A past dream of a utopian world

Centuries after the Renaissance raised the status of the artist from that of a craftsman to an intellectual, there emerged a new concept, that of the artist as an engineer committed to the betterment of society and the creation of a socially useful art. This describes a typical artist of the early 20th-century so-called Russian avant-garde who developed out of the revolutionary zeal of the time culminating in the bloody October 1917 revolution. The artist of the time became the spokesman of a changing society geared toward the needs of the proletariat. A leader of these developments was Vladimir Tatlin, the artist who essentially founded Constructivism, one of the most forceful trends in abstract, avant-garde art which in the words of Alexander Rodchenko (another leading figure of Constructivism) used «technology and engineering and moved toward organization and construction.» Like other avant-garde movements, Constructivism was utopian, highly intellectual and, in terms of form, abstract. For these reasons, when socialist realism became the officially recognized art under Stalin, it was condemned as anti-humanistic and as essentially bourgeois. But Constructivism’s impact was immense and its principles, as established by Tatlin and his followers, spread to the West and became synonymous with one of the most daring artistic experiments of the 20th century. Both the diversity and the significance of these experiments are the subject «Construction, Tatlin and After,» an exhibit which comprises works from the Costakis Collection of the Russian avant-garde and currently on view at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, owner of the prestigious Costakis Collection since 2000. The exhibit, which is organized by the museum’s director, Miltiades Papanikolaou, and curated by Lutz Becker, also reveals the richness and complexity of the Costakis Collection and the Russian avant-garde and, as such, helps place the museum and its collection in the scholarly eye. The abundance of specialized essays on Constructivism contained in the exhibit’s hefty catalog reflect the scholarly world’s response. Tatlin and his vision are the cornerstone of the exhibit. He was, after all, the artist commissioned for the design of the «Monument to the Third International» (a Bolshevik-run organization that would coordinate the activities of communist movements throughout the world), a project which, despite never being implemented, is recognized as the symbol of Soviet Constructivism and of the utopian, post-revolutionary social spirit of the time. Dubbed by Mayakovsky as the «first monument without a beard» and described by Tatlin himself as the «union of plastic forms for a utilitarian purpose,» the Third International had both a symbolic and a functional purpose. It was intended to become the offices of the revolutionary government but also to be the communicator of social ideas to the public, with an immense projector showing propaganda images serving that aim. Planned for the center of Moscow, the Third International was also a celebration of material, volume, construction and technology, the themes that lay at the heart of Constructivism. In terms of scale, it was larger that the Eiffel Tower and in shape it resembled a leaning, open, spiral tower with revolving towers made out of glass and iron, perhaps the closest architecture came to the science-fiction novels of the time. Lenin, who commissioned the project, judged it to be unrealistic, and so did Trotsky, adding, however, that once the time was ripe, Tatlin’s radicalism should become the model for redesigning Russian cities. A year after a model of the Third International was exhibited in 1920, the working group of Constructivists was formally established at a meeting held at the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK). The group, which consisted of Rodchenko, Stepanova and the Stenberg brothers, among others, made a claim for «laboratory work» and envisaged a new type of activity founded upon «scientific Communism, built on the theory of historical materialism.» In art, materialism amounted to functional, utilitarian objects that were socially useful or had a social meaning, a concept which even the purely visual art of Suprematism gradually incorporated when the movement’s founder, Kazimir Malevich, formed the UNOVIS Group through which he developed Suprematist design and three-dimensional Suprematist works. (At the core however, Malevich continued to support the supremacy of art over practicality and politics.) The ways that functionality translated into form and matter did of course vary across the various Russian avant-garde movements. But, throughout, the principle of breaking with past artistic styles and artistic values remained unchanged. «We reject the art of the senseless beauty, the saccharine art of the aesthete, which weakens the strict discipline of universal culture and slows down its development,» wrote Vladimir Stenberg. But what this vision of a new art for a new, idealist world led to was an unfeasible utopia and plans as far-fetched as those of flying and airborne cities. Already in prerevolutionary times, Mayakovsky had imagined a winged house that could travel the world and the idea of flight soon evolved into a synonym for social expansion, mobility and unconditional belief in progress and the future. In Tatlin’s career, this promising spirit of flight found its most eloquent expression in the design of «Letatlin» a human-powered flying machine which resembled a combination of a bicycle and a glider, and which Tatlin hoped would one day become an everyday vehicle for Russian citizens and would help relieve urban air pollution. Models were constructed and tested, but the farthest jump a Letatlin was able to make was a mere 10 meters. Like many other projects of the time, the Letatlin failed to bring about a new world. But in many ways, a new world had already been created. It was brought about through the efforts of creative and highly intellectual people from all fields of knowledge who worked together toward a common goal. It is this world with all its subtle variations that the exhibit helps to reveal.

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