Paul Westheim’s “The Exhibition of Russian Artists” (1922)
Translated from the German by David Britt. From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
This exhibition is a disappointment, and at the same time it is one of the most interesting artistic surveys that we have had for years.
It is a disappointment for anyone who seeks something “lasting,” something that is of our time and is capable of growing into timelessness. It is interesting, because it affords a unique glimpse of an intellectual tussle with problems of artistic design inevitably raised by minds for which the Future can mean only one thing: a radical break with anything and everything that belongs to the past.
This future art that is to be created does not as yet exist in Russia (any more than the future form of the economy or of society exists). But the work displayed on the walls of this exhibition shows that people are working with fanatical zeal toward something that is infinitely remote, something that may turn out to be a mere phantom or else, possibly, and in a highly specific sense, a Renaissance of art.
So it might be said that what young Russian art has to offer is not an exhibition of art so much as an exhibition of artistic problems.
These Russian artists — like all others in Russia — are driven by a fierce compulsion to create anew. In one way, this is a blessing; in others, it is a fateful burden that only courage, character, and extraordinary creative strength can master. To what extent these qualities are present, how much staying power is really present, is not for us to determine. That is a task for posterity, which will be in a position to judge the process by its outcome.
It is the French who find it easiest to make art at present (which is not to say that the work done in France necessarily sums up the expression of the age). In France, a renewal of art associated with the names of Cézanne and Seurat has created a basis for further evolution while maintaining continuity with tradition. At the opposite extreme from ancient France, which still has (or seems to have) enough vitality to renew itself from its own inner resources, there is revolutionary Russia, which rejects all tradition on principle: virgin territory for art, ruled by the idea of building everything new, from scratch. An implicit idea presides over the Russian world: that everything has yet to be and must be done. This instills into creative work a freedom and audacity unknown in Europe for centuries past. The question, of course, is whether our continent still has the strength to handle such freedom and such audacity. It and the new art might well relapse into anarchy together. The country that is finding it hardest at the moment is the one in the middle: ourselves, in other words. We have no tradition on which to rely, because our tradition has been interrupted too often; at the same time, we have too much to lose — in art, as in other respects — by abruptly sacrificing our past for the sake of an uncertain future. With us, the new is a continuation and transformation of the old. In art (as in politics), this precludes radical decisions; it also leads too readily, and too often, to cautious applications of color wash. It is no accident that our artistic evolution has impelled us toward Romanticism. Nor is it an accident that we have to put out feelers first in one direction and then in another; and that issues such as that of a new Naturalism are not only possible but actually require to be brought to a head.
Russia is a vast country, and there is great diversity in the Russian soul — as there is in the German, the French, and the human soul everywhere. The exhibition, which sets out to offer a cross-section, demonstrates — with a candor that is not exactly typical of official exhibitions — that it might be well to avoid glib generalizations. It is true, however, that one highly specific form of Russianness in art currently monopolizes our attention — although this may of course be entirely our own problem. There exists a Russian Salon art, of the Glaspalast type, in which the artist (Arkhipov) encapsulates  the New Age (in the spirit of Defregger) by painting peasants in a village who cluster around a small boy and marvel at the said child’s ability to read them the latest political news out of the newspaper. And then, as Sternberg has already shown, there is a Russian Cézannism, personified by Falk and by that astonishingly sophisticated painter Rozhdestvenskii; there is a Russian variant of Expressionism, in the Bubnovy Valet group; and there is a Russian Cubism, which has produced two sculptors with a structural sense that is all their own, Archipenko and Tsalit. And, finally, there is revolutionary art, the main surprise and talking point of the exhibition, represented by the Suprematists and Constructivists.
Once before in the pages of this journal (1919), a passage from Dostoevskii has been cited: “As soon as we Russians have reached the shore, and have brought ourselves to believe that it really is the shore, we at once begin to look forward to the ultimate frontier. Why is this? If one of us is converted to Catholicism, he immediately turns Jesuit, and the blackest Jesuit of them all; if he becomes an atheist, he will immediately call for belief in God to be eradicated, by force if necessary.” This “sudden fanaticism,” this total incapacity for moderation, this tendency to take everything to extremes, explains a great deal — in this exhibition, as elsewhere. Take Malevich, for example. He is a great believer in the need to “simplify. “ So Malevich simplifies. More and more is removed from the picture area. First, of course, all representation of objects. Then color. All that remains is a single contrast between black and white: an abstract form, a black quadrilateral or a black circle on a white ground. And even this is not the ultimate simplification. Malevich then dispenses with black and paints his celebrated work, White on White. On a white ground there is nothing but white. Simplification has been taken to such an extreme that nothing remains within the white frame but an empty expanse of white. This takes intellectual experimentation as far as it can go. “To become an atheist,” says Dostoevskii in the passage just quoted, “is so easy for a Russian! More than for anyone else in the whole world. Nor do Russians turn into ordinary atheists; far from it. Atheism to them becomes a new faith. They believe in it, without even noticing that they are believing in a zero.” Perhaps this is the psychological background to that white painting? There have been other forms of “simplification.” We have Liebermann’s risky and — as I am increasingly convinced — questionable assertion that drawing is an art of omission. We can tell what Liebermann meant by omission if we look at his own way of drawing. This shows, may I say, some evidence that he proclaimed his thesis with considerable mental reservations. Malevich, the Russian, takes the word dead literally; with the result that he ends up as a believer in zero. For, quite simply, to paint in “white on white” is to give up painting. The logical conclusion would be to disown art altogether and give up the whole thing. And, if my information is correct, this is precisely what Malevich has done: he has laid down his palette and brushes, turned Catholic, and taken up Theosophy. Some of his disciples, and others — a whole movement, in fact — have sought salvation through something called “Production Art,” using metal, wood, and other materials to make constructions that are neither engineering nor art handicraft — all “utilitarian properties” being rejected on principle. From these, nevertheless, a wide highway leads — especially given the theory of “Uniting Art With Life” — to applied art: to posters, ceramics, glassware, and stage design, for which the Russians have always had a special gift, as can now be seen all over again in the work of Altman, Tatlin, Exter, Boguslavskaia, Yakulov, and others.
