In what ways was Vladimir Tatlin’s model for the Monument to the 3rd International of 1920 revolutionary?

Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) – an inventor, visionary, painter, architect and designer.

Tatlin's Artistic Background

He regarded his artistic career as a single goal oriented programme made up of a series of increasingly complicated tasks. His early painting career showed influences of contemporary French art, (Matisse, Cubism etc.) as well as Russian Folk art: the lubok and icon styles (for example Large Nude 1912-3). In May 1914 he constructed his first ‘painterly reliefs’ (Khlebnikov: He created metal objects with his brush), and stepped from the canvas to the ‘real world’. He continued to develop these painterly reliefs until 1915, when they became entirely detached from the wall and hung across a corner, for these he coined the term ‘corner counter relief’ and exhibited one in December 1915 at the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0-10. These ‘corner counter-reliefs’ were meant to be hung in the holy corner of a room, putting the artwork in the same place as an icon was meant to be. This was also done by Malevich with his Black Square painting, making reference to the way icons were treated, and either elevating art to religious status or denigrating icons to mere art.

The state of Soviet Art and Architecture after the Bolshevik Revolution

After the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, avant-garde artists were needed by the new government for the creation of propaganda, and formal institutions for artists were set up. Tatlin was made director of IZO, the Department for Fine Arts within Narkompos, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. Then, in April 1918 Lenin put into action his plan for Monumental Propaganda which used art and artists for the service of the state and its ideology. In artistic terms, the Plan’s preferred style was a kind of restrained modernism with reference to cubism, resulting in a geometric figurative style. (e.g. Matveev’s Monument to Karl Marx, 1918). This style was replaced or evolved to become Socialist Realist during the 1930s. The plan was an artistic and political experiment which opened up possibilities for future Soviet sculpture, but to take contemporary and present verdicts, the plan was considered a failure, with Russia having few experienced sculptors, and the monuments were ill-conceived, hasty and badly executed, as well as sometimes placed in incongruous and ridiculous positions. Many buildings using constructivist ideas were proposed, Russian architects were carried away by a utopian vision for a new society, and wanted to reconstruct, not construct. Most of these designs disregarded the elementary requirements for the function, and only a few were constructed. Those that were built ran into many difficulties in planning and construction, in part due to the fact that Russia was decades behind in industrial capacity. This industrial paralysis continued into the thirties, and this was one reason for Stalin’s Five Year Plans, designed to accelerate industrial growth.

The form and function of the Monument

Tatlin’s monument was conceived and commissioned as part of the plan in 1919 by The Department of Artistic Work of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment. At the very start, the monument was envisaged being far taller than the Eiffel tower. Nikolay Punin, a contemporary critic of Tatlin, provides an excellent description of the Monument:

“The monument consists of three great rooms of glass, erected with the help of a complicated system of vertical pillars and spirals. These rooms are placed on top of each other and have different, harmonically corresponding forms. They are able to move at different speeds by means of a special mechanism. The lower storey, which is in the form of a cube, rotates on it’s axis at the speed of one revolution per year. This is intended for legislative assemblies. The next storey, which is in the form of a pyramid, rotates on its axis at the rate of one revolution per month. Here the executive bodies are to meet (the International Executive Committee, the Secretariat and other executive administrative bodies). Finally, the uppermost cylinder which rotates at the speed of one revolution per day is reserved for information services: an information office, a newspaper, the issuing of proclamations, pamphlets and manifestos – in short, all the means for informing the international proletariat; it will also have a telegraphic office and an apparatus that can project slogans on to a large screen. These can be fitted around the axes of the hemisphere. Radio masts will rise up over the monument. It should be emphasised that Tatlin’s proposal provides for walls with a vacuum which will help to keep the temperature in the various rooms constant.”

