Introduction excerpted from Sybil Gordon Kantor’s recent book on Alfred H. Barr and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art (2002).
Alfred Barr, future founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, took a trip to Russia as part of his modernist tour of Europe in 1928. According to the architect Philip Johnson, “the Constructivists were on his mind all the time. Malevich was to him, and later to me, the greatest artist of the period. And you see, the Constructivists were cross disciplinary, and I’m sure that influenced Alfred Barr, both that and the Bauhaus.”
Three kinds of documents survive to record the bold perspective Barr was framing for modernism: his journal, the letters he wrote during his stay, and the articles he wrote (substantiated by the journal and letters). The significant differences between the articles and the more subjective journal and letters were the latter’s tone of wonder and breathless, unabashed enthusiasm for the revolutionary spirit of the Russians. “Apparently there is no place where talent of an artistic or literary sort is so carefully nurtured as in Moscow…We’d rather be here than any place on earth.” As he made whirlwind visits around the USSR, he wrote:
We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.
Many people were helpful as Barr and Abbott made their way through the cornucopia of culture in Moscow: from Cambridge, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, who was doing research on the Russian theater, stayed at their hotel and at times accompanied the two young students; Diego Rivera, “the famous Mexican painter,” showed Barr a complete set of his Mexico City frescoes and Barr bought a watercolor from him. Barr wrote to Sachs that he thought “a friend of yours” (Dana) and May O’Callahan would be most helpful in introducing him and Abbott to the Russian cultural set.
Two days after Barr arrived, O’Callahan took him to visit Sergei Tretiakov, a member of the futurist movement and the founder of the magazine Lef 1923–1925 and Novyi Lef 1927–1928, who lived in an apartment in the Dom Gosstrakh building, an example by Moisei Ginzburg of the new constructivist architecture — ”an apartment house built in the severely functional style of Gropius and Le Corbusier.” Ginzburg, part of the group OSA (Society of Contemporary Architects), which he helped found, developed constructivist architecture, “which functionally arises from the purpose of a given building, its material construction and production conditions, answering the specific task and promoting the socialist construction of the country.” Barr wrote that Ginzburg was a “brilliant young architect” who had written “an interesting book on the theory of architecture (illustrations are good)…Though his work lacks the boldness of Lissitzky or Tatlin, it is certainly more concerned with actual problems.” Clarifying his estimation of Ginzburg’s apartment building, Barr remarked that “only the superficials are modern, for the plumbing, heating, etc. are technically very crude and cheap, a comedy of the strong modern inclination without any technical tradition to satisfy it.” Writing in his diary, Abbott concurred:
Their apartment is in one of the new apartment houses which, in its architecture comes quite directly from the prevalent International Style in Europe, that is, it is a combination of Bauhaus and certain elements of the French manner as represented by Le Corbusier and Lurçat, or in this country by Neutra…The apartment house of the Tretiakovs is excellent as architecture but poor as a piece of construction. The Russian is not used to the materials of modern building. Cement and steel confuse him…in the medium of modern construction he shows an absolute lack of feeling. Poor joints, badly matched sections, and in general a sloppiness marks much of the newer work, the design for which is nevertheless, frequently concise and in the main, excellent.
Barr exchanged information with Ginzburg, who gave him back numbers of Soviet magazines of contemporary architecture. Barr, in turn, gave him the addresses of Peter Smith and Henry-Russell Hitchcock as sources for articles on American architecture. He told Ginzburg that American architects were “reactionary,” to which Ginzburg’s wife’s responded: “Russian architects and American engineers should combine.”
