El Lissitzky exhibition in Moscow, November 2017-February 2018

El Lissitzky, renaissance man of the Soviet avant-garde, is the subject of a major career survey in Russia that opened last week. It is the first such show in the country for thirty years.

Ambitiously organized across two venues, the State Tretyakov Museum and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the shows are being treated as a single exhibition. They draw on an archive of the artist’s work preserved against all odds by Sophie Küppers, his German wife, an art historian and collector. Roughly 400 works are on display.

Lissitzky spent a significant portion of the 1910s and 1920s in Germany, promoting revolutionary art. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1925, he left dozens of his paintings, photographs, architectural and graphic designs behind.

Lissitzky married Küppers in 1927 — for which she later paid a chilling price. Three years after her husband’s death in 1941, she was exiled to Siberia as an enemy alien, and works in her collection were seized by Soviet authorities. In July 2017, her heirs won a major battle in a German court over a work she had owned by Paul Klee, which was seized by the Nazis in 1937 and sold off as “degenerate” art.

Tatyana Goryacheva, the Tretyakov’s curator, says Küppers sold “part of her archive and nearly 300 graphic works” to the museum in 1959. “The collection includes drawings and sketches of Prouns” as well as “lithographs, sketches of architectural and exhibition projects, posters and book designs,” she says.

Goryacheva says that while the exhibition underscores Lissitzky’s talent, it also illuminates “the interrelations between the artist and the authorities, avant-garde art, and totalitarian ideology — an issue that inevitably arises in connection with art of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde.”

  • El Lissitzky, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, until 4 February 2018
  • El Lissitzky, Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, Moscow, until 18 February 2018

Continue reading

Jan Tschichold and the new typography

.
Like many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies, Jan Tschich­old ad­hered to a kind of “apolit­ic­al so­cial­ism” dur­ing the 1920s. Wal­ter Gropi­us, Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe, and nu­mer­ous oth­ers shared this out­look. He helped design books for the left-wing “Book Circle” series from 1924 to 1926. Tschich­old quoted Trot­sky’s Lit­er­at­ure and Re­volu­tion (1924) with ap­prov­al in the in­aug­ur­al is­sue of Ty­po­graph­is­che Mit­teilun­gen, pub­lished that same year:

The wall di­vid­ing art and in­dustry will come down. The great style of the fu­ture will not dec­or­ate, it will or­gan­ize. It would be wrong to think this means the de­struc­tion of art, as giv­ing way to tech­no­logy.

Dav­id Crow­ley and Paul Job­ling sug­gest that “Tschich­old had been so en­am­ored of the So­viet Uni­on that he had signed his works ‘Iwan [Ivan] Tschich­old’ for a peri­od in the 1920s, and worked for Ger­man trade uni­ons.” Some of this en­thu­si­asm was doubt­less the res­ult of his con­tact with El Lis­sitzky and his Hun­gari­an dis­ciple László Mo­holy-Nagy, a le­gend in his own right.

In 1927, a pen man­u­fac­turer ac­cused Tschich­old of be­ing a com­mun­ist, which promp­ted fel­low ty­po­graph­er Stan­ley Mor­is­on to rise to his de­fense. From that point for­ward, his work be­came even less overtly polit­ic­al.

jan-tschichold-sonderheft-typographische-mitteilungen-1925

Yet he re­mained cog­niz­ant of the re­volu­tion­ary ori­gins of mod­ern or­tho­graphy. “At the same time that he was pro­mul­gat­ing the de­pol­it­i­cized func­tion­al­ism of the New Ty­po­graphy,” writes Steph­en Eskilson. “Tschich­old still re­cog­nized his debt to Con­struct­iv­ism’s Rus­si­an, com­mun­ist roots.” Chris­toph­er Burke thus also writes in his study of Act­ive Lit­er­at­ure: Jan Tschich­old and the New Ty­po­graphy that

