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

In memoriam: Zaha Hadid, 1950-2016

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Zaha Hadid passed away unexpectedly today, suffering a heart attack in a Miami hospital where she was being treated for bronchitis. She was 65.

It would be disingenuous for me to claim I was an admirer of Hadid’s oeuvre. Doubtless she was an important figure within contemporary architecture, and in many ways a pioneer. As an Iraqi-born woman working in a field dominated by white men, Hadid overcame numerous obstacles to achieve rare prominence among her peers. Other women had enjoyed moderate success as builders, like the urban planner Catherine Bauer and the architect Eileen Gray, but never won the accolades Hadid did in her lifetime. Non-Western architects have likewise made only modest headway in the modern period. Gabriel Guévrékian, of Persian-Armenian origin, was one of the founders of CIAM in 1928, while the Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei perhaps alone can claim to rival Hadid’s accomplishments.

To be perfectly honest, I was much more torn up about the 2012 death of Lebbeus Woods. But he’d been sick for a long time. Woods was something of a mentor to Hadid when she was first starting out in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her early architectural delineations — or “paintings,” as she called them — were often quite impressive on a formal level. She worked in much the same speculative vein as Woods or Daniel Libeskind. Incidentally, before he died, Woods devoted a short essay split up into three posts on his blog, all of which analyzed Hadid’s drawings:

Hadid’s work of the eighties was paradoxical. From one perspective, it seemed to be a postmodern effort to strike out in a new direction by appropriating the tectonic languages of an earlier epoch — notably Russian avant-garde at the time of the Revolution — but in a purely visual, imagistic way: the political and social baggage had been discarded. This gave her work an uncanny effect. The drawings and architecture they depicted were powerfully asserting something, but just what the something was, in traditional terms, was unclear. However, from another perspective this work seemed strongly rooted in modernist ideals: its obvious mission was to reform the world through architecture. Such an all-encompassing vision had not been seen since the 1920s. Zaha alluded to this when she spoke about “the unfinished project” of modernism that she clearly saw her work carrying forward. With this attitude she fell into the anti-postmodern (hardly popular) camp championed by Jürgen Habermas. Understandably, people were confused about what to think, but one thing was certain: what they saw looked amazing, fresh and original, and was an instant sensation.

Studying the drawings from this period, we find that fragmentation is the key. Animated bits and pieces of buildings and landscapes fly through the air. The world is changing. It breaks up, scatters, and reassembles in unexpectedly new, yet uncannily familiar forms. These are the forms of buildings, of cities, places we are meant to inhabit, clearly in some new ways, though we are never told how. We must be clever enough, or inventive enough, to figure it out for ourselves — the architect gives no explicit instructions, except in the drawings. Maybe we, too, must psychically fragment, scatter, and reassemble in unexpected new configurations of thinking and living. Or, maybe the world, in its turbulence and unpredictability, has already pushed us in this direction.

Like Libeskind, but unlike Woods, Hadid eventually transitioned from paper architecture to the realm of built objects. Receiving major commissions around the world, she began to cultivate a complex, curvilinear, and organic style. Patrik Schumacher, her theoretical spokesperson, called it “parametricism.” Aided by new digital programs, which could calculate the area of contoured surfaces, Hadid developed a biomorphic expressionism that became her trademark. My opinion of these later structures is considerably lower than it is of her earlier, more suprematist-inflected buildings. I quite like the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, as well as the Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati. Essentially I agree with Woods here: “In one sense, [computer-aided design] liberated Zaha, enabling her to create the unprecedented forms that have, by the present day, become her signature. In another, it brought an end to a certain intimacy and feel of tentative, almost hesitant expectancy, in her drawings and designs, that was part of the intense excitement they generated.”

Below I am appending some extremely hi-res images of Zaha’s drawings. Longish essays by Hal Foster and Gevork Hartoonian, both insightful and making similar points about the prioritization of image and spectacle over building and tectonics, also follow.

