PRINT September 1967

The Constructivist Ethos, Part I

E. H. CARR—WRITING ON DOSTOEVSKY—has said something which seems to me is worthwhile bearing in mind when considering any aspect of Russian culture. “The Russian mind will accept no principle and no convention until he has explored its very foundation, and if he finds that the first stone has not been well and truly laid, he will recklessly pull down the whole edifice about his ears. The assertion of a principle is of infinitely more importance to the Russian mind than any practical results which may flow from it.” The conventions and principles queried and pulled down by the Constructivists were those of Western esthetics. By 1921 the Russians were announcing the death of art—and today there seems to be a growing number of people who agree with them.

In fact, 50 years after the Revolution may be an adequate occasion on which to point to the relevance of events then and a similar relevance now. Today, when we are continually told of the art boom (quantity-wise and economically), of the new interest in art (museum attendances double pre-war figures, etc.) we are not given, in comparison, figures for Bingo, ten-pin bowling, dance-hall attendance and excursions to our parks. The Russian Revolution, as a revolution of the people, needed a culture of the people. Such a culture, her artistic avant-garde believed, was not to be found in the Museums, but in the death of Museums; culture was outside—in the lives of the people, in her politics, economics, environment, leisure—in her ethos. Constructivism as an art movement had a built-in death wish; but a life-wish which it saw as so much greater than art. No one could foresee Stalinization and the near-extinction of a national character.

If Constructivism seems to be very much the continuation of an existent national tradition, it might be contended that such a tradition may well arise elsewhere—in various places but at various times—due to social circumstances—though these may be different to the original circumstances, their reversal even. Three quotations each separated by half a century, do illuminate, I think, a certain confirmity of spirit and in doing so, suggest the central concern of this article.

In 1865 writing from the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, where he had been imprisoned for an outspoken attack on the Tzar and the Government, Dimitry Pisarev, (1840–68), then 25, published an article entitled “The Destruction of Esthetics.” Eugene Lampert puts Pisarev’s ideas into a neat framework:

The experience (esthetic denial) sprang from an acutely felt conflict—almost unknown in Western Europe—between culture and life. Pisarev’s reflections on this conflict compelled him to expose the myths and idols to which men have become enslaved . . . He asked himself the blunt, tactless, but still relevant question: It is all very beautiful, but can it possibly be true, that is, does it fit the condition of man? . . . It is, he said, ‘A parasitical plant which feeds continually on the sap of human toil.’ It is perishable, nay, more, it must be destroyed . . .

The disappearance of culture, in Pisarev’s view, was to be succeeded by the emergence of a “non-cultural” scientific culture, whose ideal was neither invented nor abstracted but found and left where it alone could be represented “in actual and living phenomena.” It was to be a culture which reflected man’s changing and unimpeded view of the universe, free especially from all the burdens of the past, and with none of the hot air of exalted places. Its “temples” would be “the workshops of human thought.” It would eschew the artist as a sacred monomaniac, misunderstood and misinterpreted, and ensure his status as simply a human being, endowed with a special gift of articulation and free from somnolence and escapism.1

Any number of statements by the Constructivists echo these ideas on the death of art. This is Lissitsky’s view: “The European thesis was ‘Fine Art For Ever.’ The arts were made into a quite private, subjective-esthetic affair. Our antithesis was ‘Up With Everything Except Fine Art.’ Everything, everything is significant. A square is significant or a glass tube. Out with painting. The future belongs to those who have astonishingly little talent for the fine arts.”

Now, in a totally different climate, this same compulsion of the artist away from his profession finds support in the work of people such as John Cage. “I think daily life is excellent and that art introduces us to it and its excellence the more it begins to be like it.” And again, “. . . as far as I’m concerned the 20th century has done a very good job. What job? To open people’s eyes, to open people’s ears . . . We must turn our attention now I think to other things, and those things are social.”

It is easy enough to find Cage’s ideas in the West; the communications system is pretty adequate, and allows us to get a fairly clear picture of the artistic ideas of earlier periods also. With the Russian avant-garde, however, things are rather different. Language is one barrier, Stalinist intolerance another. Again, the West, with a different cultural inheritance, interested itself in Constructivism as long as its works were in some way formal art statements—once it passed beyond this into the film, the factograph, the agit-play or simply a magazine based around ideas rather than artifacts—then it was dropped. In the last decade some progress has been made on a number of fronts to fill in the gaps, but these are still usually centered around the actual art-works. Not one study of Lef or more importantly, Novy Lef, seems to have appeared, yet these are probably the most important Constructivist magazines.