Tschich­old’s com­pil­a­tion con­tains the Con­struct­iv­ists’ Pro­gram in an ed­ited and abridged — one might even say adul­ter­ated — Ger­man ver­sion ad­ap­ted by Tschich­old him­self. The Marx­ist-Len­in­ist rhet­or­ic of the ori­gin­al is sig­ni­fic­antly toned down: for ex­ample, the pro­clam­a­tion in the ori­gin­al that reads “Our sole ideo­logy is sci­entif­ic com­mun­ism based on the the­ory of his­tor­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism: loses its ref­er­ence to sci­entif­ic com­mun­ism in Tschich­old’s ver­sion. He was ob­vi­ously tail­or­ing the text for his read­er­ship in Ger­many, where the Novem­ber Re­volu­tion im­me­di­ately after the First World War had been ruth­lessly sup­pressed. The Ger­man Com­mun­ist Party lead­ers, Karl Lieb­knecht and Rosa Lux­em­burg, were murdered in cold blood on 15 Janu­ary 1919 by right-wing, coun­ter­re­volu­tion­ary troops with the ta­cit ac­cept­ance of the So­cial Demo­crat gov­ern­ment of the Wei­mar Re­pub­lic it­self.

Tschich­old him­self called for an ob­ject­ive, im­per­son­al, col­lect­ive work destined for all, es­pous­ing a vaguely left-wing but not overtly com­mun­ist point of view com­mon to many state­ments from this peri­od of In­ter­na­tion­al Con­struct­iv­ism in Ger­many. Des­pite quot­ing Trot­sky in Ele­ment­are Ty­po­graph­ie, Tschich­old did not be­long to the Ger­man Com­mun­ist Party, nor was he as­so­ci­ated with any par­tic­u­lar “-ism” or group, apart from the Ring neue Wer­begestal­ter later in the 1920s and 1930s, which had no polit­ic­al di­men­sion.

Re­gard­less, the Nazis sus­pec­ted Tschich­old of har­bor­ing com­mun­ist sym­path­ies. Continue reading

Louis Lozowick, communist lithographer (1892-1973)

.
A few years back the excellent art and architecture website SOCKS Studio made a post featuring
“The diesel era lithographs of Louis Lozowick, 1920s-1940s.” They included some of his biographical details along with examples of his work. I would like to expand briefly on Lozowick’s role in disseminating principles of the Soviet avant-garde as well as his political involvement in American communism during the interwar period.

Lozowick was a Russian-Jewish émigré who spent the majority of his life in the United States. Born in 1892 outside Kiev, then part of the Ukrainian province in the Russian Empire, Lozowick fled the pogroms that followed the 1905 Revolution by moving to New York in 1906. He continued his training as an artist and worked as an illustrator until the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, whereupon he renewed his commitment to Marxist politics.

561a3ec445ca4e06d65d30c8efb13cc1Louis Lozowick, Modern Russian Art

Frequently contributing to such periodicals as Broom and Transition, Lozowick later helped found the journal New Masses in 1926. One year after the infamous trial of the Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, Lozowick designed a very constructivist cover to commemorate their martyrdom. Prior to that, he’d already begun a series of lithographs portraying major American industrial cities in bold, angular contrasts. Each painting was given simply the name of the city portrayed as its title — New YorkChicagoPittsburghCleveland, Detroit, etc. — and were widely reprinted.

Sometimes he would paint versions of these stylized cityscapes. His choice of colors was sometimes reminiscent of other artists in the Precisionist movement, as it came to be called, as well as European and Soviet artists. Compare, for example, his piece Cleveland (1927) with the Industrial Scene (1930) rendered by his fellow precisionist painter Miklos Suba. Or else view Lozowick’s Red Circle (1924) alongside Victor Servranckx’s Factory (1922). Max Thalmann’s woodcut of a Manhattan cross-street from 1925, a narrow valley flanked by towering skyscrapers on either side, presages Lozowick’s Bulloch Hall ten years later. Likewise, though left uncolored, Lozowick’s Corner of a Steel Mill resembles a colorful fantasy by Iakov Chernikhov. During a trip to Kyrgyzstan, Lozowick depicted the construction underway in Soviet Central Asia in a manner akin to his depictions of industrialism in the US. The similarities are everywhere striking.

After the atrocities of Nazi Germany became known in 1945, Lozowick joined many of his peers in reluctantly supporting Zionism. Heartbroken by the loss of so many of his friends and relatives, he donated to various charities for Israel. For this, he would be listed in a pamphlet circulated by the virulently anticommunist and antisemitic Senator Jack Tenney, The Zionist Network. Lozowick’s memoirs were gathered and posthumously published as Survivor from a Dead Age. If anyone has a copy and would like to scan and upload it, I’d be very grateful.

Below you can read “A Note on Modern Russian Art,” written by Lozowick for Broom in 1923. You can also scroll through a gallery of his lithographs by clicking on any of the icons that follow.

