Liberation

John Willett

  • Russian Constructivism by Christina Lodder
    Yale, 328 pp, £30.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 300 02727 3

It is now some twenty-two years since Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment opened up for us the achievements of the Russian artistic avant-garde immediately before and after the Revolution; 13 since the ‘Art and Revolution’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. But the story of that avant-garde is only slowly becoming clear, and it remains at once deeply tragic and electrifyingly exciting. For briefly what happened was that a quite small group of artists, architects and theoreticians found themselves seething with new visual ideas, many of these deriving from the larger Modern Movement in Paris, Berlin or Munich. Suddenly the old world and the old hierarchies collapsed around them, the artistic establishment kept its head down, a whole new range of challenges and opportunities opened up. On the one hand, everything had become subject to question; it was back to basics. On the other, there was a unique chance to put the new ideas to work in a climate of radical social experiment. For a time, then, the avant-garde and its sympathisers could feel that they were shaping the future, stretching to the full that brilliant speculative recklessness which distinguishes the Russian intelligentsia. Soon, however, their impetus became blocked, diverted, dispersed, discouraged – at any rate lost – and their whole story suppressed. Talents were twisted; hopes cut short.

This pattern of events was not confined to revolutionary Russia. In Weimar Germany, too, the unsettled years following the collapse of 1918 produced a spurt of highly original work in the arts which changed its character with the stabilisation, then started petering out in the economic crisis of 1929-32. In postwar France, with its new element of chauvinism, there was a ‘recall to order’ in the arts; only the Surrealists set out to explore further. In Italy Futurism was moribund, and the Metaphysical painters were quickly swallowed in the more classical and traditional art of Mussolini’s Fascism. Everywhere there seemed to be the same three moments of change: first and foremost the liberation attendant on the ending of the Great War, secondly the stabilisation around 1922-23, finally the worldwide economic crash with which the Twenties ended. In each case, the first stage was stimulating, the third more or less disastrous; it was the second whose effects varied as between Russia and Germany, on the one hand, and France, on the other. For, of the major movements which developed thereafter in those countries, French Surrealism was formally retrograde, looking back to Symbolism and beyond; German Neue Sachlichkeit set out in effect to stabilise the Modern Movement, using its formal devices for more impersonal, socially and economically realistic ends; only Constructivism, originating in Russia, then spreading throughout Central Europe, was rich in formal innovations. Though it overlapped with the first, heroic phase of Russian revolutionary art – the period of pageants, street decorations, agittrains – its real originality only became evident under the New Economic Policy from 1921 on.

This was never made clear enough in Camilla Gray’s book, partly because she was more interested in the non-utilitarian beginnings as exemplified in the work of Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo, but above all because she made 1922 her cut-off point, thereby implying that from then on the avant-garde was crampingly shackled to Marxist doctrine and the idea of ‘proletarian art’. One of Christina Lodder’s main aims has been to set the record straight, dealing briefly but informatively with the movement’s beginnings up to the Tatlin tower (hitherto more often seen as its symbolic climax), then concentrating almost entirely on developments in the period of the NEP, prior to Stalin’s launching of the first Five-Year Plan in spring 1929. Her book is in every way fuller and more informative than Gray’s pioneering effort, being based not so much on the recollections of those who emigrated before 1923 as on unpublished material in Soviet public and private archives, of which no visiting scholar before her had made such effective use. In particular, she gives us the first coherent account of the debates within Inkhuk, the Institute of Artistic Culture set up under Kandinsky’s aegis in 1920, where the practical and social aspects of Constructivism were thrashed out (in a spirit quite contrary to the code of symbols at which Kandinsky aimed), and goes far towards explaining the nature and workings of the Vkhutemas, the combined Moscow art and architectural school where Rodchenko, Ginzburg, Lissitzky, Ladovsky, Klutsis, Alexander Vesnin and other leading Constructivists all taught. These two crucial, but hitherto somewhat mystifying organisations are set in relation not only to one another but also to some of the other notable phenomena of the time: the magazines Art of the Commune and LEF, the work of Tatlin from the first ‘counter-reliefs’ of 1913-15 to the would-be flying machine of 1929-31.

One result is that it now becomes a great deal easier to relate Constructivism to developments abroad. The obvious comparison here is with Weimar Germany, where the immediate post-revolutionary Working Council (or Arbeitsrat) for Art headed by Taut, Gropius and Adolf Behne began by functioning much like Inkhuk, though without that body’s official status as an offshoot of the Education Commissariat; then helped to spawn the Bauhaus, a kind of opposite number to the Moscow Vkhutemas. A special role, however, was played by a group of émigrés from Hungary, who were very open to the notion of a ‘constructive’ art even before they were brought the news of the latest Soviet movement by the Commissariat’s emissary Konstantin Umansky, by their own Moscow contacts and through the visits there of Alfred Kemeny and Bela Uitz. Thanks to these two and the critic-dramaturg Janos Macza (Ivan Maca or Matsa) they had some influence in the USSR itself; thanks to Moholy-Nagy and students like Forbat and Breuer they carried the pre-NEP version of the movement to the Bauhaus and to Herwarth Walden’s Sturm in Berlin, where the Russian Suprematist Ivan Puni (Jean Pougny) arrived and exhibited a little later. Gabo followed in 1922. German Constructivism was thus an import, and it was favoured not so much by the Working Council (which was utopian-Expressionist in its approach and had petered out before the end of 1919) as by the Dadaists, who paid homage to Tatlin at their Berlin swansong, the Dada-Messe of June 1920. Both were inspired by the fraternal, anti-militarist, internationalist spirit of the time. Gropius and his colleagues sent friendly messages to the Commissariat in summer 1919, while in the new climate three years later a number of Dutch, German and Hungarian ex-Dadaists took part in the Dusseldorf and Weimar meetings to plan an avant-garde artists’ international.