I hope it is clear now that this essay interprets Constructivism as something quite different from the art of, say Gabo and Pevsner and the comparable art-works of Tatlin and Rodchenko—3-D structures of an autonomous kind, perhaps symbolic in their use of material or scientific in their exploration of technical qualities—such works must, I think be regarded as “first phase Constructivism.” Subsequent phases involved-theatre, film, journalism, etc. Indeed, I might well aim in this article to assert that Vertov’s “Man with a Movie-Camera” or Tretyakov’s “Chinese Testament” are just as much part of Constructivism as Rodchenko’s “hanging structures” (mobiles).


THE CLIMATE OF THOUGHT WHICH LED TO CONSTRUCTIVISM is clearly felt in Russian Futurism. Russian Futurism in its broadest sense covered the total activity of the avant-garde. As a specific program it had been launched by the Burliuks, Klebnikov, Kamensky and Elena Guro in 1910. The Russian Futurists were, however, always insistent on the differences between them and their Italian counterpart. They might use similar means, but the aim was quite different. In the early years, the Russians were engaged in a relationship with their mythical golden age and were openly bohemian—as against the Italian celebration of the electric/mechanic age. The Russian cult of the primitive was evident in the work of related painters—in Larionov, Goncharova, Malevich, Tatlin, etc. In a formal sense, however, their works were at least as “advanced” as those coming from Paris or Milan. Cubism did not seem to greatly impress them. Goncharova wrote, “The painted wooden dolls one buys at fairs are made in a cubist way.” This indicates one feature of great importance to Constructivism—the Russian independence from French ideas and styles. Certainly such influences did reach Russian artists—through the latters’ visits to the West, through literature and through the Moscow collections of Morosov and Schukine—but ideologically the rejection of French esthetics was to prove far more important than any formal allegiances.

Larionov’s importance justifies one in pointing to certain characteristics of his work that were to assume importance to the post-revolutionary avant-garde. His work of 1907, primitive-based as it was, was extremely advanced, e.g., his illustrations for Kruchenikh’s Poluzhivoi, 1907. (Incidentally this kind of relationship between painters, poets and theorists, was an important feature of the Russian cultural picture, before and after the Revolution). Larionov was also important as an organizer and public figure. He arranged the “Donkey’s tail” exhibition in 1912, which brought the work of Tatlin and Malevich into public view.

A year later, Larionov’s Rayonnist Manifesto was published. Rayonnism was seen as the outcome of the drive started in Futurism, Orphism and Cubism, towards the autonomy of the painting, but the Manifesto also stated: “We declare: the genius of our day to be: trousers, jackets, shoes, tramways, buses, aeroplanes, railways, magnificent ships . . .” then went on to stress the values of nationalism and primitivism. And if one also remembers Burliuk’s “Not a restriction but an expansion of program, a protest against formal art—art for art’s sake—because art is for the people, for the masses . . . Art is for the circus and the circus is for art,” then it is fairly evident that the program of Constructivism was already in the air. Yet another quotation, this time of Mayakovsky on the birth of Futurism, clarifies the issue still further. Mayakovsky described his meeting with David Burliuk on 4th February, 1912 as the encounter of “David (who) had the anger of a master who had outpaced his contemporaries, I, the fervour of a socialist aware of the inevitable doom of the old. Thus was conceived Russian Futurism.”

