Henry Milner's model of Vladimir Tatlin' Flying Machine

Pre-Constructivism and its relevance today

The utopian ideals of the Constructivist Soviet artists had considerable influence on later science and technology.

Surely only the most visionary of designers ever anticipated that the Letatlin could fly? This colossal wooden machine, its wings spread across the ceiling of the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design (GRAD) in London at the end of 2013, was just one example in an exhibition showcasing the utopian architecture from the constructivist movement of the Soviet Union.

So, was this utopia realised? Could the flying machine (the name of which merges letat – 'to fly' – and the name of its designer, Vladimir Tatlin) take to the sky?

"No, it could not," says gallery director Elena Sudakova, "though there have been multiple attempts over the years."

Constructivism in an art sense thrived after the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in the October Revolution of 1917. The Constructivists were unique in how they defined their work, focusing on method rather than a specific style. Their romanticised ideals made the materials and processes the focus, rather than having a specific predefined object they wished to create. This image of untethered freedom and fluidity was counterbalanced by both technological constraints of the time and the Constructivists' belief that architecture was an act of will.

Tatlin's Tower

One of the most distinctive works of the time was Tatlin's 'Monument to the Third International', otherwise known as 'Tatlin's Tower'. The dynamic spiral design that it held was unique and embodied the Constructivists' utopian ideals. Proposed in 1919 amid an upsurge of revolutionary fervor, Tatlin's Tower was intended to become the tallest manmade structure of the time. A lack of suitable materials, among other factors, meant it was not built, perhaps setting the seal on Tatlin's 'utopian' successes (or lack of them).

The GRAD exhibition hinged on British model maker Henry Milner's efforts to bring the Constructivist ideal to life, creating sculptures and models after studying original sketches and blueprints.

"Milner was very precise in trying to recreate the artist's initial idea," Sudakova says. "For us, he was a mediator of Constructivist vision who translated the revolutionary ideas of the beginning of the 20th century into contemporary pieces."

The reconstruction of Tatlin's Tower meant Milner having to identify a particular type of ash, the only type of wood suitable as required by Tatlin's original proposal.

Architectural ideals

Tatlin is of course only one figure in the Constructivist pantheon. El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Latvian graphic artist Gustavs Klucis were all highlighted by the exhibition.

Professor Christina Lodder, who specialises in Russian modernism, notes that "there were numerous instances of artists and architects in the 1920s developing utopian residential structures for living and working in space". For example, the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a pioneer in space rocketry in Russia and a science-fiction writer, "inspired artists Kazimir Malevich and Lazar Khidekel to develop spatial structures that would be conceived as living quarters in space. Interestingly, these original designs look uncannily like contemporary space stations".

Similar idealistic imagery had been cropping up around Europe throughout the 19th century. In his book 'The Romantic Machine', John Tresch looks into some of the manifestations of a common 'mechanical romanticism' that spread across the continent after Napolean's demise in 1815. Some of these visions brought the idealist work of German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller into the realm of scientific discovery. Tresch also presented the work of 'technaesthetics' – that is, the technological production of aesthetic effects – including Étienne-Gaspard Robinson's Fantasmagoria shows, where hidden lanterns were used in manipulating projected images to create horror shows.

The 1831 production of Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera 'Robert le Diable' is a further example in the ongoing history of romantic technologies. Tresch describes it as "the iconic intersection of the period's eclectic currents of spiritualism and mechanics". Here, Meyerbeer brought together new materials and music for the performances. This included a chorus "singing eerily through resonating tubes", extravagant costume changes, and a unique set designs that drew on the techniques of modern illusionists.

Fear behind ingenuity

But what exactly was the driver for such a utopian and yet scarcely practical artistic movement? Arguably at its heart was the basic desire for a freer life, a more democratic society. Artists such as Tatlin and Klucis, living at a time where many creators were brutally repressed, needed to find a way to present their dreams of modern society without causing too much controversy.

