Not art but communism

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)

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

El Lissitzky, design for a yacht club on Lenin Hills (August 1925)

From a letter to his wife Sophie (1925)

I’m working on a project for the yacht club [iakhtkluba] on Lenin Hills, and have nearly finished with the basic layout. All of this has been resolved spatially, and I think from this something will result. […]


[…] I’m not racking my brain over the technical aspects or the general problem, but over the art! […] When you look at the sketches now, you see that the most complicated thing is to make them simpler […]. I don’t think could explain it any more basically. The whole complex is located on a steep bank. Three large red horizontals — these are the terraces, corresponding to a lightning zigzag on the diagonal — with a serpentine passage connecting the upper and lower terraces. On the right at the bottom is a large hall. The roof doubles as a platform [tribuna] for viewers during the water regattas.

The basis for this work is the “PROUN” sketch, which I’ll draw for you later.

(8.13.1925) Continue reading

Models of Soviet avant-garde architecture

Some gorgeous models I found of Soviet avant-garde architecture (both realized and unrealized structures) designed by Australian students.

Theo van Doesburg’s “Architecture and Revolution — Revolutionary Architecture? Utopian Designs by Tatlin, Lissitzky, and Others” (1928)

Theo van Doesburg’s surprisingly critical, if somewhat superficial, article on Soviet avant-garde architecture from Het Bouwbedrijf, September 1928 (vol. 5, no. 20):

‘I have the courage to be barbaric.  I cannot follow the works of the expressionists, futurists, and cubists, nor all the other “isms” in which artistic genius awakens.  I do not understand anything about it, it leaves me cold.’

— Lenin

‘I can not keep abreast; we are too obsolescent.’

— Kerenskii

1. Introduction.  The double function which every innovation, be it in the sciences, culture, the arts or architecture, has to fulfill, consists on the one hand of building up piece by piece a new image of the world, while on the other hand an old world image is being broken down piece by piece.  The former is usually the result of the latter.  People do not realize at all how far-reaching the effect of a new concept actually is.  Just reading the writings of the adversaries of new forms of architecture or art makes one realize to what enormous extent jealousy and vexation have grown in the past twenty years.  Do read, for fun, for instance the pamphlet by the pompiériste Camille Mauclair, La folie picturale, to come to a slow realization how terrifying the effect of genius is on yonder side of the new art creation, presently already accepted once and for all.  I do not want to discuss art here any further than is necessary to explain our contemporary architecture, and I do not know whether this kind of pamphlet has also been aired against the international innovation in architecture.  They certainly were not lethal, and although on this side nobody takes the trouble to refute them (for nothing refutes them better and more strongly than The Work), they are not only a national disgrace, but also the mark of an imbalance in the development of spiritual and social progress.  This imbalance is characteristic for Russia.  The new endeavors in the fields of art and architecture (the latter date only from 1923) were certainly not less under attack in Russia than in other countries, and under the Soviet regime there must have been quite a confrontation.  Or do you imagine, you Soviets, in your blind veneration of everything originating there, that the Russian revolution a priori guaranteed free development of the modern creative genius? Do you imagine that, with one blow, the working class broke the bonds which had linked it very closely and very deeply with the bourgeois culture? Do you imagine that the leaders of this class, the Lenins, the Trotskiis, the Lunacharskiis, the Radeks, do have just an inkling of an idea of what was growing and flourishing, beyond class and time, beyond nation and community, in the mind of genius, already severed from the bourgeois long ago? If this were not so, why then did all the ‘revolutionary,’ creative people leave their beloved Russia? In order to import the new from Russia into foreign countries? No…In order to learn what is new there, and to import it…into Russia.  Would they make us believe that Russia has completely autonomously (for instance like ‘little’ Holland) produced a new architecture from the highly praised ‘proletarian culture,’ an architecture in keeping with the demands and needs of the working class? Out of the question.

The fact that a few Polish-Russian artists, chased by the Soviet regime, fled across the borders, each of them carrying an enormous portfolio, filled [186-187] with utopian, fantastic plans for a kind of dirigible-architecture, wanting to push these even as the new communist architecture, does not mean that in Russia itself even one modern, waterproof barrack has been built.  For indeed, when around 1920 all who had creative minds set forth from Russia, armed with abstraction and with the red quadrangle pinned on their sleeves (as the regalia of our formless time), not even a single chair had been built in Russia.  They had only words and promises, good as well as vague nebulous notions, sky high fantasies and intentions for eternity, but in reality nothing had been built as yet.  There was neither a basis, nor money available for that.

This situation was extraordinarily fortuitous for snobbism, and, as a reaction to the fact that central Europe (in which I include Holland here) was farther ahead, and, what is more important, more positive and realistic than yonder, and could give evidence of this with facts, people tried to simply antedate their works and thus transfer their creative activity to an earlier period.  Russia, which, according to the Russians, wanted to be an example to the whole of Europe with respect to social reform, could not fail to be the first and a signpost.  Moscow, actually the only cultural center in the immeasurably vast Russia, was already before the war in direct contact (via Poland) with European art life.  The turn in the field of aesthetics and architecture took place under direct influence of innovations which had occurred much earlier in the cultural centers of Milan, Paris, Berlin, etc., Holland included.

Continue reading