Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin (1885-1953) was a Russian avant garde artist whose model of the "Monument to the Third International" remains the main symbol of Constructivism.
In years to come, Vladimir Tatlin may be viewed as one of the greatest visionary artists of the 20th century. He was born in Moscow and grew up in Kharkov. His father was a railway engineer and his mother a poet, their professions and outlook representative of some of the new middle-class mobility found in late 19th-century Russia.
In 1902 Tatlin "ran away to sea" for a year and traveled abroad in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Libya. From the end of 1902 to 1904 he attended the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. He continued his art studies from 1904 to 1910 at the Penza Art School and studied under Goroshkin-Sorokopudov and the lesser-known Peredvizhnik ("Wanderers"-social realist) Afanasyev. Tatlin received his diploma in 1908 as a painter. In Penza, Tatlin had established a close relationship with the Rayonist painter Mikhail Larionov and his wife, the primitivist and cubo-futurist painter Natalia Goncharova. He exhibited with them in Odessa in December 1910 in the Second Izbedskii Salon exhibition and in "The Donkey's Tail" Exhibition in Moscow, April 1912. Larionov had a significant impact on Tatlin, especially in steering the young artist toward Russian themes.
Tatlin also established close ties with the painter David Burlyuk and the poet Khlebnikov. At the same time, however, he began to move in other directions. He exhibited with the St. Petersburg "Union of Youth" group in 1911 and in the Knave of Diamonds Exhibition in 1913, which also included David and Vladimir Burlyuk, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Falk, Alexandra Exter, Ilya Mashkov, and others. Tatlin's early works were often primitive, loose in style, and focused on form, with little attention paid to background.
Tatlin's most famous early work was the painting The Fishmonger (1911), which emphasizes a great swirl of arcs and created a great deal of movement on the canvas. One of the results of the Knave of Diamonds Exhibition was an intensive debate that ensued between David Burlyuk, who was strongly supportive of Western art, and Natalia Goncharova, who favored Russian themes. The debate led to a split and the formation of "The Donkey's Tail, " a rival group emphasizing Russian and folk idioms, with which Tatlin identified.
After 1910 Tatlin returned to the Moscow School of Painting to study with Korovin and Serov, Russian Post-Impressionist painters. During 1911 Tatlin organized a teaching studio in Moscow which provided him the opportunity to meet avant garde artists Alexander Vesnin and Liubov Popova. Tatlin also exhibited in "The World of Art" show in 1912-1913 and in "Contemporary Painting" from 1912 to 1914. He became a book illustrator for futurist works by Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov, and Mayakovsky.
Tatlin's works of this period include the painting Nude (1913), which marks a blend of Western avant garde and Russian tradition. In the realm of theatrical set design, Tatlin worked on Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar and Tomahsevsky's play Tsar Maximillian and his unruly son Adolf. Both were strong in folk motif and abstraction.
In 1913 Tatlin went to Paris; met Picasso, Lipchitz, and Archipenko; and, upon his return to Russia, began experimenting in sculpture. Picasso's cubist reliefs had a significant impact upon him. The result was a series of three-dimensional painterly reliefs. These were displayed at the "First Exhibition of Painterly Reliefs" at his studio in 1914 and at the "Tramway V" Exhibition in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1915. From painterly reliefs, Tatlin moved into "counter-reliefs, " which were exhibited at the exhibition "0.10" in 1916 in Petrograd and "The Store" in Moscow during the same year. Tatlin constantly experimented with the idea of extending space, as real forms came forward from a solid base. Composition became a process of construction, and construction itself was related to the materials employed in the creative process. This new type of "constructivist" art was viewed as oriented toward materials, and hence away from personal taste and toward an impersonal role for the artist. On the issue of form and construction, Tatlin moved from "counter-reliefs" executed on paper to "corner-reliefs, " which were sculptures suspended in the corners of rooms.
After the Russian Revolution, Tatlin became the head of the Moscow branch of IZO Narkompros (Visual Arts Department of the Commissariat for People's Enlightenment). One of his charges was to develop Lenin's Plan for Monumental Propaganda. This provided the inspiration for the "Monument to the Third International." Tatlin also taught at the Moscow State Free Art Studios and from 1919 to 1921 in Petrograd at the State Free Art Studios. He opened his own studio, known as the Studio of Volume, Material, and Construction.
