Tatlin’s tower

Nico Israel has a book out that looks fairly interesting, Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth Century Art and Literature. In it he discusses Wyndham Lewis’ vorticism, Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International, land Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (among other things). He also relates a few famous lines by Lenin about the spiraling course of the dialectic in history, from his 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx:

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.

Marx and Engels were not the the first to put dialectical development in the shape of a spiral. As Lenin indicates, Hegel before him visualized it as such. There’s another source of the “whirled image” in Marx’s theory: Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi. Fredric Jameson pointed out in his recent book, Representing Capital, that “repetition — the selling of labor power week after week, its productive consumption by the capitalist in a cycle Sismondi rightly recharacterized as a spiral — never knew a first time in the first place.”

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For Marx, the spiral motion first appears as circulating capital:

Exchange-value posited as the unity of commodity and money is capital, and this positing itself appears as the circulation of capital. (Which is, however, a spiral, an expanding curve, not a simple circle)…As the subject predominant [übergreifend] over the different phases of this movement, as value sustaining and multiplying itself in it, as the subject of these metamorphoses proceeding in a circular course — as a spiral, as an expanding circle — capital is circulating capital. Circulating capital is therefore initially not a particular form of capital, but is rather capital itself, in a further developed aspect, as subject of the movement just described, which it, itself, is as its own realization process.

In Capital, Marx explicitly acknowledged his debt to Sismondi in this respect: “Looked at concretely, accumulation can be resolved into the production of capital on a progressively increasing scale. The cycle of simple reproduction alters its form and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Put another way, capital comes to ground this expansive outward movement, in which all sorts of violent jolts, fits, and spasms take place. Capital in history establishes a sort of treadmill pattern of transformation and reconstitution, as the sociologist Moishe Postone put it. Yet without its integral antithesis, class conscious wage-laborers mobilized in opposition to it, capital’s inherent dynamism is itself diminished. Adorno thus astutely observed in his 1965 lectures on History and Freedom: “Without wasting time on the overworked notion of a spiral development in history, it can be said that a direct progress towards freedom cannot be discerned.” (Rodney Livingstone suspected Adorno might have had Toynbee in mind, but I think he was commenting on the old Leninist dictum).

When Tatlin built his monument to the Third Revolution, progress did not seem such an impossibility. Though Europe lay in ruins, a new world seemed to open up. A hundred years on, this possibility seems by now closed. In our present moment, the key to the future resides in the past. Below are a few period pieces reflecting on Tatlin’s tower that express this bygone sensibility. Enjoy.

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The monument to the Third International

Nikolai Punin
Iskusstvo kommuny
September 1920

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In 1919 the Department of Fine Arts within the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment commissioned the artist V. E. Tatlin to develop a design for a monument to the Third International. The artist Tatlin immediately set to work and produced a design. The artists I.A. Meerzon, M.P. Vinogradov, and T.M. Shapiro formed a “Creative Collective,” then developed the design in detail and constructed a model.

The main idea of the monument is based on an organic synthesis of the principles of architecture, sculpture and painting and was intended to produce a new type of monumental structure, uniting in itself a purely creative form with a utilitarian form. In accordance with this idea, the design of the monument consists of three large glass structures, erected by means of a complex system of vertical struts and spirals. These structures are arranged one above the other and are contained within different, harmoniously related forms. A special type of mechanism would enable them to move at different speeds. The lower structure (A), in the form of a cube, moves on its axis at the speed of one revolution a year and is intended for legislative purposes. Here may be held conferences of the International, meetings of international congresses and other broadly legislative meetings… The next structure (B), in the form of a pyramid, rotates on its axis at the speed of one full revolution a month and is intended for executive functions (the Executive Committee of the International, the secretariat and other administrative and executive  bodies). Finally, the upper cylinder (C), rotating at a speed of one revolution a day, is intended to be a resource center for the following facilities: an information office; a newspaper; the publication of proclamations, brochures and manifestos — in a word, all the various means of broadly informing the international proletariat, and in particular a telegraph, projectors for a large screen located on the axes of a spherical segment (a1-b3), and a radio station, the masts of which rise above the monument. There is no need to point out the enormous possibilities for equipping and organizing these structures. The details of the design have not yet been specified, they can be discussed and worked out (luring subsequent elaboration of the monument’s interior.

