A revolutionary impulse: Russian avant-garde at the MoMA

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Four months back, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art opened an ex­hib­it en­titled A Re­volu­tion­ary Im­pulse: Rise of the Rus­si­an Av­ant-Garde. The show re­ceived mostly fa­vor­able write-ups in lib­er­al out­lets like New York Times and New York­er as well as art/cul­ture mags like Stu­dio In­ter­na­tion­al, Seca Art, and He­don­ist. Marx­ist and left­ish pub­lic­a­tions such as World So­cial­ist Web­site (or­gan of the So­cial­ist Equal­ity Party) and Brook­lyn Rail also ran ap­pre­ci­at­ive re­views of the ex­hib­i­tion.

Per­haps my fa­vor­ite crit­ic­al re­flec­tion on the show came from Caesura, an off­shoot from the Platy­pus Af­fil­i­ated So­ci­ety ex­clus­ively fo­cused on art, mu­sic, and lit­er­at­ure. It fea­tured a fairly char­ac­ter­ist­ic but nev­er­the­less poignant ob­ser­va­tion:

Of the stag­ger­ing num­ber of ob­jects on dis­play, most strik­ing was film­maker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 col­lab­or­a­tion with Rod­chen­ko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a pro­pa­ganda film (the title trans­lates to cinema-truth) track­ing the fail­ing health, death and fu­ner­al of Len­in. Black and white graph­ics con­trib­uted by Rod­chen­ko de­pict­ing, without com­ment, the med­ic­al stat­ist­ics of the ail­ing re­volu­tion­ary lead­er cre­ated a palp­able sense of worry as they edge, at an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow pace, to­wards the res­ult we all know already: Len­in’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced pro­ces­sion of mourn­ers at his fu­ner­al, ded­ic­at­ing por­trait shots and name plates to party lead­ers: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Le­on Trot­sky and Joseph Stal­in stead­fastly look­ing ahead. The lat­ter was ut­terly chilling — a glimpse of a fu­ture yet un­known to the film­makers but known all too well today. Stand­ing, in 2017, in the Amer­ic­an Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in a mo­ment of ut­ter polit­ic­al con­fu­sion, the tragedy of this mo­ment was cut­ting. Could the mourn­ers have pos­sibly known that they had wit­nessed both the be­gin­ning and the end of a mo­ment of tre­mend­ous his­tor­ic­al po­ten­tial? Did Vertov and Rod­chen­ko real­ize that in their mont­age of party lead­ers it would be Stal­in who would take power? Did they know that, after the crip­pling de­feat of the Ger­man Left the year pri­or, 1924 would mark a clos­ing and not an open­ing of his­tory?

Caesura’s re­view­er fur­ther spec­u­lates that “if the art of the Rus­si­an av­ant-garde has a time­less qual­ity, it is be­cause of its unique his­tor­ic­al ori­gin. Nev­er be­fore or since have artists op­er­ated un­der the thrall of three so­ci­et­ies — crum­bling czar­ist Rus­sia, the dy­nam­ic bour­geois west, and the ad­van­cing specter of so­cial­ism — so dif­fer­ent. It ex­presses all three but be­longs to none.” A sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment is cap­tured by a line in the New York­er: “His­tory is not a con­stant march for­ward; it can stand still for dec­ades and then, as it did in Rus­sia a hun­dred years ago, ex­plode in a flash.” This line it­self merely para­phrases a quip at­trib­uted to Len­in, to the ef­fect that “there are dec­ades where noth­ing hap­pens, but then there are weeks where dec­ades hap­pen.”

I my­self at­ten­ded the ex­hib­it, and was im­pressed by what I saw. Some of the same pieces had ap­peared in spe­cial gal­ler­ies across the city over the last few years, but the sheer wealth of ma­ter­i­al con­cen­trated in one space was breath­tak­ing. Fur­ther­more, the way this ma­ter­i­al was or­gan­ized and form­ally ar­ranged was skill­ful. You can see a pic­ture of me stand­ing next to Lis­sitzky’s “new man of com­mun­ism,” taken from his series for Vic­tory over the Sun. Be­low you can read a fine med­it­a­tion on the show writ­ten by Bloom Correo, a young ul­traleft au­thor who vis­ited NYC just to see it.

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Ivan Kudriashev’s interplanetary-dynamic abstractions (1917-1928)

Cosmism and
communism
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Click images
to enlarge
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Biographical notes

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Born
Kaluga, 1896; died Moscow, 1972.

