Kazimir Malevich’s “The Constructive Painting of Russian Artist and Constructivism” (1929)

We now seem to have finished the formal examination of two-dimensional Cubism.  In order to elucidate the further role of Cubism in the work of Russian artists, we are raising again, in this article, the question of the fourth stage of Cubism as a form for the artistic, spatial-constructive expression of painterly sensation.

In the preceding articles we characterized French Cubism, divided it into a number of categories and conducted research in order to define whether a number of works belonged to Cubism.

In examining the further development of the fourth stage of Cubism, as it concerns Russian artists, we will pass by their Cubist painting.  We are not doing this because we consider the painterly stages of Russian Cubism insignificant; we hope to return to it later on, and, perhaps, to examine Russian painting from a different angle, which would allow us to reveal certain features of Russian Cubism which are not to be found in French Cubism.  Therefore we are leaving out three stages of painterly Cubism and passing on to the fourth — spatial Cubism, which interests us from the point of view of its spatial development.

The idea of spatial Cubist painting was brought to us from France by V[ladimir] Tatlin.  At the time Picasso and Arkhipenko in France were working on material studies.  For Tatlin, and for Arkhipenko, as a sculptor, this phenomenon had its positive side, whilst for Picasso it was a mere detail.  Picasso’s selection of materials were a basic stimulus in the creative work of Tatlin.  This stimulus was so important that it immediately took him out of painterly, two-dimensional construction, and made him transfer into real space the formation and relations of materials for Cubist sensations.  To determine their category we shall have to compare these points of development in Tatlin and in Picasso.  For this [75] purpose we shall take two material selections be Picasso and Tatlin.  We see that they were formed according to one and the same Cubist formula.  To distinguish his material selections from Picasso’s selections, Tatlin called his “counter-reliefs.”

But in this instance, the name does not alter the matter for us, since it has produced no real changes in construction; on the contrary, these selections proved to be so close to Picasso’s work, that not everyone can distinguish between Picasso’s work and Tatlin’s.  Comparing Picasso’s “relief” with Tatlin’s “counter-reliefs” we see that they have a common structure, and that likewise the texture and contrasting comparisons are not vastly different in sharpness.  Picasso’s “relief” is sharper in its variety of contrasting elements, and, on the whole, more correct.  The “counter-relief” of Tatlin is more plane, although the aim was space and contrast.  It stands nearer to Picasso’s.

These defects disappear in the next “counter-relief” and the relations of contrasting elements are brought to a high degree of sharpness.  This intensity is developed and shown quite strongly in the following two “counter-reliefs.”  The “counter-relief” on plaster of 1914 and a corner-relief which surpasses all the previous ones, the author considers to be a relief of a higher order, since if the chosen material in the first was iron, plaster, and glass, in the second it was aluminium and leucite.

In the corner-relief we see the development of an idea that Picasso had placed in his relief, i.e. the idea of pure art in space.  As in that case, so elsewhere, all “counter-reliefs” are completely abstract phenomena of spatial, artistic, Cubist painting, and were created without consideration of any utilitarian idea or function.

The intensity of this type of art was very powerful and soon came to exert an influence on a whole number of artists, who turned to spatial painting.  These artists can be divided into two groups.

One group is “Obmokhu” (The Society for Young Artists), the other consists of a certain number of individual artists (united by the idea of spatial painting).  We may include the following artists in this group: [76] V. Tatlin, Miturich, Liubov Popova, L. Bruni, N. Udal’tsova, and I. Kliun.  But this idea of pure, spatial painting did not last for long (1912-1919).  We are now going to examine its evolution.

Before us stand P. Miturich’s work of 1918 called “Spatial Painting” and L. Bruni’s work of 1916 called “Painterly Assembly of Materials.”  From these names it is evident that the term “spatial painting” originated entirely from the master’s artistic sensation, and that the selection of the various materials was based upon that same artistic sensation of the material.  The artists themselves gave this name to this line in art, and they could not have called it anything else.  As for the formal aspect, it seems quite obvious to us that both the structure of the texture and the contrast fully coincide with Cubism, and their features give us the right to include them in the fourth stage of spatial Cubist painting, since their formulation follows the same Cubist formula.  This applies to the works of L. Bruni, Miturich, Popova, and I. Kliun, “The Passing Landscape.”  This group of Russian painters went along a purely painterly, non-objective path.  Incidentally, it was only at this point in the fourth stage of Cubism that a deviation from the form of the object took place, as in Cubist easel painting.  We notice the same attitude in the Russian masters, and see that although in 1919 the line was unshakeable, it later not only failed to develop but begins a complete decline; we may explain this cessation of development by the pure form of spatial painting in the same way we explained the same phenomenon in another artistic group called the “Jack of Diamonds.”  To be precise, the Cubist formula, after the second stage, turned out to be powerless in the forming of artistic reality.  This formula showed us the terminal point in the development of artistic forming, thanks to which we have been able to determine the diapason of painting.  It allowed us to establish the existence of a particular artistic sensation, and to say that the pictorial diapason has its alpha and omega of development.  Only up to a certain period was it possible to form artistic sensations with the help of the Cubist formula.  Thus the “Jack of Diamonds” group being artistic, in the nature of its [77] sensations, could not conform to those formulae which did not give the possibility of forming painterly sensations.