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It is necessary to explain that according to the artist Tatlin”s conception, the glass structures should have vacuum walls (a thermos) which will make it easy to maintain a constant temperature within the edifice. The separate parts of the monument will be connected to one another and to the ground by means exclusively of complexly structured electrical elevators, adjusted to the differing rotation speeds of the structures. Such are the technical bases of the project.

The artistic significance of the project

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A social revolution by itself does not change artistic forms, but it does provide a basis for their gradual transformation. The idea of monumental propaganda has not changed sculpture or sculptors, but it has struck at the very principle of plastic appearance which prevails in the bourgeois world. Renaissance traditions in the plastic arts appear modern only while the feudal and bourgeois roots of capitalist states remain undestroyed. The Renaissance burned out, but only now is the charred ruin of Europe being purged.

It is true that Communist governments for a certain time will use, as a means of monumental propaganda, figurative monuments in the style of Greek and Italian classicism, but this is only because these governments are forced to use them in the same way as they are compelled to use specialists of the prerevolutionary school. Figurative monuments (Greek and Italian) are at variance with contemporary reality in two respects. They cultivate individual heroism and conflict with history: torsos and heads of heroes (and gods) do not correspond to the modern interpretation of history. Their forms are too private for places where there are ten versts of proletarians in rows. At best they express the character, feelings and thoughts of the hero, but who expresses the tension of the emotions and the thoughts of the collective thousand. A type?

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But a type concretizes, limits, and levels the mass. The mass is richer, more alive, more complicated and more organic.

But even if a type is portrayed, figurative monuments contradict actuality even more through the limitation of their expressive means, their static quality. The agitational action of such monuments is extraordinarily weak amidst the noise, movement and dimensions of the streets. Thinkers on granite plinths perhaps see many, but few see them. They are constrained by the form which evolved when sailing ships, transport by mule and stone cannon balls flourished.

A wartime telephone wire hits the hero’s nose, a tram stop is more of an obelisk, townspeople recall Lassalle more times each day through book covers and newspaper headlines in libraries, than through passing by, beneath his proud head. Lassalle stands unseen and unneeded ever since the end of the unveiling ceremony…

A monument must live the social and political life of the city and the city must live in it. It must be necessary and dynamic, then it will be modern. The forms of contemporary, agitational plastic arts lie beyond the depiction of man as an individual. They are found by the artist who is not crippled by the feudal and bourgeois traditions of the Renaissance, but who has labored like a worker on the three unities of contemporary Plastic consciousness: material, construction, volume. Working on material, construction and volume, Tatlin has produced a form which is new in the world of monumental creation. Such a form is the monument to the Third International.

The best artist in the Russia of the Workers and Peasants (his life proving his knowledge of the working masses), was commissioned a year ago to develop a design for a monument to the Third International. The project which has been designed is not only completely remarkable as a manifestation of contemporary artistic life, but it can also be interpreted as a profound break in the deadening circle of the overripe and decadent art of our time. Art is embracing the twentieth century, delineating areas of development in all aspects of creative activity. Regarding myself competent, to some extent, in artistic matters, I consider that this project is an international event in the art world.

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One of the most complex cultural problems is solved before our very eves: a utilitarian form appears as a purely creative form. Once again a new classicism becomes possible, not as a renaissance but as an invention. The theorists of the international workers’ movement have long sought a classical content for socialist culture. Here it is. We maintain that the present project is the first revolutionary artistic work, and one which we can send to Europe.