There is another facet of Russian Futurism which should also be mentioned—its “abstract” side, an aspect of Utopian formalism which conceived a future that utilized a tran-sense (zaoume) language, and whose visual field was to be governed by an abstract pictorial dynamic. These causes—the zaoume works of Klebnikov, Kruchenikh, Kamensky, Iliazd, etc., and the Suprematist paintings of Malevich, Puni, Kliun, etc., had undergone an early and significant collaboration with the production of the opera Victory over the Sun at Luna Park, St. Petersburg, in December, 1913. The libretto was by Kruchenikh, the score by Matiushin, the sets and costumes by Malevich. Its zaoume text—which followed a rather crudely symbolic theme—presented a barrage of sound that reminded some of the language of prehistoric man. Kruchenikh’s observations on zaoume are interesting in this light. “In men’s minds there exists certain means of communication which have been created by human thought. The Futurists wish to free themselves from this ordering of the World . . . to create anew.” The assonance of Matiushin’s 1/4-tone score appealed to Kruchenikh and his friends, as did Malevich’s costumes and sets. The former were roughly geometrical—recalling his paintings at this time—but as backdrop one act utilized the first Suprematist figure, a square within a square, the inner one divided diagonally into two triangles, one black and the other white, as the rest of the cloth. From this beginning Suprematism as a system was to be developed over the next year or so, to be shown—triumphantly—at the exhibition 0.10 organized and financed by Puni in December, 1915, at Moscow.

Kruchenikh had evolved zaoume in collaboration with Klebnikov. The latter, who died in 1922, is an important figure in Russian poetry—yet like Kruchenikh—very little known in the West. For Mayakovsky, speaking for Kamensky, Aseyev, Burliuk, Kruchenikh and Pasternak, he was “one of our poetic teachers and a most magnificent and honest knight in our poetic struggle.” A Caucasian, like Mayakovsky and the Burliuks, he seems to have been an ascetic to the point of martyrdom in the cause of his poetry. Klebnikov entertained some extraordinary and marvelous Utopian ideas—from glass furniture to proposing Iceland as the world’s battle-ground. He planned to elect 317 Presidents of the World, but when he himself was elected, by Essenin and Mariengof at Kharkov in April, 1920, he had fallen asleep in a corner. He also proposed as a method of famine relief to boil lakes and their fish and make vast quantities of fish soup.

In various ways zaoume was to remain a feature of the Russian avant-garde scene for some twenty years. Kruchenikh’s lines of 1912,






became a war-cry for younger generations. Rapport between zaoumists and the advanced painters remained constant. Klebnikov celebrated Tatlin’s work in his poetry; Tatlin for his part planned to stage two of Klebnikov’s plays in 1917. This didn’t materialize, but in 1923 he produced the latter’s Zan-Guesi in Leningrad.


LIKE KLEBNIKOV, BOTH TATLIN AND MALEVICH were not only important artists, but Utopists as well; their Utopias however were conceived differently. From their natures, predilections, etc., came the dialogue which was to lead to Constructivism and thus change Futurism from a socio-artistic phenomenon into a purely social one. Malevich’s Utopia was highly introspective, Irrational, religious and poetic; Tatlin’s was rational, practical, social and romantic.

For many years a rivalry existed between the two; both exerted considerable influence, attracted followers and seemed unofficial leaders of the avant-garde. Both had visited Paris and there received French influences (Malevich in 1912 seems to have been influenced by Leger, Tatlin the following year was an impressed visitor to Picasso’s studio). Prior to their visits both had been close to Larionov and thus to neo-primitivism. Both were subsequently, and rapidly after their return from Paris, to reject French-based ideas, i.e., most of the premises of Western “modern art.” Malevich, through the initial Suprematist element, was to enter a world of pure feeling: “. . . and thus art arrives at non-objective representation—at Suprematism. It reaches a ‘desert’ in which nothing can be perceived but feeling.” Although his paintings, through their geometry, seem to bear an aura of rationalism, Malevich was of course relying very heavily on intuition. His theories seem illogical and contradictory (though this does not of course invalidate their relation to the paintings or their significance in Malevich’s life—his works construct and utilize their own myths). Many Russian artists were to reject Malevich’s theories, but few could have failed to have been impressed by the actual works (this is borne out simply in the monochromes painted by Rodchenko and Tatlin which were attempts to repudiate Malevich’s own monochromes).

With Tatlin, the formal aspect of his work, radical though it might be, was not initially as influential as the work of Malevich. On his return from Paris Tatlin began his first relief constructions, similar in many ways to those he had seen in Picasso’s studio. Quickly, however, these lost all trace of Cubist styling, became larger, less playful, and autonomous: “real materials in real space.” Soon these were to take on a new physical dimension—by being suspended across corners—and also a symbolic dimension in that Tatlin was consciously using the materials—steel, glass, concrete, etc.—on which the new mechanist-oriented Russian society was to be built. For someone who was to become the apostle of rationality it is rather curious that his works are so roughly and—apparently—freely made. (Here though, one might recall E. H. Carr’s remarks on the importance to the Russian mind of principle as opposed to result.) But Tatlin was to repudiate the activity of making constructions five years after his first essays. He abandoned these with the advent of the Revolution.