A note on modern Russian art

.
It is well the devil can quote Scripture: we know thereby the character of Satan, even if we are in the dark as to Holy Writ. St. Paul of Aix, St. Apollinarius of Paris, Revelation, Apocrypha and other books in the Bible of modern art have been quoted so copiously and interpreted so liberally by the modern Russian artists, in their fight against orthodoxy, that their own identity is never left in doubt.

The advent of the Soviets resulted in a heightened productivity among modern Russian artists. Whatever state patronage of the arts may be worth in general, it is undeniable that in Russia the Soviets gave a great impetus to artistic effort by inaugurating a program of reform on a scale hardly paralleled in any other modern State. They abolished the old Imperial Academy, organized a Free College of Artists in its place, opened new free art schools, established Museums of modern art (Museums of Artistic Culture) organized popular lectures and traveling exhibitions, supported the artists, bought their works, employed them in staging popular revolutionary festivals, issued new art publications — in a word did everything to encourage the growth of art and to bring it nearer to the masses. Continue reading

Hannes Meyer, The new world [Die neue Welt] (1926)

.
The flight of the “Norge” to the North pole, the Zeiss planetarium at Jena and Flettner’s rotor ship represent the latest stages to be reported in the mechanization of our planet. Being the outcome of extreme precision of thought, they all provide striking evidence of the way in which science continues to permeate our environment. Thus in the diagram to the present age we find everywhere amidst sinuous lines of its social and economic fields of force straight lines which are mechanical and scientific in origin. They are cogent evidence of the victory of man the thinker over amorphous nature. This new knowledge undermines and transforms existing values. It gives our new world its shape.

Motor cars dash along our streets. On a traffic island in the Champs Elysées from 6 to 8 p.m. there rages round one metropolitan dynamism at its most strident. “Ford” and “Rolls Royce” have burst open the core of the town, obliterating distance and effacing the boundaries between town and country. Aircraft slip through the air: “Fokker” and “Farman” widen our range of movement and the distance between us and the earth; they disregard national frontiers and bring nation closer to nation. Illuminated signs twinkle, loud-speakers screech, posters advertise, display windows shine forth. The simultaneity of events enormously extends our concept of “space and time,” it enriches our life. We live faster and therefore longer. We have a keener sense of speed than ever before, and speed records are a direct gain for all. Gliding, parachute descents and music hall acrobatics refine our desire for balance. The precise division into hours of the time we spend working in office and factory and the split-minute timing of railway timetables make us live more consciously. With swimming pools, sanatoria, and public lavatories, hygiene appears on the local scene and its water closets, faience washbowls and baths usher in the new line of sanitary fittings in earthenware. Fordson tractors and v. Meyenburg cultivators have resulted in a shift of emphasis in land development and sped up the tilling of the earth and intensive cultivation of crops. Borrough’s calculating machine sets free our brain, the Dictaphone our hand, Ford’s motor our place-bound senses and Handley Page our earthbound spirits. Radio, marconigram, and phototelegraphy liberate us from our national seclusion and make us part of a world community. The gramophone, microphone, orchestrion, and pianola accustom our ears to the sound of impersonal-mechanized rhythms: “His Master’s Voice,” “Vox,” and “Brunswick” see to the musical needs of millions. Psychoanalysis has burst open the all too narrow dwelling of the soul and graphology has laid bare the character of the individual. “Mazdaism,” “Coué” and “Die Schönheit” are signs of the desire for reform breaking out everywhere. National costume is giving way to fashion and the external masculinization of woman shows that inwardly the two sexes have equal rights. Biology, psychoanalysis, relativity, and entomology are common intellectual property: France, Einstein, Freud, and Fabre are the saints of this latterday. Our homes are more mobile than ever. Large blocks of flats, sleeping cars, house yachts, and transatlantic liners undermine the local concept of the “homeland.” The fatherland goes into a decline. We learn Esperanto. We become cosmopolitan.