Form in the project is placed along two axes aa1 and bb3), which are in a constant state of conflict. The line a to a1 develops into a movement upwards which is broken at each point by the movement of the spirals from b, b1 b2 b3, to the line aa1. The collision of these two movements (by their very nature mutually contradictory) must produce a break — such as characterized “cubism” (long since left behind), and entail the destruction of the utilitarian idea. But the converging spirals, adopting the movement of aa1 (and bb3), carry these lines above and beyond the movement of the main support (girder aa1) to the same point, producing a dynamic image, imbued with the powerful tension of endlessly disturbed and clashing axes. The whole form oscillates like a steel snake, constrained and organized by the one general movement of all the parts, to raise itself above the earth. The form wants to overcome the material and the force of gravity, the strength of the resistance is enormous and massive: straining every muscle, the form finds an outlet through the most elastic and rapid lines which the world knows, through spirals. They are full of movement, aspiration, and speed: they are taut like the creative will and like a muscle tensed with a hammer.

The application of the spiral and its organization into a modern form is, by itself, an enrichment of the composition. In the same way as the equilibrium of the parts in a triangle makes it the best expression of the Renaissance, so the best expression of our spirit is the spiral. The interaction of weight and support is the most pure (classical) form of stasis; the classical form of dynamism is the spiral. Societies divided by class fought to own the earth, the line of their movement is horizontal. The spiral is the movement of liberated humanity. The spiral is the ideal expression of liberation: with its base set in the earth, it flees from the ground and becomes a symbol of the suspension of all animal, earthly, and groveling interests.

Bourgeois societies love to develop the animal life on top of the earth, working its surface: they build shops, arcades, banks. Bourgeois life, based on the urban squares, was played out in full view and for show. Creative humanity disappears with its animal life into the earth, where the cooperatives’ work is not visible. The square is a place for agitation, games and for festivals. Emancipated life rises above the earth, above grey and earthly materials. As living accommodation and social space carried to a level above the earth, the building is an expression of modernity and the content of contemporary life. At the same time, it comprises the content of a great artistic form.

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The content of any form can be taken and condensed by utility, because the utility of a form is nothing other than the organization of its content. Forms devoid of practical significance (the majority of artistic forms which have existed up to now), are simply forms which are not organized. And perhaps the principle of organization ha s for the first time actually been realized in art. The monument is calculated on the concentration of legislative (Structure A), executive (Structure B) and informative (Structure C) initiatives; furthermore, in accordance with the stated principle of expressing modernity, these structures are raised into a higher level of space. In this way, and through the material (glass), the purity of the initiatives, their liberation from material constraints and their ideal qualities arc stressed. An art devoid of creative idealism which is the content of intuition, is an art of impure rhythm. Up to now no one has succeeded in breaking rhythms down into the elements of material culture which define the growth and conditions of existence. But life itself consists of rhythms. Intuition flows in accordance with these rhythms. The purity and the intensity of the rhythms define the degree of talent, but I know of no more pure or intense rhythms than those in Tatlin’s work. He possesses an eye of the greatest sensitivity with respect to material and it is precisely the juxtaposition of materials which defines the limits of the rhythmic waves. We accept, as a basis, that the unit of a rhythm is the section of a wave, enclosed between the qualities of the glass and the qualities of the iron. Just as the production of a number of oscillations along a wave is a spatial measure of sound, so the relationship of glass to iron is a measure of material rhythm. There is a stern and incandescent simplicity hidden in the juxtaposition of these two most elementary materials, both in a similar way brought into existence by fire. These materials are the elements of modern art. The form, defined by their juxtaposition, produces a rhythm of such broad and powerful oscillation that it seems like the birth of an ocean.

To translate this form into reality means to realize a dynamism of the same unsurpassed greatness as that embodied in the stasis of the pyramid. We maintain that only the full power of the multimillion strong proletarian consciousness could bring into the world the idea of this monument and its forms. The monument must be realized by the muscles of this power, because we have an ideal, living and classical expression the pure and creative form of the international union of the workers of the whole world.

