A beardless monument

Issue: 124

Owen Hatherley

Norbert Lynton, Tatlin’s Tower: Monument to Revolution (Yale University, 2009), £35

Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” is the most famous building never built. Designed from 1919 to 1920 by a collective, led by the futurist painter and sculptor, it was initially a response to the Bolsheviks’ call for “monumental propaganda”—a plan to replace the statues of Tsars and saints that littered Russian cities with monuments to revolutionary heroes. Over a couple of years a variety of strange edifices arose, from neoclassical busts of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to a figure of Mikhail Bakunin. Most were fairly traditional in form. Yet Tatlin’s project, initially rather secretive but publicly exhibited in Petrograd in 1920, broke entirely with these attempts to put new wine in old bottles.

His monument was both dedicated to, and the headquarters of, an idea, not an individual, however revolutionary. The idea was the International, specifically the Third (Communist) International, known as the Comintern, that would restore honour to an ideal sullied by the nationalist treachery of its social democratic predecessor.

Encased by a spiralling, leaning iron frame that would rise taller than the Eiffel Tower were glass volumes housing the operations of the Comintern. The lowest, a cube, would be for conferences of the international, and would rotate “at a speed of one revolution a year”. Above it a pyramid would revolve on its axis for one revolution per month, and would house the International’s executive committee, and an upper cylinder would hold “an information bureau, a newspaper, offices for public proclamations, pamphlets, and manifestos—in short, all the various mass media for the international proletariat”. Elevators would connect all three. At least three scale models were made in Tatlin’s lifetime, but no date was ever set for its construction.

This non-structure has taken on a second existence as the spectral symbol of the unfulfilled promises of the 20th century, of the world revolution that never happened. This is particularly so since the 1960s, when the tower was reclaimed from the Stalinist dungeons into which it had disappeared, with new models erected in art galleries from Moscow to New York.

Even in Britain the tower reappeared, here and there, most often as a symbol of the anti-Stalinist left. In the 1970s a schematic silhouette of it was the logo of New Left Books, which later became Verso; a red plastic model shelters the books in Bookmarks; and on the tube a few years ago posters promoted “Tatlin’s Tower and the World”, a quixotic initiative to build the entire 1,300 foot tower piece by piece in different countries, fulfilling the internationalist dream of the early Comintern in the absence of the International itself.

Norbert Lynton’s Tatlin’s Tower: Monument to Revolution is not the first book-length study in English on this “building”. That accolade was swiped by the Russian-American theorist and artist Svetlana Boym’s elliptical Architecture of the OffModern, an attempt to re-imagine the monument to the Third International as a monument to a glorious failure, a provocative art project rather than a viable structure.

Lynton was a curator and writer who died in 2007, soon after his book’s completion. In 1971 he curated Art and Revolution, the first major exhibition in the West of the Constructivist art, design, film and architecture that marked the first decade or so of Soviet rule. The exhibition’s catalogue featured an invaluable quantity of translated texts, revealing the theoretical and political sophistication of these artists so often dismissed as dreamy dilettantes out of their depth in practical politics. Hence it provided the foundation for the works that would finally let the Constructivists speak for themselves, rather than through garbled Western interpretations.

Tatlin’s Tower is usually slotted into the story of Constructivism—a gigantic machine, “made”, in Viktor Shklovsky’s oft-quoted words, “of iron, glass and revolution”, a modernist monument, something utilitarian. Yet Tatlin’s Tower is here a far from merely “useful” structure. Instead Lynton constructs a grandiose, and frequently rather peculiar edifice of theological and art-historical speculation, with relatively little reference to the political or even artistic context of the time.

The actual tower itself takes up a surprisingly small proportion of the book’s contents, with much exposition on Tatlin’s life, his connections with the avant-garde poet Velimir Khlebnikov, and on subsequent projects such as his “Letatlin” flying machine. Lynton’s central thesis is almost lost among this fairly extraneous material, but it is a fascinating and audacious idea. In essence, it is that the monument to the Third International is the (inadvertent, unofficial) artistic embodiment of “god-building”—that is, the attempt to create a sort of “religion of socialism” undertaken by the Russian Marxists Alexander Bogdanov, Maxim Gorky, and Tatlin’s later patron as head of the Soviet Commissariat of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky.

Lynton explains this “god-building” as an attempt to connect with the Russian peasantry by creating a form of socialism that would resonate with the biblical language and references to which they were accustomed. This notion was mocked by Lenin: “It is one thing if an agitator [uses religious language] in order to find a starting point for his argument, and a mode of expression familiar to the under-developed masses, so that his views may make more impact. But it is quite another if a writer actually starts preaching the ‘construction of god’ or a ‘god-constructing’ socialism…in the former case the thesis ‘socialism as religion’ serves as a bridge from religion to socialism; in the latter it passes from socialism to religion.”

