Vasilii Kandinsky
Vasilii Kandinsky; drawing by David Levine

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.

Still, the compilers might have taken extra pains to complete the panorama by exploring more thoroughly the still-unfamiliar depositories of Kandinsky’s works in the Soviet Union. For example, the Russian Museum, Leningrad, contains at least nine major Kandinsky oils from before 1915 and yet the Catalogue Raisonné mentions only four of them. Private collections in Moscow and Leningrad also contain early oils, but not one is listed here. The compilers, moreover, should have consulted their Russian sources more carefully, since there are a number of inaccuracies in chronology and bibliography here. Inasmuch as Kandinsky always regarded himself as Russian—and since he maintained close personal and professional contact with Russia and many of his works remained there when he left Moscow for good in 1921—more care should have been taken to ensure that his connections with Russia be covered as exhaustively as possible.

Milner tries to do just that in his monograph on Vladimir Tatlin, the remarkable designer, painter, and architect who is sometimes described as the “founder” of Soviet Constructivism. While hampered by the dearth of biographical information concerning Tatlin (much of the Tatlin estate was destroyed just after his death in 1953), Milner recounts intelligently and engagingly the story of Tatlin’s artistic development. He takes the frugal output of Tatlin—the drawings, paintings, reliefs, applied designs (many of which have been lost or damaged and/or exist only in photographs)—and reconstructs their cultural and international setting.

There is, for example, a clear discussion of Tatlin’s debt to French Cubism in which Milner brings together many threads, commenting on Tatlin’s exposure to the Morozov and Shchukin collections and on Tatlin’s fateful meeting with Picasso in 1913. Milner’s research into this important episode would have been more thorough had it included references to Sarra Lebedeva’s unpublished memoirs (in which the month, May, is given for the meeting)16 and to Vasilii Komardenkov’s published memoirs (in which the meeting is described in detail).17 However, Milner is justified in suggesting that Tatlin must have seen the Boccioni one-man show in Paris in June 1913—and perhaps Tatlin’s early relief with a bottle, produced, evidently, just after his return to Russia in the late summer of 1913, paid homage to the Italian Futurist’s Development of a Bottle in Space (1912). Also valuable is Milner’s broader discussion of concurrent adaptations of Cubism and Futurism by other Russian and East European artists such as Alexandre Archipenko, Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné, Popova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova.

Although quick to describe the probable Western influences on Tatlin, Milner also pays attention to the domestic stimuli, especially to the Russian icon with its distinctive systems of spatial rendition and color combinations. Certainly, some of Tatlin’s paintings of around 1913 such as the fabulous Reclining Nude (Russian Museum, Leningrad) reflect the bold ochers and reds of medieval icons. Of course, many observers, including Tatlin’s apologist Punin, have referred to Tatlin’s love of the icon, and Milner might have extended their comments by also emphasizing Tatlin’s fascination with the construction of the icon—with its wooden boards, slats, and ties: as Milner himself mentions in his opening remarks, Tatlin was concerned above all with “manipulating material.” Milner’s description of indigenous sources in Tatlin’s art is especially interesting on the Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, Tatlin’s close colleague; and his discussion both of Khlebnikov’s primitivist concerns and of his sophisticated theories of space/time sheds new light on the underlying symbolism of Tatlin’s grand designs of the 1920s.

In 1919, Tatlin was commissioned by the new Department of Fine Arts to design the monument to the Third International. Tatlin conceived a building that would have been higher than the Eiffel Tower, with a revolving central glass cylinder, to be built in the center of Moscow. Milner’s discussion of this unbuilt monument—for many the epitome of Soviet Constructivism—is both sober in detail and imaginative in interpretation. Although “Tatlin’s Tower” has been the subject of much debate among Soviet and Western scholars, Milner’s account is one of the most exhaustive, especially regarding the derivation of its form. The many points of reference—from the Eiffel Tower to cosmological theories, from Campanella’s City of the Sun to Petr Uspensky’s philosophy—provide a valuable background for understanding Tatlin’s Tower. They show, as Milner himself writes, that “whilst Tatlin’s Tower would involve engineering, it is not primarily an engineering structure.” Some points could be more fully clarified here, e.g., the possible formal derivation from the seventeenth-century fresco of the Tower of Babel in the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Romanov-Borisoglebsk and the fact that the peculiar axis of the tower was intended to extend the earth’s axis out into space, the idea being that communism would also conquer the cosmos.

