Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: Tatlin's Tower

Vladimir Tatlin wearing a coat of his own design, and standing next to an energy efficient stove he designed, circa 1919

Vladimir Tatlin was the great proletarian hero of early 20th century art, internationally celebrated both for his pioneering genius as an artist, and as a true son of the working class. Avant Garde artists and poets from around the world sang his praises in the years following World War I and the Russian Revolution. When he died in 1953, he was almost entirely forgotten. He survived the reign of Stalin, painted camouflage in World War II and died in poverty and obscurity in Moscow. His Russian avant garde colleagues all went into exile, or perished in the gulags under Stalin.
Tatlin was born the son of a railroad engineer in Kharkov in Ukraine. He ran away from home at age 18 and became a sailor. Unlike so many runaways to the sea in literature, Tatlin apparently had a wonderful time as a sailor, visiting ports throughout the Middle East that fired his imagination. He decided to become an artist. He was very poor in his early years as an artist. He worked all kinds of odd jobs, usually as a muscian for Russian folk music groups. One time, he even worked as a professional wrestler and lost part of his hearing in a losing match. He was a good musician and a poor athlete.
Early on, he became an enthusiastic admirer of modern art, especially the work of Picasso. There is a great story about him visiting Picasso in Paris whose entire truth I wonder about. His music troupe performed in Berlin in 1913. Supposedly, Tatlin performed as a busker with his accordion on the street one day and was heard by the Kaiser himself, who gave him a gold watch. Tatlin sold the watch and used the money to go to Paris to visit Picasso. He begged Picasso to let him work for him, offering to sweep his floors, clean his brushes, and stretch canvases for him. Picasso refused to employ him, but allowed him to visit and spend time in his studio. Supposedly Tatlin would entertain Picasso with Russian folk music. Eventually Picasso decided he had enough crazy Russians in his life with his future wife Olga Khoklova and the Ballets Russe, and sent Tatlin home.

In Picasso's studio, Tatlin saw his analytic cubist paintings, and his sheet metal sculpture of a guitar which had a huge effect on him. Tatlin would take Picasso's conflation of mass and volume, object and surrounding space, further in a much more radical direction when he returned to Russia.
Tatlin was a true believer in the Communist ideology which took power in Russia under the Bolsheviks in 1917. He believed in its apocalyptic vision of a new world of liberated labor and technological power with a religious intensity. He produced icons for this new religion in the form of what he called "relief paintings" assembled from industrial materials like metal, glass, plaster, wood, and wire. So far as I know, none of these survive in the original. We know them entirely from a set of photographs taken in 1921.

"Painting Relief" made of wood and sheet metal from about 1917

Corner relief made of sheet metal, glass and wire, that was intended to hang right in the same corner of honor where the icon hangs in a traditional Russian household.

Tatlin, like a lot of his Russian avant-garde colleagues, wanted to remove art from its privileged position and integrate it into modern life. Instead of marble and bronze, Tatlin used the materials of modern industry and construction in works that were likewise constructed. "Real materials in real space," he said. In the corner reliefs, he got rid of the frame and the background altogether in his attempt to integrate a new form language into modern life. He was fascinated by the possiblity of flight, and tried to create the illusion that his corner reliefs were somehow floating or flying on the wall. He even tried to build his own flying machine with little success, not even a test flight. Tatlin and his colleagues dreamed of an art that was practical, useful, and above all affordable and accessible to the average worker. No more museums, no more frames, no more pedestals. Art would be completely integrated into productive life.

The new Soviet government had much bigger matters to attend to than the dreams of a small band of utopians, no matter how brilliant. Lenin was contemptuously indifferent towards them. "Let the artists live off their enthusiasm," he said. They did have one friend in the Soviet government in the person of Anatoly Lunacharsky, the education and culture minister who encourarged their work. It was through Lunacharsky that Tatlin was commissioned to make the biggest, most outlandish, project of them all, a monument to the Third International  Congress of the Communist Party. I have no idea what the Soviet government expected, but I'm sure it was not what Tatlin presented them.

Tatlin's original model for the Monument to the 3rd International in wood and wire displayed at the VIIIth Congress of the Soviets held in December, 1920. Note the man in the lower right corner for a sense of the size of the model.

A model of Tatlin's Monument carried in a May Day parade in Petrograd (today's Saint Petersburg) in 1920.

This proposed tower would have straddled the Moscow river in the heart of the city, and risen to a height of 1300 feet, a third taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It would have been made entirely out of steel and glass, a great slanting spiral with moving parts. A huge glass cylinder in the base housing an assembly hall for the party would turn once every year. A glass cone above that containing government offices would turn once a month. And at the top, a glass sphere containing telegraph and radio broadcasting offices would turn once a day.  It would have had loudspeakers to broadcast news and propaganda.  It was to have a massive projector to shine images and slogans onto the clouds at night.  It was a huge monument to dynamism, to energy, to motion, from the movements of the planets to the movement of the earth itself, to the movements of history toward its fulfillment in the worker state. It was about the dynamism of constant production. Instead of a stable symmetrical form, the whole thing would be designed around that most dynamic and unstable form of all, the diagonal.

The thing was unbuildable. There was not enough steel in all of Russia at that time for such a monument. The technology to build it and make it work did not exist.   A model of this Modern As Tomorrow monument had to be pulled by horses through the streets of Petrograd in the May Day parade pictured above. It remains an unrealized vision of a thoroughly impractical monument to practicality.

Anti-systematic thinker and anti-ideologue that I am, I don't believe in utopias. And yet, I find Tatlin's story very moving and his crazy tower to be absolutely exhilarating with its massive leaning spiral pointing emphatically toward Tomorrow. To me, that's what separates the modern from the post-modern; that belief in Tomorrow, that sense of expectation that drove so much of modernity is now gone. It ended in Europe with World War II, and it ended in this country with Vietnam. I can't decide if we are worse off or better off without it.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Tatlin called them "relief paintings"? I've never heard that term before. And they're all gone? There must be one lying around in an attic, surely. What a find that would be.

Had Tatlin's tower been built, it would have been impressive, indeed.

No, there is not, nor will there ever be, a utopia. Anyone who succeeds in coming to a position of power, probably is already compromised, and once they're in power, then they are corrupted rather quickly.

Counterlight said...

Who knows? There just might be a few originals hidden away in attics or basements in Moscow somewhere. All the pictures I've seen of these things are either the 1921 pictures, or they are pictures of replicas.
Whole novels by Bulgakov were discovered on bits of paper and a movie by Tarkovsky was kept under a bed for decades, so it's possible that an original sculpture by Tatlin could turn up.
The whole Russian avant garde from the early 20th century was largely unknown until about 30 years ago.
Since Stalin came to power, the Soviet government was very hostile to this work. That hostility didn't begin to thaw until late in the reign of Brezhnev.
A wealthy Greek national who lived in Moscow, had a huge collection of early Russian modernism. His attempt to take that collection out of Russia in the early 1970s brought this work back to the attention of Western critics and historians after 50 years in enforced obscurity.

NancyP said...

The relief paintings are nifty! I particularly like the use of the corner. Thanks!