Abstract Art and the Regeneration of Mankind
Marks, Steve G
From 1910 on, Russian visual artists ceaselessly pushed the limits of the artistic firmament, creating abstract, formalist works in order to zero in on what they assumed to be, in the words of Kandinsky, the universal “truth which only art can divine [and] … express.”
It would be impossible in the space available to unravel every strand linking Russian and world avant-garde artists. Here we will focus attention on those Russians who had the greatest effect on the development of modern art: Vasily Kandinsky, the practitioner and theorist of abstractionism; Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism; Alexander Rodchenko, the most eminent Constructivist; and El Lissitzky, who amalgamated Suprematism and Constructivism and was the disseminator-in-chief of Soviet avant-garde art to the wider world.
All four believed that art could depict philosophical verities, “lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.” And artists more than any other subspecies of man possessed the ability to grasp those truths. “Priest[s] of beauty,” they expected their art to point humanity in the direction of the light that only they as artists perceived. To do so, these heirs of the Russian Silver Age and witnesses of European Post-Impressionism opted for the formalist aesthetic of abstractionism.
Their Neoplatonic Idealism, collectivism, and attachment to either anarchism or Marxism marked them as members of the Russian intelligentsia longing to see the fractures of society overcome. However, their artistic radicalism also had a complex relationship to their social origins as outsiders in a nation dominated until 1917 by the St. Petersburg elite. Like many members of the avant-garde, they were of non-Russian or mixed ethnic heritage and spent most of their lives outside of the prerevolutionary capital. Kandinsky (1866-1944) was born into a wealthy tea-merchant family in Moscow and grew up in the volatile boomtown of Odessa. His ancestry was a mixture of Russian, Baltic German, and Mongolian. Malevich (1878-1935), born and raised in Ukraine, was of Polish origin; his father was a factory foreman in the sugar-processing industry. Rodchenko (1891-1956) was born in St. Petersburg but moved with his family to Kazan, a Muslim Tatar center on the Volga River. A descendant of serfs from the Smolensk region, his father was a stagehand, his mother a laundress. El Lissitzky (1890-1941 ) was a Jew who grew up in a middle-class family in the Belorussian city of Vitebsk and attended gymnasium in Smolensk, just outside the Jewish Pale. The artists’ provincial and (excepting Kandinsky) non-privileged backgrounds reinforced the lack of sympathy they felt for existing cultural norms, and attuned them to the seismic changes taking place in this society.
Each one of them developed within the broad framework of European Post-Impressionism and owed a large artistic debt to French Cubism, Fauvism, or German Expressionism. But they should not be seen, as they so often are, as merely advancing toward abstraction on a course predetermined by the evolution of Western art. For what distinguished them from their European counterparts and indeed placed them in the driver’s seat of artistic Modernism the world over was their origin in imperial Russia, whose social and intellectual climate conditioned their art.
Russian abstractionism did away completely with the three-dimensional naturalism that had prevailed in the arts since the Renaissance. Maurice Tuchman has argued that it was spiritualism that caused the emergence of abstract painting, even the geometric variety which bore a similarity to Cubism. The majority of French avant-garde painters were like Picasso and Braque: they rearranged earthly subject matter but never thought of renouncing it altogether. Whereas French artists by and large were uninterested in the occult, the supernatural was the core of most avant-garde art in late imperial Russia. By 1910 the theories and experiments passed down from Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Russian folk art, Theosophy, the World of Art, the Ballets Russes, the MAT, and Meyerhold had congealed into an antirealist aesthetic involving formalism, primitivism, “making strange,” distortion, simplification of design, vibrant coloration, and avoidance of surface appearances, all with the purpose of grasping and relaying the essence of universal truth. “But providential time,” prophesied Kandinsky, “is the time of the great liberation, liberation … from the superficial.” The Russian avant-garde fully believed that abstract art forms established a bond with a higher, collective consciousness which represented the underlying unity of mankind and, in making people aware of that, prepared them for spiritual and/or revolutionary transformation.
The first Russian to leave earth behind in his art was Kandinsky, whose abstractionism materialized between 1909 and 1911 in Schwabing, the bohemian arts district of Munich. On this “spiritual island” in the sea of the bourgeoisie, he first obliterated recognizable subject matter in his paintings, works that, in his words, surge with overrunning masses of “primordial color” and the “archipelagic scatter” of paint. He described the effect he was trying to achieve: “Burning zig-zag rays split the air. The skies burst. The ground cleaves.” “Space trembles from thousands of voices. The world screams.” And these “moments of sudden illumination,” he explained, “reveal[ed] with blinding clarity new perspectives, new truths.”
Kandinsky mistakenly maintained that he “was the first to break with the tradition of painting existing objects.” In truth, others had done so earlier: nineteenth-century Theosophists (during seances) and various artists of a metaphysical bent, including Mikalojus-Konstantinas Ciurlionis of Lithuania, French painter Robert Delaunay, the American Arthur Dove, and Frantisek Kupka, a Czech. But their accomplishments were little known outside their own small circles, whereas Kandinsky’s international fame warrants his reputation as the true initiator of abstract art.
Kandinsky did much to establish that reputation himself, as an avant-garde impresario, theorist, and pedagogue. As founder of the Munich Neue Kunstlervereinigung (New Artists’ Association) in 1909 and two years later the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, he had become the organizer of Munich Expressionism-his role model, interestingly, being Diaghilev. His own works were shown alongside his confederates’ at their various exhibitions, receiving publicity when the press attacked them as the dribblings of the “incurably insane.” From 1912 until 1918, Kandinsky’s works were marketed by Herwarth Walden, whose leading-edge Berlin Expressionist gallery and journal, Der Storm, guaranteed Kandinsky sales and attention throughout the war years in Germany (despite his return to Russia). In this period his works also traveled to France, Holland, Russia, Switzerland, and the United States.
The Blue Rider Almanac and Kandinsky’s manifesto of abstractionism, On the Spiritual in Art, were both published by the countercultural Piper Press of Munich in early 1912 and sold well. Within two years, the latter went through four German editions. Prior to the appearance of the complete English translation in 1914, Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, the journal that introduced modern art to America, excerpted Kandinsky’s manifesto. So did the British equivalent, Wyndham Lewis’s Blast, which complimented Kandinsky on his “Blavatskyish soul,” referring to the founder of the Theosophical movement. The appearance of a Japanese edition in 1924 is testimony to the rapid globalization of Kandinsky’s reputation.
Through Kandinsky’s paintings and writings, Russian abstractionist aesthetics floated into the world’s consciousness for the first time. Yet it is often assumed that he was more a product of Munich than of Moscow. He did begin his formal study of painting in the former city, under the Slovene painter Anton Azbe, and was not immune either to the occult atmosphere of Schwabing or the artistic styles of German Expressionism and French Fauvism. If there was any place that was prepared for Kandinsky’s art and ideas it was Munich. But his Germanness should not be overemphasized: most of Azbe’s students and many members of the two art associations led by Kandinsky were Russians, including David and Vladimir Burliuk, Alexei Jawlensky, and Marianne Werefkin. More important, Kandinsky arrived in Germany at age twenty-nine, fully formed as a Russian radical intellectual.
Moscow was his aesthetic homeland, as he stated, “the origin of my artistic ambitions.” Originally trained as a lawyer, Kandinsky was drawn by the Populist anarchism of his youth to undertake ethnographic and legal studies of the Russian peasantry. He loved the pagan-Christian syncretism and rich colors of folk art, which he rated higher than academic painting and took to be a sign of the Russian village’s spiritual superiority to the rationalist civilization of the West. Not only did this experience encourage him to paint religious and fairy-tale themes; it also pushed him toward abstractionism. Russian peasant artworks, he said, emphasized color to such an extent that “the image in them becomes dissolved.” He also compared the effect of his abstract paintings to the misty air in Russian steam baths and to pagan-Slavic shamanistic trances. Of course, all this reflected his Russian Silver Age dissatisfaction with modernity, which he frequently denounced in his writings on art. In his view, “the soul was sick” in the materialistic bourgeois epoch; only abstract art, which was unfettered by earthly objects and revealed the artist’s intuition of transcendent truths, could heal it.
Kandinsky’s abstractionism was also related to his affinity for synesthesia, an aspect of Symbolism central to his own artistic vision. This was the assumption that correspondences existed among the various branches of the arts, in particular that painting could replicate the psychological effect of music or poetry and vice versa. The concept was derived from the mystical Platonism of Symbolist aesthetics, which assumed that all of the arts were but different emanations of a single divine truth. Kandinsky felt “that painting could develop just such powers as music possesses,” and gave his earliest abstractions symphonic titles such as Composition or Improvisation. The purpose was to achieve “psychic effect” and, through the “spiritual vibration” and “spiritual values” produced by combinations of colors and shapes, to bring the viewer into closer contact with the cosmos as intuited by the superior mind of the artist.
These notions of synesthesia came partly from German Romantic aesthetic theory, as interpreted by Rudolf Steiner, who, with his Russified Baltic-German wife, founded the Anthroposophy cult, a heretical branch of Theosophy. Popular among a segment of the Russian avant-garde, he preached that the “cosmic mission” of a human elite– among them Russian artists-would penetrate the mysteries of the universe and reintegrate humanity with it to achieve universal love as divined by Tolstoy. Kandinsky’s Russian roots in the Silver Age made him receptive to these ideas. But they eventually placed him at odds with artist-revolutionaries in Communist Russia.
