Saturday, 9 October 2010

A Russian Tale (Constructivist Division)

Last December, whilst Gorby was busy batting away Yeltsiniki flies as black and thick as August, I was serendipitously ingesting stiff snorts of the arts of the USSR and before in drafts as numbing and levitating as a fifth of Stolichnaya vodka.
It all began with an exhibit I saw at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, generated by the University of Washington: “Art into Life: Russian Constructivism, 1914-1932.” What a honey it was, and what a pity it didn’t travel farther. But you can console yourself with a paperback edition of the catalog ($32.50, attention Karen Statler, WAC, Vineland Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403).
Russian Constructivism has been regarded by most mainstream (i.e., Euro) art historians as an embarrassment—when they’ve considered it at all. All those goofy projects like Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” (1920), surely the most maquetted no-show in the history of monumental sculpture.
Quoting Joseph Giovannini’s brilliant essay on the state of Russian modernist art studies (New York Times Book Review, Dec. 30): “In keeping with the fervent utopianism of the period, a group of young artists who called themselves the Constructivists (they were constructing a New Society for Mass Man)—including Gustav Klucis, El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and Aleksandr Vesnin—sought ways to integrate art into the fabric of daily life in the new state.
“Abandoning their studios for the streets, factories, theaters, and schools, they turned their talents to creating a remarkable array of objects intended both to advance the cause of the revolution and to serve the needs to a vast public.”
That’s more or less what the Bauhaus in Dessau, Weimar and Berlin proposed to do with German capitalism. Both aspirations failed: The Russian because Stalin lowered the boom of Socialist Realism; the German because Mies and Gropius became Graphickers for the Fortune 500.
I still get off on the photography, photomontages, and graphic design of Rodchenko; and I still love Popova and Stepanova’s designs for mass-produced fabrics. That their dream came a-cropper tells us more about the history of Russian tyranny than about the ultimate significance of their ideals.
My second Russki rendezvous took place ten days later in L.A., when I went out to Westwood to look at the new Armand Hammer Museum and its inaugural show, “Kasimir Malevich, 1878-1935.” First, some nasty words about the museum of the lately-deceased eponym. Hammer’s vanity surpasses anything I’ve yet encountered in the ego-centralizing world of High Culture.
A humongous and egregiously bad full-length portrait of the donor hisself dominates the stairway to the main portal. To its lower right is a framed letter, en francais, from Danielle Mitterrand to AH, telling him what a great guy and giver he is—translated into English for the great unwashed who want a scrubbing.
There’s one Van Gogh in the museum that’s as glorious as the other four VGs are gross: you couldn’t give them to me. And there’s enough Daumier to start a separate museum on him. (I’m with Will Rogers on Honore: I’ve never seen a D. I didn’t like.) And then there’s the separate dark chamber in which we’re beseeched to genuflect before Leonardo DaVinci engineering drawings ever so humbly dubbed the Codex Hammer. (Sorry, Leonardo, you only made them drawings; Armand bought ‘em.)
Which brings us to Kasimir. I just love his cubistical peasants. Their rotundities make you want to reach out and caress them. You remember those old snides about Khrushchev’s dumpy fat wife, Nina? Well, Malevich transforms the dross of their flab into the glory of his canvases. Here’s a Midas of the mawky.
But when Malevich dropped this genre and tried to invent Suprematism, he lost me—and became almost as boring as the ridiculously overrated Kandinsky (as the Godfather of Ab Ex, he had to be theogonized). Happily, Kasimir gave up the Big S when Socialist Realism started rearing its ugly headlessness. Unhappily, when Malevich returned to his Precisionist-looking peasants, he’d lost the knack.
But I return again and again to his first fine, careless cubistical genre paintings of the peasants he knew so well, being one himself.
The third stop on my month-long Russki odyssey took place in D.C. The Welcomat’s Kiki the Olson came raving in after Christmas about how she and Sam had levitated over a Smithsonian sally on 600 years of Moscow, as seen in its arts and arty facts. When Kiki says go, I go. It warn’t as glorious as the old Keek touted, but was well worth the trip. I be an Ikon Lover. Stasis is the way I want them.
Incidentally, Washington’s Union Station, in a crude maneuver to keep the homeless from living out of their lockers at 75 cents a day, has upped the ante to 75 cents for the first half hour, up to a maximum of $4. It would be almost as cheap to check into a hotel or get a hernia operation after carrying your bags around. It makes you want to start a luggage storage revolution. Rodchenko, comrade, where are you when I really need you?
But there’s good news coming: MOMA is fielding a retro of my very favorite mental Russian girl friend, Popova, this coming season. When I told my Intourist guide in Leningrad I had the secret hots for Lyubov, she smiled: Lyubov means “love” in Russki, she explained. Nice, eh?
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 24, 1991

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