While Tatlin moved from the abstract to the real, i.e., a reality unimpeded by esthetics, Malevich was moving from the pure region of the first Suprematist element to the mystic. Few of Malevich’s works are more impressive than those he made at the time of the Revolution and the two years following it, yet these show an extraordinary, subjective detachment from contemporary events. The “White on White” series belongs to an esthetic whose air has become very rare, but the view is pretty breathtaking. The Museum of Modern Art’s version has come down as a seminal object; very beautiful, intangible, yet loaded with half-realized hopes. Although outwardly cool—practically non-existent in fact—it seems filled with tensions. It can be seen as a terminal point, and a spring-board to the future. Malevich exhibited it in 1919 at the 10th State Exhibition in Moscow. Rodchenko, having passed from the influence of Malevich to that of Tatlin, sent as a rejoinder his Black on Black, conceived as a nihilist response to Malevich’s assertion of the spiritual value in art.

If, prior to the Revolution, Malevich’s works had been more influential than Tatlin’s, following “October” Tatlin became the dominant figure, not through his reliefs, but through his ideas, through his insistence on a revolution not of form, but of content.2

The first beacon of Constructivism is probably Tatlin’s proposed Monument to the Third International. Tatlin, after abandoning fine art works had devoted much of his energy from 1918 to 1920to the design of the Monument. The Monument united engineering and esthetics, it pointed the way to the concept of the “artist-engineer.” Tatlin had cleared the path for his action when he had criticized movements such as Cubism and Suprematism as being merely surface revolutions. What was needed was a revolution of the core, a revolution which re-defined the purpose of the artist. This new purpose was exemplified in his work on the Monument which had been commissioned by Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat for Education. Housing three glass-walled chambers, rotating daily, monthly and yearly respectively, was a huge steel spiral symbolic of the dynamic of the Revolution. The Monument was to have been 1300 feet high; as a model it was built to a height of 40 feet. As a seminal work—nonartistic—it was to have a profound influence. It was mechanolatry at its most romantic. (Tatlin claimed to have a machine-heart, and had included the moving elements to symbolize this.) Tatlin’s ideas were disseminated through his teaching and also through the efforts of critics such as Punin, who devoted two monographs to Tatlin. Yuri Annenkov has recorded Tatlin’s example. After speaking of Tatlin’s reliefs as “objects born of the esthetic of the new age, born from the development of the machine,” Annenkov underlines Tatlin’s belief in an art based on mathematics and the rational use of materials, and goes on to record a demonstration in which Tatlin carefully cut to pieces a reproduction of a Rembrandt, rearranged the pieces, filled in gaps, mounted it on a board, and claimed that the work still retained its values (form, color, etc.). Tatlin then opened his watch, removed a tiny screw and tried to push it into the wrong place. The mechanism jerked and in a very short time the whole mechanism lay scattered on the table. “. . . Tatlin used to say that a modern factory at work is one of the most significant manifestations of our times and surpassed all that ballet or opera could offer . . . Art should be the standard, the vanguard and the incentive for the advance of human culture, and in order to be this it must be constructive and relevant.”3

Among those first influenced by Tatlin’s proposals were the Productivist group. Differences were to develop over the idea of the artist-engineer and his method of working, but initially they agreed that art in the bourgeois/Western sense, was dead. In 1921 Rodchenko (who had worked with Tatlin), his wife Stepanova, Popova, Vesnin and Exter participated in the 5 x 5 exhibition in Moscow. Shortly afterwards their ideas were published; the future they saw as requiring them to:

1) Ideologically: prove the incompatibility of artistic activity and intellectual production

2) In practice: agitation in the press . . . establishing contact with all the productive centers and main bodies of unified Soviet mechanism, which realize the communistic forms of life in practice . . . etc.

