Kandinsky

Art as rhetoric

Boris Groys
Particular Cases
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In light of recent discussions about art as knowledge production and the ways art should or could be taught, it seems fitting to look back at the early days of modernism. Avant-garde art was not yet taken for granted then, having instead to be legitimized, interpreted, and taught. One influential example of such a strategy of legitimization is Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). The book posits an equivalence between art production, art theory, and art teaching, in order to render art rational and scientific, with the aim of establishing it as an academic discipline. Over the course of his artistic career, Kandinsky made various attempts to give an institutional form to his ideas. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) both the group and the almanac of the same name — can be seen as the first such attempt. Following his return to Russia from Munich at the outbreak of World War I, and especially throughout the postrevolution years, Kandinsky engaged in extensive institutional activity, teaching as a professor at Vkhutemas (Higher Art and Technical Studios, from 1918), as well as founding and directing the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture (InKhuK, 1920-1921) and GAKhN (State Academy for the Scientific Study of Art, 1921). During his time at the Bauhaus, from his appointment in 1922 until its closure in 1933, he pursued his analysis of art as a science and academic discipline, as reflected in Point and Line to Plane, a theoretical treatise published by the Bauhaus in 1926.

The rigor and determination with which Kandinsky pursued the academicization of art has often been overlooked due to misunderstandings caused by his choice of words. His use of “the spiritual” is a prominent example, since it implies certain religious themes and attitudes that he did not necessarily share. Rather than “the spiritual,” it would be better to speak here of “the affective.” Kandinsky’s book begins with a distinction between art as the representation of eternal reality and art as a means of conveying emotions and moods. Right at the beginning of the book, Kandinsky claims that the representation of external reality leaves us cold as viewers. He describes a typical exhibition of the time:

Animals in sunlight or shadow, drinking, standing in water, lying on the grass; near to, a Crucifixion by a painter who does not believe in Christ; flowers; human figures sitting, standing, walking; often they are naked; many naked women, seen foreshortened from behind; apples and silver dishes. […] The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures “nice” or “splendid.” Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called “art for art’s sake.”1

This description clearly shows that what Kandinsky found irritating about naturalist painting was its formalism. When the motif is dictated from outside, all that matters is how it is executed — the formal skill of the artist. Kandinsky opposes this formalist vision of art: only when one has defined what art is can one inquire into the how. Continue reading

About Two Squares: El Lissitzky’s 1922 suprematist picture book for kids

Originally published in the
Cambridge Literary Review
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Most children’s books do not come with instructions for how to read them. El Lissitzky’s About Two Squares is not most children’s books.

Lissitzky first announced his plan to write a “suprematist tale”[1] about two intergalactic squares while teaching graphic arts and printmaking at the Vitebsk Institute of Popular Art in 1920. Traces of the idea can be detected as early as September 1919, however, shortly after he arrived in the city. Initially a disciple of the Jewish folk painter Marc Chagall, Lissitzky soon came under the spell of the charismatic avant-garde pioneer Kazimir Malevich (who usurped Chagall’s role as rector of the Institute that winter). Almost immediately one notices a shift in the form and subject-matter of Lissitzky’s oeuvre, as he abandoned village scenes and stylized conventional figures in favor of planar abstractions and floating rectilinear shapes. Within a matter of months, his entire artistic worldview was transformed.

Part of this transformation involved a change in Lissitzky’s approach to typography and book design. These were fields in which he showed prior interest. He had prepared a songbook for the traditional Passover poem Chad Gadya in 1917, and then again in 1919. Both of these versions clearly demonstrate the abiding influence of Chagall, though by the time the second one was published, suprematist elements already began to enter in. Following the release of the 1919 edition, Lissitzky informed Malevich of his newfound perspective:

It is my belief that the thoughts we drink from the book with our eyes must be poured over every visible shape. The letters and punctuation marks, which introduce order to thoughts, must also be taken into account. Besides that, the way the rows are set corresponds to certain condensations of thought; these should be condensed for the benefit of the eye as well.[2]