triptychon-1921

The steadily increasing perfection attained in printing, photographic, and cinematographic processes enables the real world to be reproduced with an ever greater degree of accuracy. The picture the landscape presents to the eye today is more diversified than ever before; hangars and power houses are the cathedrals of the spirit of the age. This picture has the power to influence through the specific shapes, colors, and lights of its modern elements: the wireless aerials, the dams, the lattice girders: through the parabola of the airship, the triangle of the traffic signs, the circle of the railway signal, the rectangle of the billboard; through the linear element of transmission lines: telephone wires, overhead tram wires, high-tension cables; through radio towers, concrete posts, flashing lights, and filling stations. Our children do not deign to look at a snorting steam locomotive but entrust themselves with cool confidence to the miracle of electric traction. G. Palucca’s dances, von Laban’s movement choirs, and D. Mesendieck’s functional gymnastics are driving out the aesthetic eroticism of the nude painting. The stadium has carried the day against the art museum, and physical reality has taken the place of beautiful illusion. Sport merges the individual into the mass. Sport is becoming the university of collective feeling. Suzanne Lenglen’s cancellation of a match disappoints hundreds of thousands, Breitensträter’s defeat sends a shiver through hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands follow Nurmi’s race over 10,000 meters on the running track. The standardization of our requirements is shown by: the bowler hat, bobbed hair, the tango, jazz, the Co-op product, the DIN standard size, and Liebig’s meat extract. The standardization of mental fare is illustrated by the crowds going to see Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, and Jackie Coogan. Grock and the three Fratellini weld the masses — irrespective of class and racial differences — into a community with a common fate. Trade union, co-operative, Lt., Inc., cartel, trust, and the League of Nations are the forms in which today’s social conglomerations find expression, and the radio and the rotary press are their media of communication. Co-operation rules the world. The community rules the individual.

Each age demands its own form. It is our mission to give our new world a new shape with the means of today. But our knowledge of the past is a burden that weighs upon us, and inherent in our advanced education are impediments tragically barring our new paths. The unqualified affirmation of the present age presupposes the ruthless denial of the past. The ancient institutions of the old — the classical grammar schools and the academies — are growing obsolete. The municipal theaters and the museums are deserted. The jittery helplessness of the applied arts is proverbial. In their place, unburdened by classical airs and graces, by an artistic confusion of ideas or the trimmings of applied art, the witnesses of a new era are arising: industrial fairs, grain silos, music halls, airports, office chairs, standard goods. All these things are the product of a formula: function multiplied by economics. They are not works of art. Art is composition, purpose is function. The composition of a dock seems to us a nonsensical idea, but the composition of a town plan, a block of flats…?? Building is a technical not an aesthetic process, artistic composition does not rhyme with the function of a house matched to its purpose. Ideally and in its elementary design our house is a living machine. Retention of heat, insolation, natural and artificial lighting, hygiene, weather protection, car maintenance, cooking, radio, maximum possible relief for the housewife, sexual and family life, etc. are the determining lines of force. The house is their component. (Snugness and prestige are not leitmotifs of the dwelling house: the first resides in the human heart and not in the Persian carpet, the second in the attitude of the house-owner and not on the wall of a room!) Today we have new building materials at our disposal for building a house: aluminium and duralumin in plates, rods, and bars, Euboölith, Ruberoid, Forfoleum, Eternit, rolled glass, Triplex sheets, reinforced concrete, glass bricks, faience, steel frames, concrete frame slabs and pillars, Trolith, Galalith, Cellon, Goudron, Ripoliin, indanthrene paints, etc. We organize these building elements into a constructive unity in accordance with the purpose of the building and economic principles. Architecture has ceased to be an agency continuing the growth of tradition or an embodiment of emotion. Individual form, building mass, natural color of material, and surface texture come into being automatically and this functional conception of building in all its aspects leads to pure construction [Konstruktion]. Pure construction is the characteristic feature of the new world of forms. Constructive form is not peculiar to any country; it is cosmopolitan and the expression of an international philosophy of building. Internationalism is the prerogative of our time.

Today every phase of our culture of expression is predominantly constructive. Human inertia being what it is, it is not surprising that such an approach is to be found most clearly at first where the Greeks and Louis XIV have never set foot: in advertising, in typographical mechanical composition, in the cinema, in photographic processes. The modern poster presents lettering and product or trademark conspicuously arranged. It is not a poster work of art but a piece of visual sensationalism. In the display window of today psychological capital is made of the tensions between modern materials with the aid of lighting. It is display window organization rather than window dressing. It appeals to the finely distinguishing sense of materials found in modern man and covers the gamut of its expressive power: fortissimo = tennis shoes to Havana cigarettes to scouring soap to nut chocolate! Mezzo-forte = glass (as a bottle) to wood (as a packing case) to pasteboard (as packing) to tin (as a can)! Pianissimo = silk pajamas to cambric shirts to Valenciennes lace to “L’Origan de Coty”! Continue reading

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.