The kind of program outlined by the Productivists wasn’t such as could be attained overnight; it also called for an eventual anonymity and virtually no recognition of their example. But Tatlin, Rodchenko and others did begin the move, and some carried it through. Tatlin after finishing the Monument project—which he had worked on while teaching in Moscow—worked on other design projects, and taught or headed the design sections of several colleges. Rodchenko, following his fine-art renunciation moved into graphic design, initially designing titles for Vertov’s Kino-Eye documentary films, then layouts for books, e.g., Mayakovsky’s, then acting as photographer and designer. Stepanova and Popova (like Tatlin) worked for some time in a factory, designing geometric-based textiles (of a high order). But at some time most of the Productivists—or Constructivists—seem to have realized that some art form could be utilized—or invented—provided it was “programmatic”—or “propagandistic.” One such area where renounced artists could still operate was the theatre, and here the path had already been indicated.


ALTHOUGH RUSSIAN FUTURIST PAINTERS AND POETS had been anxious to demonstrate their independence from the ideas of Marinetti, no such motivation was found in the theatre. Marinetti’s manifestos of 1913 and 1915 ( on Variety Theatre and Synthetic Theatre, respectively) were extensively used and acknowledged by the new—Revolutionary—theatre producers. Two elements from Marinetti’s manifestos were vitally important to the Russians—the emphases on urbanization, and the circus. When adopted, these ideas often annihilated any traditional story-line from old “bourgeoise” plays, which were mercilessly torn apart in an effort to adapt them to a post-October content. Such ideas also played significant roles in the propaganda theatre of revolutionary authors, such as Mayakovsky and Tretyakov.

Marinetti’s manifesto on Variety Theatre aimed “To encourage in every way the performances of clowns and American burlesque with their effects of grotesqueness, of tremendous dynamism, their custard pies, their enormous brutality, their surprise waistcoats and their trousers as wide as a boat’s hold—from all this will gush, among a thousand other things the great hilarity which must rejuvenate the face of the Earth.” The second, on Synthetic Theatre, had proposed:

1) The abstract a-logical synthesis of pure elements, which offer the public the force of life in motion without psychology (the abstract synthesis is an irrational, surprising, combination of typical experiences.)

2) The tactile, muscular, athletic, mechanical synthesis without psychology.

The manifestos could hardly have fallen into more responsive hands than those in Russia engaged in dragging themselves from the subjective, a-social era of the 19th century into the communal mechanized world towards which Communism believed itself to be heading.

One of the first to respond to Marinetti’s ideas was Annenkov (whom I have quoted on Tatlin) who was moving in many areas, e.g., relief-constructions, theoretical proposals and theatre (and extra-theatre). Annenkov staged Leo Tolstoy’s The First Distiller in September, 1919. His production utilized a highly abstract setting and staged the work as something near a series of music-hall sketches; the text was interspersed with topical political references and made copious use of acrobatics and circus clowning. Delvari, a leading Russian clown, took part (he was later to work in Meyerhold’s theatre).

Annenkov, for his part, wrote at this time, “The art of the theatre actor, his professional accomplishment, is always relative. The art of the circus performer is perfect, because it is absolute. The slightest error in the judgement of a gymnast, a second’s hesitation, and he has lost his equilibrium, fallen from the trapeze, the number ruined, the art ceases to exist. In the masterliness of the circus performer the revolutionaries of the theatre see the germ of a new theatrical form, of a new style.”

One outcome of the production of The First Distiller was the formation of a Popular Comedy Theatre headed by Serge Radlov from 1920 to1922. His first production was of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he attempted to treat as an uninterrupted action, a constant “movie-type” flow. Radlov insisted on “urban eccentricity as a new aspect of the comic outlook on life created by the Anglo-American genius”; his productions revolved around propaganda, acrobatics and the American “chase” film. Also born of the new atmosphere was the Fex group (Factory for the Eccentric Actor), around Trauberg and Kosintzev (a refugee from painting). Fex openly took its cue from Marinetti—Little Father Marinetti, as they called him. Fex produced Terentiev’s zaoumist version of Gogol’s Government Inspector in a highly controversial manner (it relied heavily on near-obscenity, with lavatories on the stage from which the occupants voiced their monologues, “the tone varying with the abdominal strains”). Fex’s manifesto proclaimed:

Yesterday: museums, temples, libraries.

Today: factories, plants, yards.

Yesterday: drawing rooms, curtsies, barons.

