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

Mossel’prom [Моссельпром], 1923-1925

Mosselprom

Mossel’prom [The Moscow Association of Enterprises Processing Agro-Industrial Products] was built by the architect David Kogan between 1923 and 1924.  A ten-storey commercial building, it was one of the tallest structures in Moscow built during this period.

It became notorious through Vladimir Mayakovsky’s advertising slogan: “Everything for everyone — at Mosselprom.” 1924 saw the release of the film The Cigarette Girl of Mossel’prom by Iurii Zhelyabuzhskii, which featured the building.

The façade was renovated in 1997.

alexander-rodchenko-mosselprom-building-webmosselprom 1923Мы думаем, что снимок сделан между 1925−1928 годами

silver Gelatin PrintДом Правления Моссельпрома уг.Калашного и Кисловского пер. Россия, Москва, ЦАО, Район Арбат Фото датировано- 20.10.1924a70b0ec9bc1f6e7ff86abb521d0000f3d (1) Мы думаем, что снимок сделан в 1931 году

mp 0_afb98_79d7bba4_XXXL'Mosselprom. Coffee, cocoa, sausages, pasta, chocolate, caramel, candy, tobacco, cigarettes, beer, waters, wines. Nowhere but in Mosselprom.'2527315eaaadcf4c6509c1bd1e8b8380030

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

Maiakovskii in New York

Brooklyn Bridge

Give Coolidge
a shout of joy!
I too will spare no words
………………………………………..about good things.
Blush
……….at my praise,
………………………………go red as our flag,
however
……………united-states
………………………………….-of
-america you may be.
As a crazed believer
………………………………..enters
…………………………………………….a church,
retreats
……………into a monastery cell,
…………………………………………………austere and plain;
so I,
………in graying evening
………………………………………haze,
humbly set foot
………………………..on Brooklyn Bridge.
As a conqueror presses
………………………………………into a city
……………………………………………………….all shattered,
on cannon with muzzles
……………………………………….craning high as a giraffe —
so, drunk with glory,
………………………………..eager to live,
I clamber,
……………….in pride,
………………………………upon Brooklyn Bridge.
As a foolish painter
……………………………….plunges his eye,
sharp and loving,
…………………………..into a museum madonna,
so I
……..from the near skies
……………………………………….bestrewn with stars,
gaze
………at New York
…………………………..through the Brooklyn Bridge.
New York,
……………….heavy and stifling
……………………………………………..till night,
has forgotten
…………………….its hardships
…………………………………………..and height;
and only
…………….the household ghosts
ascend
………….in the lucid glow of its windows.
Here
……….the elevateds
………………………………drone softly.
And only
……………..their gentle
…………………………………droning
tell us:
………….here trains
…………………………….are crawling and rattling
like dishes
…………………being cleared into a cupboard.
While
…………a shopkeeper fetched sugar
from a mill
………………….that seemed to project
………………………………………………………..out of the water —
the masts
……………….passing under the bridge
looked
…………..no larger than pins.
I am proud
………………….of just this
……………………………………mile of steel;
upon it,
……………my visions come to life, erect —
here’s a fight
…………………….for construction
………………………………………………instead of style,
an austere disposition
…………………………………..of bolts
………………………………………………..and steel.
If
….the end of the world
…………………………………….befall —
and chaos
……………….smash our planet
…………………………………………….to bits,
and what remains
…………………………….will be
…………………………………………this
bridge, rearing above the dust of destruction;
then,
……….as huge ancient lizards
……………………………………………..are rebuilt
from bones
………………….finer than needles,
………………………………………………….to tower in museums,
so,
……from this bridge,
………………………………..a geologist of the centuries
will succeed
………………….in recreating
……………………………………….our contemporary world.
He will say:
………………….— Yonder paw
……………………………………………of steel
once joined
………………….the seas and the prairies;
from this spot,
………………………Europe
…………………………………..rushed to the West,
scattering
……………….to the wind
……………………………………Indian feathers.
This rib
……………reminds us
………………………………..of a machine —
just imagine,
…………………….would there be hands enough,
after planting
……………………..a steel foot
………………………………………….in Manhattan,
to yank
…………..Brooklyn to oneself
…………………………………………….by the lip?
By the cables
…………………….of electric strands,
I recognize
…………………the era succeeding
…………………………………………………the steam age —
here
………men
………………had ranted
…………………………………on the radio.
Here
……….men
……………….had ascended
……………………………………….in planes.
For some,
………………life
…………………….here
……………………………..had no worries;
for others,
………………..it was a prolonged
………………………………………………and hungry howl.
From this spot,
………………………jobless men
leapt
………..headlong
………………………..into the Hudson.
Now
………my canvas
…………………………is unobstructed
as it stretches on cables of string
……………………………………………………..to the feet of the stars.
I see:
……….here
………………..stood Maiakovskii,
stood,
…………composing verse, syllable by syllable.
I stare
………….as an Eskimo gapes at a train,
I seize on it
………………….as a tick fastens to an ear.
Brooklyn Bridge —
yes…
………..That’s quite a thing!

[1925]

The Brooklyn Bridge: A photo gallery

New York

For hours the train tears along the bank of the Hudson, at about two paces from the water. On the other side there are more roads, right at the foot of the Bear Mountains. Loads of boats and small craft are pushing along. More and more bridges seem to leap across the train. The carriage windows are increasingly being filled with the upright walls of maritime docks, coal depots, electrical placements, steel foundries, and pharmaceutical works. An hour before the terminus, you pass through a continuous density of chimneys, roofs, two-storey walls, and the steel girders of an elevated railway. With every step of the way, the roofs grow an extra floor. Eventually, tenements loom up, with their shaftlike walls and windows in squares, tinier squares and dots. This makes everything even more cramped, as though you were rubbing your cheek against this stone. Completely lost, you sink back onto your seat — there’s no hope, your eyes are just not used to this sort of thing; then you come to a stop — it’s Pennsylvania Station.

Americans keep quiet (or, perhaps, people only seem like that against the roar of the machinery), but over American heads megaphones and loudspeakers drone on about arrivals and departures.

Electric power is further utilized twofold and threefold by the white plates covering the windowless galleries and walkways, broken by information points, whole rows of commercial cash tills, and all kinds of shops that never close — from ice cream parlors and snack bars to crockery and furniture stores.

Vladimir Maiakovskii in New York (1925)

Vladimir Maiakovskii in New York (1925)

It is hardly conceivable that anyone could clearly imagine this whole labyrinth in its entirety. If you have come in for business at an office say two miles away downtown, in the banking or business sector of New York, on maybe the fifty-third floor of the Woolworth Building, and you have owlish proclivities — there’s no need for you even to emerge from underground. Right here, under the ground, you get into a station lift and it will whizz you up to the vestibule of the Pennsylvania Hotel, a hotel of two thousand guest-rooms of all conceivable types. Everything a visiting businessman can need: post offices, banks, telegraph offices, all sorts of goods — you’ll find everything here, without even going outside the hotel. Continue reading