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The monument to the Third International (Tatlin’s most recent work)

Viktor Shklovsky
Knight’s Move
September 1921

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The days run together like train cars overflowing with strange and variegated vehicles, cannons, crowds yelling about something or other. The days thunder like a pile driver, blow after blow, and the blows have already blended and ceased to be heard, just as people living by the sea don’t hear the sound of the water. The blows thunder somewhere in the chest below consciousness.

We are living in the quiet of thunder.

In this paved air has been born the iron spiral of a project: a monument the size of two Cathedrals of St. Isaac’s.

This spiral, which is leaning on its side, is prevented from collapsing by its powerful, diagonally standing form.

Such a basic structure of the project for a monument to the Third International is the work of the artist Tatlin.

The twists and turns of the spiral are united by a network of leaning stanchions. In their transparent hollow turn three geometric bodies. Below moves a cylinder with a speed of one turn a year; the pyramid above it turns once a month and the ball at the apex completes a full turn every day. The waves of the radio station standing at the very apex continue the monument into the air.

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Here for the first time iron is standing on its hind legs and seeking its artistic formula.

In the age of construction cranes, as fine as the wisest Martian, iron has the right to go on a rampage and to remind people that our “age,” for some reason or other, has been calling itself the “iron” age since the time of Ovid, though there was, as yet, no iron art. One could argue at length about the monument. The bodies turning in its body are small and relatively light in comparison to its enormous “general” body. Their turning itself hardly changes its appearance. It has more the character of a project than a finished product. The monument is imbued with utilitarianism. This spiral may not aspire to be an apartment building, but all the same it is somehow being put to good use.

According to the plan, in the lower cylinder we have the rotating Sovnarkom [Sovet Narodnykh Komissarov] in the shape of a globe, and in the upper cylinder we have “Rosta”[Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Agentstvo]. The word in poetry is not just a word. It draws in its wake dozens and thousands of associations. It is permeated with them just as the Petersburg air during a blizzard is permeated with snow.

A painter or a counter-relief artist is not free to choose in this blizzard of associations the movement across the canvas of a painting or between the stanchions of an iron spiral. These works of art have their own semantics.

The Soviet of People’s Commissars has been taken by Tatlin into the monument, or so it seems to me, as new artistic material, which will be used along with “ROSTA” for the creation of artistic form.

The monument is made of iron, glass and revolution.

Style:

Tatlin’s monument to the Third International

Louis Lozowick
Broom Monthly
October, 1922

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The magic word in modern Russian art: Construction.

Construction, and not composition, teaches the new Gospel.

Why?

Because composition is inspired by the past, looks toward the past, and therefore, belongs to the past; because composition means ornamentation, decoration, romanticism, prettiness; because composition stands apart from life, serves as illusion to exhausted mentality, acts as stimulant to enervated organism.

And construction?

Construction is inspired by what is most characteristic of our epoch: industry, machinery, science. Construction borrows the methods and makes use of the materials common in the technical processes. Hence iron, glass, concrete, circle, triangle, cube, cylinder, synthetically combined with mathematical precision and structural logic. Construction scorns prettiness, seeks strength, clarity, simplicity, acts as stimulus to a vigorous life.

Thus exegetics.

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Tatlin is the leading Russian artist-constructor and his monument to the Third International is one of his best works — certainly one that occasioned the greatest controversy in Russia. A great admirer of Tatlin, N. Punin (to whom this note is indebted for part of its data) considers the creation of the monument an event of international importance.

In 1919, the Art Section of the People’s Commissariat of Education commissioned Tatlin to prepare projects for a monument to the Third International. After a year and a half’s work, drawings and a model were ready for exhibition and examination at the Eight All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Tatlin and his assistants were there in person, explaining the work to the various Soviet Representatives assembled from all parts of Russia, thus disseminating the Gospel of construction over a wide area.

The monument purports to embody creative and utilitarian aims and to synthesize sculpture, painting, architecture, and engineering. It is to be constructed of glass and iron, two building materials characteristic]of today (curiously enough no concrete is considered). Modern building materials introduce essential changes into the practices and principles of architecture. Iron though extremely resistant can be cast and molded to any required shape. This makes the cohesion and solidity of a building independent of the formerly rigid load-and-support relation. The strength of iron allows the distribution or concentration of the load, the building of slanting or circular walls. Wide utilization of glass transforms the problem of lighting.

