Metaphysical theater

The transformation of the human body, its metamorphosis, is made possible by the costume, the disguise. Costume and mask emphasize the body’s identity or they change it; they express its nature or they are purposely misleading about it; they stress its conformity to organic or mechanical laws or they invalidate this conformity.

The native costume, as produced by the conventions of religion, state, and society, is different from the theatrical stage costume. Yet the two are generally confused. Great as has been the variety of native costumes developed during the course of human history, the number of genuine stage costumes has stayed very small. They are the few standardized costumes of the commedia delle arte: Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine, etc.; and they have remained basic and authentic to this day.

Schlemmer &cvt=JPEG

The following can be considered fundamentally decisive in the transformation of the human body in terms of this stage costume:

  1. The laws of the surrounding cubical space. Here the cubical forms are transferred to the human shape: head, torso, arms, legs are transformed into spatial-cubical constructions.
    Result: ambulant architecture.
  2. The functional laws of the human body in their relationship to space. These laws bring about a typification of the bodily forms: the egg shape of the head, the vase shape of the torso, the club shape of the arms and legs, the ball shape of the joints.
    Result: the marionette.
  3. The laws of motion of the human body in space. Here we have the various aspects of rotation, direction, and intersection of space: the spinning top, snail, spiral, disk.
    Result: a technical organism.
  4. The metaphysical forms of expression symbolizing various members of the human body: the star shape of the spread hand, the x sign of the folded arms, the cross shape of the backbone and shoulders; the double head, multiple limbs, division and suppression of forms.
    Result: dematerialization.

[Formentanz of Oscar Schlemmer] [Formentanz of Oscar Schlemmer] Rudolph Binnemann, German, about 1927 - 1928 Abbaspour, Mitra, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg. Object-Photo rene (Hecht) Bayer, American (Chicago, Ill., USA 1898 - 1991 Los Angeles, Cal., USA) Title Equilibristic Dance [by Oskar Schlemmer] Continue reading


Steampunk obshchina: The weird peasant retro-future of Jakub Rozalski

Been a while since my last update. I’ve been busy finishing some overdue projects and pieces I had promised. Today’s post is a real treat, however: the weird sci-fi retro-future of the Polish artist Jakub Rozalski (alias Mr. Werewolf).

Rozalski is a bit of an odd duck, from what I can tell. A couple popular websites have featured his work recently, but none of them capture their true essence. Dangerous Minds ought to be commended, along with Hi-Fructose, for recognizing the obvious talent of Mr. Werewolf and publicizing it far and wide. But Martin Schneider’s write-up was disappointingly sub-par, in my opinion, well below DM’s usually high standards. So I thought I’d try my hand at it.

The digitally-constructed, high-resolution paintings that appear below are taken from Rozalski’s 1920+ series and his samizdat art book, World of Scythe. Others have noted the playful anachronisms that abound in these works, set somewhere in interwar Osteuropa across the forest-steppe. Sentinels scour the idyllic countryside — often in outline, as hazy silhouettes — menacing local muzhiks as they pass. Yet their presence seems strangely accepted by the inhabitants of this world, partisan and peasant alike. It’s almost as if they’ve become so inured to the horrors of war that the sight of these towering robots leaves them completely unfazed.

Wells’ War of the Worlds is clearly an influence here, with “mechs” adapted to the style of WWI landships and heavily-armored cars. Another article suggested Star Wars’ Battle of Hoth sequence, which came a little later. They’re not entirely off-mark. Rozalski also draws upon the iconic imagery of Terminator (1985) in his latest series commemorating Polish independence, the Warsaw uprising, and the Nazi invasion of 1939. Cyclopean cyborgs with burning red eyes don German helmets, tattered Wehrmacht uniforms hanging off their steely limbs.

Apart from all this, elements of fantasy enter into Rozalski’s steampunk obshchina as well. Grizzly bears are used as pack animals, and peasants smoke long, thin pipes that could be lifted straight from Tolkien, out of the world of Middle Earth. There is something about these paintings that strikes a chord with me, and apparently others. No one would mistake these paintings by Rozalski for great art, as if such a thing were possible in this day and age. But they do bring together Babel’s Red Cavalry and Final Fantasy VI, a winning formula if ever there was.

