May 31: Tatlin and the tower of dreams

2012/05/31 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1953 Vladimir Tatlin died.

Remembered incompletely and (usually) a bit inaccurately, Tatlin (b. 1885)  was not the one-note hero of Constructivism that we see through a quick glance at his most famous project.  He was, rather, somewhat of a poet, a set designer with an interest in quiet drama, a painter, an art teacher who lectured on the “culture of materials” but never gave up on figural painting (compare 1910 and 1930), a world-class bandurist.  He built his own instruments, restored Christian icons, and dreamt of flying.

His legacy might have been quite different had he not been charged to do the thing for which he is remembered just after returning from visiting Picasso in Paris, where he viewed the Spanish artist’s sculptures of the early teens (things like this).  It was within an official role working for the Comintern (Communist International) that Tatlin was tasked with the design of a monument for revolutionaries, the project on which his fame rests.  Your art history professor probably set up this extraordinary design for The Monument to the Third International as an amazing invention, the single essential image of three-dimensional Constructivism that you needed to remember for the quiz.  And she was partly right (especially about the quiz).  But the tower, in all its mechanical glory–400 m of twisting steel (or, 437 Rodchenko posters tall, in Revolutionary measure), in which three Platonic forms would rotate at different speeds and house different arms of the Comintern bureaucracy–is more, and less, than that.

The tower exemplifies the ideal of Constructivism–the assemblage of sparse mechanistic elements into abstract forms–but then departs from it through its artistry.  Surely the massive helical structure with moving parts responds to the purity of the movement, but its artistic and referential qualities muddy Constructivism’s claims to autonomy.  It was conceived with other things in mind: it outscaled the Eiffel Tower with an artfully conceived structural design–not the straightforward structure that actually generated the graceful curves that Monsieur Eiffel figured would best resist wind pressure.  By pointing to the Polar Star it created an axis mundi within a centralized (if skewed) structure, like Buddhist stupas.  The turning of each of the interior forms at speeds of one year, one month, and one day, suggests the calendrical function that inspired detailing of Aztec pyramids.  Proposed for Petrograd (St. Petersburg), the tower was to span the Neva River like a twentieth-century Colossus of Rhodes.  Sculptor and co-author of the ‘Realist Manifesto’ Naum Gabo rejected its blurring of the essential line between functional structure and pure art.

Models of Tatlin’s project were exhibited on several occasions, one perhaps garnering widest attention in 1925 when it was shown in the Russian exhibit at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes  in Paris (in this appropriate setting by Melnikov).  The design could only be manifest in models: Lenin’s Russia was hardly in an economic condition that could support the world’s tallest manmade structure (although more recently, this nice short film gives us a clearer image of what it might have been like).  Even as he designed it, Tatlin must have known that it was technically impossible, which makes one wonder, which kind of dreamer was he?  Did he, like Boullée, inhabit a world where the ideas of architecture as manifest in drawings and models were as significant (or even more so) than actual constructed buildings?  Or did he, like the first designers of Florence Cathedral, project an unbuildable project for which he had faith that the future would provide an architect who could solve the technical riddle that would make his idea a reality?  And if the latter, under different circumstances, might the Revolution have produced its own Brunelleschi?

Image: photomontage of the Monument (from this site)

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