Evidently, suprematism for Lissitzky had consequences well beyond the realm of the painted object. It implied a broader reconsideration of the medium of print. Lissitzky was an ardent — if self-trained — bibliologist, and in 1926 he hypothesized what effect modern art might have on the future of the book. “There are today two dimensions to the word,” he maintained in an article for the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch. “As sound, it is a function of time; as exposition, of space. The book of the future must be both.”[3]

Yve-Alain Bois, a Swiss art critic and Lissitzky scholar, has noted that authors only began to take an interest in the visuals of their books toward the end of the nineteenth century.[4] Questions of format, font, and layout generally seemed besides the point. Little attention was paid to the arrangement of text upon the page. With the advent of photography and improved printing technology, however, new possibilities were opened. Citing the development of “facsimile-electrotype (or half-tone blocks),” Lissitzky speculated that this would allow for greater flexibility in the illustration of written materials.[5] Great innovators like F.T. Marinetti likewise had a role to play in Lissitzky’s scheme, discerning the potential of boldface lettering and ALL CAPS to convey emphasis or emotion.[6] Nevertheless, the aesthetics of print continued to lag behind other fields of art until the outbreak of World War I, usually held up as a cultural watershed.

Russia was no exception to this trend. “Before October 1917,” Lissitzky explained in a catalog ten years later, “our artists hardly concerned themselves with typesetting. That matter was left to the printers.” He continued: “After October, many of our premier artists in different fields, hoping to express the new through the specific properties of each medium, took up the task of reinventing the book according to the material of the book itself — i.e., type.”[7] Painters especially participated in this process, starting even before the war, working together with poets to revolutionize the medium.[8] By the 1920s, swept along by the maelstrom of revolution, avant-garde bookmakers were employed in the production of posters as propaganda for the masses. Lissitzky even likened such placards and printed visual displays to single pages ripped from books, magnified and blown up several dozen times.[9]

This new movement, which sought to break down the barrier separating art from life, entailed the “death” of painting as it had hitherto been known. Aleksandr Rodchenko gave up painting in order to pursue photography and agitprop. Varvara Stepanova abandoned the canvas for fabrics and textile patterns. For Lissitzky, the prewar experiments in painting had simply prepared artists for the revolutionary enterprise of construction, an idea charged with meaning at the time. His celebrated PROUN series merely provided the point of departure, being “the way station between art and architecture.”[10] Similarly, the book displaced painting and sculpture as the most monumental art form of revolutionary Russia.[11] It was this fact, in Lissitzky’s view, that sealed the fate of older forms of artistic production. “Once the printed page started to seduce the artist,” he wrote morbidly, “painting slowly died.”[12]

Bois has referred to this rhetorical conceit regarding the death of easel painting as “the cliché of the era.”[13] Was it really nothing more than a cliché, though? Might it not have had a real sociohistoric basis?

Indeed, About Two Squares can be read as a dramatization of this very aspiration, though intended for children. Lissitzky stressed the importance of such literature in the upbringing of the New Man: “We should add to the number of illustrated weeklies the flood of children’s picture-books. Children’s reading teaches them a new plastic language. They grow up with a different relation to image and color, the world and space.”[14] About Two Squares recapitulates Lissitzky’s belief that revolutionary form heralds the arrival of revolutionary content, and that the former must act as a vehicle for the latter.

The book finally appeared in 1922, roughly two years after Lissitzky envisioned it, under the imprimatur of the Scythian press [Skythen Verlag] in Berlin. On the back cover, however, was a symbol indicating its origin in Vitebsk: the UNOVIS logo — a red square set inside a thin black frame, partially circumscribed within a circle. Scythian publishing house was loosely affiliated with the Left Socialist-Revolutionary party in Russia, run mostly by Russian symbolist poets living abroad. In some ways it may be seen as a prototype of later samizdat operations. About Two Squares was among the first modernist publications they put out. Continue reading

LEF — the Soviet “left front” of art (1923-1930)

 

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Introduction excerpted from Sybil Gordon Kantor’s recent book on Alfred H. Barr and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art (2002).

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Alfred Barr, future founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, took a trip to Russia as part of his modernist tour of Europe in 1928. According to the architect Philip Johnson, “the Constructivists were on his mind all the time. Malevich was to him, and later to me, the greatest artist of the period. And you see, the Constructivists were cross disciplinary, and I’m sure that influenced Alfred Barr, both that and the Bauhaus.”