1920_uninvited_guests Jakub_Rozalski_Art_1920-hussars jakub-rozalski-17ix-s1s jakub-rozalski-1920-before-the-storm-100na50small jakub-rozalski-1920-camp-fire-smallnew jakub-rozalski-1920-dad-s-at-work-small1 jakub-rozalski-1920-dog-in-the-fog-small jakub-rozalski-1920-empty-mine-small jakub-rozalski-1920-farewell-110x70small jakub-rozalski-1920-folk-festival-smalln jakub-rozalski-1920-germany-01 jakub-rozalski-1920-going-homesmall jakub-rozalski-1920-headshot2-small jakub-rozalski-1920-hedge-betss1 jakub-rozalski-1920-hussars jakub-rozalski-1920-kosciuszko-01-small jakub-rozalski-1920-krakow-art1 jakub-rozalski-1920-like-a-wolf-among-sheep jakub-rozalski-1920-lumbering jakub-rozalski-1920-mech-on-the-field-100na70small jakub-rozalski-1920-most1-small jakub-rozalski-1920-on-the-road-70na50small jakub-rozalski-1920-orp-jagienka-final jakub-rozalski-1920-scythe-finall-27art jakub-rozalski-1920-strong-temptation-small Continue reading

Архитектор Иван Леонидов copy

Ivan Leonidov: Artist, dreamer, poet

Andrei Gozak
Complete Works
January 1988

The greatest poet is not the one who wrote best but the one who suggested most.

— Walt Whitman

Since he first emerged on the architectural scene in the twenties, the name of Ivan Leonidov has acquired legendary status. The reason for this is simply the uniqueness of his work. Its power and originality have been attested by the deep and fruitful influence which it exerted, and continues to exert, on worldwide architectural thinking — despite the fact that the vast majority of his projects remained on paper and unbuilt.

For all the complexities of his life, Leonidov produced a great deal of work. Till the very end of his life he preserved his sharpness of eye and steadiness of hand. But more important he also preserved a total faithfulness to the central ideas of his architecture and to his own aesthetic principles. Thus those commentators are profoundly mistaken, and indeed inaccurate, who say that he was only fully able to display his talent in those brief avant-garde years of the late twenties and early thirties during which he first became known. Notable here has been the writing of P. Aleksandrov and S.O. Khan-Magomedov.1 The triumphant success of Leonidov’s projects in those years is obvious, but what he did later is neither architecturally nor artistically inferior to it. His capabilities in no way diminished with time, but only now, when we can see the fullest possible range of his sketches and designs, such as is assembled here, can we really appreciate the inexhaustible quality of his talent. Naturally his work underwent a process of evolution, as on one hand it reflected the beating of his own internal artistic pulse, and on the other it reacted to external influences and circumstances. But through all the modifications it was characterized by an enviable stability, both in aesthetic and ethical dimensions of his worldview, and in its style of graphic representation.

Ivan Il’ich Leonidov was born into a peasant family on the 9th of February 1902 in the village of Vlasikh, in what was then the Stantskii district of the Tverskoi gubemia, or province. His childhood was spent in the village of Babino, and when he had completed four years at the local parish school he went at the age of twelve to earn his living in Petrograd.2 It is known that Leonidov first received training in painting and drawing in Tver, at the Free Art Studios which were organized in 1920.3 In 1921 he was sent to continue his study in Moscow at the Painting Faculty of the VKhUTEMAS, from which he later transferred to the architecture faculty and the studio of Aleksandr Vesnin.

The atmosphere of the VKhUTEMAS and his personal contacts with Aleksandr Vesnin played an important role in the shaping of Leonidov’s creative personality. Aleksandr Vesnin contributed a great deal to drawing out every side of his gifted pupil’s talents. While still a student, Leonidov took part in numerous open architectural competitions, and often achieved success. There were for example third prizes for an improved peasant hut and for a housing development in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, as well as a “recommendation for acquisition and adoption” for his Byelorussian State University project for Minsk. None of the original drawings done during his training have survived, but several publications from those years give a relatively full idea of his highly individual manner of composition and his graphic skills, as a young architect who had already mastered the language of early constructivism. There are manifestly close links between these Leonidov works and the projects of the Vesnin brothers and other founders of the constructivist architectural association, OSA.4

Leonidov’s final diploma project, for the Lenin Institute of Librarianship, must be regarded not only as his first truly independent work, but also as the distinctive credo of an architect setting out on his professional life. Displayed publicly at the First Exhibition of Modern Architecture in Moscow in 1927, it was received as the opening up of a whole new architectural direction.5 Alongside Tatlin’s tower of 1919 and Melnikov’s Paris Pavilion of 1925, the Lenin Institute has remained to this day one of the great symbols of the revolutionary, innovative spirit of the first decade of Soviet architecture.

The beginning of Leonidov’s professional activity is marked by his active participation in competitions. From 1927 to 1930 he was himself teaching at the somewhat reorganized version of VKhUTEMAS known as VKhUTEIN. Competitions were very numerous in Soviet architecture in those years, and they gave the young architect an opportunity to express himself in the various typological genres of current practice. Leonidov’s works of those years are universally characterized by the coherence of the synthesis he achieved between the constructivist functional method and his own compositional approach, but they are equally characterized by the consistency of his representational technique in exploiting the restrained language of black-and-white graphics.

In 1928 Leonidov took part for the first time in international architectural competitions, for the headquarters of the Tsentrosoiuz in Moscow, and for the monument to Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo. Many well-known Soviet architects participated in both competitions, as well as Westerners. Corbusier of course was eventually to build the Tsentrosoiuz, which was completed in 1935; it is well known that he met Leonidov on related visits to Moscow during 1929-1930, as he did other leading constructivists, and that he had a very high opinion of Leonidov’s scheme for that building.