Many sources have been sought for the origin of the shape and style of the monument, one of the most obvious is the Eiffel Tower, still a powerful symbol for modernity when Tatlin visited Paris in about 1914. However, the Eiffel tower is perfectly symmetrical about it’s axis and Tatlin’s monument is defiantly not, but the girder style is copied, using large amounts of diagonal cross-bracing, presumably because Tatlin realised that it was the best way to hold up a structure using available material technology. The spiral style shows itself in Bruegel’s Tower of Babel of 1563 and in Rodin’s Tower of Labour. It could be supposed that a Russian looking for a monument on a revolutionary theme would look to France for inspiration, and given that Rodin had already executed a model for the Monument to Labour (1893-4), the work would provide a source of reference. But this is merely pointing out similarly shaped towers in art. The tower appears to lean, emphasising its dynamic qualities. The spiral thread seems to lift off the base forwards and upwards, like something emerging from the ground. In fact, it is an illusion, all the forms are contained within the ground plan, and nothing projects beyond the implied circle. The two arches which lead off from the spine recall a striding figure, like Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity, implying confidence in the progress of communism. If the arches recall a striding figure, then more comparisons with a human figure are there. The spine, and the form of the skeleton are protecting the internal organs. The figure is not meant to represent a person, more like the human form of collective identity, (rather like Kustodiev’s The Bolshevik, 1920).

The tower seems to have more in common with an apparatus than to a building, it resembles a telescope, or a mechanism for studying the sky. St. Petersburg at this time was a centre for astronomy and the Hermitage had a large collection of Renaissance astronomical devices. It seems to be related to both the earth and the sky, screwing out of one and into the other. The spirals actually enter the ground in the elevation diagrams and the base under the model, implying that the monument continues below the surface. As spirals are able to extend outwards and downwards, the monument is envisaged emerging from the ground itself. This is one metaphor for the communist system of government, the proletariat (the ground) rising together and creating a government. Historically, the double spiral has certain connotations, for example the Caduceus associated with Mercury. Double-spirals depict unity arising from opposing forces; the snakes of the Caduceus represent this. The use of the spirals in the monument is the expression of collective will, the process of argument of social decision, fitting for a structure to house a government. The structure is built upon an inclined truncated cone, a frustum. This was a recurrent form in Tatlin’s early constructions and in his corner counter reliefs. With its curvilinear volumes, its juxtaposition of curved planes, and the tensile curves of the supporting spirals, recalling the curving wires supporting the hanging reliefs, the integration of internal and external volumes which these define, and the Monument begins to resemble a gigantic counter-relief. Although the tower extends Lenin’s idea of monumental propaganda, it continues the forms used in Tatlin’s pre-revolutionary work.

The tower contains all the apparatus for the creation and dissemination of propaganda, such as a squad of cars and motorcycles for the distribution of propaganda, and a device for projecting images onto clouds, as well as lecture halls, gymnasia, and assembly rooms. The design purposely excluded libraries and museums because it was thought society should not be looking towards the past and the monument embodied all that was forward-thinking and revolutionary about the new Russian society.

The Fate of the Tower

A small wooden model of the tower was exhibited in Petrograd and Moscow in December 1920 amid debate on its suitability for the purpose. Mayakovsky welcomed the project as ‘the first monument without a beard’, a comment reflecting that many of the monuments made under the Plan have been statues of Lenin. But others, such as Lisitsky and Gabo were critical. Trotsky was also dismissive of the project, calling it impractical and romantic. By 1921, the changing economic climate and the fact that nothing proceeded with the project beyond the model may indicate that Party authorities started to dislike the constructivist style of design and ‘left’ artistic activity in general.

The tower’s form can be considered evolutionary rather than revolutionary, because it draws on existing use of the spiral, and metaphors for dynamism and action. The revolutionary part is the movement of the tower, the first time kinetic architecture is used. The function is also revolutionary, to make and disseminate propaganda across Russia and the world, to incite revolution in other countries and to carry out the ‘permanent revolution’ in Russia.

Punin’s pamphlet provides a summation:

The realisation of this form means the embodiment of dynamic force with an unprecedented grandeur, comparable to the pyramids’ embodiment of static force. We emphasise that only the fulfilment of the power of the many-millioned proletarian consciousness could hurl into the world the idea of this monument and this form. It must be built by the muscles of that power, for we have before us the idea, the living and classical expression in a pure and creative form of the international alliance of the workers of the world.


Bibliography

Art and Literature under the Bolsheviks: Volume One – The Crisis of Renewal Brandon Taylor, Pluto Press, London 1991
Tatlin, edited by L.A. Zhadova, Thames and Hudson, London 1988
Concepts of Modern Art, edited by Nikos Stangos, Thames and Hudson, London 1981
Vladimir Tatlin and the Russian avant-garde, John Milner, Yale University Press, New Haven 1983
The Monument to the Third International, Nikolai Punin 1920
A drawing of the Tower can be found at http://www.qdesign.co.nz/images/tatlin20.jpg

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