At Tretiakov’s place Barr met members of the LEF, a loosely banded group of constructivist artists. Heavily involved with this group on his visit to Moscow, Barr wrote an article about them that mentioned Tretiakov, Aleskandr Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova, and Vladimir Maiakovskii, as well as two articles about their most celebrated member, Sergei Eisenstein. Both Tretyakov and Rodchenko wanted to be régisseurs and Barr noted that “to distort Pater, all the arts in Russia, including music, tend constantly toward the condition of the cinema.” Barr recognized that both he and this group were attracted to the same modes of art — architecture and film — but for very different reasons. “Their spirit,” he said, “is rational, materialistic, their program aggressively utilitarian. They despise the word aesthetic, they shun the bohemian implications of the word ‘artistic.’ For them, theoretically, romantic individualism is abhorrent. They are communists.” Barr’s political responses were characteristically liberal, their source an innate humaneness rather than an ideological stance. His notion of “purity” as a criterion of a modern aesthetic led him to proclaim Eisenstein, the Russian Communist régisseur — the artist who embodied the metaphor of the machine for Barr — as the artistic genius of the twentieth century.
What follows below is Barr’s dispatch on the LEF, first published in the international modernist mag transition in 1928. Following that are several high-quality PDF journal scans and images from the publication LEF, all of which can be downloaded.
transition № 14
The word LEF is formed from two Russian words meaning left front.
In Russia the left front is no longer revolutionary. The Third International is now inconspicuous, its program for the time being abandoned. Most of the strenuous effort is concentrated upon political stabilization and the economic organization of that vast and disparate sixth part of the world, the Soviet Union.
The LEF is a group of individuals who would be described by any but themselves as artists, literary, dramatic, pictorial, critical, cinematographic. Their spirit is rational, materialistic; their program aggressively utilitarian. They despise the word aesthetic, and shun the bohemian implications of the word “artistic.” For them, theoretically, romantic individualism is abhorrent. They are communists. Among the group are the poets [Vladimir] Maiakovskii and [Nikolai] Aseev, the scientific journalist [Sergei] Tretiakov, the kino regisseur [Sergei] Eisenstein, the critics [Osip] Brik and [Viktor] Shklovskii, and the artists [Varvara] Stepanova and [Aleksandr] Rodchenko (who work in many mediums). [Vsevolod] Meierkhol’d is also affiliated with, if not actually a member of, the LEF.
Tretiakov incarnates more completely than any other the ideal of the group. His personal appearance is significant. He is very tall, clad in khaki shirt and whipcord riding breeches with leather puttees. Through his horn-rimmed spectacles his eyes are owl-like. His face and scalp are clean shaven. He lives in an apartment house built in the severely functional style of Gropius and Le Corbusier. His study is filled with books and periodicals on China, modern architecture, and the cinema. In this laboratory atmosphere, behind this mask of what seems ostentatious efficiency, there is profound seriousness and very real sensibility.
Tretiakov was once a futurist poet. For a period after the revolution he was professor of Russian literature in Beijing. In addition to his poetry he has written a very remarkable play — Roar, China! — which has been running in Meierkhol’d’s theatre for two years with the greatest success. Roar, China! is being translated for the Piskator theater in Berlin and will doubtless be produced if [Oskar] Piskator survives his recent bankruptcy. The play, which is, of course, propaganda, shows the peaceful sobriety of the Chinese coolie outraged by truculent Anglo-American “big business”-cum-gunboat. Unfortunately, the Meierkhol’d production of the play considerably weakens its dramatic force by introducing a childish caricature of the English antagonists who are represented as idiots in whom it is impossible to believe. Tretiakov’s intention was otherwise.
More important, both as an expression of the LEF and as a work of art, is Tretiakov’s new study on the life history of a Chinese boy. Every day for months Tretiakov talked with the boy: questioning, examining, using as a background his own intimate knowledge of Chinese life. The published result will be called characteristically a bio-interview — a term scientific and journalistic in flavor. The first section has already appeared in an edition of 180,000 copies. By such means Russia will be brought to a knowledge of China, while to Russian literature will.be added a very careful, probably a great, biographical document.
Now that the Chinese bio-interview is finished Tretiakov is turning his attention increasingly to the kino. He would like to be regisseur, but until this is possible he finds partial satisfaction in writing very penetrating criticism of Russian films.