Hadid, Zaha Title Vitra Fire Station Date 1994 Location Weil am Rhein, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany Description aerial view; landscape painting 1 Hadid, Zaha Title Vitra Fire Station Date 1994 Location Weil am Rhein, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany Description longitudinal section

Neo avant-garde gestures

Hal Foster
The Art-Architecture
Complex
(2012)
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In the last decade, Zaha Hadid has advanced from a vanguard figure in architecture schools to a celebrity architect with credibility enough in boardrooms to have several big buildings completed and several other projects launched. This upswing began in 2003 when her Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, her first structure in the United States, opened to wide acclaim, and it was confirmed in 2005 when her BMW plant center in Leipzig, which proved her ability to design for industry, was completed. In 2004 Hadid won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize — the first woman to be so honored — and in 2006 she received a retrospective of thirty years of her work (paintings as well as designs) at the Guggenheim Museum. More recently, her Museum of XXI Arts (MAXXI) in Rome appeared to warm reviews in 2009, and there are other large commissions in the works, including office buildings and cultural complexes in the Middle East, an opera house in Guangzhou, and an aquatic center for the 2012 Olympics in London. Hadid can no longer be dismissed, as her critics were once wont to do, as a woman who stood out in a male profession on account of her brassy personality and exotic background (she was born in Baghdad in 1950). Indeed, for her proponents Hadid has done more than any of her peers to rethink old representational modes of architecture and to exploit its new digital technologies. It is this view I consider here, with special attention to her recourse to select moments in modernist art and architecture.

For several years after her 1977 graduation from the Architectural Association (AA) in London, Hadid had little work of her own. In this lull she turned to modernist painting, in particular the Suprematist abstraction of Kasimir Malevich. Hadid explored this work in painting of her own, which she regarded primarily as a way not only to develop an abstract language for her architectural practice, but also to render the standard conventions of architectural imaging (plan, elevation, perspective, and axonometric projection) more dynamic than they usually appear. Already in her AA thesis, an unlikely scheme for a hotel complex on a hypothetical Thames bridge, Hadid adapted the idiom of the Malevich “Arkhitektons,” plaster models, built up in geometric blocks, that he proposed in the middle 1920s for a monumental architecture in the young Soviet Union. This was only an initial gesture, but it was not an auspicious one, for, however enlivened with Suprematist red and black, the Arkhitekton blocks remain static in her adaptation. Nevertheless, her project was shaped: “I felt we must reinvestigate the aborted and untested experiments of modernism,” Hadid wrote in retrospect, “not to resurrect them but to unveil new fields of building.”1 Continue reading

Louis Lozowick, communist lithographer (1892-1973)

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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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

alfred

The LEF and Soviet art

Alfred Barr
transition № 14
Autumn 1928

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

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

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

tretyakov

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

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

El Lissitzky, About Two Squares (1922)

spring-2008_hgd_poster

This short book, intended for children of all ages, is perhaps the best-known work of El Lissitzky (1890-1941). Lissitzky was a Russian artist, architect, designer, typographer, and photographer who was active in the avant-garde movement that flourished in Soviet Russia and in Germany, until the dominance of Socialist Realism by 1930 put a stop to its revolutionary activity. He directly influenced the typographical and display advertising innovations of the Bauhaus and De Stijl. This book entirely integrates modern typographical effects, as Lissitzky intended, with his illustrations in the Suprematist style.

The original book About Two Squares was printed by letterpress, even the slanted text and illustrations. It was first produced (“constructed”) in 1920 at the Soviet art institute UNOVIS in Vitebsk, and around April 1922 printed by Sycthian Press, Berlin, by Haberland Printers, Leipzig, in paperback, with 50 hardbound copies autographed and numbered, as the copyright page states.

A Dutch edition, published as Suprematisch worden van twee kwadraten in 6 konstrukties, edited by Theo van Doesburg, was published in The Hague by De Stijl, 1922. In October/November of that year, it appeared as a regular edition of De Stijl, vol 5 no 10/11. Also, 50 hardbound copies of the Dutch edition were numbered and signed by the author.

