Adolf Behne’s “On the Russian Exhibition” (1922)
Translated from the German by Don Reneau. From Between
Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
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The Russian exhibit in the [Van Dieman] Gallery provides an excellent documentation of the transcendence of the image. That Kandinsky’s paintings have been hung on the final wall is probably a concession to (mistaken) German exhibits of modern Russian art. In no sense is Kandinsky’s abstract canvas the last word in Russian painting. The leading role has not been played by Kandinsky, still less by [Marc] Chagall (who has a very weak painting on display here), but by the constructivists, the splendidly represented [Kasimir] Malevich, [Aleksandr] Rodchenko, [El] Lissitzky, and [Vladimir] Tatlin, [Natan] Altman, and [Naum] Gabo. The question is no longer whether the Suprematist image is a better or more beautiful image than the impressionist image; rather the question is whether the image as such can continue to supply us with an accepted, fruitful area of work. The image itself is in crisis — not because a couple of painters thought this up but because the modern individual has experienced changes in intellectual structure that alienate one from the image. The image is an aesthetic matter whereas what the radical artists of all nations want is to lend immediate form to reality itself (the Russians call it production art). Soviet Russia was the first to recognize the possibilities inherent in this great new goal and give it free rein; the German “art lover” instead remains stubbornly closed to it (no salon has yet exhibited the German constructivists). This exhibit, the most audacious and richest in productive artistic work that Berlin has seen in a long time — and under what conditions! — is an official exhibit of the People’s Commissariat for the Arts and Sciences in Moscow. The Commissariat charged the painter [David] Sterenberg with putting the show together (his works, incidentally, are among the most interesting on display). It is utterly inconceivable that even in a hundred years an official German exhibition would so frankly embrace art, the times, and all that is of current vitality. “We hope,” Sterenberg writes in the catalogue, “that our Western comrades, whom we would very much like to see in Moscow and Petrograd, will not keep us waiting long.” I can imagine what will be sent to Russia (if anything at all) to represent artistic work in Germany. It will be at least ten years behind the times.
[Originally published as “Der Staatsanwalt schüzt das Bild,” Die Weltbühne no. 47 (November 23, 1922)]