The monument of Tatlin has evidently been planned with full knowledge of these changes in architecture. When completed, the monument will measure four hundred meters in height. It will be built in the form of a huge iron spiral leaning at an angle of forty-five degrees and enclosing three stories all made of glass. The first story will be a gigantic rotating cube making one revolution a year. This is intended for legislative sessions of Soviet representatives from the whole earth. The second story, somewhat smaller, will be a pyramid, likewise rotating but making one revolution a month. This is to serve for executive sessions of the Soviets. The third story, the smallest of all, will be a cylinder making a revolution every day. It is to be used as a center of information.

Why these different velocities ? Cosmic symbolism perhaps (romanticism slipping in by a back door) ; earth moving around in (year), moon around earth (month), earth on its own axis (day). Desired temperature, both summer and winter, will be maintained by an immense thermos enclosing the three stories. Communication between the stories and the world outside will be carried by means of a complicated electric apparatus. A wireless station will be installed on the top of the monument. It is not to be forgotten that the monument to the Third International exists only as a project. With the limited means at the disposal of Soviet Russia, the execution of the project is postponed far into the future — to say the least. The Philistine enemies of constructive art dare calmly to maintain that the erection of the monument is a engineering feat altogether beyond possibilities of realization. To which the faithful retort with the story of the telegraph, the airplane, etc. A weary exercise.

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Revolutionary and socialist art

Leon Trotsky
Literature and
Revolution
(1923)

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Ultimately, the destructiveness of wars and revolutions will give a powerful impetus to architecture, in the same way as the fire of 1812 helped to beautify Moscow. In Russia, the cultural material to be destroyed was less than in other countries, the destruction was greater than in other countries, while the rebuilding is immeasurably more difficult than in other countries. It is not surprising, then, that we have had no time for architecture, one of the most monumental of arts.

At present we are beginning to repair the pavements a little, to re-lay the sewage pipes, to finish the unfinished houses left to us as a heritage — but we are only beginning. We made the buildings of our Agricultural Exhibition out of wood. We must still put off all large-scale construction. The originators of gigantic projects, men like Tatlin, are given involuntarily a respite for more thought, for revision, and for radical reexamination. But one must not imagine that we are planning to repair old pavements and houses for decades to come. In this process, as in all other processes, there are periods of repair, of slow preparation and accumulation of forces, and periods of rapid development. As soon as a surplus will come after the most urgent and acute needs of life are covered, the Soviet state will take up the problem of gigantic constructions that will suitably express the monumental spirit of our epoch. Tatlin is undoubtedly right in discarding from his project national styles, allegorical sculpture, modeled monograms, flourishes, and tails, and attempting to subordinate the entire design to a correct constructive use of material. This has been the way that machines, bridges and covered markets have been built, for a long time. But Tatlin has still to prove that he is right in what seems to be his own personal invention: a rotating cube, a pyramid, and a cylinder all of glass. For good or bad, circumstances are going to give him plenty of time to find arguments for his side.

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De Maupassant hated the Eiffel Tower, in which no one is forced to imitate him. But it is undoubtedly true that the Eiffel Tower makes a dual impression; one is attracted by the technical simplicity of its form, and, at the same time, repelled by its aimlessness. It is an extremely rational utilization of material for the purpose of making a high structure. But what is it for? It is not a building, but an exercise. At present, as everyone knows, the Eiffel Tower serves as a radio station. This gives it a meaning, and makes it aesthetically more unified. But if the tower had been built from the very beginning as a radio station, it probably would have attained a higher rationality of form, and so therefore a higher perfection of art.