He returned to his motherland at the start of World War I, and, though he later denied an interest in such a lowly thing as politics, he was initially full of utopian zeal for the Russian Revolution. He participated in various Soviet governmental arts institutions but, unlike many artists, could not reconcile his neo-Romanticism with the materialist ideology and proletarian-oriented aesthetics of the new regime. In 192 1 the Bolshevik government sent him to Berlin, as it did other cultural figures, on a mission to establish sympathy for the USSR among German artists. Feeling more at ease there, he stayed, having been invited to join the faculty of the Weimar Bauhaus, the radical design institute.
Back in Germany, his style shifted away from unshaped liquidity to a preference for distinct lines and geometric forms, especially circles: “I love circles today in the same way that previously I loved… horses-perhaps even more, since I find in circles more inner possibilities.” This new style corresponded to the theory he taught at the Bauhaus associating specific shapes with specific colors, sounds, and moral values.
He never abandoned his mystical utopianism. In line with many postwar European trends, he remained a philosophical Idealist seeking to eliminate the subjective from his art to reach permanent, elemental reality-as he put it, the “illusion of cosmic infinity” on canvas. His goal at the Bauhaus was to create “new men,” artists who would usher in the forthcoming “epoch of the spirit.” And he never lost his belief that salvation would come from the East-that is, from Russia.
When the Nazis came to power, Kandinsky, an anti-Semite like so many other Russians of his background, tried to stay in Germany by urging that control of the Bauhaus be given to Alfred Rosenberg, but as a “degenerate” artist and suspected Russian communist he was forced to leave. After he settled in France in 1934, the influence (which he denied) of his friends Jean Arp, Joan Miro, and other Abstract Surrealists led him to increasingly soften his geometricity with the inclusion of amoebalike biomorphic shapes. He died in 1944; soon thereafter, his works began fetching prices approximating those of Picasso.
The geometrical attributes of Kandinsky’s Bauhaus years had begun to appear during the Russian Revolution, when he fell under the influence of the Suprematist painter Malevich, also one of the earliest abstractionists. Malevich was more like the younger generation of Russian avant-garde artists than was Kandinsky. Although apparently warm and lighthearted in person, in his writings he comes off as a rough-edged, angry figure who would attack his artist-enemies in the crudest of terms. He heaped contempt on Benois (in a personal letter) as an “old elephant” and exhorted his peers to “spit on the old dress [of World of Art painting] and put new clothes on art.”
Malevich had little formal education of any kind but apprenticed as a painter in Moscow studios. He passed quickly through a variety of Post-Impressionist phases. His preferred subject matter was rural Russia, but around 1913 he turned to urban scenes that are among the most effective evocations of movement in modern painting. Simultaneously, he produced absurdist paintings with collage effects that indicate his growing interest in transcending the limitations of rational thought.
These stylistic shifts were way stations en route to the extreme form of abstractionism he arrived at in 1915 and exhibited for the first time in Petrograd at 0, 10. The Last Futurist Exhibition. His Black Square so excited him, he said, that he could not eat or sleep for an entire week after it was conceived. This was followed by hundreds of drawings and paintings of one-color geometrical shapes, including a barely discernible, off-center white quadrangle delineated on top of the canvas’s painted all-white background. Other works followed, with squares and circles menaced by triangles, pierced by lines, and overlapped by rectangular planes, all seeming to float in space.
The square, Malevich declared, was the “icon of reductivism.” He treated it as a work of sacred art, appropriating the position that Orthodox icons held by hanging his paintings of plain squares high in the corners of rooms according to Russian peasant custom. He took inspiration from the bold colors and flat forms of traditional Russian religious painting. His geometrical abstractions were neo-Idealist icons, beacons along the “crossroads of … celestial paths.” The square stood for the pure, Ideal universe of which the Silver Age dreamed-hence his choice of the term Suprematism to describe his art, from the Latin supremus, meaning ultimate or absolute. White Square on White (1918 ) depicted absolute nothingness, the ultimate reality farthest removed from the earth: “I have conquered the lining of the heavenly … Sail forth! The white, free chasm, infinity is before us!”
Besides Orthodox iconography and the Modernist viewpoint we are already familiar with, Malevich’s paintings manifest his fidelity to the Theosophical theories of Pyotr Ouspensky (1878-1947), a Russian mystical philosopher, and Charles Howard Hinton, an Anglo-American mathematician and inventor of a baseball-pitching machine. They argued that the third dimension was a misperception of reality on the part of modern man’s shallow rationalism. True reality existed in a higher fourth dimension, and art was a means of making it visible to the masses who could not easily comprehend it. Following their lead, Malevich reasoned that if the third dimension was an illusion, it would be better to avoid it in one’s artwork and instead visualize objective reality in two-dimensional painting, which he understood as an “expression of passage into the fourth dimension”! He felt that he was a messiah chosen to lead the way there through painted squares: “Tens of thousands of years have prepared my birth,” he proclaimed.
Malevich, whose hostility to modernity was a product of the Russian Silver Age, expected that contemplating the higher, immaterial realm would help “overcome our endless progress.” In other words, it would bring to an end the chaos and conflict associated with modern technology and capitalism, which have “held up at every step the path of [man’s intuition],” the “kernel” of the boundless universe planted inside him. Like many other members of the Russian intelligentsia, he harbored a delusional understanding of freedom and the individual. Deprive man of private property and he will be liberated from earthly concerns, he thought, able to gain the “maximum freedom” that comes from submitting himself to the “infinity of space” glimpsed in those paintings of squares.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Malevich was slow to grasp the threat posed by the Communist dictatorship to his art. For a few years after 1917, he spread his Suprematist message with missionary zeal at the Vitebsk School of Art directed by Marc Chagall– whom Malevich elbowed out in an academic/ideological power play. He and his students, wearing armbands with black squares, decorated the streets with Suprematist shapes, to the befuddlement of the masses whose collective consciousness they were supposed to raise. His designs, when applied to porcelain, architectural models, and propaganda posters, did, however, appeal to the avant-garde artists, who also attended his lectures and read his proclamations. But under the Stalinist dictatorship, this mystagogue and political anarchist found himself increasingly sidelined, yet also forbidden to emigrate. In 1935, he died of cancer, borne to infinity in a coffin of his own design, adorned with the Suprematist black circle and square.
Malevich may have become persona non grata, but the geometrical designs of Suprematism were taken over by Constructivism, the ascendant avant-garde current within early revolutionary Russia. This movement took shape between 1913 and 1921 , originating in the three-dimensional “constructions” of Malevich’s rival and admirer Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), once a Ukrainian sailor, and two Russian-Jewish brothers originally from Bryansk, Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962). Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky soon became the most visible practitioners of Constructivism, but by the early 1920S it had attracted so many artists and architects that this chapter can only hint at its diversity and complexity.
Constructivists renounced easel painting as a relic of the bourgeois age that they were expecting to shove into oblivion. Tatlin started out as an antinaturalist neoprimitivisit painter, but on a trip to Paris in 1914, he met Picasso, whose collages inspired him to move beyond paints; this indicates the strong influence French Cubism exerted on the Constructivists. Tatlin began to create reliefs and three-dimensional objects out of metals, cardboard, virtually any available materials. The others followed his lead. Their early formalist experiments-abstract, volumetric, dimension-defying metal or wooden sculptures and mobiles called spatial or hanging constructions– strove to capture a sense of the dynamism of modern life as in Russian and Italian Futurist painting; to convey perfect universal realms outside of nature; and to combine the various media and genres of art as expressions of synthesism.
After the Russian Revolution the movement as a whole hitched itself to Bolshevik ideology and touted a utilitarian, anti-aesthetic notion of art dedicated to the proletarian masses. The artists believed their work should entail a “new conception of the beaut&ifl” reflecting and glorifying the machine, heavy industry, and Bolshevism. They imparted to their creations a modernistic geometric look-leaning heavily on Suprematist shapes-and preferred to make them out of politically correct industrial materials (although often enough only wood was available). To quote Lissitzky, “Iron is strong like the will of the proletariat, glass is clear, like its conscience.” Some declared, “Death to art!” because it was “indissolubly linked with theology, metaphysics, and Mysticism.” Disavowing the artist-mystics of the capitalist dark ages, they thought of themselves as “Constructivist technicians” ushering in the new dawn of Communist industrialism.
What most distinguished them from their avant-garde predecessors was the Constructivists’ effort to design and build a new world. But despite this and their adamant Marxist disdain for the ethereal in art, the Constructivists’ outlook was not that far removed from the Russian Silver Age. They approached their art with a spiritual intensity that almost seems to have negated their professions of atheism and materialism. Industrialism, Tatlin mused, was a “modern Messiah.” What else was all their talk of merging art and life, studio and factory, and devotion to the proletariat but the old Populist and Silver Age rhetoric of universal unity clothed in Constructivist fabric?