The finale to this series of competition designs was the project for the new socialist town around the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine in the Urals executed at the end of 1929. Leonidov headed an OSA design team composed of students from his own class in the VKhUTEIN.

Ivan Leonidov at the first OSA congress, 1928 Ivan Leonidov with the rest of the VKhUTEIN faculty, 1930

The next year, 1930, was to be a fateful one in Leonidov’s biography. He took part in a competition for the design of a Palace of Culture in the Proletarskii district of southern Moscow, around the old Simonov Monastery. The plan which he submitted for the first round diverged significantly from the brief, and proposed not a building, but a model for the “cultural organization” of a whole area of the city. Even in the first round of the competition Leonidov’s project therefore provoked sharp criticism. Discussion of the results of the second round took place in even more complex circumstances, revealing acute disagreements between the various groupings and philosophies now becoming consolidated in and around Soviet architecture. Although this time his proposal was in complete accordance with the terms of the brief, Leonidov’s scheme once again became the focal point of heated debate and discussions of larger architectural issues. Continue reading

[Photograph of man with children.]  From- Katherine S. Dreier papers : Société Anonyme archive

László Moholy-Nagy and his vision

You can download the 1969 translation of
László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (1927) by clicking on the embedded link. A while ago I posted some of Moholy’s work, but this is much more comprehensive. Otto Stelzer’s postscript to the 1967 reissue of the classic Bauhausbuch release appears below along with some examples of his films, photographs, and paintings.

Nearly out of space on my WordPress account. So I might have to set up a Paypal account and start soliciting donations. For now, though, enjoy.


Otto Stelzer
Janet Seligman
(March 1969)

László Moholy-Nagy saw photography not only as a means of reproducing reality and relieving the painter of this function. He recognized its power of discovering reality. “The nature which speaks to the camera is a different nature from the one which speaks to the eye,” wrote Walter Benjamin years after Moholy had developed the experimental conditions for Benjamin’s theory. The other nature discovered by the camera influenced what Moholy, after he had emigrated, was to call The New Vision. It alters our insight into the real world. Much has happened in the meantime in this field and on a broader basis than Moholy could have foreseen. Painting, Photography, Film today exists as a new entity even in areas to which Moholy’s own creative desire could scarcely have led: for example, in the Neo-Realism of Bacon, Rivers, Warhol, Vostell and many others whose reality is no more than a second actuality produced by photography.

Moholy is one of those artists whose reputation continues to grow steadily after their death because their works have a prophetic action. Moholy always saw himself as a Constructivist but he passed quickly through the static Constructivism of his own time. In a few moves he opened a game which is being won today. His light-modulators, his “composition in moving colored light,” his leaf-paintings of the forties, represent the beginnings of a “kinetic art” — even the term is his — which is flourishing today. Op Art? Moholy did the essential spade-work of this school (the old expression is in order here) in 1942, even including the objective, important for Op artists, of a “use”: with his pupils in Chicago he had evolved studies for military camouflage. The display of these things, later mounted in the school of design by his collaborator and fellow Hungarian György Kepes, was at once the first Op exhibition, “Trompe l’oeil,” and its theoretical constituent. New materials? Moholy had been using celluloid, aluminium, plexiglass, and gallalith as early as the Bauhaus days. Modern typography? Moholy has influenced two generations of typographers. Even in the field of aesthetic theory Moholy found a new approach; its aim was a theory of information in art. Moholy enlisted pioneers of this now much discussed theory as long as twenty-five years ago, nominating Charles Morris, the authority on semantics, to a professorship at the New Bauhaus, Chicago and inviting Hayakawa, another semanticist to speak at his institute. In 1925, when the Bauhaus book now being re-issued first appeared, Moholy was regarded as a Utopian. That Moholy, this youthful radical, with his fanaticism and his boundless energy, radiated terror too, even among his colleagues at the Bauhaus, is understandable. “Only optics, mechanics, and the desire to put the old static painting out of action,” wrote Feininger to his wife at the time: “There is incessant talk of cinema, optics, mechanics, projection and continuous motion and even of mechanically produced optical transparencies, multicolored, in the finest colors of the spectrum, which can be stored in the same way as gramophone records” (Moholy’s “Domestic Pinacotheca,” p. 25). Is this the atmosphere in which painters like Klee and some others of us can go on developing? Klee was quite depressed yesterday when talking about Moholy.” Yet Feininger’s own transparent picture-space seems not wholly disconnected from Moholy’s light “displays.”