From this point of view Tatlin’s project for a monument appears much less satisfactory. The purpose of the main building is to make glass headquarters for the meetings of the World Council of People’s Commissars, for the Communist International, etc. But the props and the piles which are to support the glass cylinder and the pyramid — and they are there for no other purpose — are so cumbersome and heavy that they look like unremoved scaffolding. One cannot think what they are for. They say: they are there to support the rotating cylinder in which the meetings will take place. But one answers: Meetings are not necessarily held in a cylinder and the cylinder does not necessarily have to rotate. I remember seeing once when a child, a wooden temple built in a beer bottle. This fired my imagination, but I did not ask myself at that time what it was for. Tatlin proceeds by a reverse method; he wants to construct a beer bottle for the World Council of People’s Commissars which would sit in a spiral concrete temple. But for the moment, I cannot refrain from the question: What is it for? To be more exact: we would probably accept the cylinder and its rotating, if it were combined with a simplicity and lightness of construction, that is, if the arrangements for its rotating did not depress the aim. Nor can we agree with the arguments which are given to interpret the artistic significance of the sculpture by Jacob Lipshitz. Sculpture must lose its fictitious independence, an independence which only means that it is relegated to the backyards of life or lies vegetating in dead museums, and it must revive in some higher synthesis its connection with architecture. In this broad sense, sculpture has to assume a utilitarian purpose. Very good, then. But it is not at all clear how one is to approach the Lipshitz sculpture from such a point of view. I have a photograph of several intersecting planes, which are supposed to be the outlines of a man sitting with a stringed instrument in his hands. We are told that if today it is not utilitarian, it is “purposeful.” In what way? To judge purposiveness, one has to know the purpose. But when one stops to think of the purposefulness and possible utility of those numerous intersecting planes and pointed forms and protrusions, one comes to the conclusion that, as a last resort, one could transform such a piece of sculpture into a hat-rack. Still, if it had been the sculptor’s plan to make a sculptured hat-rack, he would have probably found a more purposeful form for it. At any rate, we cannot recommend that a plaster-cast be made of it for hat-racks.

We must therefore assume that the Lipshitz sculpture, like the word-forms of Kruchenikh, are merely exercises in technique, like the playing of scales and passages. They are exercises in the verbal and sculptural music of the future. But one should not hand exercises out as music. It is better not to let them out of the studio, nor to show them to a photographer.

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The Bolshevik monumental style

René Fülöp-Miller
The Mind and Face
of Bolshevism
(1925)

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It was an architect named Tatlin, who made the first attempt to attain a permanent proletarian style of monumental importance, an attempt which really arose out of a protest against the “monumental propaganda” as practiced hitherto Tatlin pointed out that all the “isms,” however radical they might appear, stopped at superficialities, and had not revolutionized the innermost meaning of every work of art, and above all its mission What was the use of dissecting monuments into cubes and planes, which have external “deformation,” so long as the mission and essence of these monuments themselves corresponded to an entirely bourgeois idea. Was it not the same evil and notorious hero-worship of the bourgeoisie which was conspicuous in all these cubistically treated monuments? What had the collective man, the new proletarian culture of the masses, to do with this sort of reverence for individual personalities. Every cubofuturistic triumphal avenue, however radical it might be, was really a piece of bourgeois art, for it cultivated individual heroism, and thus denied the results of the proletarian view of history.

“Figures of gods and heroes,” says Tatlin,

are not consistent with the modern conception of history ; they are unfitted to symbolize the present age, which has to do with mile long columns of proletarians. At the best, they enforce the character, feeling, and method of thought of a revolutionary hero, but they must fail to give expression to the concentrated sentiment of a collective thousand-headed mass. They may, it is true, reveal the configuration of the type; but the mass — which in itself is richer, more vital, and more organic — concretizes, and levels this. Even in its static aspect, this form is opposed to the spirit of the time, and therefore affords only a limited means of expression. Further, the effect of such monuments for purposes of propaganda, m the midst of the noise, the life, and the motion in the wide streets of the modern city, is very doubtful These watchers raised aloft on granite pedestals may themselves see a great deal, but they are not noticed by others and attract no attention. The form in which they are chiseled arose at a time when people at the best moved about on mules ; but the telephone wire of modern war makes the antique hero ridiculous, the tramway standards replace the obelisks of old days. The modern monument must reflect the social life of the city, the city itself must live in it. Only the rhythm of the metropolis, of factories and machines, together with the organization of the masses, can give the impulse to the new art. Therefore, the forms of revolutionary propagandist sculpture must go beyond the representation of the individual, and spring from the spirit of collectivism.

