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October 1997

Abstraction & utopia, II

by Hilton Kramer

On the politics of abstract art in De Stijl

Abstraction & revolution

Utopias are an expression of aspirations that cannot be realized, of efforts that are not equal to the resistance they encounter.
—Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star (1908)


A revolution strengthens the impulse of invention. That is why there is a flourishing of art following a revolution… . Invention is always the working out of impulses and desires of the collective and not of the individual.
—Vladimir Tatlin, International Iskusstv (1919)


The reality principle—la force des choses— will, in the end, always prevail over utopian passions.
—Irving Kristol, “The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals” (1979)


The fate of abstract art in Russia in the decade following the Revolution of 1917 proved to be one of the most tragic chapters in the annals of twentieth-century modernism. Its only near rival among the political calamities that beset the modernist movement in the early decades of the century occurred in Germany in the 1930s with the unleashing of Hitler’s war on “degenerate” art. There was this important difference, however, between the Nazi campaign to abolish modernist art in Germany and that of the Soviet Union under Lenin. Hitler never pretended to set up as a patron of modernist art. However grudgingly, Lenin —or the regime over which he presided as dictator, anyway—did so pretend for a very short but crucial period, thus inducing the illusion among members of the Russian avant-garde that modernism in the arts would be embraced by the Bolsheviks as a privileged coefficient of their political revolution.

The fragility of this ill-fated misalliance between modernist art and political revolution was signaled by the fact that the Bolshevik loyalist to whom Lenin entrusted authority over the arts in the early years of the Soviet regime—Anatoly Lunacharsky, named People’s Commissar for Public Enlightenment in 1917—was not himself exactly an enthusiast for avant-garde art. He was, to be sure, far more closely acquainted with the modernist movement than Lenin and far more tolerant of its innovations, having come to know some of the émigré Russian modernist painters in Paris before the First World War. Yet, while not as paranoid about the avant-garde as Lenin, who regarded it—not wholly incorrectly, alas—as a refuge for “escapees from the bourgeois intelligentsia,” Lunacharsky clearly harbored serious doubts about the modernists he officially supported. To direct the Visual Arts Section of Narkkompros, the huge bureaucracy in his charge, Lunacharsky appointed not one of the militant advocates of Russian abstraction but David Shterenberg, a modernist painter he had met in Paris who was more amenable to welcoming a broader range of artistic loyalties than was common among the doctrinaire abstractionists. (Shterenberg, though a supporter of the Revolution, was not himself a Bolshevik.) Lunacharsky also named Marc Chagall, another of the modernist painters he got to know in Paris, as Commissar of Art in the artist’s home town of Vitebsk. Abstract art, which in retrospect remains the most significant achievement of the Soviet avant-garde in this period, was never a branch of cultural life to which either Lunacharsky or his comrades in the Bolshevik hierarchy felt any personal or ideological commitment. On the contrary, abstraction was often under attack in the official Soviet press as a development inimical to the goals of proletarian culture even while the abstractionists enjoyed the official support of Lunacharsky’s bureaucracy.

From the outset, then, the relation that obtained between an avant-garde that made an orthodoxy of abstraction and the firebrands of what, in the period from 1917 to 1921, was called War Communism, was highly problematic. Within the ranks of the dedicated abstractionists, moreover, loyalty to the Bolshevik regime was similarly riddled with doubt and suspicion. Vasily Kandinsky, the most accomplished of the abstract painters to enjoy official support, was never a true believer in the Revolution. Forced by the outbreak of the World War to leave Germany for his native Russia, where he was living when the Revolution erupted, Kandinsky married the daughter of a Russian general, and in 1922, having correctly perceived that the avant-garde would have no future in the Soviet Union, he decamped for the Bauhaus in Weimar.

Artistically, however, Kandinsky’s period of repatriation in Russia brought a major change in his work. Under the influence of Malevich and his Suprematist circle, Kandinsky abandoned the painterly expressionist manner that had marked his first abstract paintings for the geometric and other hardedge forms now favored by the Russian abstractionists. Indeed, he became enough of a militant in his pursuit of this newly adopted pictorial orthodoxy to join Malevich in ousting Chagall from his official post in Vitebsk on the grounds that the latter’s work was insufficiently abstract—and thus, in the minds of the abstractionist militants, insufficiently revolutionary. In 1921, a disillusioned Chagall departed once again for Paris, where he had made his first reputation as a member of the European avant-garde before the Revolution. He thus preceded Kandinsky into permanent exile in Western Europe by a year. Whatever differences divided Kandinsky and Chagall in the realm of pictorial aesthetics, they turned out to be very much alike in rejecting the political control of art that was already in progress in the Soviet Union.