So it was that the other category of “Spatial Cubist painting” could also no longer draw upon painterly sensations expressed through the Cubist formula, which forms the content of artistic material in the object or model, but not the object itself.

Some adherents of “Spatial Cubist painting” passed through other moods and therefore went over from the non-objective artistic category to objective painting, or constructive objects, with the help of which they could form their new position.  This position was called “Utilitarian Functionalism”; the Constructivists united under this name, but the “Jack of Diamonds” line or the painterly line turned to Nature for artistic content.  When speaking of the return to the model itself, the question may arise whether we should see this deviation as a striving to convey the “as suchness of the object.”  This would be a great mistake.  In no circumstances should one look for objectivity or “the object as such” in the work of these masters; one should see only the formula of the object, with the help of which the artist’s sensations are formed.

We will not at present make a further examination of the works in this line of the deviation, but will follow the development of the fourth stage in that group which remained in line with the spatial expression of artistic sensations by means of selecting materials, and we will turn our attention to the consequences arising as a result of this in Russian art.

In the most recent period of spatial painting we no longer meet the majority of names listed at the beginning of our review.  Of the previous group only Tatlin has remained and is continuing his work; although in another form, this work is concentrated on the shaping of material according to the formula of painterly sensation.

The materials he took for elaboration are developed by him according to an artistic formula.  A whole number of boards on which he has worked would have taken on a completely new texture of artistic sensation, whilst preserving their “as suchness,” or nature.  From this we can conclude that spatial painting still continues to exist, an it is on this point [78] that we should fix our attention, since this feature in his works is terminal in the conception of pure, spatial, pictorial expression.

The question, “Why is it terminal?” is answered by the works of the artist himself.  We see that the entire material, formed by artistic sensations, is beginning to acquire a different aim and purpose.  If we examine V. Tatlin’s recent purely utilitarian works we will see that both the forming and selection of various objects continues to pass, not under control of “the eye” or “touch,” which is something the author often relies on, but under the control of artistic spatial sensations according to the formula of the fourth stage of Cubism.  The eye is simply a dead and mechanical transformer of the images of phenomena into living feelings or sensations.  His next work is given in the form of a country stove, which, it is true, is designed in such a way as to make the question of its figurative-artistic side rather difficult to solve.  But this point is extremely important for us, since it is the point at which the artist painter is drawn into the formation of artistic everyday life.  Thus, we see the masters of spatial painting have included themselves and their artistic formula in the work of forming objects from their functional aspect.  This is a new point for us: the artist is beginning to reveal his artistic sensations under the sign of two formulae: of the Cubist system of painting, and of the functional-utilitarian formula, which becomes the basic and determining one.  At this point of the development, it came to a split in the spatial-artistic group.  The artists were divided into two camps.  Some followed the line of purely painterly values, and form their sensations according to one or other of the formulae of imitative expression, whilst the others turned towards utilitarian functionalism.  We called the former the group of spatial painting, the latter — Constructivists, functionalists, utilitarians.  On the strength of the materials we have on artistic constructivism we can only point out A. Arkhipenko and Gabo — his head and his “Spatial Construction.”

Following the other line we may note, principally, V. Tatlin, who followed the path of the utilitarian-constructive functionalism.  From [79] works of Constructive functionalism we note that cubist features, far from disappearing, remain present, but that the forming of materials now follows the formula of utilitarian functions.  Thus it remains for us to state the fact that Cubism had a great deal of influence on the Constructivist trend and was its point of departure.  This is particularly noticeable in the selection and textural development of objects.  All V. Tatlin’s work underlines this, and to some extent also, the model for a monument to the Third International; the author stresses that this is nothing other than a construction of the materials, iron and glass, and passes over in silence all utilitarian significance.  What was important for the author was not so much the combination of the monument’s utilitarian functions, as the combination of its artistic side with the materials — plus function.  The constructive combination of these functions were based on the Cubist formula, and it is according to this that the work is formed.  In such phenomena no utilitarian function ever played a predominant part, but only a painterly one, as such.  All the selection of materials was carried out according to the painterly sensation, but not in line with utilitarianism.

In Constructive-utilitarian functionalism, on the other hand, painterly-artistic elements were cast aside, and the materials arose from the utilitarian purpose itself, as did the form.  We are concerned only with the utilitarian-functional formula, where, according to the latest formulation of the Constructivists, it turns out that it is desirable to join the artistic side to the function, or to arrive at artistic form via utilitarian function.

