Ernő Kállai’s “The Russian Exhibition in Berlin” (1923)
Translated from the Hungarian by John Bátki.
From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
The most serious among the several shortcomings of the Russian exhibition in Berlin was the fact that it refused to take any stand whatsoever, and settled for providing a neutral survey of the most diverse visual objects, much to the delight of bourgeois democrats and aesthetes. It gave no indication that it had originated in a country going  through the painful struggle of attaining Communism, from where it was dropped into the midst of the luxurious bourgeois environment of Unter den Linden. Those few neat little Soviet posters in the Impressionist style and one or two Soviet emblems on silk or china had the effect of awkward beauty spots modestly hiding among the hundreds of drawings and paintings. For all that, even Herr Ebert, the president of the German pseudo-republic, might well have undertaken the “highest sponsorship” of the exhibition. True, the introductory essays to the catalogue made a few passing references to the revolutionary nature of the new movements and the fact of art having taken to the streets, but it all sounded like apologies and excuses rather than a courageously voiced demand. There was nothing in these writings to provide the exhibition with a backbone of worldview and ethics. The various movements were aligned into an order connected by the fragile thread of an intent to demonstrate causal connections, instead of the immanent goal of a revolutionary will. The only purpose the Russian exhibition evinced was tactical in nature. It would seem that Lunacharskii and the others did not want to scare away the bourgeois viewers of the exhibition. This would explain why they refrained from any kind of overt revolutionary content. But I still find it incomprehensible that this Russian exhibition has overlooked the problem of proletarian art. Some of the cruder examples of the student work in the exhibition might have shown evidence of unpracticed proletarian handiwork. But apart from these few pieces there was not even the slightest allusion to the much-debated central issues of proletkult.
If there is a Russian proletarian art, then it was an unpardonable omission not to devote at least as much attention to it as to the lip-smacking still-lives, sensuous nudes, and melting moods of paintings by Kustodiev and others. And if there is no proletarian art in Russia, even then this — for the time being absent — new artistic collective should have been given the role of occupying one extreme pole of the spirit of this exhibition. Even the concept of an as yet nonexistent proletarian art, as the unknown quantity x, would have been an important factor in this exhibition, if the introductory texts in the catalogue had paid some attention to the demands, prospects, and obstructions presented by this concept. The Russian cultural commissariat in all probability has plenty of experience in this respect. Here was the opportunity to give an account of the results at a public forum available to all of Europe. It is greatly to be regretted that this opportunity has not been seized.
What did the exhibition salvage from the Russian revolution? A few seething, expressionistic individuals and world-visions possessed of an imagination and a tenacious, form-giving fanaticism that was indeed staggering, and without parallel in today’s painting: they recall old-time icons in terror of damnation. But these visions could equally be seen as feverish nightmares of a humanity disoriented by the world war as much as by the revolution. Whereas the works that were indubitably rooted in the revolution were too feeble to offer more than mere psychological illustration.
The exhibition included representative values from every direction, starting with naturalism and Impressionism, through the heritage of Cézanne, all the way to Tatlin’s militant spatial Cubism and Constructivism. The entirety of this extensive range was characterized, not so much by a formal dexterity, as by the remarkable and diverse wealth of ability in the handling of material. The Russians never fail to assign an active role to surface textures, always strictly in accordance with the spirit of the given style in question. This passion for taking meticulous trouble with materials is often incidental to the problem of overall form, and may even lead to an obstructive sort of puttering, but when it stays within the necessary limits it has the effect of endowing the work’s optical values with an extraordinary intensity. A surface that is differentiated and structured in its material composition is able to radiate into space a much more opulent, flexible, and irresistible dynamics of reflected light than a surface that is arranged only optically.
The facture of Constructivist works gives evidence of the profound, material unity of psychological and logical existence. Even when touched, or viewed from very close up these surfaces are alive with rhythms.
The facture of Russian Constructivism offers interesting evidence that the psychological category of perceiving materials and the logical category of formal observation are not mutually exclusive but in fact are conditional upon each other, and are different but equally necessary manifestations of artistic vitality. And since the Russian Constructivists (including the Suprematists) pay equal attention to both categories, their works appear alive and actual both in respect of the optical perspective and by virtue of their pure and integral order.
Constructivism, the art of causality disciplined in the service of purposeful life objectives, can be seen in two phases in this exhibition: in two-dimensional planes, and in actual multi-dimensional space. The two-dimensional constructions were in general of a higher quality than the spatial constructions. This was in part certainly due to the fact that from the viewpoint of the formative intention a two-dimensional construction offers far less material resistance and therefore provides more opportunities for the adequate addressing of consciously registered tensions and functions. The great majority of the spatial constructions were in additional hindered in their full resolution by an excessive number of details in the mutually constructive supports of linked parts, resulting in a multitude of forms without any function. They resembled technological objects, but did not perform any technological tasks. Looking past these unsuccessful experiments in technological pseudo-naturalism one could see very few spatial constructions that would pass for real achievements. Medunetskii’s triple diagonal construction is alive because it indicates only in a most general manner the axes that give free play to the full swing of its spatial activity.
In this work as well as in Gabo’s far more complex model for a glass sculpture the awareness of functionality is the primary creative motivation, rather than formal convention, as in the case of the technological naturalists. Gabo has also attempted a mobile sculpture, the essential form of which is afforded by the optical phenomenon created by motion. In Gabo’s mobile sculpture the formal conception is consciously built upon the notion of motion, insofar as it is not only the conveyor but also the result of motion. Further advance from here would lead in the direction of the kinetic lever specified by Kemény and Moholy-Nagy that demands an internal dialectics compared to which the Gabo-type experiments can only be seen as limited and temporary substitutes.
The weakest part of the exhibition consisted of the architectural portions. The few architectural plans and sketches were evidence of an utterly inconsequential romanticism, proving that all the programmatic verbiage of utilitarianism will remain idle talk until we evolve new social necessities of life that will need to be fulfilled by practical architectural work.
[Originally published as “A berlini orosz kiállfíás,” in Akasztott Ember vol. 2 (February 15, 1923)]