To a great extent the same was true of their aesthetics. Central to their art was a concern with faktura, or that the surface texture and materials used in their “constructions” reveal intrinsic properties of “Communistic expression” and “elements of industrial-culture.” But what they were doing was no different from the endeavor of their formalist precursors: attempting to capture the inner essence of an object in order to glimpse absolute Truth, and “making strange” through the artistic manipulation of texture in order to convey a new perspective on reality, to render visible the invisible “building blocks of the world.”
The sociopolitical didacticism of the Constructivists was also similar to the Russian avant-garde going back to the World ofArt. Their reverence for industrial technology coexisted with a fierce hatred of bourgeois capitalism and suggested a utopian conviction that Russia, unlike the West, could construct a perfect, collectivist society. Their shift away from the anti-industrialism and anarchism of the earlier avant-garde was a result of the formation of a Marxist regime with a pro-industrial ideology and little tolerance for anyone who disagreed with it. The most fantastic “revolutionary dreams” swept the land, and the artists, in an ecstasy of Bolshevism, clamored for social engineering. Witnessing the destruction of the old regime at the hands of the Bolsheviks, the Constructivists acted with the conviction that they as artists now had the chance to refashion the world in accordance with their visions. Lissitzky announced that the purpose of the artist was “not to embellish life, but rather to organize it.” Constructivists believed that geometrically composed works of art created out of modern materials would “urbanize the psychology of the masses” and foster an environment conducive to the establishment of Communist collectivism.
Lissitzky’s “Prouns” exemplify both the persistence of the Silver Age mentality and the new transitions taking place within the early Soviet avant-garde. Having once converted from the Orthodox Judaism of his youth to Suprematism, after 1917 Lissitzky forsook that faith, too, for Constructivism. All of the components of the movement– faktura, “making strange,” revolutionary didacticism, Suprematist geometricity, synthesism-were at play in the Prouns. A sui generis art form whose name stood for “Proekt utverzhdeniia novogo” (Project for the Affirmation of the New), these were large-scale Malevichian architectural models, futuristic geometrical drawings, and three-dimensional reliefs displayed in a series of rooms either on stands or attached to the walls. Lissitzky conceived of them as “true model[s] of perfection” that would stimulate viewers’ extrasensory perceptions of both the fourth dimension and the Marxian dialectic, the lights within that bespoke the promise of a revolutionary heaven on earth.
Rodchenko, too, labored in his studio to prepare the consciousness of the masses for the new era. He devised multifunctional, collapsible, modular furniture, each piece of which was to serve a variety of uses, whether as seat or shelf. These and all his other designs for the working class were pared down to the basic skeletal apparatus: the stool in his worker’s club, consisting of three thin planks spaced around the semicircular seat and armrest, looks like the wooden undergirdings of a chair. To some extent, the point was to economize on the use of materials, the better to provide for the masses in a poor society. But the true purpose was to surround the proletariat with modern, geometrical objects that were, to the extent possible, nonindividualistic in function so that the working class might more easily acclimatize to a collective existence in the socialist age. The same motive lay behind Constructivist textiles and ceramics– often decorated with distinctly Suprematist forms.
The hugely influential innovations of Rodchenko and Lissitzky in typography and photography amplify the didactic and politicized aesthetic of Constructivism as well as its continued debt to Suprematism. Typography and photography appealed to Constructivists as machine-based branches of art. Lissitzky, a former Hebrew calligrapher and book illustrator, applied the geometrical forms of his teacher Malevich to the printed page. Rodchenko, too, acknowledged that Suprematism influenced his own contribution to this bold new visual language that revolutionized graphic design throughout the world. Block letters; separation of text and images in a sharp-edged, geometrical, often asymmetrical layout; flat colors; and superimposition of bold triangles, squares, circles, arrows, or exclamation points to emphasize headings or blocks of text: all of these were the features providing a strong, declamatory, and modern-looking alternative to the traditional overcluttered printed page with its ornate lettering. Rodchenko and Lissitzky wanted the ubiquitous presence of these new graphic principles in the mass media to have a steady subliminal effect on the consciousness of the people.
In photography the goal was also to act upon the outlook of the masses. Conveying a new perspective on reality was common to all aspects of Constructivism and is implicit in the concept of faktura. Rodchenko was a master of this as well as the defamiliarizing technique in photography. He had been inspired by Berlin Dadaism to try his hand at photomontage. But finding that he lacked photographs, he began to shoot them himself; his technique was to take pictures of recognizable objects from completely unexpected angles, eliminating normal notions of perspective. Published in popular magazines and avant-garde journals such as Mayakovsky’s Lef, his photographs, he maintained, would ready people for the new revolutionary society by encouraging them to look at the world in a new light. Utilizing the new photography, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and fellow artist Gustav Klutsis (another former Malevich student) produced compelling Modernist propaganda posters, often allied with photomontage and Constructivist typographical styles.
By the late 1920S and early 1930S Constructivism had run its course. Together, Soviet disinvestment in consumer goods production; the petit bourgeois cultural tastes of the apparatchik elite; the dictator’s preference for bombastic “Stalinist Gothic” architecture; and the one-party state’s mistrust of artists who did not toe the Socialist Realist line all did the movement in. Disabused of their utopian ideals and under pressure from the regime, but also motivated by a negative impression of Western capitalism during the Great Depression, Lissitzky and Rodchenko deployed Constructivist photographic and graphic arts techniques in the service of the state, idealizing the forced industrialization of the Five-Year Plans in their propaganda art.
The Russian avant-garde was dead, but its artistic style survived after being taken over by the Soviet regime, intent on “rebranding” itself as supermodern. As will become apparent, it served remarkably similar functions abroad, in both fascist and Western capitalist settings.
“The objects of our environment have become repulsive to us”
Kandinsky’s original impact on European Modernism predated World War I and was concurrent with that of the Ballets Russes. After the great conflagration of 1914-1918 it merged with the Russian Revolution’s promise of redemption and the art of Suprematism and Constructivism to permeate in some fashion or other nearly every form of abstract or formalist art.
Aside from the impression his own writings and paintings made, Kandinsky’s influence seeped into the avant-garde through the filter of Swiss Dadaism, which gave rise to, or at least set the rebellious tone of, many trends in modern art down to the late twentieth century. It originated in the Cabaret Voltaire, founded in Zurich in 1915 by a number of draft-dodging poets and artists, chief among them a German, Hugo Ball (1886-1927). The Dadaists insisted that war and capitalism had debased European civilization and corrupted its languages and art forms: “God is dead,” declared Ball, “a thousand-year-old culture disintegrates. There are no columns and supports, no foundations any more-they have all been blown up.” Like philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein at the same time, he concluded that renewal required rejection of established culture and creation of a completely new language. With much of the rest of the counterculture, he extolled primitivism as an escape from an insane modern world. And he conducted radical linguistic experiments with poems of pure sounds which, without any preconceived meaning-that is, the taint of civilization-were supposed to contain traces of primal sacred truth.
Ball was a German pacifist whose politics had led him to read Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and from there the works of Russian Symbolists and occultists. By 1912 he had befriended Kandinsky in Munich. Ball said Kandinsky brought him “liberation, solace, redemption, and peace.” Impressed by Kandinsky’s prognostications of salvation through abstract art, Ball applied the Russian painter’s antirepresentationalist, transrational concepts to poetry. Referring to Kandinsky’s art, he wrote that “the image of the human form is gradually disappearing from the painting of these times. … This is one more proof of how ugly and worn the human countenance has become, and of how all of the objects of our environment have become repulsive to us. The next step is for poetry to do away with language for similar reasons.” He went beyond Italian Futurist Marinetti, another influence on him, who had freed up syntax; Ball and the Swiss Dadaists separated words from all accepted meaning in order to convey, in Kandinsky’s terms, those spiritual “inner sounds.”
The Cabaret Voltaire’s eclectic and bizarre readings, performances, art exhibits, and publications often featured Kandinsky’s works. His influence spread directly through the many cultural figures who saw them, and indirectly via the output of the Dadaists themselves-to Surrealism, for instance, whose name came from Apollinaire’s description of a Ballets Russes production as “beyond real.” In connection with Kandinsky’s participation in a Paris exhibition featuring the Surrealists, the Sixieme Salon des Surindependants (1933), Jean Arp identified him as a “leader of the Surrealist procession.” While this statement was true in the sense that Kandinsky’s antirealist artistry had helped to set that movement in motion, it was clear at the time that much also separated him from it. The philosophy of the Surrealists, leaning heavily on Freud, left most of them ill at ease with Kandinsky’s underlying Idealism and formalism. Their emphasis on the randomness of the individual human psyche was completely alien to Kandinsky, who thought of his art as a manifestation of an unchanging spiritual realm; if their understanding of “inner necessity” was psychoanalytic, his was metaphysical.
Dissociating himself from Surrealism, Kandinsky, then in his geometric phase, labeled his art “concrete” to signify that it represented permanent higher reality. So did his fellow European abstractionists of the interwar years, most of them neo-Idealists who endeavored to portray the constants of an orderly universe rather than the chaos of a world gone to pieces or the dreams of the fickle mind. In the painters’ war that ensued between Surrealists as chroniclers of ever-mutating subconscious processes and abstractionists as scrutinizers of the eternal Absolute, Salvador Dali derisively dismissed Kandinsky as a second-rate painter who “might have made marvelous cloisonne enamel cane heads.” According to Joan Miro, others called his paintings “woman’s handiwork.”
