El Lissitzky pangeometrie

El Lissitzky on “pangeometry” and art (1925)

In the essay A. and Pangeometry  El Lissitzky analyses the changing role of perspective in art and introduces axonometric projection (or parallel perspective) as a new means to represent and perceive space. It was first published in German in Europa-Almanach, (Carl Einstein and Paul Westheim, Kiepenheuer Verlag, Potsdam, 1925, p.103-113) and was reprinted in 1984.

This English translation was published in the book El Lissitzky. Life – Letters – Texts, Lissitzky-Küppers, Thames & Hudson, London, 1992 (out of print). The blog The Detached Gaze posted it a few months back.

NOTE: Abbreviations: A. = art, F. = form.

europa-almanachKunst und pangeometrie lissitzky

Art and pangeometry

El Lissitzky
Europa Almanach
Potsdam (1925)

Seeing, of course, is also an A.

In the period between 1918 and 1921, a lot of old rubbish was destroyed. In Russia we also dragged A. off its sacred throne “and spat on its altar” (Malevich 1915). At the first Dada-event in Zurich, A. was defined as “magical excrement” and man as the “measure of all tailors” (Arp).

Now after five years (five centuries in the old chronology) in Germany for example, Grosz brings only one reproach upon himself: “our only fault was that we ever took the so-called A. at all seriously.” But a few lines further on he writes: “Whether my work is therefore called A. depends on the question of whether one believes that the future belongs to the working classes.” I am convinced that it does, but neither this conviction nor the excrement and the tailors are universal criteria for A.

A. is a graduated glass. Every era pours in a certain quantity: for example, one puts 5 cm of Coty perfume, to titillate the nostrils of fashionable society: another throws 10 cm of sulphuric acid into the face of the ruling class; yet another pours in 15 cm of some kind of metallic solution which afterwards flares up as a new source of light. So A. is an invention of our spirit, a complex whole, combining the rational with the imaginary, the physical with the mathematical, √1 with √-1. The series of analogies which I am going to bring to your attention is put forward not to prove — for the works themselves are there for that — but to clarify my views. The parallels between A. and mathematics must be drawn very carefully, for every time they overlap it is fatal for A.

Planimetric space

Plastic F. begins, like elementary arithmetic, with counting. Its space is the physical two-dimensional flat plane. Its rhythm — the elementary harmony of the natural numerical progression 1, 2, 3, 4, …

Man compares the newly-created object [1] — for example, the relief, the fresco — with natural objects. If, for example, in a relief, the animal in front covers a part of the animal behind, this does not mean that that part has ceased to exist, but that there is a distance, space, existing between these two bodies.

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One comes to know from experience that there is a distance existing between individual objects, that the objects exist in space. This two-dimensional plane ceases to be just a flat surface. The plane begins to presume upon space and there arises the numerical progression, 1, 1½, 2, 2½ …

Perspectival Space

The space of the plane developing into view lengthens and widens, increases to a new system, which finds its expression in perspective. It is generally accepted that perspective representation is the clear, objective, obvious way to represent space. It is said that, after all, the camera also works perspectivally and at the same time one is forgetting that the Chinese once built the object-lens with concave instead of convex lenses as we have, and so would also have produced an objective and mechanical image of the world, yet quite a different one. Perspective has comprehended space according to the concept of Euclidean geometry as a constant three-dimensional state. It has fitted the world into a cube, which it has transformed in such a way that in the plane it appears as a pyramid. [2] The tip of this visual pyramid either lies in our eyes — therefore in front of the object — or we project it on to the horizon — behind the object. The former concept was chosen by the East, the latter by the West.

Perspective defined space and made it finite, then enclosed it; but the “universal set” [3] of art became richer. Planimetric space provided us with the arithmetical progression. There the objects stood in the relation: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…In perspective space we acquired a new geometric progression; here the objects stand in a relation: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32… Up to the present time the “universal set” of A. has acquired no new enrichment. In the meantime science undertook fundamental reconstructions. The geocentric Ptolemaic conception of the universe was replaced by the heliocentric system of Copernicus. The Euclidean conception of fixed space was destroyed by Lobatschewski, Gauss, and Riemann. The impressionists were the first to begin exploding the hereditary notion of perspectival space. The cubist method was more decisive. They transposed the space-confining horizon to the foreground and identified it with the area being painted. They made improvements to this fixed area through psychic features (walls covered with wallpaper and so on) and by destroying some elementary forms. They built from the perspective plane forward into space. The latest sequels are: the reliefs by Picasso and counter-reliefs by Tatlin. Continue reading

