Above the tempests of our weekdays,
Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past,
Before the gates of the vacant future,
We proclaim today to you artists, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, poets…to you people to whom Art is no mere ground for conversation but the source of real exaltation, our word and deed.
The impasse into which Art has come to in the last twenty years must be broken.
The growth of human knowledge with its powerful penetration into the mysterious laws of the world which started at the dawn of this century,
The blossoming of a new culture and a new civilization with their unprecedented-in-history surge of the masses towards the possession of the riches
of Nature, a surge which binds the people into one union, and last, not least, the war and the revolution (those purifying torrents of the coming epoch), have made us face the fact of new forms of life, already born and active.
What does Art carry into this unfolding epoch of human history?
Does it possess the means necessary for the construction of the new Great Style?
Or does it suppose that the new epoch may not have a new style?
Or does it suppose that the new life can accept a new creation which is constructed on the foundations of the old?
In spite of the demand of the renascent spirit of our time, Art is still nourished by impression, external appearance, and wanders helplessly back and forth from Naturalism to Symbolism, from Romanticism to Mysticism.
The attempts of the Cubists and the Futurists to lift the visual arts from the bogs of the past have led only to new delusions.
Cubism, having started with simplification of the representative technique ended with its analysis and stuck there.
The distracted world of the Cubists, broken in shreds by their logical anarchy, cannot satisfy us who have already accomplished the Revolution or who are already constructing and building up anew.
One could heed with interest the experiments of the Cubists, but one cannot follow them, being convinced that their experiments are being made on the surface of Art and do not touch on the bases of it seeing plainly that the end result amounts to the same old graphic, to the same old volume and to the same decorative surface as of old.
One could have hailed Futurism in its time for the refreshing sweep of its announced Revolution in Art, for its devastating criticism of the past, as in no other way could have assailed those artistic barricades of “good taste”…powder was needed for that and a lot of it…but one cannot construct a system of art on one revolutionary phrase alone.
Obituary of Mondrian
The Nation, NYC
March 4, 1944
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.
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
Monoskop recently posted a scan of El Lissitzky and Hans [Jean] Arp’s Kunstismen (1924), translated roughly as The “Isms” of Art. It is reproduced here in its entirety, page by page, or in full-text pdf format.
The original text runs in three parallel columns separated by thick dividers, very much in a constructivist style. Each column is in a different language: first German, then French, then English. Originally, I was planning on pasting the text from these in the body of the post. But I decided against it because, upon further examination, the translations are simply awful. German might have been a natural second language for Lissitzky; French and English were clearly not his strong points.
So instead, I’m posting an article that came out shortly afterward by the Hungarian art critic Ernő [sometimes Germanized as Ernst] Kállai, translated by John Bátki. Kállai’s work is not well known in the Anglophone world, though I did rely on one of his articles fairly extensively in an article on architectural photography. Here he summarizes the rapid succession of “isms” in art from 1914-1924 and astutely observes that this period ferment was then drawing to a close.
The twilight of ideologies
Ernő [Ernst] Kállai
365 (April 20, 1925)
Translated from the original Hungarian by John Bátki.
Between Two Worlds: Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
Kunst kommt von Können. [Art comes from ability.]
The saying is very old and a commonplace, and has even acquired some ill repute; still, it is high time we pay heed to it and, more important, put it to use.
The age of ferment, of “-isms,” is over. The possibilities of creative work have become endless, but at the same time all paths have become obstructed by the barbed wire barriers of ideologies and programs. It takes a man indeed to try and fight one’s way from beginning to end, across this horrible cacophony of concepts. Not that all of these theoretical skirmishes, manifestoes, and conclusions for the record were not indispensable for the evolution of ideas, or were incomprehensible. Even the wildest flights of pathos, the most doctrinaire stylistic catechisms had their own merit. It was all part of the ferment caused by Impressionism, and the infighting of the various expressive, destructive, and constructive schools.
But all of this turmoil is now finally over. Our awareness of the diverse possibilities has at last been clarified, so that today we are witnessing a time of professional consolidation and absorption in objective, expert work. This holds true for the entire front: the areas of political, tendentious art and Proletkult as well as those of Cubism, Expressionism, Constructivism, Neoclassicism, and Neorealism — and also in criticism. The most extreme, most exacting measure of individual vocation and achievement is that which is being employed by each and every school or camp toward its own. The process of selection has begun, and its sole essential guiding principle is this: what is the artist capable of accomplishing in his own field, through his own particular means and message.
Although I am deeply convinced of the relativity of all appreciation in art, where contemporaries or persons very near to us are concerned, yet in my opinion the figure of Frank Lloyd Wright towers so assuredly above the surrounding world, that I make bold to call him one of the very greatest of this time without fearing that a later generation will have to reject this verdict.
Of such flawless work as his, appearing admits architectural products which, in their lack of style, will have to be designated “nineteenth-century style”; of such unity of conception in the whole and in details; of such a definite expression and straight line of development another example can hardly be given.
