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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.1 Kamensky was a member of what is now known as the Russian avant-garde and his attitude expressed the very essence of these “hooligans of the palette”2 who wished to “throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoi et al., overboard from the Ship of Modernity.”3 The term “Russian avant-garde” is now almost a household word thanks to numerous recent publications, exhibitions, and allied events culminating in the production of the Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun (original libretto by Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, music by Mikhail Matiushin, and designs by Kazimir Malevich) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last November. This was first staged in St. Petersburg in 1913.4

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,”5 as David Burliuk, the “Father of Russian Futurism,”6 called his colleagues, undertook unprecedented experiments in literature and art and created wholly new concepts of poetry, painting, architecture, and design. In 1913 the poet Vasilisk Gnedov, who called himself an “Ego-Futurist,” wrote what he called “The Poem of the End”—a blank page; in 1917 Malevich began his series of “white on white” paintings; also in 1913 Kruchenykh introduced a “transrational” language—expressed in his poem called “Heights”—consisting only of vowel sounds; in 1918 Alexander Rodchenko painted his three minimalist canvases of pure red, yellow, and black; and in 1920 the Russian Dadaists, who actually called themselves “Nothingists” (since the Russian “da, da” was too affirmative), paraphrased Tristan Tzara’s manifesto by declaring “Read nothing, write nothing, publish nothing.”7

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 the Vesnin brothers; Pavel Filonov’s Analytical Art8—these are just a few of the Russian achievements that have now been acclaimed as central to the development of twentieth-century culture.

How can we explain the remarkable success of this great experiment? Some reference can be made to historical accident, but many discoveries—such as Malevich’s Black Square of 1915—were made only after the artists reprocessed and expanded Western ideas. However great were the results, they could hardly have been made without a willing assimilation and interpretation of Munich Jugendstil, Paris Cubism, Milan Futurism, the Old German Masters, etc. Kandinsky’s exposure to the Munich Secession in the late 1890s left a deep imprint on his stylistic evolution; Tatlin’s momentary confrontation with the newest ideas of both Picasso and Boccioni in Paris in 1913 prompted him to move immediately into his three-dimensional work; Malevich regarded his nonobjective system, Suprematism, as the logical development of Cubism and Futurism, as he demonstrated in his first book; Filonov reached his incisive graphic technique through his constant study of Altdorfer and Dürer; and, surely, both Gabo’s and Lissitzky’s schooling in draftsmanship and engineering design in Munich and Darmstadt respectively were a primary stimulus to their constructive aesthetic.

The books by Milner and Lodder certainly make reference to the Russian avant-garde’s debt to the West, but they still do not provide a rounded impression of the extent to which pre-Stalin Russia was au courant with major cultural developments. Some of the more practical symptoms of this intense cross-fertilization are worth recalling: the celebrated collections of French impressionist and postimpressionist paintings belonging to Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin in Moscow, Matisse’s trip to Russia in 1911–1912, and Marinetti’s in 1914, the almost simultaneous translations into Russian of Du Cubisme by Gleizes and Metzinger, and many of the Italian Futurist statements, the exhibitions of Cubist painting in Moscow, etc. In other words, the Russian avant-garde in the early years of the century was a composite product that drew its inspiration from a multiplicity of sources and that never stood for a single artistic direction or style.

What of the all-embracing term “avant-garde” that is now applied to the various literary and artistic movements in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities roughly between 1908 and 1930? First, the representatives of what is now called the Russian avant-garde never used that term, and even today Soviet historians are hesitant to adopt it. Second, the “Russian” avant-garde was more than Russian, including Armenians, Jews, Poles, Letts, etc. Third, we now exaggerate the camaraderie of these recalcitrant personages. Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin were so antagonistic to each other that they once engaged in a fist fight at an exhibition. Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova were constantly at loggerheads (in spite of Rodchenko’s touching photograph of them together). Pavel Filonov despised everyone, and Nina Kandinsky later said of the extreme tendencies just after the revolution, “We took no part in this.”9