Tatlin’s flights of imagination continued throughout the 1920s, culminating in his project for a one-man air machine in 1929–1932 (his Letatlin), an apparatus that was to have been powered by a bicycle mechanism and steered manually by wings. Milner mentions the influential presence of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of Russian rocketry, in Soviet artistic life of the 1920s and concludes persuasively that Tatlin knew something of aerodynamic theories. But although Tatlin the engineer tried to implement a scientific, practicable design, Tatlin the artist dictated the final form, as we can see from the elegant, handbent wooden skeleton, the graceful wing struts and webbing.

Essentially, Tatlin’s airplane belongs more to the sphere of utopian culture, to the traditions of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (both of whom were very popular in Russia). It seems far from the more feasible, down-to-earth Constructivist design movement that encouraged the making of furniture, stoves, and clothes (in which Tatlin was also involved). Indeed, when placed within the history of aircraft construction, Letatlin is not especially novel: similar designs were advanced as early as the 1880s. In any case, Tatlin drew on a number of other sources of inspiration recently described by the Soviet historians Anatolii Strigalev and Larisa Zhadova, but Milner omits reference to either.18

Like most historians, Milner still tends to take the Russian avant-garde artists too solemnly, crediting them with a philosophical expertise that, in most cases, they did not have. For example, it is misleading to assert of Larionov’s portrait of Tatlin (attributed to 1911–1912, but probably 1913) that the “letters and figures in Larionov’s painting should be seen with poetic and temporal theories in mind.” Tatlin was twenty-eight years old when the portrait was painted, if my assumption of 1913 is correct (hence the number 28 and the letter “g” for god [year] in the portrait); and the letters shown comprise the word balda (blockhead)—Larionov’s wry comment on his sitter. Finally, there are a few omissions and misrepresentations. Milner does not see that Tatlin’s term, counter-relief, has a simple explanation: it was coined during the First World War by analogy with a counter-attack. Nor does he refer to Tatlin’s important statement on Lenin’s “Plan of Monumental Propaganda” published in 1918, in which he stated that the new monuments should reflect the machine age and not pay homage to prerevolutionary traditions; and the works illustrated as nos. 11, 119, and 123 are, surely, posthumous.

While Milner’s discussion of Tatlin is smoothly written, if marred by some inaccuracies, Lodder’s examination of Russian Constructivism is slow to digest, but it seems impeccable factually. This careful, cold analysis, dependent upon a thorough knowledge of published and archival materials and upon a rigorous, objective evaluation of data will long serve as an essential reference book on the development of the Russian avant-garde during the 1920s. The focus of Lodder’s book is very specific, i.e., on Constructivism, both in its “aesthetic” and in its “applied” phases, and is not intended to be read as a general history of early Soviet art.

Perhaps Lodder approaches her subject rather too narrowly, making scant, if any, reference to the many rival movements in Moscow, Petrograd, and elsewhere during the 1920s; and she also approaches her subject too soberly, eclipsing the magic of the primary Constructivist inventions by the sheer weight of her documentation. That Rodchenko produced minimal, free-standing, and suspended constructions between 1918 and 1921; that Tatlin wanted the four sections of his Monument to the Third International to revolve at different speeds; that Alexei Gan was shouting “Death to Art!” just as Konstantin Melnikov was designing a crematorium-columbarium so that “family ritual would be revolutionized in a stroke, transcendental beliefs battered down, and the cause of sound health advanced”19—such visionary moments tend to be lost from view.

Lodder divides her study into eight chapters, the most important of which are on the theoretical, pedagogical, and practical aspects of Constructivism. Some of the factual information and illustrations are already available in other publications, specifically in the several recent Soviet essays on Constructivism and early Soviet design by Selim Khan-Magomedov and Zhadova. However, Lodder has brought together these many disparate facts and images in one volume, has verified and coordinated them and has compiled what is almost an encyclopedia for the specialist, if not for the general public. The presentation of these materials demonstrates just how rational and sequential the development of Constructivism was. It was not a spontaneous, gestural art that followed in the wake of the cultural free-for-all just after the revolution. It was a concept formulated and composed by artists and critics fascinated by the task of evolving a new style of art and of applying that style to utilitarian purposes, with the help of the newly organized Soviet bureaucracy. This is why Lodder’s examination of textile and furniture design, of the basic course at the Moscow Vkhutemas (Higher State Art-Technical Studios), of the metalwork department there, and of the theater in chapter 5 are of particular interest. It was through such disciplines that the Constructivists tried to put their often utopian ideas into practice.

