My visit to the Tatlin exhibition at the Museum Tinguely in Basel led me to the following train of thought. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a young viewer for whom this would be the first contact with Tatlin’s work, which has not been shown in Western Europe for twenty years or so, and wondered what impression the “innocent eye” of this novice would retain from the experience. Especially from the famous reliefs and counter-reliefs that form a large – probably the largest – part of the exhibition and have also been given a predominant place in the catalogue.
Now, with a couple of exceptions, the part of the Basel exhibition dealing with Talin´s abstract work and his reliefs shows only reconstructions (at least a dozen of them, if not more). Let’s be clear about this: a reconstruction made decades after the artist’s death can never replace the original work and there is not the slightest doubt that a reconstruction can be anything more than an interpretation. So which or whose interpretation is it? I know whereof I speak, as in 1975 I myself made some reconstructions of Constructivist sculptures by one of Tatlin’s contemporaries. At the time this artist, Vladimir Stenberg, was still alive and at my request produced the sdetailed plans of the works in question. Pursuing my investigations so far as to discuss with him the actual tools he physically made them with, I managed to discuss personally with him all the details of these reconstructions. However, even this was not very useful. I soon understood to what extent I was dealing with the artist’s current interpretations of his own output done half a century earlier, and now far distant from the concerns originally at the heart of his work. And I can never over-insist on the “historical” – if not theoretical – aspect of my own approach, which is also necessarily itself interpretative !
This being said, several of Tatlin’s abstract works, including the only surviving relief made in the winter of 1914-1915, are missing not only from the Basel exhibition itself but also from the exhibition catalogue. To my mind, the reconstructions presented in Basel are unarguably outdated and are dreadfully heavyweight in comparison with the extraordinary lyricism, linear elegance and metaphysical transparency of Tatlin’s works between 1914 and 1915, whose plasticity, as in every great outreaching stylistic endeavour, is stretched almost into the realm of “maniera”. The two or three original photographs of them (which fortunately still exist and are included in the exhibition) clearly evidence the passive brutality of the reconstructions, which show a heaviness far removed from the sibylline weightlessness of Tatlin’s actual work (one only has to compare the reconstructions with the artist’s contemporary drawing and even those from the 1920s).
With closer examination of these reconstructions, it becomes obvious that the view of Tatlin’s work that they propose today has been filtered through the successive historical strata that have been built into our current knowledge (Dada, Schwitters, etc.) even as far as the traces of the savage destruction during the Second World War – not to mention those of “Les nouveaux réalistes”. Should one bring Tapiès to mind here?
The exhibition catalogue holds further surprises, for we find as a documentary indication works whose attribution to Tatlin was revised in the mid -1980s (cat. N. 30, p.86). With regard to the relief from the former Costaki Collection (now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), it would be essential to point out that this work – probably by Tatlin – is incomplete, if not worse, and therefore mutilated. (Furthermore, why did they exhibit it upside down? This question is also of importance regarding other works of the same school – those of Malewicz, for example – to which I shall return in the near future.
Cultural, and therefore necessarily ideological, reflection (we are talking about reconstruction here), is followed up by no formal or analytical study, no examination regarding the stylistic origin of the forms or their historical or artistic settings. To state things clearly, there is no real philological investigation amongst the numerous commentaries on the Tatlin reliefs that appear in the catalogue. In 2012 it would certainly have been a good idea to refer to the analytical vein opened up by Edward Fry´s 1983 study rather than to make shift with the theoretical word-spinning so much in vogue today. But getting through this smoke-screen requires a good knowledge of the pictorial vocabulary of Cubism and of Futurism, both of which were perfectly familiar to Tatlin. Merely having a knowledge of Russian bibliography (and even if that!) is not enough.
To give due credit to the organisers of the exhibition, I have to point out that pieces such as the “Blue relief” (from the pseudo “Kurt Benedict” collection) and other “posthumous” works have been avoided. This despite the recurrent and today unfortunately more frequent trap into which, in the wake of other “enthusiasts”, even “serious” publications such as the Burlington Magazine (January 2009) have fallen.
I was recently re-reading Le mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus) by Albert Camus. Reflecting on the ephemeral nature of our existence, and therefore that of memory, he says that in ten thousand years the name of Goethe will probably be known only to a few “archaeologists”, extremely rare specialists in “the early ages”. I might say that Tatlin’s real work, of which the reliefs are just the luminous mass of the artistic iceberg that marked the advent of modern art, suffered this fate immediately after he made them (1914-1916/1917). The cruelty of the 20th century, which has made a violent attack on memory, forces any art historian to read and re-read Orwell.