Three kinds of documents survive to record the bold perspective Barr was framing for modernism: his journal, the letters he wrote during his stay, and the articles he wrote (substantiated by the journal and letters). The significant differences between the articles and the more subjective journal and letters were the latter’s tone of wonder and breathless, unabashed enthusiasm for the revolutionary spirit of the Russians. “Apparently there is no place where talent of an artistic or literary sort is so carefully nurtured as in Moscow…We’d rather be here than any place on earth.” As he made whirlwind visits around the USSR, he wrote:

We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.

Many people were helpful as Barr and Abbott made their way through the cornucopia of culture in Moscow: from Cambridge, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, who was doing research on the Russian theater, stayed at their hotel and at times accompanied the two young students; Diego Rivera, “the famous Mexican painter,” showed Barr a complete set of his Mexico City frescoes and Barr bought a watercolor from him. Barr wrote to Sachs that he thought “a friend of yours” (Dana) and May O’Callahan would be most helpful in introducing him and Abbott to the Russian cultural set.

Two days after Barr arrived, O’Callahan took him to visit Sergei Tretiakov, a member of the futurist movement and the founder of the magazine Lef 1923–1925 and Novyi Lef 1927–1928, who lived in an apartment in the Dom Gosstrakh building, an example by Moisei Ginzburg of the new constructivist architecture — ”an apartment house built in the severely functional style of Gropius and Le Corbusier.” Ginzburg, part of the group OSA (Society of Contemporary Architects), which he helped found, developed constructivist architecture, “which functionally arises from the purpose of a given building, its material construction and production conditions, answering the specific task and promoting the socialist construction of the country.” Barr wrote that Ginzburg was a “brilliant young architect” who had written “an interesting book on the theory of architecture (illustrations are good)…Though his work lacks the boldness of Lissitzky or Tatlin, it is certainly more concerned with actual problems.” Clarifying his estimation of Ginzburg’s apartment building, Barr remarked that “only the superficials are modern, for the plumbing, heating, etc. are technically very crude and cheap, a comedy of the strong modern inclination without any technical tradition to satisfy it.” Writing in his diary, Abbott concurred:

Their apartment is in one of the new apartment houses which, in its architecture comes quite directly from the prevalent International Style in Europe, that is, it is a combination of Bauhaus and certain elements of the French manner as represented by Le Corbusier and Lurçat, or in this country by Neutra…The apartment house of the Tretiakovs is excellent as architecture but poor as a piece of construction. The Russian is not used to the materials of modern building. Cement and steel confuse him…in the medium of modern construction he shows an absolute lack of feeling. Poor joints, badly matched sections, and in general a sloppiness marks much of the newer work, the design for which is nevertheless, frequently concise and in the main, excellent.

Barr exchanged information with Ginzburg, who gave him back numbers of Soviet magazines of contemporary architecture. Barr, in turn, gave him the addresses of Peter Smith and Henry-Russell Hitchcock as sources for articles on American architecture. He told Ginzburg that American architects were “reactionary,” to which Ginzburg’s wife’s responded: “Russian architects and American engineers should combine.”

At Tretiakov’s place Barr met members of the LEF, a loosely banded group of constructivist artists. Heavily involved with this group on his visit to Moscow, Barr wrote an article about them that mentioned Tretiakov, Aleskandr Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova, and Vladimir Maiakovskii, as well as two articles about their most celebrated member, Sergei Eisenstein. Both Tretyakov and Rodchenko wanted to be régisseurs and Barr noted that “to distort Pater, all the arts in Russia, including music, tend constantly toward the condition of the cinema.” Barr recognized that both he and this group were attracted to the same modes of art — architecture and film — but for very different reasons. “Their spirit,” he said, “is rational, materialistic, their program aggressively utilitarian. They despise the word aesthetic, they shun the bohemian implications of the word ‘artistic.’ For them, theoretically, romantic individualism is abhorrent. They are communists.” Barr’s political responses were characteristically liberal, their source an innate humaneness rather than an ideological stance. His notion of “purity” as a criterion of a modern aesthetic led him to proclaim Eisenstein, the Russian Communist régisseur — the artist who embodied the metaphor of the machine for Barr — as the artistic genius of the twentieth century.