Pascal discovered in human behavior two attitudes of mind: “One is the geometric, the other that of finesse.” Gottfried Benn took this up and made the word “finesse,” difficult enough to translate already, even more obscure. “The separation, therefore, of the scientific from the sublime world…the world which can be verified to the point of confirmatory neurosis and the world of isolation which nothing can make certain.” The attitudes which Pascal conceived of as being complementary and connected are now separated. The harmonization of the two attitudes of mind to which the art of classical periods aspired is abandoned. The conflict between the Poussinistes and the followers of Rubens, conducted flexibly from the 17th to the 19th century, became a war of positions with frozen fronts.

Photography 1

The Bauhaus carried on the conflict until the parties retired: on the one side the sublime: Klee, Feininger, Itten, and Kandinsky too, whose “nearly” Constructivist paintings still reminded Moholy of “underwater landscapes’; on the other “geometricians” with Moholy at their head (“forms of the simplest geometry as a step towards objectivity’), his pupils and the combatants, Malevich, El Lissitzky, Mondrian, Van Doesburg, all closely connected with the Bauhaus. On the one side the “lyrical I” (in Benn’s sense), on the other the collectivists, “one in the spirit” with science, social system and architecture, as Moholy formulated it in a Bauhaus lecture in 1923.

Continue reading

Hans Poelzig Großes Schauspielhaus, Berlin (1919)c

Return to the Horrorhaus: Hans Poelzig’s nightmare expressionism, 1908-1935

Two years ago, I introduced my readers to the work of the German expressionist architect Hans Poelzig. Many were doubtless familiar with his buildings already. What I sought to highlight, though, was the sheer scariness of his architecture. Hence “scary architecture.” SOCKS Studio, always excellent and often operating on the same wavelength, also put up a post on Poelzig around the same time.

In the time that has passed, I have amassed hundreds more high-quality images of plans, sketches, and period photographs of Poelzig’s built work. Needless to say, they aren’t any less scary than before. One could easily imagine Max Schreck’s Nosferatu lurking in the corridors of these structures, with Caligari’s hypnotized somnambulist dashing madly over their rooftops. Alfred Kubin’s monsters threaten to burst forth at any minute.

Flights of fancy aside, these really are stunning images. Dark, peculiar, and unexpected. I’m not sure what lends them this eerie quality, especially as a range of different building types are depicted, delineated, or photographed. Yet all of Poelzig’s structures share this tenebrous aspect, whether one takes his elegant cinema palaces, ominous monuments, or frightening industrial complexes (see the acid factory and gas works). Great stuff.

Click any of the following thumbnails to see the images in higher resolution, and scroll through to see more. Enjoy!

Continue reading


“¡Que viva Mexico!” Eisenstein in North America (1931)

224 copy 224 copy 2 100 copy

For anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing, Experimental Cinema was basically an organ of Soviet avant-garde movie-making published in English. It includes articles written by Sergei Eisenstein, Béla Balázs, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and numerous others from that milieu. El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko were employed as photographers for the journal. You can download a few issues published between 1930 and 1934 courtesy of the Internet Archive. Movie posters for some of the films discussed in its pages can be found in my post from a few days ago on the Stenberg brothers.

The following review of Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece, Que viva México!, was written by the American filmmaker and studio producer Morris Helprin. At the time, both he and his wife were committed communists. Later, Helprin became president of London Films in Hollywood (one article in Experimental Cinema called Hollywood “the sales agent of American imperialism”). Still, quite a neat summary and some behind-the-scenes details. If you’re interested in reading more about it, you can download the following texts or watch the full-length movie below.

Eisenstein in Mexico

Morris Helprin
Experimental Cinema
September 1932


“Que Viva Mexico!”

It is the first film made in the Western hemisphere to assume the mantle of maturity. The furthest step yet from the idiocies of corn-fed Hollywood. It turns its tail up at the banal; thumbs its nose at the benign. It is pictorial rhetoric of such vital force that it thunders and roars. Yet it contains every aspect of the popular cinema.


That day at Los Remedios, when we walked over the hills in search of a suitable location, served as an indication of Eisenstein’s preciseness, his exciting demands that his subject be even in quality. All Mexico around us was “beautiful enough to swoon in.” Here was no prettiness of the postcard cinema, none of your oak-paneled pictures that need but sprinklings of chemical brilliants to turn them into revolting chromes. The top of a mountain and an ancient aqueduct jutting at a seven-thousand foot height into a stilled canopy of swan-white clouds. You could set your camera down at almost any spot and grind. And have a beautiful scenic.

But the Russian, followed hastily by Tisse, his cameraman, Aragon, a young Mexican intellectual who serves as a guide, interpreter, and go-between, a camera boy, and myself, trailed by five peons who were the day’s actors at a peso each, led a frantic chase to find the spot. Following which were at least a dozen of the spots. Continue reading

«Симфония большого города». Режиссер Вальтер Руттман. 1928

The Stenberg brothers and the art of Soviet movie posters

Alma Law: Let’s begin, if you’re agreeable, simply with some biographical information.