Today: the shout of the newsboy, scandals, policemen’s truncheons, uproar, shouts, stamping, running.

Today is the era of machine-rhythms, concentrated by America, introduced into life by the street.4

Constructivism in the theatre is generally known through the productions of V. V. Meyerhold; indeed Constructivist theatre is often alleged to have been initiated with Meyerhold’s production, early in 1922, of The Magnificent Cuckold. But that is a purely “formal” date. Meyerhold had turned almost immediately to the Theatre of October. Of his first meeting with Mayakovsky he wrote “We agreed immediately on ‘politics’—the principal issue of 1918: October to our eyes represented the way out of an impasse for the intelligentsia: In the years of War Communism Meyerhold repeatedly made it clear that the theatre was a political institution: “The proletariat must completely fill the ditch that an outworn class has dug between art and life.” For Meyer-hold and many others there existed a magical equation: “proletarization = industrialization of art.”

Biomechanics,5 Meyerhold’s system (though that is perhaps too rigid a word) of movement as acting, i.e., as expressive of emotion, combined the influences of mechanization (rationalization and industrialization) with acrobatics and circus. It led to a kind of abstract use of movement on the stage which had strong visual analogies with the pictorial dynamics that Constructivism had inherited from its earlier phases. As a system it related in another direction to Taylorism and the work on the scientific organization of labor by Gastev at the Central Institute of Labor. Gastev was one proletarian poet whose work had strong allegiances with the Constructivists. His Sheaf of Orders shouted,

Cram technics down the people’s throats

Energize them with geometry

Beat them with logarithms

. . . .

Phrases based on the decimal system

Speeches like Boiler Works

Meyerhold had visited the 5 x 5 exhibition and as a result invited Luibov Popova to design sets and costumes for a forthcoming production. This was The Magnificent Cuckold produced in April, 1922. For this Popova designed one central construction with a small “slide” extension. The main section was about 25 feet high, and could be climbed on easily. It also embodied several platforms, as well as moving elements, such as discs which could be spun, their speed indicative of an actor’s mood (rapidly spun it signified rage). As a purely “non-objective structure” it had considerable beauty, as an adjunct to biomechanics and the propagation of propaganda (for Meyerhold had desacralized the text) it was to set an example that was followed in other theaters, not only in Russia. Popova also designed the costumes, a basic “prozodejda” (actor’s working garment). This was seen as only a first step. They hoped later to achieve an entirely extra-theatrical spectacle: “abolition of the stage, of decor and costume which would have as consequence the disappearance of the actor and the piece; the presentation could take place on a workers’ holiday. To relax the workers could spend part of their time in a theatrical improvisation, perhaps even at their place of work, and according to a scenario invented by one of them.”

In November Meyerhold staged Tarelkin’s Death, with the cooperation of another participant from the Productivists’ 5 x 5 exhibition, Varvara Stepanova. Stepanova treated all elements used in a unified manner, from large “primary structures” which could imprison actors, to tables, chairs, etc. Most of the many objects—unified stylistically on a kind of grill basis, all uniformly white—were variable, they collapsed or projected people from them, whenever they were used. The costumes were highly stylized and unified by ranges of color, calculated often to be read as an abstract block, only secondarily presented by the literary grouping of the actors. It certainly fulfilled Marinetti’s wish for burlesque and “abstract a-logical synthesis of pure elements.”

Undoubtedly a fine visual spectacle; it nevertheless courted the danger of formalism—as of course had Popova’s first set, though to a lesser degree. With the importance that the real, and the object, had assumed to the Constructivists, it is hardly surprising that the next Meyerhold production, in February, 1923, when Popova returned, moved forcefully away from the abstract, towards the real. It is probably true to say that such an action would have been supported, if not suggested, by the “reviser” of the piece, Sergei Tretyakov. The work in question was Tretyakov’s version of Martinet’s The Night, which became The Earth Rises, an agit-prop (agitation-propaganda) on the Civil War. One eye-witness was R. Fulop-Miller who had this to say of the production:

This foyer has nothing to do with the old theatre. You enter and must at once come to a halt; for the waiting public, in stiff ranks four or six deep, are marching up and down in strict military step, stamping on the ground . . . The foreigner . . . feels compelled to join the marching column and march up and down with it, until the signal for the start is sounded . . .