Another prominent defector from the Soviet avant-garde was the sculptor Naum Gabo (1890–1978), who left Russia for Germany the same year as Kandinsky. Gabo was one of the pioneers of the kind of open-form abstract sculpture that, somewhat confusingly, has come to be called Constructivist. What lends confusion to the term in relation to sculpture like Gabo’s is that while the latter is literally a construction of thin, sheetlike materials—first painted cardboard, then wood and metal and transparent plastics—that are cut and joined to shape three dimensional “volumes” consisting of space rather than mass, Constructivism as a movement in the Soviet avant-garde represented a philosophy of art diametrically opposed to Gabo’s. Gabo regarded his constructions as works of art conceived in a spirit that reflected new scientific thinking about space and matter. This was why he called his constructed sculptures “Realist” rather than Constructivist. For, in the Soviet context, Constructivism was one of the names given to a movement that repudiated fine art—art that was now stigmatized as mere “speculative activity”—in favor of the kind of functionalist art that was more explicitly designed to serve the practical and propaganda interests of the Revolution: posters, photography, book illustration, even the design of clothing, tableware, and furniture. It was mainly in the West that sculptures like Gabo’s came to be called Constructivist, and Gabo himself eventually accepted the name when he came to live first in England and then in the United States.

What adds still another layer of confusion to the issue is the fact that many of the leading advocates of Constructivism in the Soviet Union—Tatlin, Rodchenko, and Lissitzky, among them—first distinguished themselves as votaries of abstractionist fine art. Then, to advance the cause of Constructivist applied art, they adapted the formal vocabularies they had themselves invented for their fine-art abstraction to the design of useful objects, while at the same time declaring in the absolutist political spirit of the time that the fine arts, as traditionally conceived, must now be permanently rejected as a useless and harmful relic of a reactionary bourgeois culture. In a manifesto written in May 1921, Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956), one of the most gifted abstract artists of his generation, thus repudiated all of his past artistic accomplishments when he announced that “up to now we did not see this simple thing called life, we did not know that it was so simple, clear, which has to be organized and purged of all kinds of adornment.”

Having succeeded in purging painting and sculpture of everything but their most minimal abstract forms, Rodchenko and his Constructivist cohorts then undertook the much larger task of redesigning the objects of daily life for the Soviet masses along similarly minimalist lines. This was yet another utopian endeavor bound to fail— and fail it largely did in a very short time. Whatever small success this Constructivist initiative could make claim to was largely confined to the VKhUTEMAS, the government-sponsored design workshops where revolutionary theory enjoyed a distinct priority over the actual production of makable objects. This is one of the reasons, incidentally, why theory-obsessed academics in our own day feel such a strong affinity for the failed experiments of the Soviet Constructivists: they exist mainly in the realm of theory.

Given the conditions of Soviet society in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution of 1917, it was the very nature of the Constructivist enterprise that doomed it to failure. For one thing, the Bolshevik commissars on whose support these experiments in modernist design depended were, if anything, even more philistine in their aesthetic tastes than the pre-Revolutionary bourgeoisie the Constructivists scorned. Then, too, the faltering Soviet economy was simply not equipped to produce most of the projects that were proposed. As a consequence, most of these projects remained on the drawing board. And needless to say, the Russian masses weren’t exactly clamoring for modernist design, and it certainly wasn’t in order to drink out of Suprematist teacups or buy their daily copies of Izvestia at a Constructivist kiosk that the Bolsheviks had fought a bloody civil war.

The ultimate historical irony of the whole Constructivist misadventure is that what survives of its endeavors—Rodchenko’s brilliant photographs, Popova’s extraordinary textile designs, and Alexandra Exter’s sets and costumes for certain theatrical productions—are now admired for precisely the aesthetic, which is to say, the formal, ideas they embody rather than for the political motives that prompted their creation. What also needs to be noted about this failed utopian venture is the role it played in terminating one of the most remarkable chapters in the entire history of abstract art. Years before Stalin was in a position to demonize abstraction as “bourgeois formalism,” the campaign to condemn the creation of abstract painting and sculpture as a cultural activity politically at odds with the goals of the Revolution and thereby to render abstraction officially insupportable was initiated from within the ranks of the Soviet avant-garde itself. Stalin only codified and criminalized what Constructivist militants like Tatlin and Rodchenko had first proposed in rejecting abstract art, and then promptly condemned Constructivism as well.