For these reasons Tatlin recommends the “mechanical image,” the “monument of the machine,” as the only adequately powerful expression of the present, which, by its dynamic agitation, its technical rationalism, and its utilitarian importance, can most readily express the corresponding features of the time. But the machine is in the closest organic connection with industrial development, and thus with the proletariat itself; the adaptation to its ends and its rhythm thus represent the true spirit of the proletariat.

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In accordance with the principle of utilitarian importance, the “monument of the machine,” planned by Tatlin himself, was to fulfill, not only an aesthetic, but also a practical function. Radio and telegraph stations, placed in the interior of the monument, were to maintain permanent contact with revolutionary reality This movement has been of decisive importance for the further artistic development of Soviet Russia, it forms the first attempt, although on quite crude lines, to work out the basic principles of a new constructive art, and so to found a “dynamic-monumental architecture.” Henceforth, the slogan was that monumentality must be conceived, not as hitherto, statically, but dynamically, in accordance with the new spirit of the revolutionary age. This modern style was to be attained by the endeavor to intensify and resolve the energies inherent in the material and the constructions proceeding therefrom into a movement of all forms.

The idea that the material should not be treated as dead matter, but as the expression of the energies latent in it, thus played the most important and significant part in this “dynamic-monumental art.” The material attributes of the material used should also express the profound sense of the collective Tedious scientific, technical, and artistic investigations were made into the question of what building material was most useful to symbolize this proletarian culture. Of all the contradictory views on the subject, those of Trotsky may be regarded as the most interesting. He proclaimed that metal is the foundation of scientific industrial organization, and, consequently, it should also be the material of the new proletarian style in contrast to the past wood culture. The coming age should be the age of iron, concrete, and glass.

In agreement with this view of the most prominent Bolshevik leader, the representatives of all artistic schools later concurred in rejecting stone and wood as bourgeois, “counterrevolutionary” material, and in recommending metal, concrete, and glass for the purposes of proletarian architecture. In addition to the use of “these revolutionary building materials,” a heightened dynamics and the dissolution of all the static principles hitherto observed were to help to express the new age.

Thereafter, artistic feeling gravitated more and more towards a “technical” architecture, which further had to be accepted as the most fitting expression of the million-headed proletarian consciousness, as the ideal, vital, even classical artistic form of the “dynamic-monumental style.” Two grandiose schemes were regarded as the turning-point in the development of Russian art, Tatlin’s scheme for a monument to the Third International in Petersburg, and the plan for the “Palace of Labor” in Moscow. The first was drafted on the commission of the Central Office for Graphic Art in the People’s Commissariat for Education, and, according to the statements of a Bolshevik historian of art, is to consist of a union of three great glass chambers, connected by a system of vertical axes and spirals.

These chambers are arranged vertically above one another, and surrounded by various harmonious structures By means of special machinery they must be kept in perpetual motion, but at different rates of speed. The lowest chamber is cubiform, and turns on its axis once a year, it is to be used for legislative purposes, in future the conferences of the International and the meetings of congresses and other bodies will be held in it. The chamber above this is pyramidal in shape, and makes one revolution a month, administrative and other executive bodies will hold their meetings there Finally, the third and highest part of the building is m the shape of a cylinder, and turns on its axis once a day. This part of the building will be used chiefly for information and propaganda, that is, as a bureau of information, for newspapers, and also as the place whence brochures and manifestos will be issued. Telegraphs, radio-apparatus, and lanterns for cinematographic performances will be installed here.