Vladimir Stenberg: My father was born in Sweden in the town of Norrkoping and he finished the Academy in Stockholm with a gold medal. Then he was invited to come here to Moscow to do some kind of work. At that time [1896] there was an exhibition in Yuzovka — now it’s called Donetsk — so there in Yuzovka my father worked on an exhibition. Later at the Nizhninovgorod fair he did some kind of work. In Moscow he met my mother. They married and had three children.1

My father lived and worked in Moscow and I wanted to enter a technical school. I was very fond of technology, mechanics, and so forth.2 But conditions were such that I had to enter Stroganov, the art school. My father worked as a painter, and from the time I was six years of age, we had pencils, brushes, and the like in our hands. We began to draw very early. Well, like children, they see their father drawing, and so we drew too. And here’s what’s interesting about our father. When we were going to school, we would bring home our drawings at the end of the year. My brother, Georgii, and I would play a trick and switch some of the drawings. But my father always knew. We would sit together and draw figures. Everything. And it seemed to us that we had everything the same. But nevertheless our father would still distinguish the hand of one son’s work from the other’s.

When we had to do perspective, to study all that, we told the teacher that our father was an artist and he had taught us a little. The teacher gave us a test assignment and we did it. He said, “That isn’t the way it’s done. The plan should be at the bottom, and at the top, the representation of that perspective.” But our father had another method: the plan on top and underneath the representation. Because when you’re working, it’s more convenient to have at the bottom what is most important. Therefore we had it the other way around. When the teacher asked, “Why do you do it that way?” we answered, “Our father taught us that way.” “Well, of course,” he said, “with foreigners, they have things the other way around.” Continue reading


The mind and face of Bolshevism (1926)

You can download an illustrated full-tex
t PDF of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism by clicking on the embedded link. What follows is an introduction to it and some thoughts on an all-too-familiar claim that Marxism is merely a form of secular religion.

René Fülöp-Miller’s 1926 book, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in the Soviet Union, offers a unique window into the profound transformations underwent during the first decade of communism in the USSR. Fülöp-Miller sets out to capture the psychology and physiognomy of the October Revolution, and largely succeeds in this task. The picture he paints of the period is unforgettable, covering a great deal of ground without boring his readers. He accomplishes this by including some of the more bizarre phenomena associated with the Bolshevik regime, its most eccentric and utopian elements. Notably, Fülöp-Miller goes over Aleksei Gastev’s Institute for Labor in Moscow, Platon Kerzhentsev’s League of Time, the militant godless movement, God-building [богостроительство], and the Commissariat of Enlightenment. But he also manages to fit in some of his own analysis, which is admittedly hit-or-miss. Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 review from New Masses follows below, is right to say that Fülöp-Miller is better at reading the surface features of Bolshevism’s “face” than he is at discerning the deeper aspects of its “mind.”

It should be stated from the outset that Fülöp-Miller was not a Bolshevik. As Bertrand Russell put it: “Fülöp-Miller is himself a socialist, but of the Western kind.” However, he was not unsympathetic to the Soviet project. Despite serious reservations about the fervor and rapidity with which the Bolsheviks were looking to implement reforms, and revolutionize everyday life, Fülöp-Miller endorsed their efforts insofar as they represented an extension of Enlightenment to the masses. Some tendentiousness can nevertheless be detected in his ham-handed dismissal of Bolshevism as a form of surrogate religion. Many have leveled this criticism, or some version of it, against Marxism as a whole. On this, a few thoughts: An overview of the major proponents of Marxism after Marx’s death in 1883 reveals that they understood themselves in terms of their “faithfulness” to the tradition first established by Marx. The various stances adopted toward this tradition were often couched in explicitly religious language: in terms like heresy, orthodoxy, schism, sectarianism, and dogmatism. Could it be that Marxism’s critics are right to say that it merely secularizes spiritual impulses?

My former mentor, Chris Cutrone, handles this charge in a characteristic manner. Rather than challenge its validity, he seeks to divest the criticism of its power by “owning it” — i.e., consciously admitting that it is in fact true. Supposedly this softens the blow, since it’s true of everyone and at least Cutrone is transparent about it. I would like to resist this gesture, as I consider it empty. He states in his otherwise brilliant critique of Badiou, “The Marxist Hypothesis”:

It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms — and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were — and are still, potentially — the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?

Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet…Marxism cannot help today (after its failure) but become something like a religion, involving exegesis of “sacred texts,” etc.

Of course, this runs directly counter to some of the statements in the “sacred texts” Cutrone seeks to excavate. For example, Lukács in his article on “Orthodox Marxism”: “Orthodox Marxism…does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book.” A quandary, it would seem, which cannot be done away with simply by pointing to changed historical conditions. Even avowed opponents of Marxism and psychoanalysis such as Michel Foucault will these discourses against charges of crypto-religiosity: “It goes without saying that it would be completely wrong to identify [forms of knowledge like Marxism or psychoanalysis] with religion. This is meaningless and contributes nothing.” Religious analogies only go so far, anyway. Marxists today are forced to reflect on classic texts, to be sure — if they are to educate themselves at all — because there is no living practice worthy of the name that would allow theorists today to build upon the insights of the past. Without such a practice, the best Marxists can do is look back upon works written at a time when communism as a “real movement” had not yet ground to a halt.

