Vladimir Tatlin Chases Utopia's Ghost

Vladimir Tatlin Chases Utopia's Ghost

Design for the Monument for to the Third International (1920) by Vladimir Tatlin on the cover of Nikolai Punin’s book of the same name.
Courtesy N. Punin Archive, St. Petersburg

TAtlin (center) and assistants working on constructing a model of the tower in 1920.
The completed model exhibited in Moscow in 1920.
Private collection

Tatlin’s Tower: Monument to Revolution
Norbert Lynton
Yale University Press, $50.00

Norbert Lynton’s “circumstantial” approach to the work of Vladimir Tatlin combines an art-historical analysis of Russia’s Socialist Revolution with a symbolic reading of The Monument to the Third International, the visionary Russian designer’s unrealized monument and headquarters for the Communist International in Petrograd. Considering the sources and significance of that 1920 project, Lynton moves on to discuss Letatlin, the artist’s proposed organic flying machine, in the context of Tatlin’s utopian vision of society. While Lynton sometimes complicates a clear understanding of Tatlin’s aesthetic trajectory by analyzing it through concurrent movements in painting, political alliances, and a miscellany of tangents, the author illuminates the artist’s role in a momentous social program.

Lynton, a professor of art history at Sussex University who died in 2007, opens the book with informative chapters on Tatlin’s contributions to the Russian avant-garde. The reader is acquainted with the young artist’s interests, including drawing, folk art, and Russian religious icon paintings. Tatlin’s preoccupation with the theories of K. Danilevsky concerning dirigibles is also discussed and shown to complement the artist’s love for utilitarian objects and the simple life he led as a cadet sailor. For Lynton, his subject’s ability to synthesize these influences through painting predicts the emergence of Constructivism.

The author asserts that Tatlin’s nautical experiences and fascination with flight provided him with a lifetime of symbols. This is not only suggested in his designs for the tower and Letatlin, but also in his early work as a painter, scene builder, and student at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. According to Lynton, Tatlin began to exhibit his work regularly by 1910, and was increasingly engaged in an anti-traditional mode of painting concerned with material relationships and movement as opposed to pictorial representation. In his chapter on Constructivism, Lynton continues to highlight Tatlin’s evolving techniques of production. This provides the reader with a point of departure for the author’s deconstruction of the tower’s multiple layers of meaning.

Chapter 4, entitled “Monument to Revolution,” outlines the events that placed Tatlin in Petrograd, the intended site for his tower, and provides an account of how his ideas for a monument to the Revolution made their way to the public. It also supplies a brief history of Russia’s tendency to memorialize great events by erecting commemorative buildings. Lynton appropriately introduces the subject of architecture here and analyzes the “aspirations of the moment” in terms of the work of Walter Gropius and the “experimental designs” developed by Rodchenko. Here the optimism of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian Futurist poet, further expresses the new government’s aim to give its utopian technological vision a monumental form. This form for Tatlin is expanded to accommodate a governmental building program with moving parts.

Across the chapters, Lynton concisely depicts Tatlin’s motivation to work with others. This aspect of Tatlin’s character is consistent with his desire to move beyond the aesthetic confines of what he termed “synthetic-static compositions” and into the larger three-dimensional space of the theater and the public realm. Furthermore, Lynton’s careful review of Tatlin’s academic roles suggests that his subject was clearly gravitating toward a social mission. This mission, primarily one of art education reform, builds on Tatlin’s successes as an artist, as well as his recognition of the value of an icon for the new government. Tatlin’s appointment as head of the art department within the Ministry of Education under Lenin, for instance, led him to administer Lenin’s campaign to eliminate the obsolete monuments of the past and replace them with monuments in support of the Socialist Revolution.

Chapter 5, “Concept and Design of the Tower,” describes how the conceptual model for the tower evolves from this central role. Here, Lynton is sensitive to the magnitude of Tatlin’s project, whose actual design exists only in written descriptions, front and side elevations, and two models of different scales with variable levels of material complexity. But he is also diplomatic in his discussion of the tower’s inadequacies and inconsistencies. Lynton’s discourse on the various elements of the tower and its siting challenge us to consider whether or not the values of the symbol match up to the quality of the building design. The author’s own struggle to comprehend every aspect of the project’s significance results in a humanized, holistic vision of Tatlin and his work.

Read all of AN‘s Friday Reviews here.