Romanticised technological notions became part of the protest against socialist realism, and an escape from the totalitarian reality. This was an important time for the constructivists, and their role in shaping solutions for modern problems was on a par with scientists at the time. Many were killed, indeed Klucis himself, who was executed on Stalin's order in 1938.

Tatlin, as one of the most influential constructivists, would surely also have been under significant threat. However, he was spared, and Dmitrii Dimakov, an expert on Tatlin's work, said it was Tatlin's broad artistic talent which saved him from Stalin's regime. "Socialist realism was a relentless, hard ideological form, intended to impact on the people via the artist. If Tatlin had been a painter, architect or illustrator he would have had to capitulate at that time or would have ended up a martyr. What saved him was the fact that he was a theatre artist. In this sphere it was the directors or scriptwriters who bore responsibility for the ideological orientation [so] he was out of the firing line."

Anna Szech, an art historian working at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland, speculates that Tatlin's creativity and unique approach to repression may also have been his protector. Interviewed after an exhibition showcasing Tatlin's work, she said: "Many artists didn't survive Stalinism, which is a terrible tragedy. Others fled. Some remained because they believed they'd still be able to accomplish their artistic goals. That was what Tatlin thought. There is a wonderful poster created by Tatlin himself, 'Down with Tatlinism'. He had no intention of founding a school... he spurned all the "isms"."

In fact, it has been reported that Tatlin himself said he was "the first artist who went to work for Soviet power" and that "to accept or not to accept the October Revolution, that wasn't a question for me. In an organic fashion I joined active, creative, social and pedagogical life".

Comparing designs for Tatlin's Tower with examples of Stalinist architecture reveals a significant crossover of styles. His influence seems particularly clear when considering the proposed construction of the Palace of the Soviets on the site of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

Tatlin's original idea was, as we have heard, for his tower to become the tallest building in the world. The Soviet authorities seemed to take this concept and developed a design for the Palace of the Soviets that bore a number of similiarities to Tatlin's work. It too was to be 400m tall, meaning it would have become the world's tallest structure of its time. Looking at both concepts on paper, it is easy to see the similarities in their pointed tops and graduated sides.

Work on the palace began in 1931 but was not completed as its design was unworkable, and a German invasion in 1941 prevented the scheme. Eventually, a swimming pool was installed in its place.

Reflecting on the reasons behind the influence of Tatlin's Tower, Dr John Callow, a historian and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, says: "Its impact is enhanced because it was never actually realised. The optimistic photomontages showing the tower dwarfing the Peter Paul Fortress in Petrograd evinced a belief in modernism and human progress, and marked a break with the Czarist past.

"The Third International that it celebrated was both abstraction and aspiration. There could be nothing further removed from the 'wedding cake' neo-classical architecture of the Stalin period, where the figurative and the literal predominated. Here, the potentialities of the young Soviet state still seem limitless, and the cutting edge of science is embraced as the triumph of Marxist humanism, as opposed to the negation of its burgeoning Stalinist dogma."

The legacy

The romantic utopian ideas of Tatlin and his comrades carried a significant artistic legacy. According to Callow: "Heedless of opposition, and fearless of the human and environmental costs involved in re-forging physical and political reality, these are images which compel our attention through the boldness of their vision and conception. They retain their power because of, and not despite, the fact that their points of reference are no longer commonly ours."

GRAD director Sudakova also points to four beautiful and intricate station constructions by Rodchenko, originally known as 'surfaces reflecting light'. "[Tatlin's] flying machine is really the most iconic structure here," she says, "and probably the symbol of the end of utopia. That's why we have Rodchenko here too; he officially started it, and Tatlin ended it.

"Rodchenko was the first person who decided that from now on, the painter's instruments were a pencil, ruler and compass," Sudakova says. "Of course, all of the ideas that Rodcheko carried out were inspired by Tatlin."

Additional reporting by Vitali Vitaliev

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