Not content with the technical marvel of revolving rooms, Tatlin also conceived a system of double walls with air-tight chambers between them, on the plan of the thermos flask, so as to maintain a constant temperature in the building The individual parts of the building, and also the side rooms, were to be connected by a complicated system of lifts, which were to be adapted to the various rates of revolution.

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Apart from these extraordinary technical novelties, the monument had further a special ideological importance; here, too, it will be best to reproduce textually as far as possible the comments of the historian of art quoted above:

The whole monument rests on two main axes which are closely connected. In the direction of these axes an upward movement is accomplished on the one hand, but, on the other hand, this is crossed transversely at each of its points by the movement of the spirals. The junction of these two dynamic forces, which are by nature opposed to each other, is intended to express annihilation; but the spirals turning in the opposite direction, by the upward effort of the mam structure, produces a dynamic form, which is moved by a system of ever tense, ever agitated axes cutting each other (!). The form will conquer matter, the force of attraction, and seeks a way out with the help of the most elastic and volatile lines existing with the help of the spirals. These are full of movement, elasticity and speed , stiffly stretched like the muscles of a smith hammering iron. In itself the use of spirals for monumental architecture means an enrichment of the composition. Just as the triangle, as an image of general equilibrium, is the best expression of the Renaissance (!), so the spiral is the most effective symbol of the modern spirit of the age. The countering of gravitation by buttresses is the purest classical form of statics, the classical form of dynamics, on the other hand, is the spiral. While the dynamic line of bourgeois society, aiming at possession of the land and the soil, was the horizontal, the spiral, which, rising from the earth, detaches itself from all animal, earthly, and oppressing interests, forms the purest expression of humanity set free by the Revolution. The bourgeois social order developed an animal life on earth, tilled the soil, and there erected shops, arcades, and banks, the life of the new humanity rises ever higher and higher above the ground. At the same time, the arrangement of the contents of these architectural forms signifies their usefulness. Most of the elements of architecture hitherto in use possessed no practical importance, and remained unorganized. Today the principle of organization must rule and penetrate all art. The monument unites legislative initiative with the executive and with information, to each of these functions a position in space has been assigned corresponding to its nature. In this way, and also by means of the chief building material used, glass, the purity and clearness of initiative and its freedom from all material encumbrance is symbolically indicated.

Just as the product of the number of oscillations and the wavelength is the spatial measure of sound, so the proportion between glass and iron is the measure of the material rhythm. By the union of these two fundamentally important materials, a compact and imposing simplicity and, at the same time, relationship are expressed since these materials, for both of which fire is the creator of life form the elements of modern art. By their union, rhythms must be created of mighty power, as though an ocean were being born. By the translation of these forms into reality, dynamics will be embodied in unsurpassable magnificence, just as the pyramids once and for all expressed the principle of statics.

By the “machine art” of Tatlin, the “moving monuments,” and “dynamic-monumental buildings,” whose forms and rhythms are fitted for the new mechanical idols, the whole conception of Bolshevik art assumed a fundamentally different trend. In a number of decrees the forms of technical products, airplanes, skyscrapers, and ironclads were put forward as models, and rational construction was elevated to the criterion of aesthetic value.

Manifestos and plans, that is all that has come down to posterity of the whole “revolutionary-constructive” art, of Tatlin’s “movable buildings,” of the dynamic monumental style, of the rational rebuilding of towns and the new dwellings for the mass man, and thus of all the noisily proclaimed new proletarian culture. Only from monuments on paper shall we be able to discover what this period thought, attempted, longed, and hoped for.

still_Tatli_tower

8 thoughts on “Tatlin’s tower

  1. Excellent review , although I would be careful about quoting either Jameson or Adorno both Revisionists and Post Modernists who have been associated with Western Marxism . I have read much by Adorno both of them and Horkeimer and their support of Western Marxism is a betrayal and a rejection of Leninism and Marxism but having said that I have written widely about Tatlin on my Blog on Soviet Constructivism Tatlin together with Rodchenko and Stepanova were true communists and Revolutionaries. The same cannot be said of Jameson and Adorno.

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