What follows below is Barr’s dispatch on the LEF, first published in the international modernist mag transition in 1928. Following that are several high-quality PDF journal scans and images from the publication LEF, all of which can be downloaded.

alfred

The LEF and Soviet art

Alfred Barr
transition № 14
Autumn 1928

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The word LEF is formed from two Russian words meaning left front.

In Russia the left front is no longer revolutionary. The Third International is now inconspicuous, its program for the time being abandoned. Most of the strenuous effort is concentrated upon political stabilization and the economic organization of that vast and disparate sixth part of the world, the Soviet Union.

The LEF is a group of individuals who would be described by any but themselves as artists, literary, dramatic, pictorial, critical, cinematographic. Their spirit is rational, materialistic; their program aggressively utilitarian. They despise the word aesthetic, and shun the bohemian implications of the word artistic.” For them, theoretically, romantic individualism is abhorrent. They are communists. Among the group are the poets [Vladimir] Maiakovskii and [Nikolai] Aseev, the scientific journalist [Sergei] Tretiakov, the kino regisseur [Sergei] Eisenstein, the critics [Osip] Brik and [Viktor] Shklovskii, and the artists [Varvara] Stepanova and [Aleksandr] Rodchenko (who work in many mediums). [Vsevolod] Meierkhol’d is also affiliated with, if not actually a member of, the LEF.

tretyakov

Tretiakov incarnates more completely than any other the ideal of the group. His personal appearance is significant. He is very tall, clad in khaki shirt and whipcord riding breeches with leather puttees. Through his horn-rimmed spectacles his eyes are owl-like. His face and scalp are clean shaven. He lives in an apartment house built in the severely functional style of Gropius and Le Corbusier. His study is filled with books and periodicals on China, modern  architecture, and the cinema. In this laboratory atmosphere, behind this mask of what seems ostentatious efficiency, there is profound seriousness and very real sensibility.

Tretiakov was once a futurist poet. For a period after the revolution he was professor of Russian literature in Beijing. In addition to his poetry he has written a very remarkable play — Roar, China! — which has been running in Meierkhol’d’s theatre for two years with the greatest success. Roar, China! is being translated for the Piskator theater in Berlin and will doubtless be produced if [Oskar] Piskator survives his recent bankruptcy. The play, which is, of course, propaganda, shows the peaceful sobriety of the Chinese coolie outraged by truculent Anglo-American “big business”-cum-gunboat. Unfortunately, the Meierkhol’d production of the play considerably weakens its dramatic force by introducing a childish caricature of the English antagonists who are represented as idiots in whom it is impossible to believe. Tretiakov’s intention was otherwise. Continue reading

Mondrian, and on and on

Obituary of Mondrian

Clement Greenberg
The Nation, NYC
March 4, 1944
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Piet Mondrian, the great Dutch painter, died in New York on February 1 at the age of seventy-one. He came to this country two years ago from London, where he had been living since 1939, after twenty years spent in France.

Mondrian was the only artist to carry to their ultimate and inevitable conclusions those basic tendencies of recent Western painting which cubism defined and isolated. His art has influenced design and architecture more immediately than painting but remains easel painting nevertheless, with all the concentrated force and drama the form requires. At the same time it designates the farthest limit of easel painting. Those whose point of departure is where Mondrian left off will no longer be easel painters. Excluding everything but flat, unmodulated areas of primary color and rectilinear and rectangular forms, his art returns painting to the mural — the mural as a living, modern form, to the archaeological reconstruction of Puvis de Chavannes, [Diego] Rivera, and the WPA projects. I am not sure whether Mondrian himself recognized it, but the final intention of his work is to expand painting into the décor of the manmade world — what of it we see, move in, and handle. This means imposing a style on industry, and thus adumbrates the most ambitious program a single art has ever ventured upon.

