The Utilitarian Art of the Avant Garde: A Renounce of Principles?

The relation of the revolutionary art of the Russian Avant Garde and the Russian Revolution is complicated. Yet the influence of the political changes in 1917 is incontrovertible. On the one hand the political influence of the Avant Garde increased, on the other, support of the new regime was expected of them and their art. Artists like Malevich and Tatlin, who had previously enjoyed the liberty of being revolutionists who strove for a utopian world, were now expected to create propaganda, practical art in service of this New World. Attempting to avoid the ‘intentional fallacy’, I will focus on Tatlin and analyse the effect  of some of his works. I will argue that his struggle to turn to utilitarian art is not as much of a repudiation of the metaphysical principles of the Avant Garde as one might expect. His struggles, so I will argue, with these new assignments result in another wonderful example of a demand for metaphysical reflection.

Tatlin claimed that the “events of 1917 in the social field were already brought about in [his] art in 1914” (Tatlin in Gray 219).  Retrospectively considered however, Malevich, Tatlin, and their colleagues were said to be “fundamentally apolitical” prior to 1917 (Rowel 86). The revolution that they were working towards was a cultural one. Seemingly quite similar to the concept of ‘estrangement’ of the Russian formalists, the Avant Garde used the form of their art to induce an immaterial tension. They would combine ambivalent carnavalesque performances with their serious, ambitious and revolutionary utopian ideas. In his work Tatlin, true to faktura, attempted to excite and provoke through “the manifestations of material as such” (Tatlin in Zhadova 331). He celebrated and respected simple forms that particular materials would crave and encourage. Thus allowing the material to guide his shaping hand, his ultimate aim was “a return to primary experience, which would induce a new emotional experience and hence a new reality” (Rowell 96). Juxtaposing trivial objects to create art results in an intrinsic tension. This estranging sensation, this “non-rational aspect of creativity,” demands a reflection on-, and a reconsideration of the current unsustainable situation (Lodder 146). Quite similarly, Malevich’ revolution involved a shift from the emphasis on the material aspect of art to the creation of an awareness of the insignificance thereof.

Focusing on the spiritual, metaphysical component of art, both artists seem to give new importance to both the underlying idea of their work and its effect. The physical work itself, although imperative, seems to be merely in service of the effect. As such, the apparent shift in focus after 1917 is striking. After the Revolution the Futurists “strove to assert their relevance to the contemporary situation,” to “justify their art-making,” as “experimental paintings and spiritual themes were of no interest to a population engaged in building a postrevolutionary society” (Cardinal 362-3). Artists that had worked towards a critical and revolutionary reflection on emotional experiences were expected to, whilst “simply scrambling to survive,” create rational, practical art that functioned in service of the political Revolution (Kachurin 21).

Most famous is Tatlin’s The Monument for the Third International (1920), so let us start there. Aside from honouring the ‘Third International’, the most profound effect of its design seems to be intrigue and confusion. For how was such an organic structure to be created out of steel and glass? How was it to remain upright and function the way Tatlin had conceptualised? This proved impossible. The impossibility of the execution of a utilitarian design created for the New World results in a meta-reflection on the process of creation and its materials. In addition, the model that was created and revealed to the world –again with great show and bravado- was made of wood. Famous for his respect of materials, indeed, known for having his art revolve around “the assemblage of disparate materials and the respect for each other”, the simple and casual substitution of steel for wood results in a tense situation that demands consideration (Rowell 94). Unable to be realised in its full, conceptualised form, the half-reflection emphasises the underlying utopian idea and the impossibility of its existence in the physical world. Similar effects can be described when observing his other works that could never be realised in their full and functioning form such as his famous Chair (1924) or Letatlin (1930).

The ambivalence that led to revolutionary reflection before 1917 can therefore be relocated in the impossibility of the physical realisation of an art form that was especially created -at least conceptualised- because of its functional practicality.  In this way, whether intended or not, the metaphysical and immaterial is celebrated in his later works. Tatlin developed “a successful survival strategy for himself and his modernist art [in] radically new circumstances of life and work in the nascent Soviet Union,” without repudiating his former metaphysical fascination (Kachurin 21, my emphasis).


Cardinal, Roger. “19 – The avant-garde in early twentieth-century Europe” The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Volume 6: The Nineteenth Century, c.1830–1914. Cambridge University Press: 2013. pp. 357-375.

Gray, Camilla. The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863-1922. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: 1962.

Kachurin, Pamela. “Working (for) the State: Vladimir Tatlin’s Career in Early Soviet Russia and the Origins of the Monument to the Third International.” Modernism/modernity 19.1 (2012): 19-41.

Lodder, Christina. “Sculpture at the “Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings ‘0.10’ (Zero-Ten)”. Experiment, 2012, Vol. 18(1), pp. 140-165.

Rowell, Margit. “Vladimir Tatlin: Form/Faktura.” Oktober. Vol. 7, Soviet Revolutionary Culture (Winter, 1978), pp. 83-108.

Zhadova, Larissa Alekseevna ed., Tatlin. London: Rizzoli, 1988. plates 125-9; English translation, ibid., 331.



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