PRINT January 1972

A Better World in Birth

Why worship the new as a god compelling submission merely because it is “new”? Nonsense! Bosh and nonsense!

What a fascinating thing is the history of art!

KARL MARX WAS NEVER what the British Museum catalogue, at a loss for a word, describes as a “writer on art.” But he did write a great deal about men making things, and there is a sense in which the Constructivist outburst in Russia at the time of the Revolution might have been an apt, if not implicit, outcome of his thought. For in Marx’s view a distinguishing feature of human work is, so to speak, its material idealism. Labor is the concretization of an idea, moved by the will.

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes even the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.3

In this general sense Constructivist art might seem to fill the bill for socialism perfectly: it is preeminently an art of concretized ideas, often machinelike in the calculated realization of its ends. Just why Constructivism wasn’t snapped up by the grateful masses (as the question is so often framed) has always posed a problem.

One difficulty is that we insist on asking a purely esthetic question. The answer may be esthetic, but the question is economic and social. It must be emphasized that this is not a piece of dogmatic cant. It is an absolute to which every creator of Russian Constructivist art, as well as every party bureaucrat who put a stop to the movement, unwaveringly subscribed.

The quoted passage of Das Kapital occurs in a section on the nature of work that is itself somewhat problematic. Marx describes what constitutes work. He finds that work requires an attentiveness that excludes enjoyment. It would be interesting to know whether this is simply because Marx was considering actual work in pre-socialist society or whether, had he been more interested in art, he might have conceived of art-working as against the grain of normal work, much as José Ortega y Gasset considered art essentially an anti-economic form of work.4 Of course, even if Marx agreed with this notion he could have used it to show that art is essentially an escapist enterprise necessary only in the context of industrial capitalist life. Surely the undistinguished idealism of a notion of art as “workless work” would have peeved him. But the idea that there was a form of work in which involvement in what he calls the nature and mode of the act dominates the necessity for blind attentiveness, might at least have engaged his attention for a moment. It required a man entirely a socialist and entirely an artist—William Morris—to notice that the enjoyment element in artistic work gives insight into the possibilities of work in general after capitalism.

“Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917” might more accurately have been entitled “. . . after 1917,” for this large exhibition cools off and hardens in the ’20s, just when the Soviets decided they had made a mistake. What we see here is, with some modifications, the show organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain at the Hayward Gallery in London last winter. The Arts Council ran into trouble with the present-day Soviet cultural authorities over this exhibition, and the air is by no means clear even now. We know that the Russians insisted that certain works—among them El Lissitsky’s “Proun Room,” included in the N.Y. exhibition—be withdrawn, which precipitated a showdown. (A cheap scene staged around an issue like this is not beneath the Tory party.) Anyway, the hassle necessitated the scrapping of the original catalogue.

One thing that got lost in the shuffle is whatever could with any common sense be considered contemporary art, especially if one remembers that by law 50 years qualifies an “antique.” I am not offering blanket praise for latter-day Russian painting and sculpture, but it is unfortunate that authorities in both East and West go on rehearsing the same melodrama of modernism. Often, the standard of approval seems remarkably like Lenin’s own standard of disapproval:

. . . Bourgeois intellectuals . . . very often regarded the new type of workers’ and peasants’ institution as the most convenient field for testing their individual theories in philosophy and culture, and in which, very often, the most absurd ideas were hailed as something new, and the supernatural and incongruous were offered as purely proletarian art and proletarian culture. (Applause.)5

It is clear from the whole flavor of the show that the exhibits were expected, even required, to conform to a certain standard of bourgeois-liberal “experimentalism.” Is it too difficult to imagine that the Russians might very well not want to lend works of Soviet art for the purpose of perpetuating what they quite seriously understand to be error?

The interest, in short, is in only those categories of post-Revolutionary art that fit in with Western ideas about the unfolding of the established tradition of Cubo-Futurist and Constructivist styles. In other words, curiosity slackens when it seems that what is in good artistic taste stops. This will not do, particularly at a time when many of the best artists of the West are themselves questioning fundamental presuppositions of modernist traditions.

Oleg Shvidkovsky’s essay on “Art and Revolution,” the only essay in the original catalogue, is much longer and more thorough than the version published in the revised London catalogue, which also serves New York.6 The second catalogue is actually larger and contains some worthwhile material. Even what has been added to the new catalogue is significant when we note such an item as Kenneth Frampton’s essay “A Lost Avant-Garde.” But the new format, revealingly I think, makes it harder to track down facts and encourages the reader to treat the whole as a sort of swinging textual eye-fair, like a page of Oz Magazine—one big hard-rock blur.

