The Old New Wave

Kandinsky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings Vol. 1, 1900–1915

by Hans K. Roethel, by Jean K. Benjamin
Cornell University Press, 558 pp., $135.00

Russian Constructivism

by Christina Lodder
Yale University Press, 328 pp., $40.00

In March 1915 the poet and painter Vasilii Kamensky asked the jury of a Petrograd exhibition to allow him to contribute a live mouse in a mousetrap, but the jury rejected his proposal, arguing that it would lower the standard of artistic taste.

By and large, however, our rediscovery of the art and writings of those Russian pioneers such as Vasilii Kandinsky, Mikhail Larionov, Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin has been almost too earnest, too philosophical, and we have tended to forget about their comic antics and shocking behavior. Of course, the seriousness with which historians—including the authors under review—tend to approach the Russian avant-garde suggests the depth and permanence of its effect on modern artistic thinking; but their deadpan scrutiny is exactly the kind of scholarship that the Cubo-Futurists, Suprematists, and Constructivists tried to “throw overboard.”

Just before and after World War I, “Die ‘Wilden’ Russlands,”

These extreme actions remind us of concurrent showmanship in Paris, Milan, Zürich, but while the Russians were fully aware of Western trends and borrowed freely from them, they pursued them ferociously, with creative exaggeration, often arriving at conclusions unthinkable in the birthplaces of Cubism and Futurism. The vibrant stage designs for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris by Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov; the dramatic entry into abstract painting by Kandinsky, Larionov, and Malevich; Tatlin’s nonobjective reliefs of mixed media and his soaring spiralic tower of 1919–1920; the visionary architecture and design of the 1920s by Gustav Klutsis, El Lissitzky, Konstantin Melnikov, Liubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko, and …

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