Abstraction & the Bauhaus

“Art and Technology, a New Unity” is the slogan on our Bauhaus poster at the railroad station. Oh dear, will there really be no more art than the technology necessary to become profitable from now on? Since times are bad, art has to give in, and authority is granted it by associating with usable things—a hateful conception.
—Lyonel Feininger to Julia Feininger, 1923


Our aims are becoming more and more clear and have been expressed very precisely in an article by Moholy. They go against my grain in every respect, distress me terribly. What has been “art” for ages is to be discarded—to be replaced by new ideals. There is talk only about optics, mechanics and moving pictures… . Klee was very depressed yesterday when we talked about Moholy. He called it the “prefabricated spirit of the time.”
—Lyonel Feininger to Julia Feininger, 1925


The concepts of mechanics, dynamics, statics and kinetics, the problem of stability, of balance, were examined in terms of three-dimensional forms and the relationship between materials was investigated as were methods of construction and montage… . Today’s sculptor knows scarcely anything about the new fields in which the engineer works.
—László Moholy-Nagy, 1928


It took quite a while to get under way the kind of work which later made the Bauhaus a leader in designing for the lighting fixture industry.
—László Moholy-Nagy, 1938

It is one of the paradoxes of the legend of the Bauhaus, which the German architect Walter Gropius founded in Weimar in 1919 to reform and revitalize modern architectural practice, that it is often thought to have been one of the principal citadels of abstract art in Europe in the 1920s. The fact is, however, that no instruction in abstract painting—or, indeed, painting itself—was permitted at the Bauhaus until the last five years of its fourteen-year existence, and even then it was accorded a very low priority. Gropius disliked easel drawing, and his aversion to it was shared by Mies van der Rohe, who presided over the school in its final years. Traditional instruction in drawing and painting was never part of the Bauhaus curriculum.

The legend of the Bauhaus as a citadel of abstraction nonetheless persisted because a number of distinguished artists who have passed into history as masters of abstract art—Kandinsky, Klee, Albers, and Moholy-Nagy—were among the best-known members of the Bauhaus faculty. Then, too, an even larger number of lesser painters who had been students at the Bauhaus in the 1920s went on to acquire reputations as abstract artists working in what came to be recognized as a Bauhaus style. Most important of all was the fact that the basic course of instruction at the Bauhaus was designed to comprehend the entire range of visual experience in ways that eliminated from consideration all but its most universal and axiomatic attributes. As a consequence, abstraction of a certain kind—geometrical, Constructivist, and depersonalized—came to look as if it had been conceived to illustrate the theoretical principles of Bauhaus pedagogy.

The Vorkurs, or required preliminary course at the Bauhaus, was concentrated on theories of form and perception, on the one hand, and on the nature of materials, on the other, as a preparation for training in crafts and design. “What made the Bauhaus preliminary course … unique,” writes Frank Whitford, “was the amount and quality of its theoretical teaching, the intellectual rigor with which it examined the essentials of visual experience and artistic creativity.” What this meant in practice may be seen in a passage from an essay written in 1916 by the Austrian artist Johannes Itten, who three years later was brought to Weimar to create the original Vorkurs for the Bauhaus:

The clear geometric form is the one most easily comprehended and its basic elements are the circle, the square and the triangle. Every possible form lies dormant in these formal elements. They are visible to him who sees, invisible to him who does not.

Form is also color. Without color there is no form. Form and color are one. The colors of the spectrum are those most easily comprehended. Every possible color lies dormant in them. Visible to him who sees—invisible to him who does not… .

Geometric forms and the colors of the spectrum are the simplest, most sensitive forms and colors and therefore the most precise means of expression in a work of art.

By the time Itten arrived at the Bauhaus in 1919 to set up its Vorkurs, such ideas were already well-established in the De Stijl group in the Netherlands and the Suprematist circle in Russia, and in fact both De Stijl and Suprematism were to exert a profound influence on Bauhaus theory and practice as well as its disposition to think of both in utopian terms. It was certainly not the purpose of the Vorkurs to prepare its students for careers as abstract artists. Its goal was to prepare students for a much more ambitious task: the application of such theories of abstraction to a redesign of the entire manmade universe. In this respect, Bauhaus pedagogy had much in common with that of the VKhUTAMAS in the Soviet Union, especially after 1923 when the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) was appointed to replace Itten as director of the preliminary course.