The hostilities went far beyond Kandinsky versus the Surrealists. It was an internecine conflict that divided Modernist artists into the opposing camps of inward-looking emotionalists and upward-looking Idealists. The Russian avant-garde fought alongside western European formalist allies. These artists spearheaded a broad abstract-art front eventually termed the “International Style” (coined by American architect Philip Johnson), but which can also be called “Constructivist” to more accurately reflect its origins. With the Soviet avant-garde, the German Bauhaus, French Purism, and the Dutch De Stijl movement were the proponents of this machine-precise, geometrical aesthetic that more than any other typified twentieth-century design.
Although the leading figures of the French variant, Le Corbusier and Amedee Ozenfant, were intimately familiar with developments in Russian art and publicized them in their influential journal L’Esprit nouveau, they reached a similar Modernist outlook and design scheme independently, with only minimal reference to the Russians (although both spent significant amounts of time in Russia). Not all aspects of avant-garde activity were dependent on Russian antecedents. But it is a different story with the Dutch and Germans: certain sectors of their avant-garde art were closely tied to Kandinsky, Malevich, and Russian Constructivism.
By coincidence, the two most unlike countries of Europe, Russia and Holland, were also the two nations whose avant-gardes most fully embraced abstractionism. The background of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) suggests that the reason for this lies in an analogous spiritualism. Mondrian’s grid-pattern abstractions-as important as Malevich’s painting in inspiring all later minimalist geometric art and design-were the culmination of a quest for the essence of absolute truth corresponding to his religious journey from a rigorous Dutch Calvinism to Theosophy and Anthroposophy. His artistic evolution followed, moving from Symbolism and Cubism to complete antinaturalism. Many of Mondrian’s artist contemporaries took a similar path, so that his metaphysical painting was paralleled by abstractionist and formalist developments in Dutch furniture and architectural design that also initially had little to do with Russia-except that as countercultural socialists, most of these artists were attracted to Russian-anarchist communitarianism and, later, communism.
But Russian avant-garde art soon flooded the country. Mondrian had been the major theoretician of the journal De Stijl in its first few years after 1917, but once he departed for Paris, its founder, Theo van Doesburg (1883-1930, came out from under Mondrian’s shadow to become one of the evangelists of abstractionism in Europe. Van Doesburg’s artistic career was bound up with the Russians. The influence of Kandinsky in Holland had grown apace between 1912 and 1914 with publication of his book and center-stage showings at modern art exhibitions in Amsterdam. After reading On the Spiritual in Art, van Doesburg abandoned his conventional approach to painting, became a Mondrian acolyte, and visited Kandinsky in Munich. By 1920 he and De Stijl architect Cornelis van Eesteren had discovered El Lissitzky, whom van Doesburg found to be working “in our spirit.” Through both Lissitzky’s own followers in the Netherlands and the publicity van Doesburg gave him, Russian Constructivist influence on the Dutch avant-garde of the 1920S was pervasive. Van Eesteren designed his famous antiperspectival, primary-colored, block-like houses as realizations of Lissitzky’s Prouns; van Doesburg amalgamated the principles of Malevich and Mondrian in his “Elementarist” paintings-geometrical abstractions with a diagonal emphasis derived from Suprematism to insinuate spiritual uplift. All of the radical artists of De Stijl believed that the transformation of soul and society was contingent on man’s direct interaction with abstract art; this idea, too, they took over from the Russian formalist artists.
In the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the art of the De Stijl group was stimulated by positive impressions of early Bolshevism-as well as by familiarity with Kandinsky, Malevich, and other individual Russian painters. This was the case throughout the avant-garde movements of the world, made up as they were of antiestablishment rebels. But it was the Germans who exhibited the most frenzied enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution and its art.
Many of the Weimar German avant-garde artists had once had allegiances to anarchism or Theosophy, but after 1917, they turned to the Red Star in the eastern sky for guidance and revelation. The socialist utopia was making the great experiment, promising to fulfill their political and aesthetic ideals by obliterating the line separating art and life, thereby creating a new man, a new society, a new world. And these German artists fully sympathized with the Russians’ relentless hatred of the Western bourgeoisie. Defeat and deprivation had both radicalized and rejuvenated them. Never before in Germany had it been possible to believe that intellectuals and artists would have a hand in creating a completely new society, a feeling left-wing French artists could only envy, as victory in the war had sustained their bourgeois society.
The Russification of art went much further in Germany than anywhere else. Even before the end of the war, exaggerated news of the Russian avant-garde’s art for the masses poured into the country. Exuberant German artists fired off letters of greetings to their comrades in Russia and in 1918, inspired by developments there, formed a Workers’ Soviet (council) for Art, the Arbeitsrat fir Kunst. The chairmen of this organization besotted with utopian collectivism were two architects, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius, who, confusing dictatorial Bolshevism with libertarian anarchism, assumed that Lenin’s goal was to dissolve the state in defense of the freedom of the individual and the principle of nonviolence.
At first, it was the rebellious and liberating mood rather than the specifics of Soviet Russian political and aesthetic philosophies that German artists latched onto. Berlin Dadaists, for example, defined their rejectionist movement as “German Bolshevism” and proclaimed, “Art is dead! Long live the new machine art of Tatlin!” Echoing German interpretations of Dostoevsky, they spoke of the “the embryo of God” existing in “the new European man … born in Russia” who they were convinced would soon destroy the “soulless force of the materialistic and militaristic machine.” Later, when they actually came to know something about Russian avant-garde art, some of them, like George Grosz-whose main concern was to caricature German brutishness-lost interest; others, like Kurt Schwitters, became Constructivist followers of Lissitzky; and still others took to Socialist Realism.
The Germans became more familiar with Soviet art after 1920. Fairly reliable information appeared in books and art journals, and exhibits and galleries showed the works themselves. Many German artists traveled to Russia-including Grosz, who came back disillusioned. And from the other direction, refugee artists streamed into Berlin-Chagall, Gabo, Kandinsky, and others-disheartened with the turn of events in the Communist dictatorship. There were so many that by 1922 Berlin had virtually supplanted Moscow as the center of the Russian avant-garde.
But not every Soviet artist was an exile-for instance, El Lissitzky, who preached the artistic word of revolutionary Moscow. Having studied in Germany before the war, he had preexisting ties there. With several other Russian-Jewish artists and a Soviet secret police operative, he assisted in arranging the First Russian Art Exhibit, which displayed a thousand pieces of Soviet avant-garde art at the Van Diemen Gallery on Berlin’s Unter den Linden in 1922. This was the first Soviet cultural event in Germany since the signing of the Rapallo Pact between the two outcast nations of Europe, and over the next decade it was followed by regular Russian-German joint artistic ventures: steady release of collaborative publications with European artists, guest lectures, Proun exhibits, Soviet propaganda displays, and rallies of international Constructivists which brought together avant-garde artists of that tendency from as far away as Japan. And although centered there, the activity was not limited to Germany: Dutch Communists arranged to bring the Van Diemen exhibit to Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1923, and the Russian pavilion at the Paris Art Deco exhibition of 1925 made a big splash with the unusual designs of Russian Constructivists Rodchenko and Konstantin Melnikov.
The Kremlin was the invisible hand facilitating these initiatives that linked the Russian and German avant-gardes and helped to lay the groundwork for geometrical abstractionism in modern art. It did so through Communist front organizations, the arts section of the International Workers’ Relief (IAH in Germany), and various Societies of the Friends of the New Russia, all under the control of German Comintern member Willi Munzenberg. It was not that Lenin cared about the Soviet avant-garde. But Manzenberg had convinced him to use its international prominence to win sympathy for the USSR among the German and other European intelligentsias so as to balance the influence of anti-Bolshevik emigres: “We exist for one purpose-to wage the broadest propaganda campaign for Soviet Russia.”
The political results of these efforts are not of concern to us here. But the Van Diemen exhibit and others like it showed the German avant-garde that modern art had made a “breakthrough” in revolutionary Russia, according to filmmaker Hans Richter: “We … suddenly saw in the East a whole generation of new artists and ideas for us.” Paul Westheim, the leading Berlin critic of the day, hailed these expressions of “eastern barbarism,” and German left-wing artists agreed with Lissitzky that the “art of the future” was a “constructive, anti-individualist art” that promised a new epoch both in the arts and for humanity. Precisely these assumptions also activated the German Bauhaus, which, in achieving the “ambitions of the Russian Constructivists,” became the main “breeding place” of the International Style.
Through its adaptation by the Bauhaus, Russian avant-garde art can be considered one of the progenitors of twentieth-century applied arts and architecture. During the 1920S this acclaimed German industrial-design school and workshop developed many of the patterns that still prevail in Modernist building types, housewares, furniture, and graphic arts. The Bauhaus is responsible for helping to build the close relationship that exists between artistic design and mass production; both this and its impersonal, severely minimalist, geometrical architectural and design style were to a large extent derived from the aesthetics of Constructivism and related Russian avant-garde currents.