But perhaps the most dangerous rumor concerning the Russian avant-garde has to do with its alleged support of radical politics and radical political philosophy in general. True, even Malevich liked to maintain that “Cubism and Futurism were revolutionary movements in art, anticipating the revolution in the economic and political life of 1917.”10 But such a declaration should not be interpreted to mean that the avant-garde artists were always politically conscious or that they used radical art for political purposes. In a recent interview, Roman Jakobson made this clear when he was asked whether referential content should be assigned to Malevich’s squares and colors:

No, no, nonsense. I believe all these things were done before the Revolution, and the red played a great role before the Revolution and independent of the Revolution and nobody—nobody of those who saw it—had the slightest idea of that. Of course, all that remains is the relation between white and black that was here and the relation of white and black versus the red.11

A similar case might be made for Constructivism, perhaps the most “committed” of the postrevolutionary developments. While the term Constructivism was used no earlier than January 1921 in Russia and seemed to represent a genuine response to the demand for an industrial, proletarian art, it must not be forgotten that “Constructivist” design had existed in Russia well before the revolution: Alexandra Exter, Popova, Rodchenko, and others were designing “utilitarian” clothes and other accouterments, and functional architecture was well in evidence in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the form of business and industrial buildings. In any case, there is no convincing reason why utilitarian design is necessarily “proletarian” while the illusionistic picture is “bourgeois,” why one is progressive, the other regressive. This became especially clear at the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” in Paris in 1925, where artifacts designed ostensibly for Soviet proletarian consumption, e.g., Rodchenko’s famous Reading Room for a Workers’ Club, were awarded prizes by a jury consisting of the pillars of elegant, bourgeois taste. Moreover, only a handful of such projects were ever mass-produced, a fact often forgotten by historians of Constructivism. The Soviet art critic Yakov Tugendkhold commented on these inconsistencies in his review of the “Exposition Internationale”:

Many still think that Constructivism and non-objective art represent an extremely leftist trend, identifiable precisely with our proletarian country. The Paris Exposition has revealed that Constructivism is just as identifiable with bourgeois countries too, where “leftist” bourgeois bedrooms…and “leftist” ladies’ manteaux of ermine and sable are being made…. Does this mean that the revolutionary ideology is conquering the bourgeois consciousness, that it is entering the bourgeois world, or, on the contrary, that these principles are really not so revolutionary? The latter, I would think.12

One Russian artist who was not enthusiastic about the endeavor to create a proletarian style and who, quite unashamedly, catered to, or at least made use of, rich middle-class patrons was Kandinsky. Kandinsky remains among the most fascinating artists of the Russian avant-garde in part because he embodied the split personality of Mother Russia, oscillating between East and West, unreason and reason, spontaneity and order. While engrossed in oriental philosophy, especially as refracted in the teachings of the Theosophists, Kandinsky also tried to reduce art to an exact science, and while reading Sar-Péladan, he compiled a sober, objective plan of research for the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk) in Moscow (1920). In spite of his long sojourn in Germany and then, after 1933, in France, Kandinsky always maintained that Moscow was the “starting-point of my searches,”13 and, surely, through the abstract masses of Kandinsky’s paintings radiate the riotously colored domes of Moscow’s churches or the highly ornate hut interior that so impressed him during his expedition to the Vologda region in 1889.14

Perhaps the most exciting experience offered by the recent Catalogue Raisonné by Roethel and Benjamin is to follow Kandinsky’s ambiguity, i.e., his logical and consistent movement toward abstraction and, at the same time, his obvious reluctance to reject the world of appearances. As we examine apparently nonobjective works of circa 1911–1912, we should heed Kandinsky’s warning in his tract On the Spiritual in Art:

If we begin to sever our connection with “nature” today, to force our way through to freedom and to confine ourselves exclusively to the combination of pure colors and independent forms, the result would be works of geometric ornament resembling a necktie or a carpet (to put it bluntly).15

In comparing early and late works reproduced in the Catalogue Raisonné, we can see very clearly how Kandinsky reduced or approximated a concrete image such as a horseman in his “abstract” paintings, but by no means eliminated all vestiges of the external world. A similar impression is gained from the current Kandinsky exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York where the paintings and drawings in the later, Bauhaus section sometimes appear simply to be refinements of earlier Russian works.