Beyond superficial similarities, however, this has nothing in common with patristics. This does not prevent the charge from being periodically recycled. Chris Taylor of the blog Of CLR James has had occasion to mock my “hot combo of flat-materialist anti-clericalism and religiously inflected hermeneutical/exegetical approach to Marxist-Leninist holy writ.” My only reply would be that it is quite all right to disagree with Marx, Lenin, or any other figure from the history of Marxism. In doing so, though, one should be quite clear how and why one is departing from Marx’s (or Lenin’s, or anyone else’s) conclusions. None of them were infallible figures, but as Marxists and followers of Lenin or whoever they ought to be taken seriously. Such was Walter Benjamin’s attitude toward the claim made by Fülöp-Miller in The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, as expressed in a 1927 letter written to Kracauer. He recommended the book but disagreed sharply with its portrayal of Bolshevism as a form of religious sectarianism. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge also rely heavily on the book in their own work on the Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (1972).

Upton Sinclair’s review appears below. His points about Bolshevism being a positive outcome of Western civilization and about collective freedom being the key to unlock individual freedom are as relevant today as ever. Enjoy.

Cover of New Masses, November 1927

Review of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller

Upton Sinclair
The New Masses
November 1927

There comes in my mail a large and costly volume from England, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller. Inside I find a card, informing me that the book is sent with the author’s compliments, and giving me his address in Vienna — which I understand to mean that he wishes me to tell him what I think of his book. So I send him what as children we used to call “my private opinion publicly expressed.”

Mr. Fülöp-Miller has visited Soviet Russia for a long time, and collected a mass of information, and presented it accurately, with many illustrations, and not too much prejudice; so he gives us the face of Bolshevism very acceptably. But when he comes to interpret the mind of Bolshevism, his class prejudices inevitably get in the way, and he misses the point completely.

I, who have never been to Soviet Russia, but who have managed to free myself from class prejudices, venture to tell Mr. Fülöp-Miller a few things about the mind of Bolshevism, as follows:

  1. Bolshevism is neither incompatible with nor destructive of Western civilization. It is a product and evolution of Western civilization.
  2. Bolshevism’s setting up and glorifying of the masses is not a denial and destruction of individuality, but an effort to make individuality possible to those persons who have hitherto been denied it. Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s class prejudice is manifested in the fact that the beginnings of individuality in a hundred million peasants and workers mean so little to him, in comparison with the limitations of individuality in the case of a million or so aristocrats and intellectuals. Under Russian Tsarism all individuality was denied to the workers and peasants; and the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books were as a rule quite untroubled by this fact. The same condition prevails now to a great extent in Austria, where Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s book was written, and in England where it is published, and in America, where I am reviewing it; and for the most part the intellectual class remains quite untroubled.
  3. If the masses are to have individuality, they must first gain political and economic power; and to get that, and hold it, they must have solidarity and discipline. That means temporarily a certain amount of surrender of individuality — as when men enlist in an army to fight for a cause. In the late unhappy disagreement among the capitalist masters of the world, some twenty or thirty million men were forced to enter armies and risk agony and death; but this loss of individuality did not as a rule trouble the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books, whether in Russia, Austria, England, or America.
  4. It is quite true that Bolshevism represses its internal enemies. Mr. Fülöp-Miller tells us at some length how it does this, and he is much distressed thereby. But reading his book I found myself desiring to ask him this one simple question: what does he think would happen to Bolshevism if it let its internal enemies alone? What would happen to any state which suddenly declared complete freedom of conspiracy and assassination? Will Mr. Fülöp-Miller tell us in another volume what did happen to Bolshevism in Hungary, where it failed to be stern enough? Will he write a book telling us about the White Terror in Finland, and Poland, and Romania, and Hungary — yes, and Austria, and England, and Boston? Will he give us the best estimate he can make as to the number of lives taken by the “reds” in Finland, and then by the “whites” when they came back into power?
  5. In short, what I want Mr. Fülöp-Miller to do is to write me another volume, equally large and costly, entitled, The Mind and Face of Fascism. Now that I have been told about the “G.P.U.” in Russia, I surely ought to be told about Mannerheim and Petlura, and Denekin and Kolchak and Judenich and Horthy; yes, and about the Hakenkreutzler and their murders in Austria, and about the New Fascist organizations in England, and about the American Legion, and the Centralia massacre, and the “deportations of delirium” and the Sacco-Vanzetti case — If my Austrian confrere will prepare such a book, he won’t have to send it to me free — I will agree to pay the full retail price, and tell him of some other persons who will do the same. But I fear that, in spite of such inducements, the book will never be published by the patriotic Major Putnam!