There is plenty of interesting material in this exhibition, and many beautiful objects. The post-Revolutionary years in Russia indeed comprised a great age of art, no matter how you slice it. Yet the whole thing seems so sterilized. Probably the admitted failure or lapse of this great age was at least partly the artists’ own fault. One has the feeling sometimes that these men designed plywood furniture or workers’ clothing in order to anxiously establish some sort of link, however tenuous, between the nonutilitarian game they played so well and the vast proletariat who couldn’t care less whether they played that game at all, so long as they didn’t stand in the way of constructive social activity.

Some examples. Isn’t it about time we stopped ogling Vladimir Tatlin’s monumental tower, already the Whistler’s Mother of Russian Art—having been compared with every possible item as far back as the great staircase at Blois? Do we really think that a work as almost hilariously playful as this, however unimpeachably “advanced,” is an appropriate monument for one of the most profound human movements since the French Revolution?

The Soviet architecture of this period has been embraced only a little less indiscriminately. Much is of high quality, much is quite ordinary, even derivative. Yet the whole mass gets celebrated in a way that recalls popular American enthusiasms for the “modernistic” in the time of the 1939 World’s Fair.

The Vesnin design for the Leningrad Pravda offices (1923–24; reconstructed model), a noteworthy building, is not the masterpiece it is sometimes offered as. The incorporation of utilitarian lettering into the working system of the building, though interesting, was done more beautifully by J. J. P. Oud at the Café de Unie, Rotterdam, hardly a year later (1925). The tilted, two-story-high billboard over the door, however, is a remarkable instance of agitation-propaganda playing a part in architecture because such attached angled planes do not become a feature in Le Corbusier’s work until later on (e.g., Les Terraces, Garches, 1927). Similarly, it might prove fruitful to relate Corbu’s development of ramps to the sets for Meyerhold’s Actor’s Theater, of which there is here an impressive reconstruction of Popova’s set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922. But the Pravda project is hardly a faultless gem. That its supposed prismatic unity has been exaggerated is apparent from the model, for although the elevators are indeed in glass external shafts, the stairwell is within the fabric itself, and takes up more floor space than if the situation were reversed. This means that the paramount reason for having the glass cage of the elevators on the outside is the mere charm of seeing the elevator zip up and down, rather than the supposed heavyweight reason of efficient floor space or purity of form.

The glass-enclosed spiral staircase of Barsch and Sinyaysky’s Moscow Planetarium project (1929) is an obvious cop from Gropius’ Model Factory at the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition of 1914. Not all the works of the supposed Soviet avant-garde were radically new, let alone ingenious; many works by even the greatest designers are little more than fantasies in a somewhat revolutionary-puritanical vein of the international Art Deco mode.

On the other hand, Leonidov’s project for the Lenin Institute (1927; reconstructed model) is splendid. Far from being in any way a fiddling esthetic exercise, the complex looks supremely rational, nobly composed, and, even in the small model, as if it is already doing its job. This is Constructivism “in gear.”

But even such a master as Tatlin, in his patterns for workers’ clothing (1918–19) seems more interested in the pieces as curvy shapes than in what the things might be like to wear. Popova’s later (1942) and “normal” fabric designs seem more useful and more immediately appreciable (as well as proto-Afro-ethnic). No wonder much of the work of these men horrified common people as Art Gone Wild.

The exhibition includes such agit-prop materials as posters, examples of architectural and industrial design, as well as a full schedule of Soviet films of the period. It is, however, the sheer range of artistic activity that is most striking, and there are hints of important relations between these various activities, although the exhibition does little to visually explore and present such parallels. For instance, the connecting bridge between upper stories of the two blocks of Serafimov and Kravets’ Grosprom Offices at Kharkov (1927) may well comprise a salient and meaningful reference to the immortal scene in Eisenstein’s Strike (1924) where mounted troops attack tenement houses by crossing bridges connecting each floor—a scene which must have been engraved on every Russian mind by 1927. Would putting the still beside a picture of the building upset us too much by suggesting that the material here might be more a matter of socialism or truth than of art or beauty? I went in practically humming the “International.” I left feeling as though I had been to see Huntington Hartford’s Burne-Joneses.