Rodchenko first became known about 1915 as one of the leaders of the Suprematists, painters who in a few years were to carry the dialectic and practice of cubism to a pure geometry far more ultimate than the art of M. Gleizes or even of Piet Mondrian. Today Rodchenko believes that his greatest virtue lies in his having been the first to drop the atrophied art of painting, as one would one’s appendix. From this anachronism he turned to many media: wood, metal, cardboard, from which he made “constructions”; newspapers and photographs, from which he composed photomontages and posters. His constructivism bore practical fruit, the development in Russia of a modern tradition in designing furniture. Rodchenko’s interior of a worker’s club at the 1925 exhibition in Paris was conspicuously genuine in the midst of “arts deco“ confectionery.
In the purely visual arts Rodchenko passed rapidly from photomontage — composition with fragments of photographs — to photography itself, with remarkable success. He is also an ingenious designer of books and magazines. Finally, the cinema has drawn him. In 1927 he designed sets for [Leonid] Obolenskii’s film Albidum. At present he hopes soon to become a regisseur.
We have seen that both Tretiakov and Rodchenko have been drawn into the movies. Indeed, to distort Walter Pater, all the arts in Russia, including music, tend constantly toward the condition of the cinema. The word kinomontage — in the form of cinema — was first used, I think, in Russia. Lenin was a seer when he declared that “for us of all the arts the cinema is the most important.” It is appropriate, then, to mention as a third representative of the LEF, Sergei Eisenstein, foremost among Russian kino regisseurs.
Of himself, Eisenstein writes:
I am a civil Engineer and mathematician by training. I approach the making of a film in much the same way as I would the equipment of a poultry farm or the installation of a water system. My point of view is thoroughly materialist…
This, like Tretyakov’s shaven head and whipcord breeches is sincere but misleading — for Eisenstein’s engineering was primarily architectural and once he painted pictures — was even for a time an official staff artist. After a futurist period, he passed through Meierkhol’d’s theatre to become the regisseur of the extremely left Proletkult theatre, in which he developed theatrical “bio-mechanics.” Only four years ago, at the age of twenty-six, he made his first film Strike. Then came his great triumph Potemkin, followed this year by the superior but less popular Ten Days That Shook the World. These three films concern the history of revolution: his fourth — to be released this fall — is to prove to one hundred million indifferent peasants the advantages of modern agricultural methods [The Old and the New (1928), postponed until 1930 when it was released as The General Line].
In the passage quoted Eisenstein reiterates that sentiment for efficiency and modernity which is so characteristic of the LEF. When he discusses the technique of his films he refers constantly to Freud and Marx and the Russian experimental neurologist, Pavlov. He usually neglects to mention his own remarkable library on the theatre covering three centuries in five languages, or his great love for [Honoré] Daumier (whose lithographs he collects). Without doubt, Eisenstein is sincere in his anti-artistic, communist, scientific attitude, yet one suspects a conflict between the natural individualist and the limitations of a Marxian ideal. In spite of an exasperating censorship, it is rumored that Ten Days has not been good propaganda, even in Russia. It is too subtle, too metaphorical, too abstract in its sequences, too careless of narrative clarity; it is, in other words, too fine a work of art.
There is no space to write of the other members of the LEF.
Maiakovskii, the greatest of the futurist poets, is better known outside of Russia than the other literary members. The time for his staccato verses has passed, but as editor of LEF, the periodical of the group, he is still a power. Meierkhol’d, whose theater has been the world’s school for ten years, is now accused of growing old and repeating himself. Stepanova, Rodchenko’s wife, rivals him as a photographer and is superior as a designer of stage settings. She composes the adventurous typography of Sovetskoe Kino, the foremost of Russian cinema periodicals. Brik was, I believe, the first critic to urge artists to desert the artistic for the practical. Shklovskii’s destructive criticism of Tolstoi’s War and Peace is now appearing in LEF.
The LEF is more than a symptom, more than an expression of a fresh culture or of post-revolutionary man. It is a courageous attempt to give to art an important social function in a world where, from one point of view, it has been prostituted for five centuries. The LEF is formed of men who are idealists of materialism, who have a certain advantage over the Alexandrian cults of the West — the surréaliste wizards, the esoteric word-jugglers, and those nostalgics who practice necromancy over the bones variously of Montezuma, Louis Philippe, or St. Thomas Aquinas.
LEF is strong in the illusion that men can live by bread alone.