The Bauhaus was established in 19191 in line with German antecedents and the outlook of German intellectuals, but Russian elements were also strong in all phases of its existence. Located in Weimar (later in Dessau, then Berlin), it was to be the successor to the Saxe-Weimar Grand Ducal Applied Arts School headed by Belgian artist Henry van de Velde, who recommended Gropius (1883-1969) to carry on his legacy as its principal. Gropius had pre-World War I professional affiliations with both the German General Electric Company (AEG) and the German Werkbund, a nationalist association of architects, designers, and industrialists dedicated to raising the artistic quality of buildings and manufactured goods. Within the Werkbund, he belonged to the radical socialist faction, which sought to provide cheap but aesthetic mass housing and factory goods for the working masses.
Influenced by the Blaue Reiter’s aspirations toward artistic synthesis and the spiritual unity of mankind, Gropius understood art as an ethical category that, when applied to industry, would counterbalance the immorality, exploitation, and alienation of capitalism. He and his comrades hoped to transcend the class conflicts that seemed to plague imperial Germany and all other bourgeois societies. Some German socialist artists wanted to turn the clock back and replace the factory system with medieval craft guilds. But others-Gropius among them-developed a cult of American technological efficiency (shorn of its capitalist underpinnings), which coexisted with a reverence for Russian Constructivism as a revolutionary art that promised integration between industry and the masses and an egalitarian, cooperationist future for mankind.
At the time of the school’s founding, Gropius was a Bolshevik sympathizer prominent in both the Arbeitsrat fur Kunst and the Society of Friends of the New Russia. He grew less enamored of the Soviet system over the course of his nine-year tenure at the Bauhaus and muzzled his school’s socialism to ensure the inflow of commissions from industry, but he remained committed to his original principles. His successor, the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer (1889-1954), was an Arts and Crafts anarchist until converted to the International Constructivist Style by his reading of both Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit nouveau and ABC, a building-design magazine founded in Basel by the ubiquitous Lissitzky and Dutch architect Mart Stam. Meyer’s eventual commitment to communism was such that after leaving the Bauhaus, he emigrated to the USSR
If the Bauhaus was initially conceived, according to its founding manifesto, as a “cathedral to socialism” with only partial reference to the Russian Revolution, the avant-garde aesthetics of Russian Constructivism and Suprematism soon came to dominate. Gropius had been fully informed about developments in Moscow by contacts within the leftist art organizations to which he belonged. He redirected the Bauhaus’s focus away from its initial anarchist-leaning, handicrafts-oriented Expressionism and toward the industrial, geometric formalism of Constructivism, which he expected would be better able to foster a new collectivist humanity and an industrial system that, tamed by art, benefited man rather than exploited him. The Constructivist style, furthermore, encouraged the fill development of the design forms with which he and a few other Reminded German architects and industrial artists had already begun to experiment before World War I.
Gropius also hired Kandinsky to offer basic courses on color theory, abstract form, and analytical drawing; through his teaching, Kandinsky transmitted the Constructivist agenda he had absorbed in Moscow before reemigrating to Germany. The presence of this anti-industrial spiritualist artist at the bastion of what became the severely impersonal International Style is often explained away as stemming from Gropius’s wish to hire a “big name” for the struggling school, an avant-garde star whom writers on Russian art had proclaimed throughout Germany as the “Russian Messiah,” a “most daring Conquistador… of the metaphysical zone,” even the “stormtrooper” of the avant-garde. But this explanation overlooks Kandinsky’s antipsychological neo-Idealism and shift away from his fluid prewar abstract style. By this time he was closer to the practitioners of the Constructivist/Bauhaus/International Style than to any other avant-garde faction (although he did feel that his intuitive approach separated him from the Constructivists, who denied the soul). Even if he maintained Silver Age doubts about factories, all of his courses at the Bauhaus conveyed trends he had adopted from Constructivism and Suprematism, above all that geometric forms were the most concise and direct means of artistic expression. Partly through his instructional activities, the Bauhaus came to adopt the formal language of the Russian avant-garde and channeled it to much of modern industrial design.
The versatile Hungarian-Jewish artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was another intermediary between Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus after he was hired in 1923. Hungarian “alternative artists” (mostly anarchists) had come into regular contact with their Russian counterparts during the short-lived post-World War I Hungarian Soviet Republic. Budapest art publications beat the rest of Europe to the press with coverage of Russian developments, and, when the Hungarian Communist regime fell, various artists fled to Berlin with news of the Moscow avant-garde-well before any Russian representatives got there. Moholy was close to these artistic circles, knew the work of Malevich and Lissitzky by 1919, befriended the latter in Berlin in 1921, and corresponded with Rodchenko beginning in 1922. A year later he coauthored a book surveying Russian avant-garde trends with which he sympathized: a neo-Idealist, he felt that individual artistic expression should be eliminated so that art could depict universal constants. By moving the masses to a higher level of consciousness, art would liberate humanity from its narrow perspective, enabling it to comprehend the unity of life and regain wholeness. Following this doctrine, he began taking photographs under Russian formalist, “making strange” influence that challenged visual conventions, and he and Rodchenko shaped each other’s photography at different stages. Moholy’s work and theoretical writings sparked the Weimar German New Photography movement, which soon led the entire genre worldwide into a new era. Similarly, his kinetic sculptures were indebted to the designs of the Russian Constructivists-in-exile Gabo and Pevsner. Moholy’s merit as an artist is indisputable; but a large part of his oeuvre, which by itself served as a pillar of the International Style, consisted of forms he had adapted from the Russian avant-garde and the Constructivist wing of Dadaism.
Just as Moholy’s talents cannot be denied, the native genius of Gropius must be given its due, as must the independent German industrial-architectural design traditions tapped by the Bauhaus. However, it is undeniable that the trademark style of the Bauhaus was stamped by the impact of Soviet avant-garde art-reinforced by van Doesburg and the Dutch De Stijl group once they, too, aligned themselves with Constructivism. As Marina Dmitrieva-Einhorn points out, the Suprematist square (she might have added the triangle) was the basic Bauhaus form. It “was imprinted on all the design projects of the institute, from Marcel Breuer’s metal chairs to the cups, textiles, and lamps.” “What luck,” critic Paul Westheim sardonically remarked, “that [Malevich] … did not patent [his square].” The famous Bauhaus building and Gropius’s home, both in Dessau, with their quadratic block design and flat roofs-two of the prototypes of International Style architecture-were built in accordance not only with German Werkbund antecedents but also with the geometricity of Russian Suprematism and Constructivism that Lissitzky was purveying throughout Germany. The same was true of the work of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Meyer’s successor as Bauhaus director and the progenitor of the (much maligned and now ubiquitous) International Style high-rise with glass walls seemingly wrapped around its four corners. Mies first began designing pronouncedly geometrical structures without relationship to their surroundings after being struck by the shapes and abstract, “self-referential” nature of Lissitzky’s Prouns.
Some readers familiar with the Bauhaus may raise the objection that its art was functionalist rather than formalist. Like many of the Russian Constructivists, most Bauhaus artists and architects did strive for a design that emanated from and revealed the functions of the building or object created rather than one that showed off the whims of the artist or hid the structure under the ornamentalism typical of preceding epochs. But what function did strictly geometrical forms serve? Even some of the progenitors of this type of architecture admitted that it was an ideological nod toward Russian avant-garde prototypes, a “propaganda gesture” implying rejection of anything associated with the practices of the reviled current-day reality and asserting the utopian future society that modernistic design would cultivate. According to Berthold Lubetkin, the Russian Constructivist architect who was among the first to initiate the International Style in Britain, the point was really not to fulfill any functional purpose but, rather, to make a socialist statement through buildings that shared as few features of the “bourgeois aesthetic” as possible, in order to “create a powerful impression on the ideology of the masses by every plastic means which the imagination can demand.” The International Style was a lot like church architecture: the structure itself was formed into the emblem of the creed. As van Doesburg explained, the quadrangle “is the token of a new humanity. The square is to us what the cross was to the early Christians.” The Russian Constructivist designs that the Bauhaus had adopted were geometrical, industrial-like icons, symbolizing transcendence of the dilemmas of capitalism and modern bourgeois existence.
But although the International Style originated with artists intent on escaping from modernity, it quickly evolved into the best visual means of identifying with, even celebrating, it. This contradictory dual function is what made the designs of the Bauhaus and its close relative Russian Constructivism especially attractive as propaganda art and architecture in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, where an antirationalist, antimodernist, nationalist socialism coexisted with autopian cult of modern technology. It served much the same mixture of symbolic purposes for the far right as for the far left: the techno-Spartanism of International Style buildings could pronounce the departure of a revolutionary society from capitalism and at the same time display that it was “decisive and virile,” in contrast to the dithering bourgeois democracy just overthrown. It even fit in as the modern-and less expensive-version of the imposing neoclassical architecture of parade-ground buildings, and in fact the two styles could be easily combined. And like International Style architecture, Constructivist/Bauhaus graphic arts were unsurpassed at creating illusions for the masses. Both the Nazi and Fascist propaganda apparatuses hijacked many of the strikingly effective techniques and imagery of the Russian avant-garde.