Parallel with the British Soviet show at the NYCC is a major exhibition of well over a hundred works of early 20th-century Russian art at the Leonard Hutton Galleries, “Russian Avant-Garde 1908–1922.” This is a different cup of tea from Columbus Circle, although the two enterprises are in some measure complementary and even, on the question of the poor ol’ avant-garde, mutually reinforcing. First, what appears at Leonard Hutton is fine art pure and simple. Second, this assembly manages to avoid the sense of near indignation (kindhearted capitalists coddling misunderstood Russian art) that makes the Art Council show seem like a calculated probe into the Great Socialist Art Failure. These works hang as art, not as testimony. In a few cases there are links between the two exhibitions, one of the most direct being the drawing by Popova (1920–21) for the Magnanimous Cuckold set reconstructed in the other show.

Not everything is of high quality. Among the less rewarding works are pieces by names as famous as Rodchenko, whose Line Constructions (1920) are tiresome and flaccid. The white elephant of the show is the cumbersomely painted Symphonie No. 9 (1913) by Baranoff-Rossiné, a pseudo-Cubist picture of a seated figure who seems to be smoking a pipe, wearing a gas mask, and holding an ear-trumpet in its left arm. Baranoff’s sculpture Symphonie No. 1 (1913), Picassoid in its construction and set here on a revolving lazy Susan like some promotional display, is more competent and less belabored, but one can understand why hostile criticism led Baranoff in 1914 to throw a companion piece into the Seine.

A number of artists use lettering in such an essentially Cubist way that it is informative to see some indication of the native Russian impulses from which that particular enthusiasm may have sprung, especially when we note the importance of lettering in post-Revolutionary graphics. Mikhail Larionov’s Dancing Soldiers (1909), not yet Cubist-aware, uses Cyrillic lettering in a way that recalls icon painting: the words do not yet play a formal role—they trail about like tiny ribbons—but this kind of conscious nationalism, with its ethnic naiveté, may have helped to set the stage for this aspect of Cubist influence.

Ivan Puni (1894–1956) was really adept at painting pictures of letters and words. His Bath (1915) is an amazing adumbration of word pieces by Ed Ruscha and Steve Kaltenbach. It consists of a big red flaglike oblong with a smaller white oblong set into its lower left-hand corner; writ large in neat letters on the white ground is the Russian word for BATH. Puni’s wonderful Flight of Forms (1919) is a huge gouache, nearly square, whose motif consists of the letters that spell the words of the title, scattered as if they were non-semiotic shapes and painted in startlingly non-primary colors. An extra word, the Russian for “rainbow” I am told, is thrown in fortuitously but orthographically correctly, and a cluster of eleven Ms is added in the lower right for no apparent reason. The work is obviously related to what we call “experimental” poetry, and for some reason calls Maurice Bowra’s essay on Mayakovsky to mind. (Does Mayakovsky begin with an M in Russian? Another thought: Mayakovsky wrote a play called The Bathhouse.) Puni’s Washing Windows (1915) has lettering too, and its design, if the pictorial forms were flattened, would suggest Ozenfant’s compositions of a few years later. But, in its own right, Washing Windows has a forced artiness that Puni’s paintings of letters alone avoid.

Although there are many fascinating unfamiliar works here, some pose critical difficulties. There are, for instance, several Jawlenskys, including a couple of small pictures of almost citrous coloristic delicacy. But Jawlensky’s work is not really part of the Russian scene; it is as much a part of the history of German painting as that of Sonia Delaunay (also in this show) is of French art. The Kandinsky Theme of the Deluge and the Last Judgment (1913) is vivid and has strong passages, but seems too simple and planned, too vacant and unruly.