Painting

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

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

Originally published in the
Cambridge Literary Review
.

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

VKhUTEMAS exhibition in Berlin: Rediscovery of a Russian revolutionary art school

Sibylle Fuchs
Verena Nees

April 5, 2015
.

“Vkhutemas: A Russian Laboratory of Modernity — Architectural Designs 1920-1930,” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, December 5, 2014 to April 6, 2015.

A remarkable exhibition, featuring the art and architecture of the early Soviet Union’s VKhUTEMAS [acronym in Russian for Higher Art and Technical Studios] school, is currently at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, until April 6. For the first time, some 250 works — drawings, sketches, paintings, photographs and models, mainly in the field of architecture — created by the students and teachers of the Moscow workshops, which existed from 1920 to 1930, are on display.

Exhibition of student’s work on “Evidence and expression of mass and weight” School year 1927-1928 © The Schusev State Museum of Architecture Moscowia802601.us.archive.org-grerussi00schi_0302 copy 2

The exhibition was organized by the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow, based on extensive research into numerous archives, as well as interviews with graduates of the school and the families of former teachers. Researchers were thus able to bring to light long-lost designs, construction plans and models. The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into a neglected school of art that revolutionized modern architecture.

The displayed works of the Vkhutemas students range from designs for residential buildings, theaters, kiosks, swimming pools, sports stadiums, workingmen’s clubs and entire cities to student research projects on theoretical questions such as “mass and weight,” “color and spatial composition,” and “geometric properties of a form.” The sketches of complex urban roofscapes, imaginatively conceived recreation centers in natural settings, seemingly weightless buildings with vibrantly curved features, aesthetic structuring and façades for industrial buildings—all testify to such a wealth of radicalism, experimentation and diversity of ideas that many Bauhaus [German art school, 1919-1933] creations fade in comparison.

All the designs, even the bold and less realistic ones like the floating skyscrapers attached to balloons, also evoke a sense of the seriousness with which architectural commissions assigned by the workers’ state were undertaken after the October Revolution.

M. Korshew- Abstrakte Aufgabe zur Ermittlung von Masse und Gewicht

On December 19, 1920, Lenin announced the Soviet government’s resolve to establish the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops — VKhUTEMAS. The aim was to use the visual arts in the training of technically, politically and scientifically educated architects and designers in all disciplines. In the ten years of its existence, VKhUTEMAS became a laboratory of modern architecture and art, in which diverse artistic ideas and methods, such as classicism, constructivism, psychoanalytic approaches and even futurism came together.

Time and again, the media refers to VKhUTEMAS as the Russian Bauhaus. Many scholars in the West have insisted on seeing the Bauhaus movement in Weimar and Dessau as a model for the Russian architectural avant-garde. However, the exhibition throws this conception into question. Although VKhUTEMAS had close ties to Bauhaus and the latter held some concepts and ideas in common with the Soviet workshops, the relationship is rather the reverse. In her contribution to the catalog, Barbara Kreis writes that the works of the students and teachers are “unmatched, and later often served architects as templates and sources of inspiration.”

The sheer scope of the training and the vast number of students and teachers make it clear that the Moscow workshops mark a unique stage in the development of modern architecture. Some 2,000 students enrolled in the first year alone, while Bauhaus trained only about 150 in the same time frame.

Many famed Russian artists and avant-garde architects were at least temporarily VKhUTEMAS teachers. These included Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Krinsky, Alexander Vesnin and his brothers Viktor and Leonid, Lyubov Popova, Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Nikolai Ladovsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Moisei Ginzburg, Alexei Shchusev, Wassily Kandinsky, Aleksandra Ekster, and Gustav Klutsis.

BookScanStation-2013-07-11-06-19-45-PM0001alq VKhUTEMAS faculty and professors

The VKhUTEMAS school’s reputation also spread internationally and reached New York, where the works of its students were exhibited. Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, traveled specifically to visit the VKhUTEMAS in Moscow in 1928. The Soviet pavilion designed by Melnikov and Rodchenko’s Workers Club were accorded great recognition at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.