A military signal announces the start of the performance. At once some motorcars rush diagonally through the auditorium and over a connecting bridge onto the stage. They are followed by a company of cyclists in uniform. With this sensational opening the piece begins . . .

Cannons and machine guns appear again, aeroplanes and dressing stations take their places, again the motors and bicycles rush furiously through the auditorium. Finally the first red flag is hoisted and is soon followed by countless others.

The ‘constructions’, the platforms, the auditorium, and the foyer, are captured by red troops. The Communist revolution is triumphant. Fiery speeches are delivered, the public strikes up the ‘Internationale’.”6

The Earth Rises was a summary of several ideas. It was propagandist throughout, but did not omit buffoonery; in being resolutely anti-psychological it introduced reality per-se. In its whole tenor it brought the outside world into the theatre, no longer the old theatre, but simply an area in which an event took place. To some extent it domesticated the mass spectacle. Tretyakov’s sense of, and realization of a reality that bred social and political ideas was used by others at this time (he rarely lacked anyone to produce his work in either theatre or film); one of those who worked with him was Eisenstein.

Part II of The Constructivist Ethos will appear in the October issue.

Ronald Hunt



1. Eugene Lampert, Sons Against Fathers; Studies in Russian Radicalism and Revolution. Oxford, 1965.

2. Some writers have tended to play down the relevance of October to the triumph of Constructivism; without the Revolution Constructivism might have developed of its own accord into the concepts it held in the ’20s, but such concepts would hardly have become either as relevant or as widespread without the Bolshevik seizure of power. The Revolution—itself a product of the ethos of the Russian people and historical circumstance—appealed to that same spirit among radical artists. It was a direct, emotional appeal, and one which might not stand rational examination. (Trotsky, for one, believed that the Futurists had “fallen” into the Revolution.) But the feeling prevailed, nevertheless, that the Revolution implied a new concept of culture that could only be realized by the rejection of pre-Revolutionary ideas and their replacement by a culture in which the content was to be changed in order to give support to—and parallel—the new era of life that Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station had ushered in. For the avant-garde the position was summed up by Mayakovsky: “October. To accept or not to accept? For me (as for the other Moscow Futurists) this question never arose. It is my revolution.” From 1919 to 1922 Mayakovsky worked for Rosta (Russian Telegraph Agency), where he produced works specifically for the social conditions of the time—posters satirizing the White Russians, verses to be displayed on buses on such matters as hygiene, electrification, atheism, etc. He maintained there was no difference between such works and his long epic, lyric poems, e.g., About This. The Revolution demanded that the poet step on his throat and become “one who in our sharp class battle gives his pen up to the arsenal of the proletariat and does not scorn any duty and hard work, any theme about the Revolution, or about building a peoples management of agriculture, and writes propaganda verse on any of these themes . . .” Mayakovsky makes clear for himself and his fellow Futurists that their works are initially bound to October—as propaganda, as celebration, as directive. We might view their activity as avant-garde, but it is unlike most avant-gardes in that its driving force isn’t just internal but external—and specifically external at that. That this avant-garde could operate from positions of authority within the new social system—as lecturers, publishing officials, committee members and advisers—doesn’t however indicate that there was any real external approval. For Lenin (and even Trotsky, who answered the plea for a Belinsky with the answer that a Belinsky now would be a member of the Politburo) cultural, esthetic or anti-esthetic matters were hardly paramount in the years of War Communism when the Revolution seemed threatened by famine, economic upheavals, civil war and foreign intervention. Peace, Land and Bread were far more important than manifestos and manifestations. (Once these issues had receded in urgency, the Party could turn its attention to culture—and begin to eliminate those elements which were too far to the “left.” Initially, however, October was a signal of hope, encouragement and optimism for the avant-garde which, in all its forms—literature, visual arts, theatre and film—attempted to ally itself to a Revolutionary ideology.

3. Georges Annenkov, Tatlin och konstruktivismen, in Rorelse i Konsten. Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1961.

4. Quoted in A. M. Ripellino, Maiakovski et le theatre russe d’avant-garde, Paris, 1965, p. 167.

5. On biomechanics see: “Le bioméchanique, in Vsévolod Meyerhold,” Le Théatre théatral, Paris, 1963.

6. R. Fulop-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, London, 1927, p. 126–7.