From 1913 to 1917 Kudriashev attended the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, and from 1918 to 1919 studied with Kazimir Malevich at the SVOMAS [Free State Art Studios]; there he met Ivan Kliun, Antoine Pevsner, and Naum Gabo. From 1918 on, under the influence of the ideas of the space scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (conveyed to Kudriashev by his father, a carpenter who made rockets and other devices for Tsiolkovskii), he turned to the problems of cosmic abstract painting, as filtered through Suprematism. After the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary seizure of power in October 1917, Kudriashev worked for about a year on propaganda designs for automobiles to celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution.

Ivan Kudriashev, photographer unknown (1940s)

In 1919, he was sent to Orenburg to establish the SVOMAS. That same year Kudriashev participated in the city’s inaugural State Exhibition, showing sketches for the mural of the First Soviet Theater along with other abstract works. Over the next year he worked on the interior to the Summer Red Army Theater and organized a branch of the UNOVIS group in Orenburg.

Kudriashev arrived in Smolensk in 1921, while serving as the supervisor of a train for the evacuation of starving children. There he met Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski, two Polish followers of Malevich. Later on Kudriashev returned to Moscow, and from late 1921 onward worked as a designer. In 1922 he sent work to the “Erste russische Kunstausstellung” (First Russian Art Exhibition) at the Galerie van Diemen in Berlin. Between 1925 to 1928 his abstract works were displayed at the first, second, and fourth OST exhibitions.

After 1928, Kudriashev stopped exhibiting in the Soviet Union.

Early works.

Planets

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Ivan Kudriashev is one of the lesser-known painters of the Soviet avant-garde. Not for lack of talent, however. Brilliant, brooding, and celestially driven, Kudriashev was often given to interstellar flights of the imagination. He dreamed of nighttime passages between the Earth and other planets. This of course reflected the gravitational pull of Tsiolkovskii’s cosmism, which always held extraterrestrial ambitions.

Many of his darker paintings from the 1920s convey this sense of cosmic loneliness — that of a solitary mind launched and set adrift in a cold vessel, wandering through the black expanse of space. Kudriashev’s career was brief, but blazed a path fed by rocket-fuel. Continue reading

Recommended Architectural Blogs and Articles, along with My Gratitude

Leonidov's Proposed "Ministry of Heavy Industry" (1934)

I should like to thank the following architecture-related websites and point to some of their best articles:

  1. dpr-barcelona: I would like to thank Ethel Baraona not only for her enthusiastic promotion of my site on Twitter and so on, but for her friendship.  After I posted some links to a few of the journals I’d uploaded, she immediately e-mailed me personally expressing her thanks.  That said, she and her co-contributor have produced some excellent content of their own, in articles both in English and in Spanish.  To point to just a couple of them: “Ivan Leonidov and the Russian Utopias” and “Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms | Iakov Chernikhov.”
  2. Critical Grounds: Thanks to the author of this blog for pointing his students to the English-language modernist architectural archive I created.  And if you have the time, please read the following excellent articles: “In the Name of Being: Critical Regionalist Landscape Urbanism, a Critique,” his reference to another critique of environmentalism in “Ross Adams on the ‘eco-city’,” and finally his own “Parallel Lines: formal expression as publicity in the architecture of Hadid’s Central Building for BMW Leipzig.”
  3. sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy: As always, the Bolshevist and “interdistrictite” Owen Hatherley must make the list.  Not only for his incredibly helpful promotion of my own blog, but for his numerous good articles.  Some of his older articles from his previous blog are more immediately related to what I’ve been working on: “No Rococo Palace for Buster Keaton: Americanism (and Technology, Advertising, Socialism) in Weimar Architecture,” “The Functionalist Deviation Politics of building, aesthetics of anti-architecture,” and especially “A Pod of One’s Own — Architecture or Revolution: the Congres International d’Architecture Moderne, 1928-33.”
  4. Kosmograd: There’s too much good, cosmopolitan material at this site, which is mostly dedicated to early Bolshevik architecture and the Soviet space program.  He has linked to my site on several occasions, for which I am very thankful.  Interesting articles on this site include “Communal House of the Textile Institute,” the hilarious “Eco-town of Tomorrow and Its Planning,” and his interesting piece on “Decaying Orbiters.”

Another Batch of Soviet Avant-Garde Architectural Journals (Free PDFs)

Plan for "New Moscow" (April 1929)

Here’s another batch of early Soviet avant-garde architectural journals, from between 1929-1930.  The 1929 one is the one I most recently worked on; the others were converted into PDFs back before I had perfected the method of separating out the text from the rest of the page.  As a result, these are all in grayscale, though they remain very readable.  The image quality is a little lower than on my more recent uploads.  But here they are, so enjoy!