The designs and sketches now shown in Berlin form eloquent testimony to the tremendous spirit of optimism that the October Revolution unleashed in architecture and other art forms. A documentary film, made by the German WDR broadcaster in 1984 and shown at the exhibition, features the comments of contemporaries, enthusiastically recalling their years of study in the VKhUTEMAS. Describing the atmosphere, one said he “always climbed stairs two steps at a time and, going down, in leaps and bounds.”

Curator Irina Tschepkunowa also writes in the introduction to the catalog that one can scarcely any longer imagine in today’s “pragmatically oriented” Russia the enthusiasm that broke out after the revolution. “Hunger and destruction during war communism, the ongoing civil war in the country’s border areas and the impoverished everyday life provoked in young people — as strange as this may seem today — not dejection, but an unprecedented creative enthusiasm and willingness to work.”

Establishing the VKhUTEMAS

.
Training in the VKhUTEMAS was focused on the mobilization of all talents for the building of a socialist society. Immediately after the revolution, the academies and art schools, reserved for the privileged social elites, were abolished and artistic training procedures reformed with the introduction of free state art workshops. All who wanted to study art could enroll at such schools. This also initially applied to the VKhUTEMAS, where participation in preparatory courses of the RabFak workers’ university was obligatory in 1921 for workers and young people without qualifications. In 1925, an examination assessing artistic talent was also introduced as an entry requirement.

A. Wesnin- Entwurf zur Gestaltung der Außenfassade der WChUTEMAS zum 10. Jahrestag der OktoberrevolutionLissitzky_Proun-Street_celebration_design_2786-08

The VKhUTEMAS were divided into eight faculties that included three art workshops: painting (panel, monumental and decorative painting), sculpture and architecture, as well as five production workshops: graphics, textiles, ceramics, metal and wood working. Lidia Komarova, an architect and a 1929 graduate of the VKhUTEMAS described the overall orientation of the workshops as follows: “The goal was to unite art with production, science with technology, and the new content of socialist life with the needs of the people.”(1) Continue reading

Il’ia Chashnik, revolutionary suprematist (1902-1929)

.
Il’ia Grigorievich Chashnik was born to an unremarkable Jewish family in Lyucite, Latvia on June 20, 1902. He spent most of his childhood in Vitebsk, leaving school at the age of eleven to work in a small watchmaking workshop.

From 1917 to 1919, Chashnik studied art with the local artist Iurii (Yehuda) Pen before moving to Moscow in 1919 to attend the newly-opened VKhUTEMAS [Higher State Art and Technical Studios]. Just a few months later, however, he transferred to the Vitebsk Art Institute in order to study under the Russian-Jewish folk painter and avant-gardist Marc Chagall. Soon he became enamored of the work of Kazimir Malevich, the mastermind of Suprematism. Malevich also happened to teach at the Institute, before receiving a promotion and taking it over during the winter of 1919-1920. El Lissitzky also mentored Chashnik briefly before departing to Western Europe.

Once his apprenticeship under Malevich began, Chashnik’s paintings underwent a radical change. Chashnik cultivated his own distinctive style within the Suprematist idiom, developing Malevich’s ideas of abstraction and non-figuration to produce floating geometric shapes with crossing planes. While Malevich composed white-on-white paintings wrapped in fragile stillness and simplicity, Chashnik moved toward more dynamic pieces where black was the predominant element.

David Walsh of the World Socialist Website described the young painter’s unique talents with considerable eloquence in a review he wrote of The Great Utopia exhibition of 1993, which featured some of Chashnik’s work. Walsh wrote:

Chashnik’s The Seventh Dimension: Suprematist and his Color Lines in Vertical Motion demonstrate an enormous talent. His Cosmos — Red Circle on Black Surface (1925), for example, is an extraordinary work. A giant red circle (sun, planet) hovers in blackness (sky, atmosphere). Under it on the painting’s surface floats a Suprematist-like structure (space station), lines and rectangles arranged horizontally across a central bar. The Suprematist craft — delicate, outweighed, pale in color — is seemingly directed toward the gigantic, perfect red sphere. The enormity of the task, the terrifying emptiness of the universe, the flimsiness of the vessel, are clear to the viewer.

Along with some other talented students of Malevich’s class — Nikolai Suetin, Vera Ermolaeva, and Lev Iudin — Chashnik participated in the organization of the group POSNOVIS [Followers of the New Art], later renamed UNOVIS [Affirmers of the New Art], contributing to all of its exhibitions. He became particularly close with Suetin, a friendship and creative partnership that would endure until the former’s untimely passing in 1929.