Bauhausbücher 1, Walter Gropius (ed.), Internationale Architektur, 1925, 111 p, 23 cm_Page_001

Walter Gropius’ International Architecture (1925)

The following translation of Walter Gropius’ International Architecture (1925) is adapted from Kenneth W. Kaiser’s 1964 translation for his thesis at MIT. It is, to date, the only translation of the brief text which accompanies the photos and plans featured in the volume. All the images and pages reproduced here come from scans uploaded over at the excellent Monoskop archive. Here’s the full-text PDF of Gropius’ groundbreaking Internationale Architektur.

Further on, directly after the translation, there’s the original German text. Quite short,though not quite Miesian in its brevity. Of course, Gropius openly admits that the book’s primary function was intended to be visual. Enjoy!

Bauhausbücher 1, Walter Gropius (ed.), Internationale Architektur, 1925, 111 p, 23 cm_Page_101 Bauhausbücher 1, Walter Gropius (ed.), Internationale Architektur, 1925, 111 p, 23 cm_Page_038

International Architecture

Walter Gropius
Bauhaus Books 1
Weimar, 1925


International Architecture
is a picture book of the modern art of building. It will in concise form give a survey of the works of the leading modern architects of the cultured countries of the world and make the developments of today’s architectural design familiar.1

The works pictured on the following pages carry beside their differing individual and national characteristics, common features that are the same for all countries. This relationship, which every layman can observe, is a sign of great significance for the future, foretelling a general will-to-form of a fundamentally new kind represented in all the cultured countries.

In the recent past the art of building sank into sentimental decorative conceptions of the aesthete,, whose goal was the outward display of motives, ornaments, and profiles taken mostly from past cultures, which were without essential importance to the body of the building. The building became depreciated as a carrier of superficial, dead decoration, instead of being a living organism. The indispensable connection with advancing technology (and its new materials and construction methods) was lost in this are many for each building problem — the creative artist, within the boundaries his time sets upon him, chooses according to his personal sensibilities. The work therefore carries the signature of its creator. But it is wrong to infer from this the necessity for emphasis on the individual at any cost. On the contrary, the will to develop a unified world picture, the will which characterizes our age, presupposes the longing to liberate spiritual values from their confinement to the individual and to elevate them to objective importance. Then the unity of the arts, which leads to culture, will follow by itself. Continue reading


Nietzsche through the lens of Nazism and Marxism

Mazzino Montinari
Reading Nietzsche
West Berlin, 1982

Mazzino Montinari (4 April 1928 – 24 November 1986) was an Italian scholar of Germanistics. A native of Lucca, he became regarded as one of the most distinguished researchers on Friedrich Nietzsche, and harshly criticized the edition of The Will to Power, which he regarded as a forgery, in his book The Will to Power Does Not Exist.


After the end of fascism in Italy, Montinari became an active member of the Italian Communist Party, with which he was occupied with the translation of German writings. During 1953, when he visited East Germany for research, he witnessed the Uprising of 1953. Later, after the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he drifted away from orthodox Marxism and his career in party organizations. He did however keep his membership in the Italian Communist Party and upheld the ideals of socialism.

At the end of the 1950s, with Giorgio Colli, who was his teacher in the 1940s, Montinari began to prepare an Italian translation of Nietzsche’s works. After reviewing the contemporary collection of Nietzsche’s works and the manuscripts in Weimar, Colli and Montinari decided to begin a new, critical edition. This edition became the scholarly standard, and was published in Italian by Adelphi in Milan, in French by Éditions Gallimard in Paris, in German by Walter de Gruyter and in Dutch by Sun (translated by Michel van Nieuwstadt). Of particular help for this project was Montinari’s ability to decipher Nietzsche’s nearly unreadable handwriting, which before had only been transcribed by Peter Gast (born Heinrich Köselitz).