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Robert Byron, the planetarium in Moscow, Architects - Barshch, Mikhail (Osipovich)  Sinyavski, M.I.  1929c

Under artificial skies: Planetaria and modernism


A couple years ago or so, I posted a number of photos of the Moscow planetarium designed by Mikhail Siniavskii and Mikhail Barshch. The planetarium was built in 1929, and still stands today — albeit in an awful state of disrepair. I included the wonderful fragment “To the Planetarium” by Walter Benjamin, from his 1928 work One-Way Street. You can read more about the planetarium and its preservation here.

Recently I’ve found a bunch of new images to post, however, from the same cache as the Dom Narkomfin photos I posted the other day. So I thought I’d put them up for everyone to see, along with another fragment by the theorist of modernity Hans Blumenberg. Not too familiar with Blumenberg’s work, admittedly, but from what I can tell he’s less hostile to Weber than his rejection of the “secularization thesis” (what Weber called “the disenchantment of the world”) would suggest. Anyway, this bit from The Genesis of the Copernican World is quite nice. Enjoy.

The ambiguous meaning of the heavens

Hans Blumenberg
The genesis of the
Copernican world
West Berlin, 1975


The planetarium is the mausoleum of the starry heavens as the ideal of pure intuition. As a technical phenomenon it is deeply rooted in the nineteenth century’s longings for a popular knowledge of the starry heavens, longings that expressed themselves in “people’s astronomers” and “people’s observatories.” They retrieved the reserved property of science as a relic for a “natural” mass religion of the solved “riddles of the universe” and of ersatz emotions. To that extent the planetarium too is an end, an end of what Ernst Haeckel wrote in his Welträtsel [Riddles of the Universe] (a book that was distributed in many hundreds of thousands of copies): “The astonishment with which we gaze upon the starry heavens and the microscopic life in a drop of water, the awe with which we trace the marvelous working of energy in the motion of matter, the reverence with which we grasp the universal dominance of the law of substance throughout the universe-all these are part of our emotional life, falling under the heading of ‘natural religion.'” Modern man, Haeckel went on, does not need the narrow enclosed space of a special church in order to live in this religion; he finds his church “through the length and breadth of free nature, wherever he turns his gaze, to the whole universe or to any single part of it…” It is harsh, but indispensable in order to display the arc of this theme’s development, to quote immediately after the enthusiasms of this certainly important zoologist and theoretician of “family trees,” from 1899, what Hitler said on the subject in conversation during the noon meal in his headquarters on 5 June 1942: He had “directed that every town of any importance shall have an observatory, for astronomy has been shown by experience to be one of the best means at man’s disposal for expanding his view of the world and thus saving him from any tendency towards mental aberration.”

Under the artificial skies of the planetariums, the upright carriage of the observer of the heavens can be practiced sitting down, with the gentlest constraint to adopting the attitude of the onlooker in repose. Here, if anywhere, one should inevitably expect the demonization of the technical surrogate for the most sublime object — of the projected heavens as the false heavens. If one disregards the context of the [particular] concept of reality, into which this simulation fits as one of its logically most consistent elements, it is easy to make sarcastic fun of the false starlight and the false salvations that are sought under it. Nevertheless, this marvel has seldom been so little marveled at as in the work of Joseph Roth, who had his “first encounter with Antichrist” under this technical backdrop.

Roth writes a book of unmaskings. He follows the old pattern of the Platonic discovery that the realities with which we deal are only shadows and imitations; but he goes a step further beyond this schema when he establishes that everything that is even capable of being imitated is thereby lowered in its rank in reality. It is an attempt to oppose even the concept of reality that allows imitations to be real [wirklich] because they are efficacious [wirksam], without prejudice to what they may be derived from. Not only the shadows of the Platonic cave are convicted of their existential weakness, but the Ideas themselves are too, because it is still possible for those shadows to be their final derivative and the extreme indicator of their origin. What we have before us is a mirror-image reversal of Platonism: If in it the null grade of reality, in the shadows, was only possible because as images they were subordinate to the essentially imageable Ideas, now the unreality of the projections is only possible because their “originals” already suffer from unreality, so that “the reality that they imitate so deceivingly was not at all difficult to imitate, because it is not real.” This description of the cinema could in its turn be an imitation of the classic of this sort of cultural criticism, Max Picard’s Das Menschengesicht [The Human Face] of 1929: “Indeed, the real human beings, the living ones, had already become so shadowlike that the shadows on the screen had to seem real.” The unreality of reality is responsible for the artificial reality of unreality.

What Joseph Roth calls “the Antichrist” is the sum of the false realities. The boy encountered them for the first time at the beginning of his paideia [ education], in his Platonic cave: Not only the shadows but the cave itself was, so as to make the shadows possible, an artifact.

