The Art Institute of Chicago’s grand celebration of pre-Stalinist Soviet art, kicked off this past autumn, 100 years — almost to the day– after the October Revolution of 1917. Touted as the largest exhibit to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the Soviet state, this beautifully mounted exhibit sprawled throughout the museum’s Regenstein Hall to provide an exceptionally rich, though somewhat tattered overview of arguably the most radical artistic changes of the past century.
The exhibit tracks the fluctuating relationship in the merging of that revolutionary art with an equally revolutionary society. The convergence of social reconstruction and the new art of Constructivism brought on a “perfect storm” of change for artists chafing to align their art with the principles of the revolution.
The tracking is broad as it spreads across media and into the factory. In doing so, it offers a number of highlights hard to find elsewhere. Especially engaging was the life-scale construction of a kiosk, a realization of one of many unbuilt designs by Gustav Klutis intended to aid the dispersal of print media. Just as impressive was a reconstruction of Lenin Workers’ Club by Aleksandr Rodchenko, originally designed for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.
Arguably the most important reconstructions, however, were those of sculptures by Rodchenko, Carl Ioganson and the Stenberg brothers, Vladimir and Georgii, originally exhibited in the Constructivist Group’s section of the OBMOKHU (Society of Young Artists) Exhibition, Moscow 1921. Ioganson’s work introduced the first examples of tensegrity structures, which Kenneth Snelson later elaborated into his sculptures of tubes and wires. Ioganson’s sculptures each comprised a single unit of an octet truss built such that tension wires held three unconnected struts in a stable suspension. The octet truss, an integration of octahedral and tetrahedral geometry, acted as the basis for space frames patented by Alexander Graham Bell as part of his experimentation into aeronautics. Among the original public applications of Bell’s patent were light and quickly erected observation towers for use on World War One battlefields. Bell’s innovation also went into building massive cellular kites for lifting scouts above the fighting. Ioganson’s genius was in mating Bell’s truss with the techniques of aircraft construction where thin struts guyed by taut wires integrated maximum stability with minimum weight.
Ioganson’s employ of the octet truss also underscores a disappointing gap in the organization of the Art Institute’s show: no category for architecture. Constructivist architect Constantin Melnikov had subsequently adopted this truss, using a 1926 structural design by engineer Vladimir Shukhov to span the cavernous 8,500 square meters of the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage. Melnikov’s 1925 design for the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris Exposition, while less spectacular than the garage, nevertheless spoke a full-throated paean to Constructivist values. As did his subsequent work.
Equally disappointing was the exclusion of engineering genius Vladimir Sukhov, whose design and erection of radio towers at Lenin’s behest monument-alized Soviet aspirations. Searching for a structure to produce maximum strength with minimum material, Shukhov had engaged a mathematician in 1896 and settled on the hyperboloid of revolution, a curved surface generated by a grid of straight lines that could be manufactured from steel bars. Sukhov first applied a single hyperboloid to build a water tower. Sukhov’s radio tower design, however, called for nine tapered levels of hyperboloids stacked to a height of 350 meters – 50 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower, but with only one third of the steel used by Eiffel. Unfortunately, civil warring caused severe steel shortages that limited the finished towers to half their planned height – still impressive nevertheless.
Sukhov makes a single uncredited appearance in the show where the artist Efim Pernikov’s poster “Radio Front” includes a crude image of one of his towers in a poster design. Melnikov never appears, except for one line in the catalog.
Ioganson sculpture also exemplified a Constructivist trend to achieve purity of structure by means of the barest minimum of material. In fact the goal was to seek a formal purity for art of a degree rivaling that of mathematics. In this light Ioganson’s drawings combined with words and equations to ape the presentation of geometric theorems. Rodchenko had followed a similarly reductive approach in his series of Linearist paintings comprising only straight lines and circles, including works featuring three, two and even only one line, drawn on graph paper. Rodchenko once averred that art was a branch of mathematics.