  1. About 2 Squares
    El Lissitzky
  2. To all, to all children
  3. El Lissitzky
    A suprematist story — about two squares.
    In 6 constructions: Berlin, Skythen, 1922.
  4. Don’t read this book Take —
    paper…fold
    rods…color
    blocks of wood…build
  5. here ARE
    …………two
    ………squares
  6. flying toward the Earth
    ……………………………from far away
  7. and see
    the black restlessly
  8. craSH — scattering everywhere
  9. and upon the black
    ………………………the Red establishes itself clearly
  10. So it ends —
    ……………further on
  11. UNOVIS
    constructed 1920, vitebsk

CRI_227458 pro02 pro03pro04 pro05 pro07 pro09 pro11 pro13 pro15 pro17 pro18 Continue reading

Radical chic: Avant-garde fashion design in the Soviet 1920s

In part, a re­sponse to Alana Mas­sey

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Alana Mas­sey re­cently guest-wrote a short art­icle for The New In­quiry’s beauty blog “The Be­held,” which is usu­ally run by Au­tumn White­field-Mad­rano. Its title is rather ex­cru­ci­at­ing: “The Party’s girls and party girls: Ne­go­ti­at­ing beauty in the So­viet Uni­on.” Parts of it are okay, however, the in­suf­fer­able puns not­with­stand­ing.

What fol­lows is a brief re­flec­tion on her piece and some thoughts of my own, con­cern­ing one of its ma­jor la­cunae.

defrag- Varvara Stepanova's sport uniform. defrag- Varvara Stepanova's sport uniform Varvara Stepanova. Students in sports clothing designed by Stepanova. in performance of An Evening of the Book,. 1924. spelling out “intermission” 1 Varvara Stepanova. Students in sports clothing designed by Stepanova. in performance of An Evening of the Book,. 1924. spelling out “intermission”

Let’s get a few oth­er minor quibbles out of the way be­fore pro­ceed­ing to the stronger points Mas­sey makes, though:

  1. First, there’s this tone of cas­u­al fa­mili­ar­ity to the whole piece that really grates on me, and I could’ve done without the self-in­dul­gent an­ec­dote about get­ting a bikini wax at Spa Jolie. Could be that I’m just old-fash­ioned, even slightly prudish. Don’t think so, though.
  2. Bey­ond that, the Tiqqun­esque ty­po­lo­gies — the So­viet wo­man, the post-So­viet wo­man — also bothered me a bit, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing how Sla­vo­phil­ic the whole story is. Mas­sey seems not to real­ize that there are post-So­viet wo­men who aren’t from Rus­sia or Ukraine. Wo­men from Kaza­kh­stan or Uzbek­istan of­ten don’t have the “razor cheekbones and the per­man­ent pout of down­ward-slant­ing lips” she de­scribes (i.e., what Anna Khachiy­an has termed “Rus­si­an cunt face,” a vari­ant of “bitchy rest­ing face”).

Nev­er­the­less, all the stuff about im­pro­visa­tion and beauty stand­ards, the weird tricks and tech­niques by which So­viet wo­men would com­pensate for scarce con­sumer goods, seems to me fairly ac­cur­ate. There were ana­log­ous meth­ods when it came to mak­ing do with short­ages of food or amen­it­ies. Some of this bri­co­leuse men­tal­ity is prob­ably even pre-So­viet, as far as I can tell. For ex­ample, Louise Bry­ant wrote about an in­ter­ac­tion she had with the Bolshev­ik re­volu­tion­ary lead­er Aleksandra Kollon­tai back in 1921 as fol­lows:

Once I com­pli­men­ted her [Kollon­tai] on a smart little fur toque she was wear­ing. She laughed and said, “Yes, one must learn tricks in Rus­sia, so I have made my hat out of the tail of my coat which is already five years old.”

Most of the nar­rat­ive fo­cuses on the later dec­ades of the So­viet Uni­on, un­der­stand­able giv­en the av­er­age age of the sub­jects she in­ter­viewed. Yulia Grad­skova, pro­fess­or of gender his­tory at the Uni­versity of Stock­holm, and Anne Mar­ie Sk­varek, a mas­ter’s stu­dent at the Uni­versity of Ari­zona, provide some his­tor­ic­al depth, but on the whole the story moves from the 1960s up to the USSR’s dis­sol­u­tion in 1991.

Vera Mukhina

Style: Style: Style: Style: Style: Style: Style: Style: Vera Mukhina, sporty costume Style: Style:

Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova

Ref­er­ence was made in passing to of­fi­cial “mes­sages” about waist-to-hip ra­tios passed down from the 1930s, but it seemed just leap out of the blue. Not en­tirely sure what she’s talk­ing about.