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In 1972, Montinari and others founded the international journal Nietzsche-Studien, to which Montinari would remain a significant contributor until his death. Through his translations and commentary on Nietzsche, Montinari demonstrated a method of interpretation based on philological research that would forgo hasty speculations. He saw value in placing Nietzsche in the context of his time, and to this end, Colli and he began a critical collection of Nietzsche’s correspondence. Montinari died in Florence in 1986.

I’m posting this here in anticipation of the 1,000+ page book by Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche: The Aristocratic Rebel, translated by Peter Thomas. From the reviews that’ve been written of the book by Thomas and Jan Rehmann, it appears to be an epic screed. Last year I wrote up a bit on Malcolm Bull’s The Anti-Nietzsche. Sunit Singh also wrote up a good article on “Nietzsche’s Untimeliness,” from a Marxist perspective.


Nietzsche between
Alfred Bäumler and
Georg Lukács

Nietzsche and National Socialist ideology: Alfred Bäumler’s interpretation

1. A national socialist “ideology” in the current sense of the word could, perhaps, be reconstructed. But it would be impossible, on the contrary, to speak of a genuine national socialist assimilation of Nietzsche’s ideas. As recent research has determined, Nietzsche was as good as alien to the founders of national socialism. Alfred Rosenberg, who laid claim to him as a forerunner to “the movement” in Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts, placed Nietzsche in the dubious company of Paul de Lagarde (whom Nietzsche despised) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (who, from his Wagnerian and racist standpoint, rejected Nietzsche). Hitler himself had no relation to Nietzsche; it is questionable whether he had read him at all. The entire ideology of race was profoundly alien to Nietzsche. It would be carrying coals to Newcastle if I were to cite the countless passages in which Nietzsche spoke out against the racial theories of the true forerunners of national socialism in general and anti-Semitism in particular. He even had occasion to correspond with someone who later was a national socialist representative, Theodor Fritsch; his two letters to the latter are a complete mockery of the muddled racial theories of the eighties in the previous century, with their — as Nietzsche said — dubious concepts of “Aryanism” and “Germanism.” Shortly after his correspondence with Nietzsche, Theodor Fritsch reviewed Beyond Good and Evil in 1887 and found in it (with good reason!) a “glorification of the Jews” and a “harsh condemnation of anti-Semitism.” He disposed of Nietzsche as a “philosopher-fisherman of the shallows” who had abandoned “any and all understanding for national essence” and who cultivated “old wives’ philosophical twaddle in Beyond Good and Evil.” According to Fritsch, Nietzsche’s pronouncements concerning the Jews were the “flat twaddle, too forced, pretending to be intellectual, of a Judaized type, self-taught in some apartment”; luckily, he believed, “Nietzsche’s books will be read by scarcely more than two dozen men.”1 This was Nietzsche’s actual relationship to anti-Semitism and Germanism as long as he lived. And yet still today, among the wider public, Nietzsche is considered an “intellectual pathfinder of national socialism.”

2. We owe Hans Langreder credit for having carefully examined “the confrontation with Nietzsche in the Third Reich” using the methods of historical-empirical research in his dissertation at Kiel from 1970. In this way he was able to determine that there was no consensus in the Third Reich in the evaluation of Nietzsche. He spoke of a “positive” (in the sense of national socialist ideology) and a “negative” image of Nietzsche in the Third Reich. Among national socialist ideologues, there were several who endeavored to win him for Hitlerism; others who on the contrary opposed the unsettling, cosmopolitan, decadent, individualistic Nietzsche; and as a result, still others who sought to mediate between the two positions. The so-called positive image of Nietzsche officially won the upper hand and unfortunately still holds it today. Langreder rightfully named the “conservative revolutionary” Alfred Bäumler as the key figure in Nietzsche’s appropriation into the Third Reich. “At the inception and at the mid-point of the development of a positive Nietzsche image in the national socialist period stands […] Alfred Bäumler”: thus Langreder in his dissertation. After the “seizure of power,” Bäumler was called to the newly founded academic chair for political pedagogy at the University of Berlin; soon afterward he became head of the science department in the governmental office of the “führer’s deputy for oversight of the general spiritual and philosophical schooling and education of the NSDAP,” hence in the so-called Rosenberg bureau [Amt Rosenberg].2 Continue reading