In the last few decades, “construction” is another term of artistic debate that some have tried to take literally. Just as the mechanical engineer projects plans and elevations onto a two-dimensional surface, so Lissitzky projects Constructions. But drawing is an abstraction in itself. Accordingly, Tatlin and others after him have started to build their Constructions with real materials: iron, sheet metal. This, again, is a negation of painting, and in its way a tangible proof of the “hatred of painting” that I once identified as  a recurrent phenomenon in the latest generation of artists. It is work that craves to be treated as “engineering,” and yet ultimately it is neither more nor less than the “romance of engineering.” In the course of all this conceptual experimentation and exploration, the two-dimensional pictorial space became suspect, on the grounds that it involved an illusion. The cry went up for pictorial space to be developed into real space. Gabo constructs this space out of diagonally intersecting planes of iron or celluloid, thus converting the pictorial image into a relief hung inside the frame. He then extends the same principle to sculpture, which no longer confines itself to molding a volume but aspires to be “not only static but dynamic.” In other words, the aim is for sculpture to encompass and mold space. This recalls the experiments of Belling, except that Belting’s use of scale enables him to make real use of the dimension of space.
From the viewpoint of our Western artistic culture, these issues, experiments, and endeavors have little or nothing to do with “Art” in our (or should I say in the old) sense of the term. Just imagine how a “connoisseur” like Friedländer, or an amateur like the elder Vollard, would react to such statements as these. Seen from the crowning heights of our Western artistic culture, all of this is terribly primitive. There is no need — or so it will be said — for the art student in our culture to trouble his head with such matters. Centuries of tradition have supplied us with tried and tested methods of artistic creation; the disciple need only adopt them and fill them with his own individual content. Learning to paint is simply a matter of gaining familiarity with the traditional craft skills. Such is the Alexandrian state of ripeness and overripeness that is allegedly imperiled by all those “Barbarians” in the East. They, for their part, have in mind the possibility, indeed the necessity, of giving art a new Archaic Period. They see it as their mission to set about their work afresh, empty-handed; to begin with basic concepts and thus conceivably achieve something that may be different in its principles from anything done before. Hence the fanaticism with which all conclusions and solutions are rejected; hence the intense commitment with which the most elementary issues are tackled. Artists are still wrestling with basic grammatical concepts; language itself is still a thing of the far distant future. Color, for instance, is not yet a medium of expression; it is treated regarded as a material, a study material. Paint is applied to a surface. Rodchenko paints a small quadrilateral — evenly, with intelligent craftsmanship — in glowing crimson: a task of the kind that is set in our craft schools as part of the final examination for apprentice house painters. It is necessary to achieve some clarity as to the facture value of such an area of paint. A matte paint surface is set against a glossy surface, and a smooth one against a rough one. As an experiment, an area painted black is juxtaposed with another consisting of black paper stuck to the surface. And so on. From such contrasts, some artists are even now extracting possibilities of pictorial construction. Sternberg, who has retained some sense of the “pictorial image,” and Altman, who has already returned to “representation,” have already gone farther.
As to the actual artistic outcome of this experimentation, the exhibition tells us nothing. And herein lies the disappointment. It may be said that it is too soon to expect more. After all, artists have had no more than a few years for a task that may well take generations. And look at the circumstances under which they have had to work! But it is hard to gainsay those who demand to see something more than experimentation. They, too, have right on their side, in withholding their commitment from anything so uncertain. What might come of it all? In the end, it is a matter of faith.
There is no denying that the driving force here is the intellect. Much, though not all, of this is brainwork. Too much so. There are also many different dialects in it: an impression that is reinforced as soon as you get into discussion with individual artists. They have a marked tendency to refer back to first principles, and this sometimes  degenerates into dogmatism or even scholasticism. It almost seems that they have more to say than to show, that their theories and options, manifestoes and programs, arguments and theses, have more to teach us than an exhibition like this one. The intellectual subsoil from which all of this grows is curious, and is not so readily dismissed out of hand as a stack of images or of what might become images. The composition White on White (if it can be called a composition) means nothing as an “image”; and yet, it seems to me, there is much to be learned from an intellectual situation that leads logically to this.
[Originally published as “Die Ausstellung der Russen,” in Das Kunstblatt (November 1922)]