During November 1920 Tatlin exhibited a model of the "Monument to the Third International" in Petrograd at the former Academy of Arts. A month later the model was moved to Moscow for exhibition at the 8th Congress of the Soviets. Although the monument, designed to straddle the Neva River in Petrograd, was never built, it has remained an inspiration for monumental architecture and remains the main symbol of Constructivism. The basic idea of the structure, according to Nikolai Punin, one of Tatlin's associates, was to create a monumental construction utilizing architectural, sculptural, and painterly principles. It was dedicated to the branch of the new government designed to promote international revolution. The monument was a soaring and spiral-like skeletal steel structure, sometimes called a modern Tower of Babel. Within the steel structure were three large glass spaces held in place by a complex system of pivots and mechanisms which allowed them to move at different speeds. The lower space, a cube, was a building for the International's annual meetings and rotated once a year. The second building was a pyramid, which revolved at one revolution a month. This was designed to house the executive divisions and secretariat of the International. The upper building, a cylinder, rotated once a day and was to house means of disseminating information—newspapers, printshops, telegraph, large projectors, radio transmitters, and viewing screens. The tower itself was both sculpture and architecture.
In 1921 Tatlin attempted to design new types of workshops and was subsequently instrumental in setting up Petrograd GINKhUK (State Institute for Artistic Culture) and directed the Department of Material Culture, which was concerned with development of new materials and their application to the new social organization. Tatlin designed new workers' clothing and an oven.
In May 1923 Tatlin produced Khebnikov's play Zangezi. This enterprise marked a unique achievement, as Tatlin worked with the phonetician Lev Yakubinsky in an attempt to unify material constructions and word constructions in a theater environment. Tatlin wrote that "the word itself is a building unit, material a unit of organized space." The fusing of the two elements was supposed to create an architectural state on the state, a revolutionary event.
During the period 1925 to 1927 Tatlin moved to Kiev and worked at the Department of Theater, Cinema, and Photography at the Kiev Art School. In 1927 he returned to Moscow to work at VkhUTEIN (Higher State Artistic and Technical Institute) and taught construction of everyday objects. From 1930 to 1933 Tatlin worked in his Scientific and Experimental Laboratory under Narkompros. Here, he conceived his "flying machine project, " Letatlin, which was reminiscent of Da Vinci's "Flying Machine, " the name being taken partially from his own and from the Russian letat, "to fly." Tatlin, however, was criticized highly by new official critics and artists for this research, as it was viewed as a solo venture, opposed to the cooperative spirit of the new "official" Socialist Realism. Tatlin, however, defended his gliders as an experimental work that promoted thinking about new variations in forms, which avoided the monotony of contemporary manufactured goods. He indicated that the airplane was the consummate object for artistic composition, since it was a complicated form that would become an everyday object. During 1932 and 1933 and variants of Letatlin were exhibited at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
By the end of the 1930s Tatlin returned to figurative painting and spent most of his time in theater design. He was discredited after 1933, when Socialist Realism became the guiding philosophy for Soviet art. Unfortunately, very few of his artistic constructions survived and most that have been exhibited recently have been re-creations from original drawings. A new model of the "Monument to the Third International" was built for the Los Angeles County Museum and Smithsonian Institution's Constructivist show of 1980.
Tatlin died in 1953 from food poisoning, and his passing was unheralded. He is now being rediscovered in his native country, as glasnost's attempt to analyze the past has led to a close examination of the avant garde before 1933.
Further Reading on Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin
The most comprehensive works on Tatlin are John Milner, Vladimir Tatlin and the Russian Avant Garde (1983) and Russian Revolutionary Art (1979), and Larissa Alekseevna Zhadova, Tatlin (1989).
Works that blend Tatlin's ideas on art into the general framework of Constructivism and the avant garde include Stephen Bann (editor), The Tradition of Constructivism (1972); Stephanie Barron and Maurice Tuchman (editors), The Avant Garde in Russia, 1910-1930 (1980); John Bowlt (editor), Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and Criticism (1973); Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism (1983); and Kestutis Paul Zygas, Form Follows Form: Source Imagery of Constructive Architecture, 1917-1925 (1981).
Additional Biography Sources
Milner, John, Vladimir Tatlin and the Russian avant-garde, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.