Itten, who was more of a mystic than a political ideologue, had derived some of his ideas about color and form from Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art, published in 1912. (It was to teach in Itten’s version of the Vorkurs, to which his own ideas had already contributed a good deal, that Kandinsky was invited to join the Bauhaus in 1922.) Spiritual matters were not of compelling interest to Moholy, however. In politics he was a radical who had supported Bela Kun’s short-lived Soviet in his native Hungary in 1919, and was still identifying himself as a Communist in the early 1920s. As a radical he was inevitably drawn both to the révolté art and politics of the Dadaists and to the authoritarian absolutism of the Russian Constructivists. (Whatever differences may have divided Dada from Constructivism, both had formed an alliance against the despised bourgeoisie.) In some respects, Moholy took the Bauhaus’s commitment to socialism more seriously than Gropius himself—though Gropius had been a supporter of the ill-fated German revolution in 1919 and designed a Monument to the Fallen of the March Insurrection in 1920–21.

What Moholy’s arrival at the Bauhaus signified was a change in the atmosphere as well as the ideas that would now govern the Bauhaus. “Even Moholy’s appearance,” writes Frank Whitford, “proclaimed his artistic sympathies”—and his political sympathies, too, as Whitford’s further account makes clear.

Itten had worn something like a monk’s habit and had kept his head immaculately shaved with the intention of creating an aura of spirituality and communion with the transcendental. Moholy sported the kind of overall worn by workers in modern industry, His nickel-rimmed spectacles contributed further to an image of sobriety and calculation belonging to a man mistrustful of the emotions, more at home among machines than human beings. His dress stamped him as a Constructivist, as a follower to Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky, who rejected all subjective definitions of art and were scornful of the idea of the artist as the inspired maker of unique objects stamped by his personality.

Like Rodchenko, to whose example he was also strongly drawn, Moholy was a man of remarkably versatile talents, excelling as a painter, photographer, graphic designer, product designer, sculptor, and visual theorist. Unlike Rodchenko and the Soviet militants, however, he was not prepared to reject the art of painting in order to concentrate exclusively on the applied arts. Nor, for that matter, did his radical sympathies prevent him from allying himself with capitalist industry in the realm of the applied arts. In this respect, Moholy’s career —first in Germany, and then in America, where he later founded the so-called New Bauhaus in 1937—marked the demise of the utopianism which had prompted the creation of the Bauhaus as the “Cathedral of Socialism” in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the First World War. The hope of redesigning the man-made universe did not entirely fail, to be sure, but whatever successes were realized proved to be peculiarly dependent upon the least utopian of all economic and social systems: capitalism. It was as a handmaiden to capitalist enterprise and corporate competition in the marketplace that many of the Bauhaus’s modernist design ideas enjoyed their greatest prosperity and influence. It was a happier fate than that suffered by modernism in the Soviet Union under Stalin, but it was no less a refutation of the utopianism to which the founders of the Bauhaus had initially aspired.

All utopian endeavors derive their moral force from a firm belief in the perfectibility of man. It was one of the purposes of the original Vorkurs at the Bauhaus to achieve this radical transformation of the human species by, in effect, creating the conditions for a radical revision of human consciousness. The late Reyner Banham put it very well when, in a discussion of the Vorkurs in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), he cited “the determination to cleanse every incoming student’s mind of all preconceptions and to put him, so to speak, back into Kindergarten to start again from scratch” as one of the defining innovations of the Bauhaus preliminary course. This, as Banham further observed, was clearly designed

to return incoming students to the noble savagery of childhood. To have gone so far against established precedent without moving forward into a mechanized culture, meant that Itten had to go right outside the general body of Western, rational thought and under his influence Bauhaus students involved themselves in the study of mediaeval mystics like Eckhart, and Eastern spiritual discipline such as Mazdaznan, Tao and Zen.

Thus the socialist utopianism to which the Bauhaus dedicated its fortunes at the outset contained a large admixture of occult belief that was not to be exorcised until the arrival of Moholy, a man “more at home among machines than human beings.” Under the guidance of this radical materialist, it was no longer the perfectibility of man that occupied the Bauhaus agenda but the perfectibility of machines, and that effectively closed the book on the utopian aspiration. The first part of “Abstraction & Utopia” appeared in the September issue of The New Criterion.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 October 1997, on page 12

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