Lajos Kassák’s “The Russian Exhibit in Berlin” (1922)

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).

• • •

In 1914 when war fever soared high in Budapest, a few of us, young socialists and pacifists, were arguing about the future of nations and races.  Those were the days when Russian literature was at the height of its popularity in Hungary; our heads were full of its wise and yet revolutionary sentences.  No doubt because we were saturated by the human flavor and profound, aching rumble of this literature, we decided in favor of the Slavs.

Since then we have outgrown our love affair with Russian literature, as we have outgrown our young lives.  Now it is about to begin its triumphant passage in America, a nation that had only a taste of the war and none of the current revolutions.  But we are still here and at times we despair, as if we had been disappointed in the primal source of Russian culture.  Momentarily it appears as if the Russian psyche had been pulverized by the material struggles.  There is nothing new in literature.  The new movements show their weakest results in Russia.  It seems certain that Russian literature has for some time to come exhausted its resources in the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gorky.  They had introduced new possibilities, offering a taste of severe Asian purity to that old fop Europe.  The ones who came after them, Artzybasheff, Kuprin, Remisov, Sologub et al., are creatures of the European schools.  They have lost that profound constructive faith we had seen in Tolstoy’s antiwar writings, as well as in Dostoevsky’s “chauvinist and anti-Semitic” works.  Today’s Russian writers, including the writers of the Revolution, produce only didactic lessons, a phenomenon generally true of literature everywhere.  The great period of Russian literature, as a whole genre of art, has come to a close with the present line of literature.

We observe the newest possibilities of development in a totally different area, that of visual arts, where progress is vigorous and productive.

So that we were not wrong in 1914.  In the wake of the literature produced by a Russia in the throes of pre-Revolutionary labor, we are now confronted by the visual arts conveying the renewed power of revolutionized Russia.  During the European economic and cultural blockade an utterly new social system has passed its test of strength in Russia, and new advances in the visual arts began to unfold, in numerous instances paralleling the developments in Europe.

The all-Russian exhibition in Berlin, in spite of its great shortcomings, provides a by and large clear balance sheet of the wartime and revolutionary art of Russia.

The European schools of Futurism, Cubism, and Expressionism had still had a chance to seep into the Russian art world and we find in Moscow and Petersburg, as everywhere else in the world, artists who spoke those formal languages.  These movements however barely developed here past the stage of art school ateliers.  Representative Cubists such as Udalkova, Puni, Posner and others have not added anything to the values produced by the French school.  The greatest master of Expressionism, the Russian-born Chagall, has matured his art in Berlin and Paris and has not been able to exert any deeper influence in Russia.

The first consciously new step taken by the young Russian artists may be seen in Suprematism.  This is the first movement where the Russian, the Asian power joins the European forces as a truly absolute value that is capable of multiplication.  And characteristically its message is, instead of a heaping on, a simplification, by getting rid of every externality deposited by civilization and aesthetics, to dig all the way back down to the essentials.  As painters they follow through to the ultimate conclusions, in their forms arriving at basic geometric forms and in their color use at the two basic colors, black and white.  Their debut was a revolutionary act.  And their simple laws set the [410] stage for the birth (1917) of the entire new generation of Russian artists.  Suprematism has drawn the ultimate logical conclusions for painting and has opened the gates toward progress.  Suddenly the avenues of possibility multiplied in number and this movement rapidly branched out, enriching itself with new people and values.  Malevich is the purest master of Suprematism.  He is the source for the departures of the Constructivists and Objectivists.  The representatives of these groups are Tatlin, Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Klyun, Drevin, et al.

Shterenberg is one of the Constructivists, but has developed entirely on his own.  His paintings depicting naturalistic single objects are infinitely simplified in both form and color.  His works, regarding their execution, are the most advanced in the exhibition.  Here we must note that in the degree of their technical preparedness this entire generation is wonderfully pure and thorough.  There is no evidence whatever of cliché or superficial playfulness.

The least accomplished aspect of the exhibition is the area of sculpture and the works that attempt experimental solutions to spatial constructions with a utilitarian aim.  Among these the glass sculptures of Gabo are the most significant.  But even these seem to be outlines rather for the work to come.  They lack materiality.  And probably other factors beside an original material (such as the artist’s creative ability in this direction) are still lacking for the work to present fully realized results.  It is no accident that the construction containing his vehemently bent forms was made of celluloid instead of rigid glass.

The spatial constructions shown in the exhibition are naive and insignificant works.  In these days of locomotives doing 120 kilometers per hour, of giant cranes and vast bridges, these items seem to be superfluous games, impoverished both in intuition and in science.

The exhibited maquettes of stage and playground design are likewise insignificant.  The former have long been surpassed in their costume and figure design.  Among the latter the most interesting is Altman’s playground design for the Jewish Theater.

We must conclude that among the visual art genres included in the exhibition painting is without a doubt the most advanced.  In this field the Russians have introduced a new energy and new artistic possibilities to Europe.  And their paintings also show the way for themselves, pointing the direction they must follow to reach their ideal, the new human ideal — a constructive way of life.

They are the children of the future.

Berlin is crawling with exhibitions: convulsing forms and screaming colors.  Into this labyrinthine, gaudy chaos the Russians have once again brought the primal source of colors and the straight line of purity and power.

[Originally published as “A berlini orosz kiállitáshoz,” in Ma no. 8 (December 1922)]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 22, 2010.

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