The Constructivist agenda of bracketing art into more and more rarified intellectual regions seems antithetical to a peoples’ art, but the upshot of such Platonic inquiry was that art needed no single auteur and existed as a set of rational principles to be accessed by anyone. These were to be uncovered by the Laboratory Constructivists as Rodchenko and his adherents were dubbed. Instead art could just as well be a group product, a social collaboration, applying these artists’ research to communal design and factory production.
Under Rodchenko’s direction this agenda dominated the curriculum at the VKhUTEMAS (Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops) resulting in the ouster of founding artists Wassily Kandinsky, the first director, and Vladimir Matiushin, color curriculum. Kandinksky’s theosophical bent and Matiushin’s millenarist views on the revolution smacked too much of spirituality for the faculty. Kandinsky left to replace Josef Itten as head of the first year curriculum at the Bauhaus.
Kandinsky is mentioned briefly in the catalog and Matiushin not at all. Neither has work in the exhibit.
By neglecting the contributions of artists like Matiushin the show skimps on artistic development preceding the Soviet era and emphasizes instead the cultural reception of Constructivism in the pre-Stalinist Soviet regime. The movement’s theoretical and aesthetic underpinnings are not addressed in any depth. Granted these are heady and heavily intellectual, generated by a stew of ideas including philology, logic and poetry not readily comprehended by most viewers.
Constructivism questioned the most basic means by which language, geometry and rational logic bring sense to the world. Especially important in this regard were the zaum poets, most notably Aleksei Kruchonykh and Velimir Khlebnikov who were frequent collaborators with Kasimir Malevich.
Zaum is a termed coined by the poets that merges two Russian words: beyond and sense. Their poems sought to flout rational logic, which they regarded as hampering perception, and construct alternate paths to meaning. For these alogist poets and artists like Malevich meaning resided in experiences built from novel sensations that conventional reason could not register.
An important feature of zaum poetry was that it was hand written or, more appropriately, hand drawn (The Russian word for write, pisat, also translates as paint.) This painterly scribing added visual and spatial experience to the apprehension of the poem. Though the show unfortunately has no examples of this poetry, Marsha Chlenova’s catalog essay on Constructivism in the theater pays excellent homage to zaum use of language and its role in constructing theater leading to Vladimir Tatlin’s citation on the constructive equiva-lence of language and material: “the word is a building unit, material is the unit of organized volume”.
Representing Constructivism’s expansion into theater was a lively room of theatrical models and props primarily designed by the major Constructivist women artists, including the painters Liubov Popova, Alexandra Exter and Varvara Stepanova. Reconstructions of furniture props designed by Stepanova for a production of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s “Death of Tarelkin” activated the space and brought a sense of immediacy to Soviet theater.
By far the most copiously represented medium was graphic design, signaling the successes of Constructivism in communication design and advertising. Some editing could have well served this area by removing repetitious images and thereby freeing up space for the aforementioned gaps in the curation. Some catalog discourse on word and material and perhaps an analysis the influence of zaum on the effectiveness of the graphics would, as in theater, have tied the graphics to the essential goals of the Constructivists.
The final stop in a circuit of the exhibition examined the penetration of revolutionary art into the home. At this stage the aesthetic messages of the art had been all but muted into prosaic household objects. Most likable were items such as children’s books and children’s drawings, especially two crayon drawings from 1937 by 11 year old Svetlana Allilueva for her father Josef Stalin. Sweet and precocious, the drawings ape official documents and mimic the colors and composition of Soviet graphic design. The documents feature officious orders for her father to take her to the movies.
These pieces of domesticity belie the brutality with which Svetlana’s father was curtailing the artistic experiments represented in the exhibit. The show itself does nothing to reveal the horrors that coerced an end to this the period in art history. Endings like beginnings are not a strength of this exhibit.
Stephen Luecking writes on art and science for journals on the humanities and mathematics. His paper “A Man and his Square: Kasimir Malevich and the Visualization of the 4th Dimension” (https://depaul.academia.edu/StephenLuecking) was shortlisted by Princeton University Press for the best mathematical writing of 2010.
Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 pp 32-34