But didn’t Hitler, with his narrow tastes and broad hatreds, destroy the resident avant-garde for spreading the contagion of degenerate cultural Bolshevism? Wasn’t the Bauhaus smeared in the Nazi press as an “alien” and “Jewish” “Spartacist-Bolshevik institute” whose “artistry [was that] of the mentally ill”? Indeed so, but there were those in the Nazi movement who identified with the avant-garde as radically antimodern. An early article in the Nazi paper Volkischer Beobachter praised the Bauhaus for its disdain of individualism and its encouragement of inexpensive factory-produced housing estates for the masses. And although the rule for Nazi residential developments was that they look Teutonic and rustic, the Bauhaus/Constructivist style was often adopted for industrial, military, and low-ranking party buildings as emblematic of the technical prowess of the Third Reich. A solid contingent of prominent official Nazi architects had even been on the Bauhaus staff, including Herbert Rimpl, a former assistant to Gropius.
Some Nazi propaganda artists borrowed even more directly from the USSR Lissitzky had fused all the stylistic novelties of the Russian avant-garde for Weimar German audiences at the Presses International Exhibition of Newspaper and Book Publishing (Cologne, 1928), the German Werkbund’s Film and Foto exhibition, (Stuttgart, 1929), and the Soviet pavilion at the International Hygiene Exhibition (Dresden, 1930). He designed and arranged gallery rooms, wall decorations, display cases, posters, photographs, and lettering by applying all the tricks of Constructivism, including his own Prouns and typography, to publicize Soviet art and society. The event lodged itself permanently in the artistic memory of professional circles, as attested by Third Reich propaganda posters and advertisements done in the Lissitzky-Rodchenko-Klutsis style and by the 1933 admission by the Nazified German Werkbund that its propaganda exhibition designs came from Lissitzky’s.
Despite these inroads, traditional imagery and design predominated in Nazi Germany; as in Russia that was what the masses were more comfortable with and the leadership preferred as expressions of national culture, as opposed to the universality of the International Style. The balance was somewhat more in favor of the avant-grade in Italy, where from the beginning of the century the Russian counterculture had had a subversive effect on art. The Italian radical intelligentsia had relished Russian Symbolist poetry-some of it published by Marinetti-and Italian Futurism was nourished on the rebellious spirit of Russian thought. Futurist typographical style (as opposed to other aspects of its aesthetic) came straight from Moscow. In the 1920s as well, the Proletkult movement to Bolshevize art for the masses received inordinate amounts of attention in the radical and mainstream Italian press.
Once Mussolini recognized the Soviet regime in 1924, Soviet artists were regularly represented at the Venice Biennale art exhibitions, where they crowded out other foreign contributors with the encouragement of Il Duce, who (at least before World War II) used patronage of the avant-garde to show wary social and intellectual elites that he was a man of culture and not the thug they believed him to be. Fascist art critics routinely praised and analyzed the large selection of Constructivist and Suprematist works on display in Venice, as they did after the Milan Decorative Arts exhibition of 1927. The Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascists, the exhibition celebrating the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome, which ran from 1932 to 1934 with countless thousands attending, gave a barometric reading of the rising level of Russian avant-garde artistic influence. Modernist architect and painter Giuseppe Terragni (1904-1943) was the man responsible for its design. Thoroughly familiar with the work of El Lissitzky and other Soviet Constructivists, this court artist to Fascist officialdom applied their visual effects–sometimes plainly, sometimes in combination with homegrown Futurist configurations-in his poster graphics, photomontage images, exhibition spaces, and other decorative features of the propaganda extravaganza.
If the inextricably intertwined Russian avant-garde and Bauhaus aesthetic idiom was co-opted rather than extirpated in the fascist nations, it flourished in the open environment of the Western democracies, where in the 1930S and 1940S exiled German and Russian artists sought refuge en masse and were able to give free rein to their individual artistic instincts. Yet below the surface one finds a curious convergence. In the United States from the Great Depression to the Cold War, there was also co-optation of international Constructivist aesthetics, by government propagandists as well as by image-makers seeking to mobilize public opinion and market products on behalf of “modern” corporations.
The process began during the Great Depression when both the reputation of big business suffered and sales lagged. Industry wanted to show the public it was economically beneficial and efficient, both to induce consumer spending and to reduce popular support for the New Deal. In 1935, the mouthpiece of Republicanism and big business, magazine publisher Henry Luce, stated the argument for adopting International Style architecture: “Unless chaos is to intervene, a new order must be consciously created.”
With their fingers on the pulse of American consumer psychology, and in keen competition for declining numbers of shoppers, department stores were among the first to associate themselves with that new order. They had long kept abreast of trends in art for display ideas and now eagerly adopted Modernist designs. Russian-Jewish immigrant artist Louis Lozowick (1892-1973) had visited the USSR in the 1920S, returning as a publicist with firsthand knowledge of Soviet Suprematism and Constructivism in art and theater; as one of the few Americans to witness the Russian revolutionary artists at work, he was a sought-after authority in the 1920S and 1930S. His abstract constructions for the New York Lord and Taylor department store windows in 1926 conformed to his theory that the Russian avant-garde machine aesthetic captured the spirit of the modern era and should be applied wherever possible, even in the setting up of mannequins. Some avant-garde art advocates in the museums acknowledged that department stores were giving the public first-time exposure to the new art forms, breaking the ice for their acceptance in American society.
This was only part of a far broader range of activity underway among American advertisers and graphic artists-originally known as practitioners of commercial art. Of course, stylistic diversity was the rule here, and nostalgia for older American forms was common. But by 1929 Modernist art copy, typography, and photography were “rampant” in advertising, according to a trade journal. The depression was a challenge met by vastly expanding marketing budgets and the birth of the packaging industry. Both of these related venues provided employment for large numbers of artists, many of whom liked the paycheck but also believed that this mass art merging industry and aesthetics was superior to the egoism of fine arts, and that through it they would modify bourgeois consciousness and reform society: they agreed with German museum director G. E Hartlaub, who understood commercial art as a “truly social, collective, real mass art: the only one we now have. It shapes the visual habits of that anonymous collectivity the public. Little by little an artistic attitude is hammered into the mass soul.” On the business side, it was not just a matter of suckering shoppers but also a reflection of the capitalist utopianism that insisted only profit-seeking corporations could establish a permanently stable, harmonious society.
The two utopias overlapped in their eager adoption of the Bauhaus or De Stijl aesthetic, which derived from Russian avant-garde prototypes. Block lettering, geometrical layout, unconventional photography, and abstract designs rarely appeared in advertising or packaging before the 1920S but now became common under the influence of German, Dutch, and Russian graphic art that trade magazines and exhibitions publicized in the United States: “Modernism turns merchandise,” declared the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company’s Westvaco Inspirations for Printers. Rodchenko and other Constructivists had successfully applied their art to commercial graphics on behalf of Soviet state-run enterprises, and in Germany El Lissitzky himself did famous advertising designs for Gunther Wagner’s Pelikan Ink firm. Lissitzky’s disciples among Dadaists, European Constructivists, and Bauhaus artists followed his example. One of them, the German Jan Tschichold (1902-1974), published a text that became the world standard on typography, and stated therein that virtually all the innovations came from Kandinsky, Malevich, Lissitzky, and Soviet Constructivism. To him the clarity and precision of their exact, geometric forms when applied to lettering and layout would purify life and give a sense of universal unity amid technologically driven earthly chaos; to the marketers who applied them in the service of sales, the style conveyed a product’s features and implied its modernity with a minimum of text, effectively catching the attention of lower-middle-class consumers flipping through a magazine or newspaper. This was a Western capitalist adaptation of the avant-garde technique of expressing the concept or essence.
In packaging, the revolution began in the mercantile city of Chicago, the capital of American industrial design. Here was the headquarters of the Container Corporation of America, owned by Walter Paepcke, a visionary who believed in the vanguard role of business (as opposed to government) in art patronage and humanist reformism, but who also knew how to sell his boxes: “I want to give people the idea that our company is a new and progressive, modern operation. And I don’t need a lot of text to do that if [I] can do it with art.” His CCA advertisements featured the signed work of modern artists from around the world, and the clients who used his packaging– which incorporated, as he put it, the Modernist “visual vocabulary”-included almost every major consumer-goods enterprise in the country. He also sponsored Bauhaus artist Moholy-Nagy and others, whose art figured prominently in his plans. With some trepidation the anticapitalist Moholy left Europe and moved to Chicago to head the New Bauhaus (later renamed the Institute of Design), which Paepcke had funded. Through his educational activities on behalf of industrial arts, from 1937 until his death in 1946, Moholy contributed to familiarizing America with the Bauhaus aesthetic-and through it that of the Russian Constructivists as well as other closely related Modernist art movements.