It was in this hopeful spirit that Constructivism first came to the Bauhaus. Kandinsky arrived to join the staff in June 1922, Moholy-Nagy in March 1923; and within a matter of weeks Gropius as director was announcing the school’s changed line: ‘Art and Technology – A New Unity’. But it was not yet the new production-orientated Constructivism, which by then had prevailed over all other trends within Inkhuk, but something much closer to the ‘laboratory art’ of Rodchenko, Popova and the ‘Obmokhu’ (or Group of Young) artists which immediately preceded it. Kandinsky’s analysis of signs and colours became part of the Bauhaus’s stock of ideas, as did the basic principles of Malevitch’s Suprematism, while Moholy-Nagy’s terminology of ‘structure, texture, facture [the manifest working of material] and piling-up [repetition]’ was close to the ‘construction, tectonics and faktura’ of Alexei Gan’s Constructivist manifesto. In the Basic Course which Moholy-Nagy began developing that year to give students an innovatory attitude to the handling of materials, there were distinct echoes not only of the classic Russian ‘laboratory’ works of 1920-21 but also of the Vkhutemas Basic Course which Rodchenko and other Constructivists taught; and the influence spread through the school. Later, when the Bauhaus had moved to its new buildings at Dessau, it came much closer to the utilitarian philosophy of ‘production art’ that had dominated Inkhuk (and incidentally was one of the factors which made Kandinsky decide to leave Russia); and the socially-minded functionalism of its design and (from 1927 on) architecture departments soon took a Marxist turn which brought the two schools practically into line.

The temptation today is to overemphasise such parallels. Dr Lodder conjures up a much more interesting picture by showing that the Constructivists were always a minority within the Vkhutemas, which in turn was a very much larger and more unwieldy institution than the Bauhaus ever was. Both bodies started out in 1918-19 as a fusion of existing fine art and applied art schools, producing the ‘highly qualified master artists for industry’ specified by the Soviet Central Committee, although the Bauhaus started without an architecture department, and shed its art school (a conservative influence in both cases) after only a year. Both came to an effective halt at the end of the decade, when the sacked Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer arrived to work in the USSR and taught for a while at VASI, the Moscow rump of Vkhutemas. Up to that point the two institutions had evolved by similar steps, changing course first in 1923, then in 1926 and again in the winter of 1927/28 (when Vkhutemas was reorganised and Meyer took over the Bauhaus), and finally, and most dramatically, in 1930. But the Vkhutemas in 1924 had 1,445 students, whereas the Bauhaus five years later had only 170. Of these respectively 32 per cent and 20 per cent were doing the Basic Course, 17 per cent and 12 per cent architecture, 30 per cent and 4 per cent fine art, 10 per cent and 16 per cent typography and graphics, and 10 per cent and 43 per cent design or crafts of some kind. The Bauhaus, in other words, was not only about one-eighth the size of the Moscow institution, it also concentrated very much more closely on design. Even in terms of numbers its woodwork and metalwork departments were bigger than those run by Rodchenko at the Vkhutemas, and they seem also to have been much better equipped. Of the two Vkhutemas departments’ 20 graduates in 1928, so Dr Lodder tells us, only two went to work in factories, and it certainly sounds as if the Bauhaus developed closer links with the industries which it aimed to serve, industries which in themselves were considerably more sophisticated than anything in Russia. Under the circumstances, the amazing thing was that the nucleus of Soviet Constructivists in Moscow managed to achieve so much. For however far ahead of the Germans they might be in their ideas and their ‘laboratory’ work, their national economy lacked the foreign capital which would have allowed them to realise their aims. Bauhaus designs reached the consumer where those of the Vkhutemas, broadly speaking, did not.