  1. Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 4
  2. Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 7
  3. Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 8/9
  4. Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 10
  5. Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 12

Anti-Constructivism in the Soviet Avant-Garde: Nikolai Dokuchaev and ASNOVA

Nikolai Ladovskii's Rationalist Metro Station in Moscow (1931)

Not all of the early Soviet architectural avant-garde was “Constructivist,” strictly speaking.  Though this was the title often generically ascribed to all modernist architecture coming out of Russia, only those pieces produced by the architectural group OSA can be considered constructivist.  OSA’s self-proclaimed position was that of constructivism, which was founded on the principle of the “functional method” of design, as Ginzburg and the Vesnin brothers described it.

An earlier avant-garde group, ASNOVA, had been founded in 1923 by Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, Vladimir Krinskii, and El Lissitzky (though Lissitzky spent most of his time abroad).  This school of architectural thought was deeply informed by the principles of abstract Suprematism in painting, the style invented by Kazimir Malevich some years before.  In fact, Lissitzky’s PROUN series led directly into his architectural phase of production.

As opposed to the Constructivists in OSA, which was founded two years later (in 1925), the premise of architectural Rationalism, as it came to be called, was formalistic, rather than functional.  The members of ASNOVA appealed to evidence gleaned from the study of psychotechnics, a science imported from Germany and America, to claim that certain formal shapes and patterns of design had a direct effect on the psychology of those who viewed the structure of a building.  Once these formal principles could be discerned, they could be used to produce an ideological effect, lifting viewers out of their state of false consciousness and inspiring their participation in the construction of the new society.

Nikolai Dokuchaev was, next to Ladovskii, the main theoretical exponent of Rationalism in architecture.  With Lissitzky in Germany, working on periodicals like G, ABC, and Merz, and the majority of Krinskii’s time devoted to teaching and designing new projects, it fell to Dokuchaev and Ladovskii to explicate ASNOVA’s programmatic stance.  In the following series of articles, taken from the early Soviet periodical Советское искусство (Soviet Art), Dokuchaev compares the Soviet Constructivist architecture of the OSA group with architectural parallels he sees in the capitalist West.  He criticized the Constructivists’ “functional method,” equating it with the spare style of Functionalism that was prominent in Germany at the time.  Then, in a later article, published in the journal Строительство Москвы (Building Moscow) [the issue is reproduced in full], Dokuchaev lays out his proposal for the Socialist city of Magnitogorsk, one of the first of many experimental cities that were planned to be built.

These articles and the one complete issue can be downloaded below:

Николай Докучаев – «Современная русская архитектура и западные параллели» (part 1) – Советское искусство – (1927) – № 1

Николай Докучаев – «Современная русская архитектура и западные параллели» (part 2) – Советское искусство – (1927) – № 2

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 4

A Few More Issues of Строительство Москвы

Here are a few more issues of Строительство Москвы:

Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 5

Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 6

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 6

 

Строительство Москвы/Building Moscow Explained, Plus Some More Issues

Diagram for the Proposed Reconstruction of Moscow

 Строительство Москвы, pronounced “Stroitel’stvo Moskvy,” was a Soviet journal published from 1924-1941.  In the first couple years of its existence, its focus was primarily on the construction industry and its activities in Moscow, talking about city renovation following the end of the devastating Civil War.  Its articles during this period were of a mostly journalistic nature, reporting recent developments and discussing new building proposals.  One section toward the end was usually reserved for a “Chronicle of Foreign Technology,” in which new technological achievements in the West were detailed.

Around 1927, however, the focus of the journal shifted to more theoretical matters, absorbing some of the avant-garde influences of magazines like SA, which was reflected by some of the more programmatic articles it featured.  The nature of modern architecture was discussed, in a way that was slightly more inclusive than the strictly Constructivist SA, under the editorship of Ginzburg and the Vesnins (and later Khiger).  Nikolai Ladovskii published several articles in Building Moscow, as well as his protégés Krutikov and Krasil’nikov.  Some of the more traditional, academic architects were also able to publish during this period.

Between 1929 and 1931, the subject of greater city planning was introduced to the journal, with a great deal of attention devoted to the plans to reconstruct Moscow, overseen by Stalin’s henchman Kaganovich.  The competition for the design of the Palace of the Soviets, planned for construction right outside the Kremlin, was also a major subject dealt with by Building Moscow.  After 1932 or so, with the results of the competition in, the journal slowly began to drift into a neoclassicist direction, where it would remain until it ceased publication in the leadup to war with Germany in 1941.