It is understandable that in such a position the combination of engineer and artist or the combination of utilitarian with aesthetic formula is very difficult, since at the moment when he combines aesthetic function with utilitarian function the artist, in spite of himself, becomes an applied artist.  Thus, if Constructivism continues to move towards artistic form, towards the aesthetic perception of utilitarian things, we arrive at a new category of artists whom we may called “Applied Artists,” and their art applied.  Why do we call them new? There is only one way to reply to this question: the new pure arts, based on various types of sensations [80] introduced great changes into the forms of color and texture, and, thanks to this, discovered a new real perception of materials and attitudes towards them.  Basing themselves on these achievements the “applied artists” can exploit these elements afresh in utilitarian objects.

In all questions of art we maintain one invariable point of view.  An attempt was made to throw aside the new type of “pure art,” but it was a spectacular failure, and once again “pure art” occupies its own place and applied art — its own.  This position is confirmed by the facts.

We would make a great mistake if we were to throw aside new art; we would be left only with the forms of utilitarian functionalism, or the art of the engineer, arising not from aesthetic but from purely utilitarian aims.  But this is not all: new experimental art, as a result of this, gives new forms which renew our perception.

Thanks to new art alone (which the man in the street and the bourgeoisie call abstract) can we create an appropriate functional design for things.  To substantiate our remarks let us examine a number of everyday objects and compare them with works of new art.

Let us take a Suprematist construction or even a work by V. Tatlin again — his board No. 1, of 1917 as a pure example of the artistic elements of the plane, formed according to the Cubo-suprematist formula, where the plane and its displacements are related to the forming element (the plane) and to the sickle shape, i.e. to contrast.  Let us compare this board with a table of functional Constructivism on which one can sleep, eat, and even draw — the only thing it lacks is a basin for washing the dishes; and we can see that their texture and structure are so close that the table could be attributed to that formula.  If we do not see in them total similarity, it is because of a difference in the perception of planes, and in utilitarian purpose, whence the planes have acquired a new order.

Or let us take another object, created by a pupil of Tatlin’s, the Constructivist Rodchenko, which gives the impression of [81] belonging to Suprematist formulae.  Let us take yet another example, which in part belongs to the Suprematist formula of pure art, and let us compare the Suprematist construction of its texture with the texture or structure of architecture by the Dutch architect Theo van Doesburg or Le Corbusier, Korn, etc.  And we can say that, except for some slight influence from Asiatic architecture, his architecture is similar in structure to the structure of Suprematism, i.e. the new type of Suprematist art according to one Suprematist formula.  Hence we may affirm that the utilitarian-functional side of life assumed, let us say, a Suprematist form, or that the Suprematist formula began to form functions of various kinds, or else the function became Suprematist in form.  I.e. we are faced by the fact that life, as utilitarian function, has in itself no formula on the basis of which works of new art could be formed; on the contrary, we see that the formulae of the various trends in new art form various functions of a utilitarian nature.  From the example I have given and from a comparison of the works of new art with life, i.e. with objects and architecture, we may say that the very same utilitarian function changes its form thanks to new art.  Take, for example, a house, built according to the form of old art.  Our epoch of new art has given, as we can see, a new formula, on the basis of which are formed new architecture and the corresponding forms of things (see Le Corbusier, Korn, Doesburg, etc.).

Examining the spatial stage of Cubism we throw light on a number of questions concerning the formation of our artistic Weltanschauung.  Thus, from the fourth stage of Cubism we have, without noticing it, passed from the two-dimensional picture into real space, where we discovered forms that we had already noted in two-dimensional painting; and we can examine them, not as an illusion, but as living reality.  We have already defined the fate of these forms in the new arts, as we have their influence on the pure formula of functional-utilitarian thinking by engineers and specialist architects, as a result of which we even have a new type of public buildings and examples of artistic architecture, wholly [82] accepting the new form of new art.  Thus, we can affirm that our examination of the fourth, spatial stage of Cubism brought us to new phenomena which, apparently, have nothing in common with the painting of spatial Cubism.  In fact they will continue to influence the thinking of engineers, and technology and architecture in the future too.  Thus, we see that the various formulae which gave a form to architectural constructions are the artistic problems of new art.

Nor, we may note, did theatrical art escape this influence, but we will speak later of artistic influence on the theater.  Now, to emphasize the article’s point, we may say that the fourth stage of Cubism, through the artists, influenced the architects and engineers, who created building constructions, the dominating formula for which was that of function and utility.

On the other hand, the types of art based on the plane, as, for example of the fifth stage of Cubism and Suprematism, also in their turn exerted an influence on the architects, who as a result created the new works of architecture that we have just been examining.  Thus, we see two lines of development: a new, purely economic, type of public buildings (Constructivism), and a new type of architectural buildings (Cubo-suprematism); that contain the two formulae of new art and the utilitarian formula.  The third type is non-objective, artistic architectonics.