Making a similar contribution were Mies van der Rohe, who emigrated to Chicago in 1938 to serve for twenty years as director of the architecture and design college at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which merged with the Institute of Design after Moholy’s death; Gropius, chairman of the architectural department at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design from 1937 to 1951; Russian-born International Style architect Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996), Moholy’s successor in Chicago, Gropius’s in Cambridge, and finally professor at Yale University; Bauhaus painter, Kandinsky protege, and Malevich admirer Josef Albers (1888-1976), art teacher at Black Mountain College, the experimental arts school near Asheville, North Carolina, then chairman of the design department at Yale; and many other German and Russian avant-garde artists. Most of these men, not long after coming to America, accepted the embrace of corporate capitalism, softened their radicalism, and settled for raising the ethical consciousness of Western society and/or improving the aesthetic quality of industrial goods through antitraditionalist International Style formalist art and architecture. Parallel developments took place in postwar western Europe with the return of various artists from exile and the continentwide revival of pedagogical institutions inspired by the Bauhaus, whose prestige rose higher than ever as mythic cultural opponent of the Nazis.
The modernistic International Style became more and more common after the Second World War. In architecture, it symbolized in Europe a socialist break with the past and in America the technological prowess and financial muscle of big corporations. Housewares and furniture, too, were increasingly stamped by Bauhaus/Russian Constructivist aesthetics, replacing the faux-functionalist, faux-aerodynamic “streamlined” Art Deco objects that represented the ultimate in modernity to 1930S America. This updated “technostyle” came from a variety of sources that are difficult to isolate. Suffice it to say that in the United States, the starkly geometrical, metallic furniture of Knoll Associates International and even the more supple furnishings coming out of the Cranbrook Crafts Academy retained more than a vestige of Russian Constructivist design, just as the squares, rectangles, lines, and triangles that seemed to float in nothingness in the paintings of Malevich and the pottery of the Suprematists came to adorn the fabrics and ceramics that so typify the aura of the 1950S. Mass production of such goods rose with the economic boom of the 1960S, and still today one encounters Malevichian shapes adding a flourish to Styrofoam soft-drink cups, carpets, newspaper ads, wallpaper, Crest toothpaste tubes, and many other items.
So what had once been oppositional and metaphysical had become either decoration for the middle class or an affirmation of capitalist might. If any of the old utopianism was left, it was now a reflection of a self-assured postwar American optimism. No wonder art historian Timothy Clark calls the alliance among avant-garde, advertisers, and corporations the “bad dream of Modernism.” But then again, largely because of this relationship, Modernist art succeeded in entering mass consciousness, transforming (for better or worse) the aesthetics of industrial design and the urban landscape, and leaving behind a style that reflected both the triumphs and the horrors of the twentieth century. Without the support of American corporate giants (and, across the Atlantic, the builders of western European social welfare states), it would likely have remained the arcane design fantasy of a fairly obscure sect of artists.
While corporations in the United States adopted the industrial design and architecture of the Constructivist/International Style, the federal government gave Abstract Expressionist painting quasi-official status as the fine-arts style of Cold War America in the propaganda battle waged against Soviet Communism. It was then that abstract painting entered the mainstream of popular taste, and the avant-garde rebels unintentionally emerged as guardians of the status quo and designers of colorful nonrepresentational decorations for the bourgeoisie. Kandinskian aesthetics and Cold War anticommunism are the keys to the story.
The very term “Abstract Expressionism” was initially coined by Museum of Modern Art director Alfred Barr to describe the early painting of Kandinsky. But clearly, postwar artists such as Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were not second-rate imitators of Kandinsky, for they generated a movement of great vitality and originality. In canvases fervidly, even sensuously, splashed with lush layers of paint, streaked with tormented lines, or blotched with amorphous expanses of color, they bared their subconscious impulses, their angst at the destruction of war, and their revulsion at the conformity of the middle-class masses. Socialism, anarchism, Blavatsky, Freud, Sartre, Jung, and Zen swirled together like different colored paints; American Indian, Kandinskian, or Surrealist art forms they admired as the aesthetic equivalent of these philosophies of irrationalism and anticapitilism. Self-liberation and self-assertion through art was their Romantic, rebellious, intensely individualist, Existentialist vision, which-in the light of politics in the 1940S-accompanied both a pessimistic foreboding of human and cosmic strife and a desire to purify the world by expressing through their art the deep truth of unity not readily apparent-as Pollock put it, the “inner world of [the] rhythm of the universe, of the big order.”
The Abstract Expressionists’ outlook was a bit of an intellectual jumble. One can see how the psychoanalytic-tinged, self-absorbed elements differed from Kandinsky’s Silver Age mysticism, and yet there is also something quite similar to him in their Idealist, universalist views of existence and the messianic seriousness with which they approached their art. Indeed, the nongeometrical spiritual painting of Kandinsky formed one of the many basic pigments of Abstract Expressionism.
Kandinsky’s influence on the American avant-garde dated back to before World War I, beginning with the New York Armory Show of 1913, where his work was first shown, alongside paintings of the French and German avant-gardes-or, as Teddy Roosevelt called them upon seeing the exhibit, Europe’s “lunatic fringe.” The critics trashed Kandinsky’s painting Improvisation No. 27, which one described as “fragments of refuse thrown out of a butcher’s shop upon a bit of canvas.” But it appealed to the American counterculture, a group at that time dominated by women, Southerners, foreigners, and Jews, all “outsiders” hostile to the prevailing WASP-ish, masculine, rationalist, bourgeois voices. In opposition to all this they turned to Emersonian Transcendentalism, Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, and now Kandinsky, whose writings reinforced these spiritualist tendencies; in fact, his manifesto introduced many American artists to modern art.
Among his early American supporters was avant-garde promoter and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who bought the just-mentioned painting of Kandinsky’s and was the first to publish his writings here. Stieglitz gave his future wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art and the Blaue Reiter Almanac; she affirmed their fundamental importance for her painting: “[After reading Kandinsky], I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way-things that I had no words for.” Other early American abstractionists, and experimental artists, like Marsden Hartley, felt much the same way.
But it was really two women whose labors, in the face of artistic opposition and public ridicule, built a solid foundation in the 1920S, 1930S, and 1940S for the development of abstract art in America: Katherine Dreier (1877- 1952) and Baroness Hilla Rebay (1890- 1967). Dreier was a rich Connecticut patroness with Theosophist, feminist, and, until 1939, pro-Nazi leanings. After viewing the Van Diemen exhibit, she began buying works of the Russian avant-garde. Her modern art association, the Societe Anonyme, held the first major Kandinsky exhibition in the United States, in 1923, and in 1945 the first after his death, along with many other shows devoted to Modernist painting and sculpture.
Rebay, her rival, did even more. A wealthy Bavarian noblewoman, she was a teenage Anthroposophist and budding realist painter until Dadaist-Surrealist Jean Arp, during a brief love affair, introduced her to Kandinsky’s painting, whereupon she converted to abstractionism. In 1927 she moved to New York, convinced that America would be more receptive to her (unimpressive) art. She quickly connected to bohemian society circles, eventually becoming chief art adviser to collector Solomon Guggenheim, and curator of the Museum of Non-Objective Art (later the Guggenheim Museum), which she persuaded him to establish in 1939. Although they purchased works by many artists, Kandinsky’s were the heart of the collection. For Rebay, he was a messiah figure inspired directly by God, and as this was a temple (the name she originally proposed for the museum) of devotion to him, she had organ music piped into the viewing halls. In her words, “non-objectivity will be the religion of the future. Very soon the nations on earth will turn to it in thought and feeling and develop such intuitive powers which lead them to harmony.” One of the avant-garde artists attracted to these views was Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), who had been raised by his parents to admire Russian socialism and discovered Theosophy on his own. In 1943 he worked as a guard and custodian at the Museum of Non-Objective Art; the exposure to Kandinsky and experiments Rebay initiated in drip painting were critical in the genesis of his own Action Painting technique.
Pollock, Rebay, and Dreier were all connected to two other people important in the development of American abstractionism and the dissemination of Russian avant-garde aesthetics, John Graham and Arshile Gorky. Graham (1881-1961) was the pseudonym of Ivan Dambrovsky, a Polish aristocrat from Kiev who had fought Bolshevism as an officer in the counterrevolutionary White Army before fleeing to Paris. In New York by the early 1920S, he became a socialist, occultist, and collector of pre-Columbian art; for a time he was an administrator at the Rebay/Guggenheim museum. His influential 1937 book, System and Dialectics of Art, echoed Kandinsky’s and Malevich’s thought with added reverberations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious (another philosophy of neo-Idealism). The camera has made realistic painting obsolete, he explained; now art must be nonrepresentational in order to open “access to the unconscious mind” and “establish personal contact with static eternity.” The abstract artist “leads humanity… to higher levels of knowledge and to heroic deeds,” and certainly out of the impasse of industrialized, bourgeois-dominated Western civilization. In addition to extolling Russian artists, whom he ranked among the greats of all time, he transmitted his excitement about the powers of Native American art-a Jungian-enhanced throwback to Russian Populist adoration of the primitive peasants-to the young artists he mentored, among them Krasner, Newman, Pollock, and also Gorky.
Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) was another entry point for Kandinsky’s aesthetics in New York. An Armenian who had fled the Ottoman Empire during the massacres of 1915, he falsely claimed to be a relative of the famed Russian writer Maxim Gorky. A follower of Graham, Gorky viewed Kandinsky’s works in the Guggenheim collection, and they confirmed his particular artistic proclivities. Through Gorky’s painting style, the future Abstract Expressionists also absorbed the influence of French artist-refugees in New York during the war, a younger generation of less dogmatic Surrealists who were more open to abstract painting and incorporated in their work the protoplasmic features of Kandinsky’s French years.