Whereas it is a peculiarity of our day, that even the work of the cleverest nearly always betrays how it grew to be such as it is, with Wright everything is, without being at all perceptible any mental exertion to produce. Where others are admired for the talent with which we see them master their material, I revere Wright because the process by which his work came into being remains for me a perfect mystery.
It is no detraction from this reverence, which retained its high degree through the varying phases of my own development, when, asked to give my views on the important, even great influence of Wright on European architecture, I do not call this influence a happy one in all respects.
What happened to that influence might be compared to what occurred with the rise of a “Wright-school” in the West of America. Concerning the latter Wright once wrote in a pessimistic mood, that he grieved to see that the form in which he had expressed his ideas in his works, appeared to have a greater attraction than those ideas themselves. Since those ideas aimed at starting from the function and not from the form, he believed this to be “pernicious” to the development of architecture in general. Continue reading
Painting and the Problem of Architecture
Vol. 3, №. 2 (1928)
If we examine the painting of the first quarter of the 20 century we immediately notice two trends: “objective” and “non-objective.”
These two trends differ both formally and in their Weltanschauung and attitude to art.
Corresponding to the different types of Weltempfang there arise various artistic classifications.
In the “objective” trend there exist various stages: the first stage is figurative; it perceives the model as such. In this stage we see objects in their artistic expression “as they are.”
In the second stage the subject or model is only a means of communicating the artist’s experience in works of art. What is more, all the objects, or nature, are artistically unified by the tone passing through them.
In the third stage we see how as the result of a particular artistic Weltempfang there occurs “artistic deformation of phenomena”; hence follows the disintegration of the object into separate pictorial elements. They create a new order which is called “the cubic form of revealing artistic expression.”
At this stage the object itself is not considered “as such,” and “as such” it is not the content of artistic skill; it exists only as the sum of unorganized painterly elements.
Next come two variants of the fourth stage of communicating Weltempfang: they are called “non-objective.”
In one of these types we see the total eclipse of the object and have a work of pure painterly Weltempfang.
The other “non-objective” type is not only the revelation of artistic Weltempfang but also of a whole series of the dynamic, static, magnetic, and other elements which exist in nature.
These two figurative stages deal exclusively with the form of objects, i.e. forms with the help of which objects are created on the canvas “as such.”
In the “non-objective” stages, on the other hand, form plays an important role, since without form it becomes impossible to convey any kind of Weltempfang.
In the “non-objective” stages one is not dealing with the representation of phenomena “as such,” but with the communication of definite sensations which exist in the phenomenal world.
In the “non-objective” stages there comes to the fore the question of creating the “forming element” with which to communicate sensations.
Thus the problem of form arises only in the new “non-objective” art. This is why the “non-objective” arts have had to rid themselves of the contents of various ideologies and also of the entire material side of everyday life, the system of which has been developing on a basis harmful to painting. Thus, for example, the table, house, motor, wedding, marriage did not develop as a result of people’s perceiving life artistically and expressing elements of this perception, as a revelation of artistic Weltempfang, in the form of a table.
The table, in common with all objects of a technical purpose, has practical utilitarian functions, and therefore the content of such objects is functionality; and all the elements of the world’s material constitute a firm functional order.
Thus the system of artistic perception of the functional order of the object may happen not to correspond to the artistic perception of the object, as one is dealing not with the functional content of a table but with its artistic content.
The critics have regarded this trend as “abstract,” at the basis of “abstract” art, parting from practical, concrete life.
To this “non-objective” type belongs Suprematism.
From this short analysis we see that in the first two stages of revealing sensations “form” is not a problem and does not have the same importance as in the third stage and, particularly, in the “non-objective” stages.
According to a catalogue accompanying the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s landmark London exhibition Fernand Léger: The Later Years, edited by Nicolas Serota, the great French abstractionist advanced a radically colorful proposal for the layout of the 1937 Paris international exhibition that would feature
…a yellow square, a red and blue avenue, an Eiffel tower with a camouflaged silhouette…that would all be lit up at night, instead of fireworks.
Much to the painter’s chagrin, this proposal would only be partially realized. The Eiffel Tower — that iconic remnant from arguably the greatest of all world’s fairs, the Exposition Universelle of 1889 — would again be electrified and lit up, just as it had been for the 1925 bonanza. Even then, there’d be fireworks. In intermittent flashes, these served to illuminate its ferrous skeleton from behind the promenade.
Outlines of the exhibition’s virtual frontispiece, which featured Hitler’s Deutscher Pavillon, designed by Albert Speer, set against Stalin’s Советский павильон, designed by Boris Iofan, were cast as a grim prefiguration of the unsurpassed bloodshed the two nations would experience over the next decade at each other’s hands. Continue reading
IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism
An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago. I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include. Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days. There are many more on the way.
However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all. For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.