As an example, let us take and compare two buildings: the project for a trade building by the artist Vesnin, and the model of a trade building by another architect, Korn, built from three materials: iron, concrete, and glass; and let us also take the architect Theo van Doesburg’s work.  This comparison allows us to state that Korn and Doesburg took into account not only the utilitarian but also the architectural function of the building, i.e. the artistic forming of these functions.  They formed each function according to the formula of the new arts, i.e. they linked them with the perception of form, i.e. they clothed each function in an appropriate form.  The architect Vesnin sought a pure function, which resulted in a box divided up by a network of glass, whilst in Korn and Doesburg we see a multitude of different [83] forms linked together by the harmony of contrasts; at the same time, I do not think that they failed to consider the laws of hygiene, lighting, or the utilitarian side.  And if in old buildings we saw signs of art, in iron construction for example, in the new, Constructivist building these signs are absent, as a result of which the artistic form in the majority of cases is missing.  (We do not receive an artistic sensation from them).  Constructivism is still going through the social-economic form of building and has not found an artistic form, as an architectural form, like that found by Western architects in the problems of painting.  The function of this or that object is formed according to the formula of new art.

To prove this, let us take the projects for door-handles and from them we will see how strongly their forming was under the influence of the formula of pure art.  To emphasize the point let us take another form — the model of plaster of Paris and glass.  And if we compare them — even with a Suprematist form — then they will prove similar in structure.  Or let us take two spatial works by the artists Werner and Schwerdtfeger, and we will see that they two are made according to the formulae of new art and are destined for new architecture, to replace the lions and Herculeses.

Let us examine another model, made from wood, with a utilitarian purpose, and we will see that it too, like the preceding ones, is built according to the formula of Cubism and contrasting juxtapositions, such as we have seen in Cubism.  And now let us examine a whole mansion as projected by Molnar; if we look at the projected parterre we will see clearly that it is similar to a Suprematist picture, i.e. to the new type of art.

Let us turn our attention to another domestic article the form of which will seem mysterious, and could be taken by us for any construction of new art.  But it turns out that this form is nothing other than a lamp.  Then look at the form on the wall against which the lamp is seen.  Isn’t it like the same form of Suprematist art?

In order to again convince ourselves that only the new arts can give us new forms for the design of everyday life, it remains for us, in [84] addition to all that we have already examined, to regard the coloring of the walls.  In life the new arts will give new forms of architecture and ensemble; it is only with the help of new art that we shall be able to create a new epoch, the forms of which will be the bases for future art.  But, of course, we can only achieve all this when all who work in the cultural field strive to solve the question of artistic culture.

We are coming to the end of this article, and hope that it will not give the impression of having exhausted all the questions of Russian Constructivist architecture.  I should also like to say that Constructivism by no means exhausts the work on new architecture.

The questions of architecture are being studied by a group of Suprematists and by a whole range of other architects, working individually.

I intend to speak about them separately.

From Nova generatsiia, No. 8, 1929, pgs. 47-54; No. 9, pgs. 53-61


~ by Ross Wolfe on August 29, 2011.

5 Responses to “Kazimir Malevich’s “The Constructive Painting of Russian Artist and Constructivism” (1929)”

  1. […] i.e. the new type of Suprematist art according to one Suprematist formula.”  Malevich, Kazimir. “The Constructive Painting of Russian Artist and Constructivism.” Translated by Xenia Glowaki-Prus and Arnold McMillin.  Essays on Art, 1915-1933, Volume 2.  Pg. […]

  2. […] i.e. the new type of Suprematist art according to one Suprematist formula.”  Malevich, Kazimir. “The Constructive Painting of Russian Artist and Constructivism.” Translated by Xenia Glowaki-Prus and Arnold McMillin.  Essays on Art, 1915-1933, Volume 2.  Pg. […]

  3. […] art of the engineer, arising not from aesthetic but from purely utilitarian aims.”  Malevich, “The Constructive Painting of Russian Artists and Constructivism.”  Pg. […]

  4. […] i.e. the new type of Suprematist art according to one Suprematist formula.” Malevich, Kazimir. “The Constructive Painting of Russian Artist and Constructivism.” Translated by Xenia Glowaki-Prus and Arnold McMillin. Essays on Art, 1915-1933, Volume 2. Pg. 81. […]

  5. […] i.e. the new type of Suprematist art according to one Suprematist formula.”  Malevich, Kazimir. “The Constructive Painting of Russian Artist and Constructivism.” Translated by Xenia Glowaki-Prus and Arnold McMillin.  Essays on Art, 1915-1933, Volume 2.  Pg. […]

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