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Mondrian’s own explicit intentions were somewhat different. There is no need to take his metaphysics on its own terms, but it certainly helps us to understand the creation of his masterpieces. He said that his art was concerned with mans deliverance from “time and subjective vision which veil the true reality.” — I quote from his essay “Toward the True Vision of Reality”:

Plastic art affirms that equilibrium can only be established through the balance of unequal but equivalent oppositions. The clarification of equilibrium through plastic art is of great importance for humanity. It reveals that although human life in time is doomed to disequilibrium, notwithstanding this, it is based on equilibrium…If we cannot free ourselves, we can free our vision.

Mondrian’s pictures attempt to balance unequal forces: for example, one area, smaller than another, is made equivalent by shape and spatial relations. Further:

At the moment, there is no need for art to create a reality of imagination based on appearances, events, or traditions. Art should not follow the intuitions relating to our life in time, but only those intuitions relating to true reality.

In other words, the vision of space granted by plastic art is a refuge from the tragic vicissitudes of time. Abstract painting and sculpture are set over against music, the abstract art of time in which we take refuge from the resistance of space.

Mondrian’s painting, however, takes its place beside the greatest art through virtues not involved in his metaphysics. His pictures, with their white grounds, straight black lines, and opposed rectangles of pure color, are no longer windows in the wall but islands radiating clarity, harmony, and grandeur — passion mastered and cooled, a difficult struggle resolved, unity imposed on diversity. Space outside them is transformed by their presence. Continue reading

Khidekel and the cosmist legacy of suprematism in architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regina Khidekel

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

From the Chagallian metaphorical ascent over side streets familiar from childhood, he was already within arm’s length of the systematized flights into the endless limits of Suprematist space. Malevich’s destruction of Renaissance perspective and the horizon line led to the revelation of another space — that of the boundless cosmos, which became the space onto which Lazar Khidekel would project his Suprematist compositions. Continue reading

Not art but communism

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Early in 1921 the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii nominated the young avant-garde artist El Lissitzky to serve as the USSR’s cultural ambassador to the West. At the time, the civil war in Russia was still waging, but the end was in sight. Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, was ordered by Lenin to prepare to make cultural inroads in Western Europe, where revolution had stalled out but might yet be reignited. When David Shterenberg, the director of IZO (Narkompros’ Fine Arts Department), accused Lissitzky of cynically using the funded trip to Germany and the Netherlands as simply a way to promote UNOVIS, the artistic group to which he belonged at the time, the artist immediately shot back:

We are taking not art but communism to the West.

Despite the reservations expressed by art historians such as Victor Margolin, Margaret Tupitsyn, and Henk Puts about the political intent of Lissitzky’s mission, the late Detlef Mertins uncovered evidence a couple years ago that this indeed was the case. On the surface of things, of course, this statement by Lissitzky seems startlingly naïve. How could revolutionary form automatically convey revolutionary content?

Could an abstract shape (think of Beat the White Circle with the Red Wedge) really communicate a communist message? Fredric Jameson once remarked, in his 1992 lectures on The Seeds of Time, that “[i]t was one of the signal errors of the artistic activism of the 1960s to suppose that there existed, in advance, forms that were in and of themselves endowed with a political, and even revolutionary, potential by virtue of their own intrinsic properties.” The same charge might be made against the 1920s, of course, leveled against the artistic and cultural avant-garde of that era. I should like to propose another option.

Perhaps it was not just delusional exuberance or an overactive imagination that led them to make such rash claims for themselves, but rather in that moment revolutionary form and revolutionary content appeared to have merged. Or at least, things seemed to be approaching this point. Lissitzky and Ehrenberg, in their otherwise apolitical article appended below, on the end of the Western naval blockade against the fledgling Soviet Union, said as much when they wrote that “we are unable to imagine any creation of new forms in art that is not linked to the transformation of social forms.” The two appeared indissolubly interconnected. Afterward, of course, revolutionary forms of art would be banished from most of Western Europe by fascism and from the Soviet Union by Stalinism. It flew across the ocean to Chicago and New York, where the United States was rapidly in the process of becoming a global superpower. Nevertheless, nothing like the revolutionary social content prevailed in the US, and in the USSR, where this revolutionary social content was still present, revolutionary forms of art were absent. The two had become decoupled.

I’d like to thank Aleksandr Strugach for bringing these fabulous images to my attention, and the Petersburg architecture blogger and historian Sergei Babushkin for posting them. You can access his blog by clicking here, and I hope you’ll forgive this brief meditation on my part. Check out posts on PROUN and Lissitzky’s design for a yacht club also. Enjoy!