Much more space could have been devoted to the Constructivist architectural debate of the 1920s and to the ways in which the art of the Russian avant-garde affected architectural thinking. But Lodder’s interpretation of the Constructivist theater as a prototypical micro-environment, a blueprint for future life, is especially intriguing. The notion of theater production as a rehearsal for real life pervaded early Soviet culture. Many of the Constructivists such as Exter, Popova, Rodchenko, and Tatlin designed for the stage, working closely with Vsevolod Meyerhold, Alexandr Tairov, and other experimental directors. Under the subtitle “The Reassertion of the Real Object,” Lodder argues that Constructivism did, indeed, “return to life” through the rediscovery of concrete objects: when Popova, in her design for Meyerhold’s production of Earth on End in 1923, introduced a tractor, bicycles, two typewriters, etc., on to the stage, she was, in fact, trying to complete the circle, rejoining “art” with “life.”

A commendable aspect of Lodder’s study is her attempt to relate Russian Constructivism to modernism in the Western countries. She discusses the friendly reception of the Russian avant-garde at the “Erste Russische Kunstausstellung” in Berlin in 1922 and the ways by which Gabo exported Constructivist ideas to Western Europe and the US. True, Lodder neglects the fact that many of the works at the “Erste Russische Kunstausstellung” were from before the revolution and did not always represent contemporary developments. Furthermore, in presenting Gabo as a member of the Russian avant-garde Lodder tends to force the argument: as she implies at the beginning of her book, Gabo and Antoine Pevsner were not part of the Constructivist main-stream in Russia, and it is no secret that Gabo has little respect for artists such as Rodchenko and Tatlin. In any case, if mention has been made here of Gabo and the West, then the connections between Lissitzky and De Stiji or between the Russian Constructivists and the Poles should also have received attention.

Thanks to Lodder’s book we now have a much fuller, much more coherent idea of the genesis and evolution of Russian Constructivism (although not of its old age and death). We understand better the Soviet departments and the research plans of the institutions that fostered Constructivism and the pressures, artistic and political, that inspired its major accomplishments. On the other hand, we are not left with any real sense of the creative personalities of the Constructivist artists and critics, of their quirks of character, of the excitement and energy of their epoch. Where is the Popova who loved to dance the fox trot, the Gan who adored motorcycles, the Rodchenko who took such delight in illustrating the erotic double-entendres of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “About It” (a closer translation, surely, than “About That”)? Such eccentricities might be regarded as peripheral to Lodder’s sober study of institutions, movements, exhibitions. The Formalist critics—Boris Eikhenbaum, Nikolai Punin, Tarabukin, Boris Tomashevsky, etc.—would have supported her “anonymous” analysis. Still, her intricate reconstruction of the facts could have been more faithful to the spirit of the Constructivists if she had taken more account of both their playfulness and their intensity.

Both Lodder’s and Milner’s books would have benefited from a proofreader with a sound knowledge of Russian, who could have caught the many errors in spelling and translation. But perhaps the most serious defect of these otherwise basic contributions to our appraisal of twentieth-century Russian art is that they both lack a final chapter. No doubt, by the time Socialist Realism was advocated officially as the exclusive style for Soviet culture in 1934, much of the force of the avant-garde had already been lost through emigration, death, changes of loyalties. But Filonov, Malevich, Rodchenko, and Tatlin never accepted the new Realism. In many of her short biographies of the leading figures of early Soviet culture, Lodder follows the current Soviet practice of implying that they simply grew old and retired. The reality of the end was much more brutal.

Nikolai Chuzhak, Gan, Klutsis, and Boris Kushner died in concentration camps. Punin was not “apparently arrested,” as Lodder writes—he spent long periods in concentration camps and died “at home” a broken man. Lunacharsky also died, exhausted and embittered. The pioneers of the movement, still hanging on in the 1930s, were ostracized, attacked, slandered for their “bourgeois formalism.” As Filonov wrote in his diary in 1932, the GPU (KGB) even demanded they explain the clandestine meaning of Cézanne and Cubism.20 It was under such circumstances that the Russian avant-garde died. Its end was an agonizing one, and the shadow it casts on the visions of the Constructivists should not be erased from Soviet history.

This Issue

February 16, 1984