It would be in­ter­est­ing to know what she made of the really av­ant-garde fash­ion ex­per­i­ments of the 1920s, however, with Var­vara Stepan­ova’s col­or­ful tex­tile pat­terns, Li­ubov Pop­ova’s sportswear, Vladi­mir Tat­lin’s work out­fits, and Vera Mukh­ina’s gen­er­al ward­robe ad­vice. 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.

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FIRST ACTION

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Scene one

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White with black: walls white, floor black.

(TWO FUTURIST STRONGMEN rip the curtain.)

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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

Architectural compositions by Iakov Chernikhov, 1924-1931

Iakov Chernikhov, composition (1920s), 30 x 23,8cm Iakov Chernikhov, architectural fantasy 1929, 30 x 24 cm Iakov Chernikhov, experimental composition from Foundations of Contemporary architecture 1920-1928, watercolor and india ink on paper 29,9 x 23,8cm

Iakov Georgievich Chernikhov was one of the most outstandingly original artists of a period which produced many great talents. He was born on December 17, 1889 in the Ukrainian provincial town of Pavlograd, and studied first at Odessa College of Art, from which he graduated in 1914, and then at Petrograd’s famous Imperial Art Academy, now the Russian Academy of Art. Here he studied painting and education before switching to the architectural faculty in 1916. One year later, Chernikhov completed his teacher training and his degree thesis on methods of teaching drawing. He was called up for military service in 1916, but managed to continue studying, working, and teaching, though he was unable to resume his studies at the architectural faculty of VKhUTEMAS [the Higher Art and Technical Studios, previously the Academy of Art] until 1922. By the time he completed his degree in 1925, he had gained many years’ experience of educational theory and practice.

From 1927 to 1936 he worked for various architectural firms, designing and building a large number of projects. Until his death in May 1951, Chernikhov also continued to teach a wide variety of graphic arts subjects, including representational geometry and construction drawing. He became a professor in 1934, and was granted tenure the following year. By the standards of his time, he was simply a successful and fulfilled architect. His publications earned him a favorable reputation among his colleagues between 1927 and 1933, but after the Stalinist era his name disappeared from the scene. Only now, many decades after his death, are some of his books and examples of his wide-ranging graphic art being republished, and the magnitude of his unique creative genius becoming more widely recognized. Chernikhov’s first book, The Art of Graphic Representation, was published in 1927 by the Leningrad Academy of Arts. It was a textbook for the drawing course which he had devised but, despite its title, its purpose was not to teach readers how to draw. Even in Chernikhov’s time, the title had an old-fashioned ring to it, but he wrote the book with much more modern aims in mind. It is about graphic, spatial, and abstract compositions, and seeks to encourage students to use lines, planes, and solid to express beauty and movement without depicting anything known or recognizable, experimenting with all the boundless possibilities open to them. This thin volume is actually an extract from Chernikhov’s wide-ranging work. It was aimed at young secondary school and university students with no training in (or experience of) drawing or painting, and was ambitious in its aims. Publications like this were very unusual, since for the previous fifteen years, modern art had been used to express slogans, manifestoes, and statements of principle.

Chernikhov second from the right, Odessa 1910 Iakov Chernikhov standing in center in Odessa, 1910s Chernikhov at a construction site, 1928

Pedagogy

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Few of the leading figures in modern art were teachers, but as a passionate educationalist, Chernikhov regarded his books primarily as textbooks, and his superb graphics simply as illustrations. He used his exceptional talents in the service of education and, unlike many other gifted and famous artists and architects, did not prescribe specific styles or techniques, instead focusing on such down-to-earth subjects as the use of materials or ways of depicting form and space. The importance of the imagination to Chernikhov is apparent in the title of the first chapter: “Fantasy and Object.” The Art of Graphic Representation is primarily a way of depicting imaginary spaces, something at which he excelled, and his drive toward systematization compelled him to share this knowledge with others. To his mind, the ability to sketch and draw were essential, but the most important thing was imagination. Chernikhov’s work, which even his harshest critics freely admitted was unique, provides impressive evidence of the dominance of the imaginary over the factual and representational. Continue reading

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