In those days a great wagon came along, drawn by invisible powers, and remained standing on an open space before the city. To begin with it sent a great machine forward, which was covered with a little tent made of linen, and on this a great tent, also made of linen, was spread out and set up like a dome, and if one went inside, the inside of the dome was a blue sky with many gold and silver stars…The dome was blue, and the stars were just as inaccessible and just as close as real stars are. For since a human being is not even tall enough to reach the roof of a circus tent erected by others of his kind, it did not matter to the person who sat beneath the dome whether it was the genuine sky or a copy of it. He could grasp neither the one nor the other with his hands. Consequently he was glad to believe that the one was the other, or vice versa. And since it became quite dark beneath and inside this dome made of tent linen, he was convinced that he sat in the midst of a clear, starry summer night…

Of course, under false heavens one can encounter false salvations. But they come from false expectations of an “authentic” and ultimate reality, of the genuine substance of nature that, because it is genuine, is at the same time not ready to hand. The demand for an authentic reality presupposes that one could tell by looking at the real that it is not the unreal-as long as one does not have to deal exclusively with the latter. But the production of this exclusiveness is what the Platonic cave and its technical successors imply.

The modern age added to this premise a further one. In Descartes’s consideration of doubt, the possibility is accepted that all the characteristics of the real could be imitated without the production of these characteristics having to generate, at the same time, the objective equivalent of reality. Leibniz was the first to urge, against Descartes, that the complete simulation of reality would in the end no longer be deception, because a deception requires both the implication of an assertion of what does not exist and that the person affected could suffer from being disillusioned, neither of which is the case here. The Baroque idea that life could be a dream has no terrors for Leibniz because expectation is determined by a new concept of reality in which the internal consistency of everything that is given is identical with all the ‘reliability’ of reality that is still possible.

There is something questionable and productive of misgivings in the demand for ultimate authenticity in all experiences, for an unmediated relation to the original, in a world that is characterized by overcrowding and can no longer keep open all paths to everything. This is no longer and not only a matter of the sincerity of one’s desire, not least of all because simulation surpasses artificially unaided [naturwüchsig] intuition. The starry heavens of intuition in the life-world are motionless for their viewer; if one also assumes that the everyday opportunity to view the heavens occurs at about the same time of day, there remain only the gradual seasonal displacement of the constellations, the Moon’s changes of phase, and the (even more difficult to perceive) motion of the planets. It is just not true that the natural heavens rotate soundlessly around the viewer; only the herdsmen of Chaldea were credited with having this experience without having any professional interest in having it. In contrast to this, the planetarium is a short of temporal telescope, which puts the static heavens in motion and by means of technical projection makes visible things that were never seen, that were really only disclosed by comparison of observations. Here it is a question not of duplicating experience that, with some effort, would also be possible ‘in the original’ for anyone at any time, but rather of augmenting what can be seen at all.

Narkonfin Apartments  Moscow, Russia  Architects Ginsburg, M.  Milinis, I.  1928-1929  Photograph Photographer- Robert Byron3

Moisei Ginzburg’s constructivist masterpiece: Narkomfin during the 1930s

Recently I happened across a cache of extremely rare photos of Moisei Ginzburg’s constructivist masterpiece, Dom Narkomfin, in Moscow. They are reproduced here along with a brief popular exposition of the building’s history and current status by Athlyn Cathcart-Keays, which I thought quite good (despite an overly personalized narrative). Most of the photos were taken by three different individuals:

  1. Charles Dedoyard, a Frenchman and contributor to the avant-garde journal L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui;
  2. Vladimir Gruntal, a noted constructivist photographer and member of Rodchenko’s October Association; and
  3. Robert Byron, a British travel writer and Byzantine historian known for his deep appreciation of architecture.

It’s difficult for me to say whose photographs of Narkomfin I like best, as each capture very different “moods” of the building. Byron’s are dark, brooding, and ominous, while those of Gruntal and Dedoyard are comparatively sunny, vivacious, and light. Someone who knows more about photography, especially architectural photography, might say more about them. Ginzburg’s revolutionary communal housing structure is as photogenic as ever, though the real complexity of the building tends to get lost in single snapshots (whether taken indoors or from the outside). Hopefully I’ll be writing a longer article on Narkomfin soon. Please contact me if you’d like to publish it.

Lately, apart from work, I’ve been wasting far too much time antagonizing tankies on Twitter — defending friends and Slavoj Žižek along the way — instead of spending it on more productive ventures. They’re young, and I’m bored, but it’s not like my trolling and ceaseless mockery will persuade them of anything. So I apologize to anyone I’ve offended these past several weeks. From now on, I’ll try to redirect my energies to more fruitful ends. Besides a few pieces I’ve already written and have stowed on the backburners, I think I’m going to finally finish that book for Zer0. Enjoy these for now.

Charles Dedoyard
Dedoyard, C. Exterior view of the People's Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow September 1932 Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932b Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932a Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932 Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the People's Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932

Vladimir Gruntal

Robert Byron