emergence of many avant-garde ideas and trends in Western art, design, and architecture, from which he was separated by the Iron Curtain.

S.O. Khan-Magomedov 1977 lecture on Khidekel’s futuristic cities [4] aroused skepticism on the part of some of his colleagues, who remarked that if Khidekel was so much more advanced than Yona Friedman and the Japanese Metabolists of the 1950s, then he must be a genius. Today, Khidekel’s genius is verified by the words of Malevich himself. In late February 1927, before traveling abroad, Malevich left instructions concerning work on a “Suprematist filma”: “We need Khidekel to create an architectural design, but if there’s not enough time, let him take a shot from Petin for the film crew. We need to show the entire development of volumetric Suprematism in accordance with the sensation of the aerial (aero) type and dynamic.”[5] Between 1925 and 1932, Khidekel arrived at his fundamental concept of the Aerograd, an aerial city on steel supports, elevated above water.

Khidekel was not the only one to envision designs for futuristic cities. Other artists did so as well, including some from Malevich’s circle. To see the difference between Khidekel’s designs and those of other artists, suffice it to recall Gustav Klutsis’s social utopia, Dynamic City (1922), an image of a city-planet “built by the hands of working people,” whose figures are “frozen” in the instant of the working process.”[6] If Khidekel had ever placed a human figure into an architectural design, it would most likely have been himself and certainly have included a landscape.

Khidekel’s aerial city was conceived on a human scale, and even in the mid-1920s was technologically viable. It was designed to promote a humane development of civilization, in which the individual and nature were equally important. Khidekel believed in harmony between humankind and nature, and regarded human culture and nature as governed by the same laws of natural forces. Stemming from his childhood appeal to the starry sky, Chagallian takeoff, and understanding of Suprematist composition as a living, self-evolving organism, Khidekel’s planetary vision always retained warmth and humanity. His skillfully executed pictorial-architectural sketches of cities of the future are dominated by different shades of green, infusing architectural design with a new dimension — the environmental — sadly absent from most futuristic utopias as well as the phantasmagorias of the twentieth century.

One of his students recalled that Khidekel regarded the architectural profession as a kind one, focused on protecting man. Air and the sun’s rays are the criteria of architectural structures, as he wrote in one of his first professional published articles, “Flat Roofing.” In this piece, which addresses the sanitary-hygienic conditions of contemporary cities, Khidekel presents the technological and economic arguments for the introduction of horizontal zoning. The young architect writes: “We need to point out that flat roofing provides additional courtyard space surrounded by fresh air and illuminated by sunlight, containing its own justification in the economic aspect.”[7]

Khidekel had already written about overcoming the contradictions between nature and civilization in his first manifesto. In 1920, the sixteen-year-old Khidekel, together with fellow UNOVIS member Ilya Chashnik, produced AERO: Articles and Designs.[8] One of the first UNOVIS publications, AERO anticipated the release of Malevich’s Thirty-Four Drawings, printed in the same lithographic studios of the Vitebsk school.[9] Indeed, AERO entered the annals of modern art as the first environmental manifesto. The very term “AERO,” coined by Khidekel, resonates with spatial modeling, from cosmic settlements, nebulae, and aerial cities (also Khidekel’s terms) to the actual layout of buildings and pictorial fantasies.

As early as 1922, Khidekel called his volumetric axonometric perspective in the form of an airplane Aero-Club.With respect to this “first truly architectural work based on Suprematism,” Khan-Magomedov wonders why Khidekel had the architectural skills that enabled him to build a “diametric axonometric perspective (i.e., based on the dimensions of one of the axes cut in half), which had not previously been encountered in volumetric Suprematism.”[10]

For him, the answer lies in the fact that Khidekel underwent professional training at PIGI (Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineers) in 1922. While remaining a member of GINKhUK, he collaborated with Malevich, leading Suetin, and Chashnik — none of whom knew how to render architectural perspective — create Architectons and Planits.[11] Larissa Zhadova also notes, “The main assistant in Malevich’s architectural experiments of 1924-25 was L.M. Khidekel.”[12] According to GINKhUK documents, Khidekel directed a laboratory of Suprematist architecture, developed programs, and left behind a unique description of the premises of the laboratory and models situated there.[13]

Khidekel defined the face of architectural Suprematism in 1926 when he created its first real manifestation — his Workers’ Club — which quickly achieved widespread visibility, appearing first on the pages of Western journals, and later in publications in Russia, as well.[14] Khidekel became a famous architect while still a student — a phenomenon even more unparalleled than his early artistic achievements, including participating at the age of fifteen in an exhibition alongside masters such as Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich, Rodchenko, Popova, and Exter.[15]

The cosmic and volumetric stages followed each other, revealing Suprematism’s form-creating potential. Thus arose a cruciform structure, the leading diagonal axis of which is a powerful line defining the direction of motion. Among the compositions of this type is Dissection of the Black Square; Khidekel regarded this as part of a body of motifs, including nebulas, concentric circles, the grid, and flying space stations, which he believed contributed to the form-creating system of Suprematism.

This apprehension of objectless space through a universal system of geometric forms was realized in a distinctive monochrome drawing style, different from Suetin’s and Chashnik’s colorful graphic idioms of those years, and, instead, anticipating the language of Minimal Art and computer-generated visualization.