Kandinsky’s style and philosophy were thus disseminated in America over several decades by a variety of abstractionist proponents. Uprooted from its native soil in tumultuous Russia, it did not grow on the far side of the Atlantic with the same characteristics that it had in, say, Germany. Although some of the Abstract Expressionists understood Kandinsky’s earth-transcending spiritualism and Idealist formalism, mostly they interpreted his art as a solipsistic expression of his own subjective psychology. Heirs of the Surrealists, they saw his art as one of the forerunners of their own unpremeditated, “stream of consciousness” painting, in opposition to the fully planned geometric abstractionism of Mondrian and Malevich, to whom in reality Kandinsky was closer than they realized.
But one feature Abstract Expressionists shared fully with their Russian ancestor: an antimodern sense that Western civilization, including America, had gone tragically awry. Humanity required radical aesthetic and political measures to rescue it, namely, their brand of abstract painting plus socialism or anarchism. Although also repelled by the Soviet Union, they stood on the far left of the political spectrum and seemed likely to suffer repression during the McCarthy era. Indeed, in 1949, the conservative Republican congressman from Michigan George Dondero informed the public that Kandinsky, in league with Trotsky, had unleashed the “black knights” of modern art visions to undermine the tsarist regime. Following that blueprint, he claimed, American abstract painters, allied with a “polyglot rabble” of “international art thugs” and the “effeminate elect”-that is, U.S. museum directors-had formed a “sinister conspiracy conceived in the black heart of Russia” to undermine American culture. President Truman, who called the painters “lazy [and] nutty,” agreed with Dondero that “modem art equals communism.” Yet despite the fear-mongering of the politicians and the Abstract Expressionists’ subversive worldview, the U.S. government would soon champion them for propaganda purposes during the Cold War. Anti-Stalinist artists and art critics successfully re-created the image of these painters as individualist aesthetes who would have suffered under totalitarian systems but prospered in the land of the free.
In the interwar years, most left-wing artists and critics in America, including the Abstract Expressionists in their youths, had opposed abstract art as mystical nonsense or disengaged art for art’s sake. Instead they defended Socialist Realism as the socially committed aesthetic of the revered USSR. But Stalin’s dictatorship caused a breach in the ranks of the artists, as it did among all left-wing intellectuals. As early as the 1930S in the United States, Russian-born abstractionists Ilya Bolotowsky and Mark Rothko were campaigning against Stalin and against Socialist Realism as the artistic manifestation of his tyranny. Many artists, still radicals, turned to Stalin’s enemy, Trotsky, for guidance. It came in his 1938 essays (one co-signed by Surrealist Andre Breton and Mexican painter Diego Rivera) in the New York independent leftist journal Partisan Review. Eager to win radicals to his side and away from Stalin’s, Trotsky denounced Socialist Realism as toadyism and called for the “complete freedom of art,” whose very purpose, he said, was to challenge authority and bring on the true revolution.
Regardless of Trotsky’s various motives, his letters legitimized abstract art for New York intellectuals, who began to see it as an autonomous, critical, anti-status quo activity. That is how ex-leftist critics like Clement Greenberg, who “made” Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, understood it and explained it to the American public. With similar effect, MOMA director Alfred Barr, by explaining abstract painting as just the sort of free expression that the Soviets could not tolerate, convinced magazine publisher Henry Luce to stop ridiculing the genre; soon coverage of the artists began appearing in Time and Life. Even Congressman Richard Nixon, who had once denounced abstractionism as communist, defended it as a symbol of the American way. Hoping to impress European intellectuals, the United States Information Agency and the CIA sponsored foreign exhibits of American abstract art and issued propaganda magazines on the subject, which had a noticeable impact on the direction of European painting.
In part, the U.S. government’s propaganda battle with Russia sped up the acceptance of abstract art in America. But interior decorators, advertisers, and consumer-goods packaging had already done much of the work, by conditioning the eye of the public to the whole range of abstractionist modern art styles. This prepared the country to accept the critics’ and journalists’ Cold War-era depiction of the artists as energetic, inventive, autonomous, democratic, and modern, all the characteristics Americans associated with themselves after World War II. What about the mystical and politically revolutionary sides to the art? Well, who in 1950S America besides artists and a few intellectuals cared about that?
Australian historian Bernard Smith interprets the American espousal of formalist abstract art and International Constructivist Style design as an effort by a society with a colonial inferiority complex vis-a-vis European civilization to flex its homegrown cultural muscles but at the same time affiliate with Europe through adoption of “universal” art forms originating there. In Japan and Latin America, too, Modernist art offered itself as a kind of aesthetic Esperanto whose advocates for a variety of reasons rejected the existing language of art. Both of these regions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries contended with the problems of modernization, including rapid socioeconomic change and the related challenge posed by Europe and the West to national traditions and identities. And in both regions artists learned from the Russian avant-garde, which seemed to have worked out alternative artistic arrangements that promised to bring about a new society.
Japanese Modernist art began with the arrival of painter David Burliuk (1882–1967) in 1920. A former associate of Kandinsky’s in Munich and contributor to the Blaue Reiter Almanac, Burliuk was a Russian Jew fleeing the revolution and headed for America. En route from Siberia, he stayed in Japan for two years, during which time he published on Russian abstract art and exhibited his own works and those of Malevich, Tatlin, and others. His primitivist, antirealist style had a revolutionary impact, as did the slap-in-the-face Russian avant-garde provocativeness that he urged on Japan’s radical arts community. In the same year he left, St. Petersburg artist Varvara Bubnova (1886-1983) came to Tokyo. Arriving to visit a relative in 1922, she stayed until 1958, teaching and writing extensively on the principles of Soviet Constructivist art. Several Japanese artists also attended the International Constructivist Dada Congresses in Germany, where they were introduced to the ideas of El Lissitzky and Kandinsky. One of them, Murayama Tomoyoshi (1901-1977), believed that art should create “the image of the age to come” and “reconstruct the world.” On his return home, he formed the avant-garde group Mavo, many of whose members had been anarchists and were now gravitating toward Russian communism. Those who did believed that in all the world, only “Russia shines with the light of a white building!” However small in number, the Japanese avant-garde survived government persecution before the war and then flourished thereafter. Eventually it found a balance between native Zen motifs and Russian and other European influences, to create a powerful art that was recognizably Japanese but in its abstractionism also universal.
In Latin America, too, mediation between native art and Russian and European aesthetic models was the norm for the avant-garde. From Mexico to Chile, abstract art and the International Style in architecture took hold beginning in the 1940S and 1950S. This was largely a result of individuals unrelated to Russia except for their association with the European Constructivist movement. But it is noteworthy that two Russian immigrants, Lazar Segel and Gregori Warchavchik, were, respectively, the first Modernist painter and architect in Brazil, and that ex-Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, after leaving Moscow, became director of the Instituto de Urbanismo y Planificacion in Mexico City (1939-1949).
Even earlier in Mexico, gripped with revolutionary crises between 1910 and 1934, riven by ethnic and social divides, and ever wary of the United States, avant-garde painters had been grappling with questions of artistic as well as social change. Diego Rivera (186-1957) is known for his ties to Cubism, but he was also a fixture among Russian painters (and women) in pre-World War I Paris and was fully charged with enthusiasm for Marxism and the art of the Russian Revolution. He and his conational, David Siqueiros (1896-1974), turned to mural painting, for which they are famous, partly out of adherence to the Russian Constructivist injunction against easel painting and to the movement’s declaration of art for the masses. Rivera abandoned full abstractionism in favor of a narrative propagandistic art synthesizing Mexican traditional imagery and Socialist Realism while retaining an experimental and neoprimitive flavor taken over from both European and Russian Modernist painting.
Rivera’s art is an example of the global adaptability of the Russian avant-garde idiom. The new artistic vocabulary was one result of the Russian intelligentsia’s impassioned struggle to formulate alternatives to capitalist modernity. Russian avant-garde experimental forms in the visual arts as well as dance and theater expressed powerful visions of social renovation that the developing world, the industrialized democratic West, and midcentury totalitarian regimes alike readily borrowed. Like Russian anarchists, writers, visionaries, and anti-Semites, the Russian avant-garde appeared as wise men of the East offering access to higher truth. Rooted in the mysticism, messianism, and anti-Westernism of the Silver Age and Russian Revolution, Russian artists rejected urban-industrial-bourgeois existence and sought to remake society anew. This utopian ambition failed, and their art, in an ironic twist of fate, often ended up being appropriated to promote capitalism or dictatorship or a distinctly Western form of individualism. Yet by contributing to the transformation of culture in many parts of the globe, Russian art did help to shape the modern world, even if it could not overcome it. The Russian avant-garde gave twentieth-century humanity a new way of seeing and interpreting reality; along with Freud, Einstein, and the western European pioneers of modern art, it altered contemporary consciousness.
STEVEN G. MARKS is Associate Professor of History at Clemson University and the author of Road to Power: The Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Colonization of Asian Russia.
Copyright New England Review Winter 2003
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