An unmet challenge: Race and the Left in America

Benjamin Blumberg
Platypus Review 19
January 1, 2010


In his 1932 novel Banjo, the radical black intellectual Claude McKay portrays the vibrancy of black cosmopolitanism in the French port city of Marseilles in the decade following the end of World War I. McKay’s characters — boys of the docks, mendicants, and drifters — grapple with the racism of the wider society, while in their relations to one another live beyond race’s narrowness. One in particular, the novel’s protagonist, an itinerant intellectual named Ray, is driven by French police brutality to reflect on the reality of his race. In a powerful passage, McKay describes Ray as refusing

to accept the idea of the Negro simply, as a “problem.” All of life was a problem…To Ray the Negro was one significant and challenging aspect of the human life of the world as a whole…If the Negro had to be defined, there was every reason to define him as a challenge rather than a “problem” to Western civilization.[1]

To this day, Ray’s challenge remains unmet, not only in France, but in the United States and the rest of the world.

Following Ray, the term “challenge” is used here to signify a refusal of the traditional labeling of anti-black racism and racially justified segregation as a “problem.” Naming racism and segregation as a problem merely acknowledges and passively describes a fact. However, the challenge is to elevate the problem’s mere existence to the level of reality, to shape it through thought and action into a material that, because consciously formed, can be transformed and overcome.

Photograph of Grigorii Zinoviev, Claude McKay, and Nikolai Bukharin in Moscow 1923 Photograph of Arthur Holitscher, Clara Zetkin, and Claude McKay in Moscow 1923 Claude McKay addressing the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, 1923

For the American Left in the first half the 20 century — commonly referred to as the “Old Left” — the task of advancing freedom entailed a thoroughgoing critique of the racist institutions in American society, a socioeconomic and historical analysis of their origins and contemporary function, as well as practical efforts to eradicate these structures. In other words, racism was the challenge faced by the American Old Left. However, to a large extent it evaded the very challenge it set for itself by accepting the characterization of the black population’s political situation as “the Negro problem.” Only the best of the Old Left pushed against this characterization. The New Left, seeking to overcome the Old Left’s shortcomings and receiving a great impulse from the demands of the Civil Rights movement to do so, would nevertheless come to reenact the previous generation’s failings. This brings forth an uncomfortable question: if Marxists in the United States were unable to meet the challenge of raising racism to the level of a transformable reality, then to what extent can we speak of an American tradition of Marxism — a Marxism adequate to the situation of American capitalism — at all?

Marxism was at first a transplant to the United States, brought with the arrival of radicals who were compelled to leave Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848. However, as an organized political movement, it was forged with the great inspiration and impetus given by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, and the subsequent revolutions that swept through Europe and the world. These profoundly radicalizing events led to the formation of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CP), first in 1919 as two separate and competing tendencies, and then as a unified Workers Party in 1921. According to James P. Cannon, one of the Communist Party’s leaders in the 1920s, and one of the leaders of the Trotskyist fight against Stalinism from 1928 onward, the first years of the Communist Party were dominated by foreign émigrés with direct experience in Europe’s mass Marxist parties. Their experience within Marxism led them to believe that it was their duty to preserve the integrity of Marxism against any misinterpretations by its new, less experienced American practitioners. However, this inadvertently led to a neglect of specific aspects of the historical development of the United States, most crucially the struggle against slavery, segregation, and racism. This theoretical deficiency remained even after the growth enjoyed by the CP in the 1920s and 1930s.

Thus limited by its theoretical outlook, the American Communist Party neglected the critical question: How should Marxists account for the specificity of national historical development, while, at the same time, attempting to overcome the nation-state as a political framework? In the case of anti-black racism and segregation, this requires us to critically reevaluate the dialectic of separatism and integration/assimilation in the race politics of the United States. Continue reading


Afrofuturism, Aaron Douglas, and W.E.B. Du Bois (1920s-1930s)

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Lanre Bakare writes in The Guardian that “[a] new generation of artists [is] exploring afrofuturism. OutKast and Janelle Monáe take the philosophy to the mainstream, while Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces push jazz and hip-hop to their extremes.” He traces its musical lineage as follows:

The ’50s and ’60s were dominated by the free jazz and avant-garde work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and Alice Coltrane, with some psychedelic input from Jimi Hendrix and Love. The ’70s and ’80s were when George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic and Prince sent funk to outer space and dub innovators such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry beamed out cosmic signals from Jamaica. The ’90s saw a renaissance and reimagining of Afrofuturism in hip-hop (OutKast, Kool Keith’s Dr Octagon alias, and RZA), neo-soul (Erykah Badu) and techno (specifically Detroit producers such as Drexciya), with all embracing the philosophy and giving it their own distinctive edge.