The diagonal-centric compositions of the early 1920s became a launch pad for Suprematist painting’s departure into three-dimensional space. The diagonal as an axis of motion, a runway strip, became the most important compositional element, one that we will again encounter in Khidekel’s competition entries of the 1950s-1960s such as his designs for the Tsiolkovsky Museum and the Budapest Theater; in industrial projects (Khidekel worked at GIPROMEZ [State Institute for Design of Metallurgy Plants] alongside his teaching at LISI [Leningrad Institute of Engineering and Construction]); in the designs of his students, who proudly described themselves as belonging to the “school of Khidekel”; and in the pictorial-spatial fantasies intended for the gigantic planes of modern structures.

In his review of the 1995 exhibition of Russian Jewish artists at New York’s Jewish Museum, Hilton Kramer wrote, “One of the most interesting artists is an artist few of us nowadays have heard of: Lazar Khidekel who was associated with Malevich’s Suprematist circle in the 1920′s and later turned to architecture. Suprematist Concentric Circles (1921) looks amazingly like a sketch for very similar paintings that Kenneth Noland produced many years later.”[16]

Kramer was not aware that Khidekel’s concentric circles are thermal zones dispersing from the Earth’s core, as we know from the artist’s remarkable 1920-22 drawings, accompanied by commentaries. The highly refined, diversely textured pastel palette of the 1921 masterpiece Concentric Circles relates both to Khidekel’s monochrome nebulas and cosmic structures, as well as to the Minimalist and Color Field painting that emerged decades later, particularly in the hands of Kenneth Noland.

Today, when AERO has rightly entered the annals of modern art,[17] it is clear that its radicalism sharply differentiates it from the famous handmade books of the Futurists: the work of art was determined by the project and is accompanied by a typewritten text; do the sources of Conceptualism not lie in this striving to connect art, science, and philosophy?

The logic of avant-garde art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries can be detected in Khidekel’s works. In addition to the artist’s foreshadowing of Kenneth Noland’s circles, other examples readily come to mind: Khidekel’s blue-painted figural monuments of the 1940s may be seen as anticipating Yves Klein’s blue busts, while the organic forms of Khidekel’s raised futuristic city, where right-angled corners unexpectedly round off and form part of an acutely modern aerodynamic configuration, reverberate in Zaha Hadid’s “Suprematist” forms. Creating his spatial-pictorial fantasies in the mid-1950s-1960s, Khidekel forecasted the spectacular enlargement in the size of contemporary paintings. Khidekel said that a person of the nineteenth century was a pedestrian who could grasp minutiae, but that in the quickened pace of the twentieth century, volumes are all that could be discerned from automobiles and planes, and that, as a reflection of visible space, the size of canvases would increase accordingly with time.

Lazar Khidekel belonged to the core of that group of artists who managed to break through from one time to another, and from inner, Earthly space to the outer, cosmic space, a space that continues to provide inexhaustible possibilities for discovering new worlds in art.

Notes

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1 Mark, Regina, and Roman Khidekel Archive.

2 Letter from Ilya Chashnik to Lazar Khidekel, March 22, 1922. Mark, Regina, and Roman Khidekel Archive.
3 Charlotte Douglas, “Unearthly Art: The Planetary View; Kazimir Malevich and Lazar Khidekel,” 2011, in Lazar Khidekel (1904-1986): The Suprematist Vision of the World (forthcoming).
4 S. O. Khan-Magomedov, Lazar Khidekel (Мoscow: Russian Avant-Garde Foundation, 2008), p. 24.
5 “Malevich o sebe: Sovremenniki o Maleviche,” I. A. Bakhar and T. N. Mikheenko, eds., vol. 1, 150 (Moscow: RA, 2004).
6 S. O. Khan-Magomedov, Suprematism (Мoscow: Russian Avant-Garde Foundation, 2007), 310.
7 Lazar Khidekel. “Ploskie kryshi,” Nauka i tekhnika (1928).
8 Lazar Khidekel and Ilya Chashnik, АERO: Stat’i i proekty (Articles and Projects) (Vitebsk: UNOVIS, 1920).
9 Lissitzky led the architectural and printmaking workshops that inspired Khidekel and Chashnik to create their first book, AERO. Khidekel also participated in the printing of Malevich’s 34 Risunka (Thirty-Four Drawings), as evidenced in the copy of the book signed by Khidekel. Mark, Regina, and Roman Khidekel Archive.
10 Khan-Magomedov, Suprematism, 473.
11 Ibid.
12 L. Zhadova, “Suprematist order,” Problemy istorii sovetskoi arkhitektury (Moscow) (1983): 37.

13 Irina Karasik, “Lazar Khidekel at GINKhUK (State Institute of Artistic Culture) and GIII (State Institute of Art History),” in Lazar Khidekel (1904-1986).
14 Khidekel’s student project Worker’s Club was published in Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst (Berlin, 1927): 413; LArchitecture vivant (Paris) 2 (1928): 46; Sovremennaia arkhitektura, no. 6 (Moscow) (1927); no. 4 (1930); and dozens of other journals and books.

15 First State Exhibition of Local and Moscow Artists, Vitebsk, 1919.
16 Hilton Kramer, “Jewish Artists in Rubble of Tragic Russian Era,” New York Observer, October 2, 1995, 1.
17 Exhibition 100 Years of Concrete…, Haus Konstruktiv, 2010-11, curated by Dr. Dorothea Strauss.

Regina Khidekel, a Ph.D. candidate in art history, is the founder and director of the Russian-American Cultural Center and president of the Lazar Khidekel Society.

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