Vladimir Tatlin

Russian artist, called the father of constructivism though he rejected the role and was regarded in 1920s Western Europe as the man who led art into technology and industrial production.

He was essentially poetic, capable of leadership but loved for his quiet ways, his craftsman’s skills and his playing and singing of Russian folk music on instruments he made himself.

His father was a railway engineer, his mother a poet.

Young Tatlin divided his study years between art schools in Penza and Moscow and time at sea as a merchant sailor. Friends described his studio and his life-style as essentially shipshape and his knowledge of rigging and sails shows in his mature work. Little of that, however, remains, the most important productions being a vast tower, shown in drawings and models, his stage production of a poem by Khlebnikov, and models of a flying machine. Even less remains of papers etc. that might give us insight into his thinking but some may be gained from his close friendship with Khlebnikov who combined passionate enquiry into the functioning of mathematics, history, birds and language with speculation into the sort of world the revolution (which he prophesied) would bring, and wrote about towers and flight and in praise of Tatlin.

He began and ended his career as a painter and stage designer. Some of his training was in painting and restoring icons and he was later to stress that these had had an important influence on his work, but a major event in his formation was a visit to Paris, in 1914, where he called on Picasso and saw his current work, including constructed sculptures.

For a time such sculpture dominated Tatlin’s output; ‘pictorial reliefs’, ‘corner reliefs’ hovering in the angle of two walls and ‘counter reliefs’ slung on ropes or cables at some distance from any wall. These works are often designated abstract, but the first of them included glass and the image of a bottle and may well have been a visual essay on representation and reality, and others imply meaning in a variety of ways.

A corner relief has a strong iconic quality and echoes Russia’s favourite icons of the Mother of God. Few of these constructions, made principally of found bits of wood and metal, survive; those that do seem to have changed in being restored.

In 1914-16, they were exhibited in Moscow and Petrograd and attracted the notice of avant-garde artists, some of whom became his disciples, hut little attention from the critics of the day.

In 1918, Tatlin was appointed head of the Commissariat for Enlightenment’s Moscow art directorate and charged with realizing Lenin’s wish to see Moscow (and other cities) equipped with statues to the glory of past revolutionaries.

Dissatisfied with the old-fashioned sculptures that resulted, Tatlin conceived a project for a vast monumen: to the revolution, an engineering structure of steel and glass, at once sculpture and architecture, to outdo the Eiffel Tower of Paris in size and dynamic form and to house Comintern, the headquarters of international Communist action. It would stand in Petrograd, straddling the river Neva like a Colossus and, pointing to the pole star, would link Earth to the cosmos. Retitled Monument to the Third International, it was displayed in large model form in the winter of 1920-21, drew a great deal of attention at home and abroad and was seen as a new form of art, at once visionary and real in its intended use of modern materials and technology. A smaller model was the centrepiece of the Soviet display at the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris.

He taught in the new art institutes of Moscow, Kiev and Petrograd, developing a course in ‘the culture of materials’. He and his students made exploratory prototypes for economical and efficient ceramics, clothing and furniture. With government backing he and assistants, with specialist advice from aeronautics and medicine, worked during 1930-33 to fashion a flying machine, to bear and he controlled by one person, from a range of natural and synthetic materials and in organic forms. He intended it to be mass produced, like bicycles, in order to realise mankind’s ancient dream of personal flight. Three versions were exhibited in Moscow in 1932. His widow has stated that one was actually flown.

In 1931, he had been given the title of Honored Art Worker of the Soviet Union as an ‘artist of great culture, a true master, who is a devoted worker for the proletarian revolution’.

In the 1930s, Tatlin returned to figurative painting, mostly as a private pursuit worked as stage designer and continued to develop his flying machine. Rather than a hothead, eager to end art as an activity beset by bourgeois priorities, he should be seen as a profoundly creative artist as conscious of his inheritance as of the new opportunities and demands created by modern art and the revolution.

There is evidence that he wished to be a modern Leonardo da Vinci and, like the legendary Daedalus of ancient times, to add to the wonders of the world in the name of the new egalitarian society, through work vivid to the popular mind by being enmeshed in folk and religious traditions.

3 thoughts on “Vladimir Tatlin

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