The blockade of Russia is coming to an end

El Lissitzky
Ilya Ehrenberg
Veshch (1922)

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The appearance of Objet is another sign that the exchange of practical knowledge, realizations, and “objects” between young Russian and West European artists has begun. Seven years of separate existence have shown that the common ground of artistic aims and undertakings that exists in various countries is not simply an effect of chance, a dogma, or a passing fashion, but an inevitable accompaniment of the maturing of humanity. Art is today international, though retaining all its local symptoms and particularities. The founders of the new artistic community are strengthening ties between Russia, in the aftermath of the mighty Revolution, and the West, in its wretched postwar Black Monday frame of mind; in so doing they are bypassing all artistic distinctions whether psychological, economic, or racial. Objet is the meeting point of two adjacent lines of communication.

We stand at the outset of a great creative period. Obviously reaction and bourgeois obstinacy remain strong enough on all sides in Europe as well as in disoriented Russia. But all the energy of those who cling to the past can only, at the very most, delay the process of constructing new forms of existence and communal work. The days of destroying, laying siege, and undermining lie behind us. That is why Objet will devote the least possible amount of space to combating the epigones of the academy. The negative tactics of the “dadaists,” who are as like the first futurists of the prewar period as two peas in a pod, appear anachronistic to us. Continue reading

Tea, anyone? Nikolai Suetin’s ceramic Suprematism, 1922-1928

Untitled.
IMAGE: Nikolai Suetin,
Suprematist teasets
(Moscow, 1925-1926)
.Untitled

Along with Il’ia Chashnik, Nikolai Suetin was Kazimir Malevich‘s most devoted disciple.  He first came under the great master’s tutelage during his studies at the Vitebsk School of Art in 1918, where he also trained with the renowned artist Jean Pougny.  Though a skilled painter, designer, and ceramicist in his own right, Suetin spent much of his time promoting Malevich’s body of work and keeping a photographic record of his life.  Unlike his mentor, Suetin never theorized his work in so self-conscious a fashion.  In 1924, however, he recorded a brief artistic creed in staccato verse, disavowing every attempt to systematize his work:

neither non-objectivity
nor object
what?
“X,” I reply
it signifies the sum of my painterly thought
in the world, and hence
the answer to the question
of modernity…
No system binds me, as I am unsystematic.
A reasonably logical premise can demonstrate any system, but I am alogical and therefore overcome the systems of cubism, futurism, and suprematism.”

ни беспредметность
ни предмет.
что?
я отвечаю X (икс)
это значит сумма моей живописной мысли
на мир и значит
ответ на вопрос осязания
современности «…»
Никакая система не связывает меня, ибо я бессистемен «…»
Разумно логической предпосылкой можно доказать всякую систему, но я алогичен и потому преодолеваю системы кубизма, футуризма и супрематизма «…»

While Suetin authored numerous remarkable works, perhaps his most striking pieces came in the form of Suprematist plateware commemorating the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917.  These were made over the course of the 1920s, especially from 1922-1928.  Included in this post are several very high-resolution photographs of these works.  Enjoy!

Nikolai Suetin’s Suprematist plateware

The spatiotemporal dimensions of abstract art and the genesis of modern architecture

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Read Ross Wolfe’s “The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde”

Modernist Architecture — Positive Bases

The theory and practice of modernist architecture were positively based on two primary phenomena that developed under capitalism: the abstract sense of space and time created by the internal dynamic of capitalism, and the more concrete process of industrialization that took place in Europe over the course of the nineteenth century. The former of these developments, the abstract side of capitalism’s spatiotemporal dialectic, first manifested itself spatially in the medium of Cubist and post-Cubist abstract painting (Neo-plasticism, Purism, Suprematism) and temporally in the simultaneous representation of motion and light by movements such as Futurism and Rayonism. This abstract temporal dimension was deepened and refined by the avant-garde’s appropriation of Taylorism, the system of “scientific management” in industry founded in America just prior to the First World War.[211] A discussion of Taylorization’s impact on modernist architecture will lead into a more general discussion of the inescapable influence that European industrialization had on its overall development. Specifically, it will examine the modernists’ fascination with machine technologies, efficiency, and the principle of standardization. All these aspects of modern society had been brought into existence by nineteenth-century capitalism in the shift from more primitive manufacturing techniques to full-blown industrialism. In this way, modernist architecture can be seen in its positive connection to the forces and logic unfolding out of capitalist modernity, in addition to its negative bases that were outlined in the previous subsection. Modernism captured in its architecture the greater project of “rationalization” that was taking place throughout the Western world during this time, as theorized by thinkers such as Weber, Adorno, and Horkheimer.

