Our Logo Explained: Tatlin's Tower
Vladimir Tatlin (1883–1953) was a leading figure in the modernist art movement that flowered in Russia during the second decade of the Twentieth Century. Before 1917, it was generally apolitical, though an important part of the generally disaffected intelligentsia that identified Russia's backwardness with Czarist autocracy. These artists, very much in touch with modernists currents in European art before the war—cubists in Paris, expressionists in Germany, futurists in Italy – saw the Bolshevik revolution as ushering in the kind of modern, idealistic social order in which they would be the cultural voice of the new . Art, no longer the plaything of the rich, would be a vital part of the new society in the new scientific age. It therefore had to be practical, linked to everyday life as well as modern in form.
Tatlin had already made a reputation for himself as one of the artists who went furthest in exploring the use of new materials to create new art forms, constructions made of modern real life materials (glass, iron, wire, wood) rather than oil on canvas. Hence, the name for the group in which he was a leading figure, "constructivism". The revolution gave them the chance to apply their ideas to art linked to life, building the new utopian society. Many of them helped the new Soviet government with decorations for street demonstrations, art publicizing the new order ("agitprop"), and industrial design. Tatlin did everything from working clothing (proletarian chic) to teacups (pure form, no handles) to proletarian furniture (good for posture if not comfort). But by 1919 he turned his "artist-engineer" mind to one great project, a design for a monument to the revolution which would serve as the headquarters for the new world communist government to be introduced by "The Third International".
That project occupied most of Tatlin's time for the next two years, 1919–1921. It was supported by the cultural ministry ("Commissariat for Enlightenment") of the new Soviet Government. Lenin had a keen appreciation for the political value of propaganda art, though little use for modern art. However, his cultural minister, the veteran Bolshevik, Anatoly Lunacharsky, was much more tolerant of the new. In the early years of the Soviet Union "the left" in art was very much allied to the political left. By the mid 1920s , as utopian visions of an imminent world revolution faded and were replaced by the practical tasks of building "communism in one country", idealism in art and politics was replaced by a dictatorship more conservative in its social, political, and artistic policies . In a nutshell that is the explanation of why Tatlin's tower was never built. But it does not explain why the ghost of this visionary monument hung around through the 20th Centuries' rise and fall of communism and into the post communist , postmodern , post almost everything 21st Century as a reminder, in art and politics, of a global utopianism that was not really so very long ago.
Thanks to Twenty first Century digital imagery, we can envision how Tatlin's Tower would have looked in situ in St. Petersburg. 5 It would have dwarfed the neoclassical architecture the czars had built on Russia's face to the Baltic and Europe, its diagonal thrust linking it to the outside world which would soon join in the world revolution. Or so was the premise with which some Russian Marxists (Lenin's Bolsheviks were a distinct minority at the beginning) justified revolution in a relatively backward country without a large "proletariat" or industrial working class).
However, when the world did not join in a global revolutionary effort in sufficient numbers for that premise to be validated, the revolution turned inward. The modernist (in Russia mostly called "futurist") artists, architects and designers who flocked to the revolutionary banner were shunted aside as more practical revolutionaries established a one party dictatorship "in one country." The dreamers' future, a technological paradise that liberated creative thinking and fully realized universal human potential, never came about. Their monuments, notably Tatlin's Tower, never rose in St. Petersburg or elsewhere, but as an idea the tower never really died and since the collapse of communism it has even had something of a revival. We will discuss its revival in academic and cyber circles at the end of this essay.
In the spring of 1918 Lenin called for a program of "monumental propaganda" wanting to replace the pulled down monuments from czarist days with more or less conventional statues of past heroes of socialist. There is a photograph of him as he delivers a speech on the first anniversary of the October revolution. He is dressed as always in a conservative business suit and stands in front of a slightly larger than life realistic statue of Marx and Lenin. It was not the kind of public art Tatlin and other modernist artists had in mind. Their designs would be more symbolic and geometrical, modern forms for a new age.
When a competition for a monument to The Third International was announced Tatlin dropped his work on practical constructivist designs for the new workers' state and began planning the biggest monument imaginable. Already dedicated to making art part of real life, he envisioned a gigantic steel tower of radically new, even futuristic, design. It would not only serve as a monument to the new world order brought about by The Third International, but would also be the functioning headquarters for the new world government it would bring about. The site would be in St. Petersburg, where the October Revolution had broken out in 1917, and Tatlin moved there from Moscow with a team to help on the design.
This in itself was an act of faith in the future of the revolution for in early 1919 the fate of the city and the revolution as a whole was still very much in the balance with Yudenich's white army threatening from the West and armies of the newly liberated Finnish state from the north.
Tatlin wanted to site his monument there for symbolic reasons, very important symbolic reasons. After all, a monument, even if it is a building with practical uses, is all about symbolism. St. Petersburg was Russia's window to the West and to the world. Since its establishment by Peter the Great, it had been the portal for modernizing Western influences, and the constructivists certainly saw themselves as part of the latest modernisms from the West. Even more important, the gigantic Western facing, western leaning tower would now send the ultimate modernizing message to the West—the final triumph of world communism. Moscow faced inwards to the Russian heartland; St. Petersburg faced the world.
The transfer of the Bolsheviks' capital to Moscow in 1918 had made strategic sense for the survival of the revolution in Russia with German armies still on Russian soil. Putting the head quarters of the Third International in St. Petersburg would reaffirm the revolutionaries' confidence in the coming of the world revolution.
More at the source: http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/11.1/forum_croizier.html
Photo/digital recreation: Takehiko Nagakura, Associate Professor of Design and Computation at MIT
Our Logo Explained: Tatlin's Tower