In Lynton’s account, the tower certainly used a religious formal language, and did so for a quasi-mystical conception of socialism as the fulfilment of all humanity’s wishes, after centuries of striving to transcend gods and oppressors. The tower is literally, in Marx’s phrase, “storming heaven”.

So in his pre-history of the tower Lynton fixes upon both the Malwiyya mosque in Samarra, Iraq, with a similar spiralling form and, more pointedly, a 17th century woodcut by Athanasius Kircher of the Tower of Babel. With its dual spirals, its god-threatening height and its barred structure, this tower is indeed enormously akin to Tatlin’s, though there is absolutely no proof Tatlin was aware of either.

Meanwhile, the forms within the spiralling metal skeleton were themselves elemental, primal—cube, cylinder and most of all pyramid, now transformed from the geometry of dynastic power into buildings for the promotion of human emancipation. There is some evidence that the tower was intended to straddle the river Neva, with its iron legs on each side—which leads Lynton into a comparison both to the Colossus of Rhodes and to The Bolshevik, a then well known painting by Boris Kustodiev showing a gigantic worker, red flag in hand, striding across the crowded streets of Petrograd.

The argument that the tower was inspired by ancient forms, a product of collective memory as much as of the Eiffel Tower and industrial cranes, is extraordinary enough. It starts to become rather curious when the author embarks, seemingly at random, upon a long excursus on a work of 19th century Russian Orthodox “history painting”, Alexander Ivanov’s Christ’s First Appearance Before the People. In this image semi-clad figures crowd about John the Baptist, who gestures to the figure of Christ in the far distance.

One wonders what the significance of this is, until Lynton claims that the figure of John the Baptist, the angle of his leg, the jut of his staff, is in silhouette fundamentally identical to the form of the monument to the Third International. For Lynton this makes perfect sense. In Russian Orthodoxy John the Baptist is a highly important figure, “the forerunner” who points the way towards the messiah. The monument does the same, as forerunner for Communism, for what Ernst Bloch called “concrete Utopia”. Again Lynton offers no proof but does aver that “any Russian artist” of the time would have known Ivanov’s painting intimately.

Aside from this intriguing and peculiar venture into theological aesthetics, Lynton reminds us that Tatlin’s Tower has much to do with the other elements in the thought of Alexander Bogdanov—the Proletkult or “Proletarian Culture” movement that followed the revolution, to which Tatlin had some connections, and utopian science fiction, embodied in Bogdanov’s novel of a Martian Marxism, Red Star. Certainly Russia’s Communist Futurists frequently spoke of their kinship with the Martians, representatives of a new red planet. But even on the level of architecture, the tower was a work of science fiction, something recognised by Leon Trotsky, who visited the tower’s first model in Petrograd during the Russian Civil War. Though he applauded Tatlin’s break with architectural tradition, this was, he claimed, “not a building, but an exercise”.

At the time there would not have been enough steel in Russia to erect a metal model (the original was in wood), let alone to build the structure itself. This was a speculative structure and no doubt Tatlin knew it. Accordingly, two subsequent models, both of them different from the original, emerged in the early years of the Soviet Union. One, by Tatlin himself, was exported to the Soviet Pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition, in which, alongside Konstantin Melnikov’s temporary pavilion and Alexander Rodchenko’s Workers’Club, it promised a distinctively socialist new architecture. This model was less complex, more streamlined and, Lynton suggests, buildable.

The last model was a schematic, ad hoc wooden tower carried on a May Day festival in the same year, reminding us that this was also to be a deeply festive, celebratory building, formally akin to a helter-skelter. Lynton reminds us that public festivals were key to the revolution’s early years, with Tatlin himself helming the firework display in May 1918. If, in Mayakovsky’s words, this was the “first monument without a beard”, it was also the first monument to be intentionally funny.

This is a strange and cranky book, and its anti-theoretical, anti-Leninist perspective is at times a problem. Lynton devotes many pages to describing the books in Tatlin’s library, looking for clues, yet ignores the presence there of a volume of Lenin’s philosophical writings. If he had investigated them, he would have found a definition of dialectics as “a development that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line” that would perhaps explain the tower as well as, if not better than, his excursions into the esoteric.

Nonetheless, the approach manages to catch the sheer elemental force of the tower as emancipatory idea and object. He writes, “Petrograd, Russia, Earth, shall have a super-tower from which to guide the human race into world comradeship and space exploration…it would have altered the path of modern architecture and just possibly modern politics”, a socialist dream-image to transcend capitalism’s Eiffel Towers, Statues of Liberty and Empire State Buildings. It is unbuilt because the society which would deserve such a tower is unbuilt.