If Bakare’s right, things must be looking up. Though I’m by no means an afrofuturist connoisseur, I love Miles Davis, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix. Plus, Flying Lotus’ 2010 record Cosmogramma was great. As far as cinematic afrofuturism is concerned, I’m a longtime fan of John Sayles’ Brother from another Planet (1979).

Bakare devotes most of his article to an examination of music and film, so we may forgive him for neglecting to mention the great afrofuturist art that was made in the first half of the twentieth century. This post might go some way in correcting his omission.

Of all the great figures from that period, the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas stands apart. Raymond E. Jackson and select others deserve some recognition, but no one approaches Douglas. I’d almost describe it as deco-futurism with a heavy emphasis on African symbolism and history, at least as he understood it. Douglas first began to be noticed for his illustrated covers to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “chronicle of the darker races,” The Crisis. At that time in the mid-’20s, the journal had a discernibly Marxist political bent (in keeping with Du Bois’ own views).

He also did some work for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Later he was commissioned to do murals at a number of clubs and universities in Chicago and New York. These are truly stunning; they use a whole range of colors to achieve a deeply atmosphere effect. In this post you can see some of his work, or read more about his life via Wikipedia.

index (5) 9Aspiration Aaron Douglas Harriet Tubman Mural at Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina 1 Continue reading

2Rubble lying in the streets after Arab looting of Jewish homes. Jerusalem. June 1948.

Catastrophe, historical memory, and the Left: 60 years of Israel-Palestine

Historians Group
Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

Some readers will doubtless find my decision to republish this 2008 article by the Platypus “Historians Group” (which no longer seems to exist in any meaningful way) questionable in light of Chris Cutrone’s unfortunate remarks, made in private, regarding the so-called “rational kernel of racism.” Like many of his formulations, this was clearly intended as a provocation against the received wisdom of the Left — however extravagant and misguided it may have been in this instance.

In any case, he has since explained himself in a manner that I consider satisfactory. Therefore, I see no problem posting this older piece, written on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. Given the recent ground invasion into Gaza, the latest round of violence in this decades-old territorial dispute, it is perhaps worth remembering how this whole wretched situation came to pass.

The contours of the present day Middle East have been shaped by a mid-twentieth century triptych of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The first panel in this triptych is the “Holocaust” [the “Shoah” in Hebrew, or “Khurbn” in Yiddish], the systematic murder of approximately two-thirds of European Jewry by the Nazis in 1941-1945. The second panel is the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the Zionists in 1947-1949, the “Nakba.” The third panel, which does not have a commonly accepted name, is the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries. Most of these ended up in Israel, where they strengthened the Zionist state in crucial ways despite frequently encountering racial discrimination there at the hands of Ashkenazi Jews.

Each of these catastrophes was both a product of the failure of the Left and paved the way for further defeats.

Before the Holocaust, Zionism — despite persistent and rising anti-Semitism throughout most of Europe — was distinctly a minority movement among European Jews, who for the most part trusted to liberalism and varieties of socialism and communism to beat back the rising tide of barbarism. On a per capita basis, more than any other Europeans, European Jews played central roles in the European Left. The triumph of Zionism is centrally and tragically predicated on the failure of the European Left to stop Hitler. Palestinians have become the secondary victims of this failure.


Secondly, the failure within Mandate Palestine to develop an anti-Zionist politics on a progressive basis meant that Palestinians’ just and necessary struggle against Zionism and British imperialism took on a communalist character — which, in the face of military defeat by the Yishuv in 1947-1949, led to the Nakba.

Thirdly, the retaliatory expulsions and persecution of Mizrahi Jews strengthened Zionism both materially and ideologically: materially, by greatly fortifying Israel’s demographic base; ideologically, by appearing to confirm that Jews could not live in peace as minorities in the Arab world. If the Palestinians are the secondary victims of the disaster that overtook European Jews, Mizrahi Jews were in a sense the tertiary victims. Continue reading