A tertiary influence may be cited alongside these two main positive bases of avant-garde architecture: the working class. In some sense, the modernists’ identification with the European proletariat can be traced to their general disgust with bourgeois society, coupled with the widespread leftist idea that the working class could play a revolutionary role in the construction of a new and more rational society. But in another sense, the modernists’ valorization of working class must have stemmed from its association with industrial production, which held an obvious positive appeal for avant-garde architects. Though this affirmation of the laboring masses of Europe thus had its sources in both positive and negative aspects of modern society, its general character should be seen as positive. Either way, the avant-garde expressed its solidarity with workers in its quest to provide them with adequate dwelling conditions, and, more broadly, to overcome the chronic shortage of urban housing. The modernists’ efforts to this end can be seen in their commitment to the creation of a standard Existenzminimuml’habitation minimum, Kleinstwohnung,or “minimum dwelling.”[212]

DIALECTICS OF CAPITALISM

General

Rational

Systematic

Universal

Irrational

Anarchic

Particular

Temporal

Abstract

Homogeneous

Cyclical

Scientific

Mechanical

Concrete

Heterogeneous

Linear

Historical

Dialectical

Spatial

Abstract

Homogeneous

Global/International

Decentralized/Dispersed

Egalitarian

Expansion

Concrete

Heterogeneous

Local/National

Centralized/Concentrated

Hierarchical

Contraction

Architectural

Modernism

Traditionalism

FIGURE 1: The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Capitalism and Architecture

Before detailing this more social component of modernist architectural ideology, it is proper to examine the formal properties imparted to it by the abstract spatiotemporal dimension of capitalism. Referring back to the characteristics established beforehand as belonging to the abstract forms of space and time manifested under capitalism,[213] the extent to which these qualities were expressed by modernist art and architecture will be made clear. The scientific, cyclical, and synchronous character of its temporality; the geometric, centrifugal, and global/international character of its spatiality; their mutual homogeneity — all these categories will be important to bear in mind moving through the following analysis. For these traits, generated by the inherent dynamism of modern society, would embed themselves in the artistic unconscious of a generation of painters and architects. These then would bubble to the surface in the works of the modernists, which expressed the new spatiotemporal sensibility of their age. Such expressions of this new aesthetic orientation should be seen as manifestations of the latent social dynamic of capitalism, however, mediated perhaps by the genius of individual artists.[214]

Ivan Kudriashev’s “Construction of a Rectilinear Motion” (1925)

Iakov Chernikhov’s “Architectural Fantasy 11” (1925-1931)

In his groundbreaking 1938 lectures on Space, Time, and Architecture, the modernist and insider historian of the avant-garde movement Sigfried Giedion credited the rise of the new architecture to a newfound sense of “space-time” that congealed around the turn of the twentieth century. According to Giedion, this modern aesthetic[215] sensibility described an abstract, four-dimensional unity of temporalized spatiality, much like the kind outlined in physics by Albert Einstein in 1905. This placed a heavy emphasis on the notion of “simultaneity.”[216] Giedion could have easily added the work that was taking place in philosophy in the writings of Henri Bergson around the same time.[217] In either case, he claimed that explicit awareness of this new sense of space and time appeared first in the works of abstract art, years before the artists’ insights were later taken up and applied by modernist architects. In the first decade of the century, Giedion asserted, “[p]ainters very different in type but sharing a common isolation from the public worked steadily toward a new conception of space. And no one can understand contemporary architecture, become aware of the feelings hidden behind it, unless he has grasped the spirit animating this painting.”[218] Continue reading