Although Christina Lodder is best on the NEP years, with their official open-mindedness and willingness to swap new ideas with the West, she also does something to chart Constructivism’s decline. This tends to be a rather embarrassing topic for serious historians of the Russian avant-garde, since their Soviet colleagues, while otherwise in a position now to produce excellent work, are still reticent where the backlash of the Thirties is concerned. Not only has she pushed back Camilla Gray’s cut-off date (which always seemed puzzlingly early to anyone familiar with the Soviet silent cinema, say), but she also outlines the increasing success of Socialist Realism as practised by the AKhRR (or Artists of the Russian Revolution), commenting, too, on a certain slackening of impetus and failure of inspiration among the Constructivists themselves after about 1925. This is very evident in the case of Rodchenko’s later theatre designs – for example, the clumsy-looking chair which he designed for Glebov’s play Inga in 1929; nor did Tatlin’s recourse to the theatre in 1934 lead to any results comparable with Popova’s and Stepanova’s marvellous settings of 1922-23. It is harder to follow her in her disparagement of Constructivist photography and photomontage and their application to utilitarian ends in the form of posters and exhibition design. Both Rodchenko and Lissitzky did some very Modern-looking work in these genres, where once again they moved in parallel with Heartfield and Moholy-Nagy in Germany. But instead of seeing this as the only effectively ‘productive’ use of a Constructivist approach – perhaps the use that was practically most feasible – Dr Lodder seems to regard it as some kind of betrayal, opening the door to the photographic naturalism of the Socialist Realists. Indeed, she seems exceptionally suspicious of Lissitzky, whom she can never quite forgive for his early association with the mystic-anarchist genius Malevitch, and has little to say about the extreme originality of his ideas or the basic difference between naturalism and montage as structural principles for a Modern aesthetic.

This somewhat dismissive treatment of a key figure, who after all took part in the Ink-huk debates and taught both in the architecture and, later, the design departments of the Vkhutemas, is all the more incongruous in the light of her handling of Tatlin in the book’s penultimate chapter. Tatlin’s wholly impractical monument to the Third International may not by any means have been the final triumph of Constructivism, but it did mark the climax of his influence within that movement; and it is debatable whether the ‘organic’ – i.e. curvilinear – design of his later works, like the equally impractical flying machine, was of anything like the same significance for it. George Grosz, an early admirer, concluded on meeting him in 1922 that he was an extremely stupid man; this would not necessarily have made him a bad artist, but it should perhaps lead us to take his theoretical contributions with a pinch of salt. What is surely remarkable, and wholly in conflict with the still prevalent picture of official suppression of the avant-garde before 1930, is the Education Commissariat’s encouragement of his aerodynamic experiments even after that date. Dr Lodder cites these, along with the equally speculative experiments in wave-motion by Miturich (who seems to have detached himself entirely from the Constructivists), as instances of an ‘alternative technology’ to set against the American Way of Life. But this is to go along another, largely disconnected track, for such speculations sit oddly with the inspired rationalism of artists like Lissitzky or of Constructivist theoreticians such as Brik and Arvatov, whose ideas of technology remain stimulating even now. If there is anything to what she calls ‘Organic Constructivism’ we need to be convinced that its experiments are worth pursuing scientifically: otherwise it has to be seen at best as a step backwards in the direction of ‘pure’ art.

Russian Constructivism is altogether a very rich book. It is admirably illustrated with well over two hundred largely unfamiliar (but unlisted) photographs closely linked to the text; there are also a few plates in colour. It is not a quick read, since much interesting and previously unpublished detail is stashed in the notes, which occupy some forty pages of double-column small print; there are also useful ‘biographical sketches’ of the principal artists, architects and critics mentioned. As a result it is perhaps a book to dig into rather than to absorb. It is not, however, a comprehensive account: it should have dealt much more fully with Soviet architecture during the same period and paid greater attention to other related phenomena such as Gastev’s Institute of Labour and the montage of documentary with fictional material in the Soviet cinema. This is where Mayakovsky’s magazine LEF (1923-29) might have served as a good guide, given its comprehensive view of what was going on during those years: functional building, rationalisation of working methods and nomenclature under the supervision of a poet, the selective sticking-together of elements of art and reality under the eye of a painter, the devising of advertising slogans by Mayakovsky himself, the ‘biomechanics’ of Meyerhold’s theatre, all of which adds up to a much wider fusion of the arts with the new technological world than can be inferred simply from the activities of Inkhuk and the Vkhutemas Constructivists. Nor was this fusion confined to Moscow, as might perhaps be imagined from the book’s paucity of references to such other centres as Leningrad and Kiev. It wasn’t even a purely Russian affair, despite the undoubted primacy of the Russians in establishing its principles and formal conventions. Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, Van Doesburg and Vantongerloo were already moving along a similar road, and others soon followed: not only the Hungarian exiles and the Bauhaus but also the Polish groups Blok, Praesens and a.r.; Karel Teige and Jiri Kroha in Prague; Friedrich Kiesler in Vienna, and scattered individuals elsewhere. Without this international background the movement would have died out after 1930, leaving no basis for any revival of interest in it today. It is not just the formal aspects of Constructivism that are a challenge to us, impressive though they remain. What makes it so topical for advanced industrial countries in the Eighties is its pervading conviction that a sense of visual design can be as constructive a factor in human affairs as literacy and mathematics. Christina Lodder has pieced together the story of a few inspired men and women who, in the face of terrible handicaps, worked desperately to put this belief across.