“The Realistic Manifesto” (1921)
- Naum Gabo & Antoine Pevsner
Introduction to the Manifesto’s Context
“The scheme of a construction is a combination of lines, and the planes and forms, which they define; it is a system of forces.”
I shall attempt to tackle the ideas of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, as exhibited in “The Realistic Manifesto”, which was written in 1921 when the First Working Group of Constructivists (INKhUK) met in Moscow, and their criticism of the treatment of Art during their time by Futurists and Cubists.
Constructivists such as Vladimir Tatlin (the Artist-Engineer) were instrumental in changing the public opinion of an artist as an easel painter. Here, the worker constructs art and becomes a researcher and engineer. This manifesto was targeted towards all men who laboured for Art be they painters, sculptors, architects…
(It appeals to those) ”to whom Art is no mere ground for conversation but the source of real exaltation.”
Cubism and Futurism are believed to have acted as a catalyst for Constructivism in Russia, although sculptural reliefs by Vladimir Tatlin are considered to mark the beginnings of the movement. They were influenced by the two schools in two ways - by assimilating the best traits of the two but by also creating an antithesis to their theories. The genre derived its name from the jargon used in this very manifesto.
These two Russian sculptures served as spokesmen for the movement which advocated the use of glass, steel and plastics as their primary materials. They did not carve or model these materials according to sculptural conventions, such as Michelangelo’s method of “freeing” forms from a megalith of stone, but constructed them according to principles of modern technology. Their work exhibits "real materials" in "real space”.
The Constructivists resisted the consistency of perspective-inspired spaces, constructing still lives with the 3 dimensional positioning of flat elementary shapes. I chose to question how in this particular manifesto, the authors refuse to see transparency or colour as properties of light. Instead, they used light as a means of achieving spatial interaction – achieving space by volume as opposed to that created by a solid mass.
Constructivism and Mass
“Who is the great one that will give us foundations stronger than this?”
Naum Gabo was captivated by spatial relationships. Before the public exhibition put on by the two brothers, traditional sculpture had dealt with material bodies in terms of solid mass; the artist's image, trapped in the stone, could be realized only by cutting away extraneous parts. Even when working with fashioned molded material, the traditional sculptor needed to fill space with the solid form of his object.
Gabo, however, used a new system in which he employed a 'stereometric cube." This schematic design involved removal of four of the six sides of the cube, while retaining the top and the bottom, and replacing the rejected planes with two internal, interlocking diagonals. Solid mass within the cube could be destroyed, allowing the interior space to appear open and free, whilst still giving an illusion of the complete form.
.The stereometric cube analogy may be attributed to Gabo’s excursion to Norway in circa 1915 to meet with his brother and fellow sculptor.
"I was living in the fjords of Norway where the atmosphere was as if one were not of this world. Very often the sky was above and the sky was below and you felt as if you were between two skies. The sense of space was so intense that it helped me in my imagination to go on with that work, with my images, with the method of space."
The notions of Time and Culture
Gabo and Pevsner are aware of the cultural crisis of their day. They recognize “the blossoming of a new culture and a new civilization” They identify and tackle the common belief that culture seems to have surpassed Time leaving some disciplines lagging behind. Indeed, their statements revolve around the notion of Time and question Culture’s assumed responsibility towards it.
Criticism of existing schools of thought
Futurism and Speed
In Futurism, the modern city, in contrast to the “museum city” is seen as one powered by a battery of human and mechanical efforts. The city emerges as an efficient, fast-moving machine where a change of environment occurs as a response to changes in society. Futurism is criticized for having announced itself as a revolution by starting off with “a devastating criticism of the past.”
“No architecture has existed since 1700. A moronic mixture of the most various stylistic elements used to mask the skeletons of modern houses is called modern architecture.” Antonio Sant’ Elia, Manifesto of Futurist Architecture”
The reader is appealed to look beyond Futurism’s initial external expression by criticizing the futurist notion of speed. The authors argue that “one cannot recreate movement in itself.” They describe futurist efforts, as those who, in vain, try to add movement to that which is essentially static and likens it to attempting to create a spasm of life in a corpse.
“It makes one think of a pulse in a dead body”.
The manifesto also demerits the Futurist notion of speed as a conglomerate of highways and clanking trains, whilst making a derogatory emphasis on the introduction of noise and dirt. Sant Elia is said to have considered the power station as the cathedral of an electrical religion. Instead, the authors describe speed by using a single ray of light, a natural example of speed – an example which makes futurist ideas seem powerless in comparison Perhaps the Manifesto regards prophecy as great a crime as nostalgia. The authors retain that it is impossible to speak about the future without “lying” and is perhaps, another instance where we can inadvertently be disrespectful towards time.
Cubism and Logic
Cubism is a movement whose “simplification of the representative” technique is then broken up by a logical anarchy. They introduced an abstraction which is free from nature yet attempts to provide the user with a total experience of the subject matter whilst still being confined by a 2-dimensional medium. Gabo/Pevsner argue that one cannot follow Cubism since although they are valid experiments on the subject of Art “they do not tackle the basis of it”. They seem to criticize the Cubistic technique and demerit its ability to capture the essence of the structure.
Critique of the Manifesto’s Five Principles with reference to the authors’ own personal works as models
Finally, the authors use SPACE and TIME as the forms through which perceptions of the surrounding world can be realized. Using this media, Art can be constructed - a premise, which is explained through the five fundamental principles of their Manifesto I have summarized below:
We renounce COLOUR
We affirm the TONE of the substance
We renounce the DESCRIPTIVE VALUE of a line
We affirm the line as A DIRECTION of the STATIC FORCES
We renounce VOLUME
We affirm DEPTH as the one form of space
We renounce MASS as a STRUCTURAL ELEMENT
We denounce STATIC RHYTHMS
We affirm KINETIC RHYTHMS as the basic forms of our perception of TIME
In a class experiment, the executed works of the two brothers were criticized in accordance with the 5 dictums (listed above) they had set out in “The Realistic Manifesto.” Most students readily accepted the notion that depth, in contrast to volume, an inherently opaque medium, is more successful in conveying a true idea of space. However, some sculptures were criticized because although they satisfied the use of depth as opposed to mass, it was unclear how some angles were constructed without the use of “carving-out’ methods. (Sweep) The students also understood the limitations of Futurist static rhythms in architecture but were quite wary of the Manifesto’s rejection of the descriptive value of a line. In fact, some of my colleagues pin-pointed a few of the displayed sculptures (Standing Wave) which were expressing speed through the line’s descriptive qualities. As each slide was exhibited to the students, different students identified how changes in tones were achieved without modifying the colour of the object. (Linear Construction) However, as expected from a class which is still under the influence of Paolo Brescia’s colour theory lectures, they retained the idea that colour is an essential visual accessory in architecture.
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