A gouache by Alexandra Ekster (1882–1949), Composition (1922), provides material for more manageable wonderings. This flat, geometric “abstraction,” basically a landscape, is roughly similar to a stage set published by her in the same year.7 It resembles more closely a work that happens to be naturalistic and by an important contemporary Western artist with Russian connections, a painting by Juan Gris called A Transatlantic, reproduced in the first edition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, without a date!8 Gris’ painting shows the deck of a steamship, and juxtaposed against it, the Ekster work suddenly makes very accurate narrative sense, its forms becoming legible as doors, steps, deck planks, rails, guy ropes, and a landscape off to

the upper right. Actually Gris’ A Transatlantic itself looks like a theater set, and it was in just the years of Gertrude Stein’s acquaintance with Gris that the painter was involved in working for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, around 1921–23. However, the sets Gris finished were for an 18th-century French period piece, and from his letters we know that he was concerned with not upsetting the historical accuracy of its mise-en-scène: a steamship setting would be out of the question. We are left with a number of loose ends when we look at this painting by a stage designer; it seems to take off from a Juan Gris set design published in 1933. This seems a problem, although it is possible that the relation to Gris’ painting is coincidental. What makes the Ekster picture appealing enough to inquire into at all is its Stuart Davis-like patternization of a moderne landscape, so that even if it were a pastiche it would retain some interest of its own.

Alexandra Ekster is only one of several women represented in the exhibition. Women must have played a very active role in the early modern Russian scene. Famous women like Sonia Delaunay and Natalia Goncharova are represented; so are others who were to me at least unknown, and who did formidable work. Olga Rozanova (1886–1918), for example: her ripping The Factory and the Bridge (1913) is suggestive of the industrial-noise music composed by Russians like Julius Meytuss and Alexander Mossolov a decade later. Rozanova’s jaggedly abstract Directional Lines (1916) is even better; it makes much contemporary German painting (by men) look like petit point design. And if I am correct, the following names belong also to women painters: Liubov S. Popova (1889–1924), Varvara Stepanova (1898–1958), and Ruzhena Zatkova (1880–1924). This means that fully 25% of the artists represented in the exhibition are female. Apparently the Russians gave ladies other options besides sweeping streets and driving tractors.

The Stalinist destruction of extreme modernism may be a more complicated tale than is usually told. Lenin knew very well that what the common people of Russia really wanted after the Revolution was some experience with the realistic art and beaux arts architecture that had, until then, been the exclusive preserve and pet indulgence of the bourgeoisie. The problem of value in socialist realism is enormous. One thing we could use is some inquiry into the question of how, in painting, this anti-abstract reaction compared qualitatively with contemporary representational painting in the West—the World War I art of Frank Brangwyn and Joseph Pennell, for instance. Several pictures here which would be acceptable to the most rigorous bureaucrat suggest that even if painters were confined to figure painting, there is still a solid foundation on which they might build: Goncharova’s Dancing Peasants (1910), Malevich’s Argentine Polka (1911), and, only a little less convincingly, Grigorieff’s Faces of Russia (1918). Moreover, if we consider Larionov’s Head of a Soldier (1910) (looks more like a sailor) it is easy to be reminded of figures in the animated cartoons from Eastern Europe that we occasionally see, as though at least one “advanced” tradition had survived by meandering into another, more socially urgent medium. We. will never know how to explain the end of the Soviet avant-garde until we have tried to understand why, when it did expire, nobody Russian missed it.

I recently came upon a document which suggests that at this moment in China there is actually a thriving desire for art of a radically new and unfamiliar kind, not to say a desire for an avant-garde. This is an essay by the Shanghai Writing Group for Revolutionary Mass Criticism—apparently a Red Guard arm—in vigorous repudiation of the revisionist views of a man named Chou Yang, who had attempted to apply Western notions of art history to China in hopes of a modern Chinese equivalent of the Renaissance. (Since the authors are equally opposed to the Western “classical” tradition and Soviet critical realism as well as to presocialist native Chinese art, exactly what Chou Yang meant by “renaissance” is not central to the argument.)

The really amazing thing about this booklet is that its opposition to Russian realism brings it in oddly close alignment with Western views of that style.9 To be sure, no recourse to what we mean by modernism is intended: Western modernism is condemned as “a malignant outgrowth” of traditional Western art. They want something entirely new, but they aren’t sure what. Not too much advice is offered except to study the ideas of Chairman Mao, and the only artist whose work is singled out for praise is Chiang Ching, the designer of some new kind of theatrical spectacle.10 Only at one point does the possibility break through that it eventually might be OK to use traditional—and presumably realistic (although this direct conclusion is scrupulously avoided)—pre-existing art for source material:

As for certain aspects of the art forms of certain works, we must use Mao Tsetung Thought as our weapon to criticize and remold them, and enable these art forms to serve the creation of proletarian literature and art.11

Immediately following this somewhat guilty speculation a Mao quotation helpfully intervenes:

There is no construction without destruction. Destruction means criticism and repudiation, it means revolution. It involves reasoning things out, which is construction. Put destruction first, and in the process you have construction.