Of course, a catalogue raisonné of the oil paintings is welcome not simply as a statistical compendium of “all” the Kandinsky oils, but also as a useful aid to formal and thematic comparisons. Thanks to the first volume we are now able to examine at a glance all the versions of a certain theme (e.g., St. George), to compare a particular landscape with a documentary photograph (sometimes Kandinsky’s own) and, in our mind’s eye, to compare Kandinsky’s early paintings with those of his Russian and Western contemporaries such as Konstantin Somov (no. 115), Edvard Munch (no. 299), Robert Delaunay (no. 455), etc.

  1. 1

    As reported by the artist Aristarkh Lentulov in his autobiography in Sovietskie khudozhniki (Moscow, 1937), vol. 1, p. 160.

  2. 2

    David Burliuk referred to the nineteenth-century Realist artists such as Ivan Aivazovsky as “hooligans of the palette” in his manifesto “The Voice of an Impressionist: In Defense of Painting” (1908). Translation in J. Bowlt, ed., Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902–34 (Viking, 1976), pp. 10, 11.

  3. 3

    Part of the manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” (1912) cosigned by D. Burliuk, A. Kruchenykh, V. Khlebnikov, and V. Mayakovsky. Translation in V. Markov, Russian Futurism: A History (University of California Press, 1968), pp. 45, 46.

  4. 4

    E.g., in 1979 the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, organized the momentous “Paris-Moscou 1900–1930” which was repeated in modified form under the title “Moscow-Paris 1900–1930” at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, in 1981; in 1980 the Los Angeles County Museum organized “The Avant-Garde in Russia 1910–1930: New Perspectives,” and the following year the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, opened the North American tour of “Art of the Avant-Garde in Russia: Selections from the George Costakis Collection” which is now on its European tour; in 1982 the Seibu Museum, Tokyo, organized its spectacular “Art and Revolution,” and the same year the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, presented “Russian Stage Design: Scenic Innovation 1900–1930. From the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Nikita D. Lobanov-Rostovsky.” Private galleries in the US and Europe have also done much to promote the cause of modern Russian art: for example, the Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York, is now showing a selection of Suprematist drawings under the title “Malevich, Suetin, Chashnik.”

  5. 5

    This was the title of D. Burliuk’s contribution to the almanac Der Blaue Reiter, edited by Vasilii Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1912. Translation in K. Lankheit, ed., The Blaue Reiter Almanac, edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc (Viking, 1974), pp. 72–79.

  6. 6

    This is how, allegedly, Kandinsky referred to D. Burliuk. See Oils, Water-colors by David Burliuk (Catalog of exhibition at the 8th Street Gallery, New York, 1934), p. 3.

  7. 7

    Dekret o Nichevokakh Poezii” in Sobachii yashchik ili Trudy tvorcheskogo biuro nichevokov v tech. 1920–21 gg. (Moscow: Khobo, 1921), p. 8.

  8. 8

    Filonov, unfortunately, is still unfamiliar to the Western public, one reason being that practically all his paintings are stored in the Russian Museum, Leningrad, and are rarely shown. Some idea of Filonov’s position within the Russian avant-garde can be gained from the new monograph on him by Nicoletta Misler and John E. Bowlt, Pavel Filonov: A Hero and His Fate. Collected Writings on Art and Revolution 1914–1940 (Austin: Silvergirl, 1983).

  9. 9

    Nina Kandinsky, Kandinsky und Ich (Munich: Kindler, 1976), p. 88.

  10. 10

    K. Malevich, O novykh sistemakh v iskusstve (Vitebsk, 1919), p. 10.

  11. 11

    Excerpt from an interview between David Shapiro and Roman Jakobson (1979). Typescript on file at the Los Angeles County Museum.

  12. 12

    Ya. Tugendkhold, Khudozhestvennaia kultura Zapada (Moscow-Leningrad, 1928), p. 190.

  13. 13

    V. Kandinsky, Tekst khudozhnika (Moscow, 1918), p. 56.

  14. 14

    Kandinsky, Tekst khudozhnika, p. 28.

  15. 15

    V. Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art (1911). Translation in J. Bowlt and Rose-Carol Washton Long, eds., The Life of Vasilii Kandinsky in Russian Art: A Study of “On the Spiritual in Art” (Newtonville: Oriental Research Partners, 1980), p. 93.

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