Anyway, here are another few issues of the journal, of a more avant-garde and theoretical flavor, talking about urbanism and design:

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 5

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 6

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 8

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 10

Digitizing Microfiche: Строительство Москвы и другие Советские журналы об архитектуре (Building Moscow and other Soviet Journals about Architecture)

Aleksandr Sil'chenkov's Proposal for the "House of Industry" Project, 1929

Another long overdue update.  My two-month absence can be explained by a series of personal matters to which I’ve had to attend, as well as by an exceedingly laborious part of my research in which I’ve been involved.  This post will share some of the fruits of that labor, however, providing a sneak-peak into some of the subjects I’ve been working on.  I flatter myself to think that I am also hereby contributing to the further democratization of knowledge, freeing long-forgotten documents from their obscurity in old libraries and distant archives.  But the truth is that I have been the beneficiary of so much of the work undertaken by people with similar motives, scanning valuable documents and thereby disseminating their information, that I feel this is the least I could do.

Cutting to the matter at hand, the files attached to this post are just some of the old avant-garde journals which I’ve been carefully converting to a readable PDF format, in full-text versions that include illustrations as well as raw text.  The difference between these files and the ones I digitized from Современная архитектура late last year is that I actually never encountered the physical documents that I was working with.  These rare documents were only accessible to me in microfiche and microfilm format, preserved as part of Columbia University’s and the New York Public Library’s effort to catalogue early Soviet periodicals.  Some of these microform documents were in good condition, with minimal dust and other imperfections.  Others, unfortunately, were not.

To briefly describe the process by which I digitized these journals (for those who might be interested or are perhaps considering similar work), I shall here sketch out the major steps it involved.  First, I had to create a makeshift light-table separate from the actual microform scanners at the library, which tend to produce extremely shoddy and unreadable facsimiles.  I then proceeded to photograph each individual frame of microfilm or microfiche with a digital camera.  I personally do not own a camera with a very high-resolution optical lens (this requires something like a 40-100x zoom), so I instead removed one of the detachable high-zoom lenses from one of the scanners and then shot my own pictures at my camera’s maximum zoom through this second lens.  Anyone who has better equipment than I did can easily bypass this step.

It took a while to get used to taking good shots of each individual frame, but once I had gathered all of them I loaded them onto my computer and began running them through image-processing software.  The number of programs I ended up using, which probably could be simplified by anyone who knows how to work with images better than I, included Aperture, Photoshop, and the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).  If anyone is interested in the actual adjustments I made to each file to render them more readable, they can inquire in the comments section.  I shall spare my readers these boring details.  Anyway, clarifying the text portions of these journals I found often distorted the images that appeared alongside them, and so I decided to process each page with images twice, once for the images and once for the text.  I then mapped on some cleaned-up versions of the pictures onto the cleaned-up texts and ran the resulting images through the ABBYY FineReader text-recognition program.

The final product of this whole confounded process can be found below.  Enjoy! More will be coming soon.  I’ve catalogued the entire run of Строительство Москвы from 1926-1932, Советская архитектура from 1931-1934, and a number of assorted articles relating to architecture from the journals Советское искусство, Плановое хозяйство, and Революция и культура.  They shall be forthcoming.  Here are some of the ones I’ve finished so far:

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 9

Строительство Москвы – (1931) – № 8

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 1

Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 1

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 4

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 2

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 3

Николай Докучаев – «Архитектура и планировка городов» – Советское искусство – (1926) – № 6

The Major Works of Iakov Chernikhov

Many thanks to Arch-Grafika.ru/ for making available the following major works of the famed Russian avant-garde architect Iakov Chernikhov, which I have converted into PDF form and rendered searchable:

1. Яков Чернихов — 101 архитектурная фантазия (1927) [101 Architectural Fantasies]

2. Яков Чернихов — Основы Современной Архитектуры (1930) [The Fundamentals of Modern Architecture]

3. Яков Чернихов — Конструкция машинных и архитектурных форм (1933) [The Construction of Machine and Architectural Forms, of which I have recently posted an excellent full-text translation by the late Catherine Cooke]

An additional thank you to Arch-Grafika for crediting my work in uploading Izvestiia ASNOVA.

OSA’s Modern Architecture (Современная архитектура)

 

Современная архитектура

Tomorrow I am going to finally get a chance to take a look at the physical copies of Sovremennaia arkhitektura’s full run, from 1926-1930.  I have looked through virtually the entire journal before on microfilm, but this will be the first time I actually handle the documents themselves.  Anyway, I’m bringing my camera.  Expect PDFs.