How interesting that the West, toying with the frayed remnants of the Russian Constructivist tradition, wonders whether art criticism is necessary or even viable, while in the midst of the Chinese Cultural Revolution criticism is found to be even more necessary than art.

Joseph Masheck


1. Clara Zetkin, “My RecoNections of Lenin,” in V. I. Lenin, On Literature and Art, Moscow, 1967, p. 250.

2. Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Lenin and the Arts” in Lenin, On Literature and Art, p. 256.

3. Karl Marx, Capital; a Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, ed. Frederick Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, London, 1902, p. 157. Sir Joshua Reynolds in his second Discourse (1769) had condemned indiscriminate copying as conducive to “the dangerous habit of . . . laboring without any determinate object” in which “those powers of invention which ought particularly to be called out, and put in action, be(come) torpid, and lose their energy for want of exercise.” Marx’s use of the images of spider and bee is interesting because they were established motifs in the Ancients and Moderns dispute.

4. José Ortega y Gasset, The Modern Theme, trans. James Cleugh, New York, 1961, p. 83: “If the final aim of the task which gives sense and value to effort is to be found in work, the spontaneous effort which dignifies the result is to be found in sport . . . . Tasks that are valuable are only completed through the mediation of this anti-economic type of work: scientific and artistic creation, political and moral heroism, religious sanctity, are the sublime results of ‘sporting’ efforts.”

5. Lenin, “Speech of Greeting at the First All-Russia Congress of Adult Education,” in Lenin, On Literature and Art, p. 129. “Lenin is referring to the anti-Marxist views that were spread under the guise of ‘proletarian culture’ by members of the so-called Proletcult (Proletarian Culture Organization). The members of the Proletcult in effect rejected the cultural legacy of the past and, cutting themselves off from reality, tried to create a ‘proletarian culture’ by ‘laboratory methods’ . . . .”

6. For example, compare the concluding sentences of the two texts. That in the current catalogue reads like either a lie or a begging of the question: “The inspiration that motivated the architects, painters, sculptors, and designers of the first post-Revolutionary years still operates in the Soviet Union.” The earlier version, which follows a detailed consideration of the whole issue of continuity, is quite different in tone and effect: “The most important force is that the leading trends in Soviet art, far from being interrupted, are developed—ideological content, national character, humanism.”

7. IA Tugendkhol’d, Aleksandra Ekster (in Russian), Berlin, 1922, pl. xxi.

8. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, New York, 1933, pl. opp. p. 232.

9. The most serious divergence from Lenin’s attitude is on the question of the relevance of the past. It is true that lenin as an individual simply did not “dig” modern art, although he did have some interest in art in general; ergo, he was predisposed to accept past art. This is the upshot of all his comments on art, and is practically indistinguishable from the problem of “extremism” and the art audience in the West. (There is a brilliant discussion of the gradual acceptance of, initially, second-rate “extremists” in Roger Fry’s essay “Art and Socialism” in his Vision and Design, New York, 1956, pp. 55–78, esp. pp. 70–71.) And yet, despite its being partly his own problem, lenin could be quite categorical about it in public statements: in “The Achievements and Difficulties of the Soviet Government,” in his On Literature and Art, pp. 122–27, he repeatedly stressed that the Soviet Revolution and its new culture must be built with the preexisting “blocks” of capitalist “science, technology, knowledge, and art.”

10. Cf. Lenin: “But let it not be forgotten that spectacles are not really great art. I would sooner call them more or less attractive entertainments. . . . Our workers and peasants deserve something better than spectacles. They are entitled to real great art.” (Zetkin’s “Recollections,” n. 6, p. 253.)

11. Shanghai Writing Group for Revolutionary Mass Criticism, To Trumpet Bourgeois Literature and Art is to Restore Capitalism, Peking, 1971, p. 29. The Shanghai critics, avowedly extremist in their own way, are not entirely logical in their contention that the imitation of bourgeois art could threaten socialism. In Marxist-Leninist theory the relation between cultural superstructure and economic base is not reversible, so that there is no possible danger in the aping of bourgeois forms. But the Red Guards are not high-class theoreticians; their obvious anxiety is that those who would recommend pre-socialist models would often also like to see socialism compromised.