Even further, while still in Vitebsk, Chashnik helped Malevich draft the syllabus for the Department of Architecture and Technology at Vitebsk in 1921. There he explained:

The constructions of Suprematism are blueprints for the building and assembling of forms of utilitarian organisms.Consequently, any Suprematist project is Suprematism extended into functionality. The Department of Architecture and Technology is the builder of new forms of utilitarian Suprematism; as it develops, it is changing into a huge workshop-laboratory, not with the pathetic little workbenches and paints in departments of painting, but with electric machines for casting, with all kinds of apparatuses, with the technological wealth of magnetic forces. [This department works] in concert with astronomers, engineers, and mechanics to attain a single Suprematism, to build organisms of Suprematism — a new form of economics in the utilitarian system of modernity.

When local authorities forced UNOVIS out of Vitebsk in 1922, Chashnik, Suetin, Ermolaeva, and Iudin followed Malevich to join the GINKhUK in Petrograd. Throughout the Petrograd/Leningrad period, Chashnik spent his days exploring possible applications of Suprematist art to everyday life.

Creative product photography, catalog and web-site photography Creative product photography, catalog and web-site photography Architektonisches Projekt, 1926-1927. Bewegung der Farbe, 1921-1922. Suprematistische Komposition, 1922-1923 Continue reading

Victory over the sun (1913)

  • Two Futurist Strongmen
  • Nero and Caligula
  • A Time Traveller
  • A Malevolent
  • A Willbeite Machine Gun
  • A Fightpicker
  • Belligerent Soldiers
  • Sportsmen
  • Chorus
  • Pallbearers
  • A Telephone Talker
  • Eight Sun Carriers
  • The Motley Eye
  • The New
  • The Cowardly
  • A Reader
  • A Fat Man
  • An Old-timer
  • An Attentive Worker
  • A Young Man
  • An Aviator

Aleksei Kruchenykh (1886-1968) was a noted poet of the Russian Silver Age of literature. A radical even within the Russian Futurist movement, his best known works are the poem “Dyr bul shstyl” and the opera Victory over the Sun, with sets by Kazimir Malevich and music by Mikhail Matiushin. He was co-signatory, with Vladimir Mayakovsky, David Burliuk, and Velimir Khlebnikov, of “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.” He is considered the father of zaum, or transrational writing.

.

FIRST ACTION

*

Scene one

.
White with black: walls white, floor black.

(TWO FUTURIST STRONGMEN rip the curtain.)

*
THE FIRST

All’s well that begins well!
And ends?

THE SECOND

There will be no end!
We astound the universe

THE FIRST

We arm the world [1] against ourselves
Organize the slaughter of scarecrows
How much blood
How many sabers
And bodies for cannons!
We inundate the mountains!

(They sing.)

Fat beauties
We’ve locked up in a house
Let the drunkards there
A variety walk start naked
We have no songs
Recompense of sighs
That beguile the slime
Of rotten naiads!

(FIRST STRONGMAN slowly exits.)

SECOND STRONGMAN

Sun you bore the passions
And scorched them with flaming beam
We’ll yank a dusty coverlet over you
Lock you up in a concrete house!

(NERO and CALIGULA appear in one person: he has only one left arm, raised and bent at right angles.)

N. AND C. (menacingly)

K’youllen sewern der*
Travelled light
Past Thursday
Fry rip what I left half-baked.

Continue reading

Assorted Soviet propaganda posters, 1918-1939

.
Here’s an assortment of early Soviet propaganda posters from the revolutionary period up to the eve of the Second World War. I found a cache of exceptionally high quality, high resolution scans. Obviously my posting of them does not constitute an endorsement of the political views they express, especially in its more monumental Stalinist overtones (being more sympathetic to Trotsky and the Left Opposition myself).


Red Wedge beats the White Circle, 1919 El Lissitzky Aleksandr Rodchenko, poster for books with Lilia Brik, 1924 Aleksandr Rodchenko, Dobrolet poster 1923 Battleship Potemkin movie poster 1925 Soviet tramcar service advertisement, 1920s.


ksssrpost_0031 ksssrpost_0009 ksssrpost_0032 ksssrpost_0056 ksssrpost_0055.