Tatlin: Ma­te­ri­als as art

Volodymyr Tatlin and his place in the Male­vich's cir­cle in Kyiv

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The painters Kaz­imir Male­vich and Volodymyr Tatlin were ir­rec­on­cil­able con­cep­tual op­po­nents whom life kept bring­ing to­gether again and again, un­til they found them­selves in Kyiv at the same time. Both were born in Ukraine—Male­vich in Kyiv and Tatlin in Kharkiv—and met when they were still rel­a­tive begin­ners. Over the decades, the two kept work­ing near each other and even to­gether, de­spite their very dif­fer­ent, at times di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed, views of art.

The dis­il­lu­sion­ment and break­downs that took place in Moscow and Len­ingrad in the mid-1920s brought the two of them to Kyiv. Both wanted to stop be­ing dis­sat­is­fied with them­selves and the cir­cum­stances they had found them­selves in, when their dreams and their ideas of a new art were shat­tered like so much glass. Kyiv Art In­sti­tute Rec­tor Ivan Vrona later wrote that Tatlin “had a very hard time deal­ing with his frus­tra­tion and use­less­ness un­der the cir­cum­stances.” Like Male­vich, he had Ukrainian roots: his mother was Ukrainian and he would tell his col­leagues that he con­sid­ered him­self “half from here,” mean­ing Ukraine.


Yet, de­spite this im­age of Male­vich and Tatlin as quar­rel­ing all their lives, they were more than just friends when they first got to know each other. Tatlin con­sid­ered him­self a stu­dent of Male­vich’s and even painted his por­trait. There was no sig­na­ture, or else the au­thor later de­stroyed it, and so for many years the work lan­guished in ar­chives with­out at­tri­bu­tion. Fi­nally, art his­to­rian Dmitri Sarabyanov proved in the 1990s that this was an early por­trait of Male­vich painted by Tatlin in 1912, sev­eral years be­fore their great fall­ing out. But just be­fore World War I broke out, Tatlin trav­elled to Ber­lin and Paris play­ing a blind ban­durist. There, he saw Euro­pean art and af­ter this he turned away from Male­vich’s ideas, leav­ing be­hind the mem­ory of how, just a few years ear­lier, he had been a pas­sion­ate sup­porter and fol­lower of the older artist.

Tatlin’s mem­ber­ship in Male­vich’s Kyiv cir­cles was in­di­rect. This was the part­ing of the ways for them—if not in space, then at least in time. Tatlin had just left Ukraine for Moscow when Male­vich be­gan ne­go­ti­at­ing over a po­si­tion at the Kyiv Art In­sti­tute. In the process of re­form­ing KAI, Vrona be­gan to in­vite the “Varangians” to the In­sti­tute—artists and teach­ers from across the Soviet Union, from 1924 into the 1930s—and Tatlin was one of the first. Vrona en­trusted Tatlin with head­ing the newly es­tab­lished Depart­ment of The­ater, Cinema and Pho­tog­ra­phy. This was one of the nine de­part­ments set up by the ac­tive new direc­tor, not as a mere ex­pan­sion of the In­sti­tute but an in­no­va­tion of world sig­nif­i­cance.

Around the end of 1925 or early 1926, Tatlin moved back to Kyiv, where he lived nearly two years, launched the new fac­ulty, be­gan work­ing on his famed fly­ing ma­chine dubbed Le­tatlin, and found him­self a wife. He was a fully formed in­di­vid­ual with a “twisted glory,” as he put it, through­out Europe. He had al­ready won a gold medal in Paris for his Tower for the III In­ter­na­tional. His ideas about us­ing new ma­te­ri­als, forms and con­struc­tions were spread­ing rapidly through­out the world.

“I want to make the ma­chine a form of art,” he ex­plained. Tatlin be­lieved that art would make peo­ple’s lives more pleas­ant, com­fort­able and beau­ti­ful. The tech­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties at the turn of the 20th cen­tury were not enough to al­low the artist to re­al­ize all his con­cepts, which be­came his per­sonal tragedy yet made his ideas both per­ti­nent and in de­mand to this day. Tatlin wanted to make new things that did not re­quire ex­ter­nal or­na­men­ta­tion and to dis­as­so­ci­ate him­self from the dec­o­ra­tive con­struc­tivism that some of his pupils, like Olek­sandr Rod­chenko, drifted into.

Plenty is known about Tatlin’s Kyiv apart­ment. Sev­eral of his friends and stu­dents wrote de­tailed de­scrip­tions. He lived not far from the Art In­sti­tute, at №5 vul. Dyka—Stu­dentska to­day. The own­ers still re­mem­bered their unusual ten­ant well into the 1960s, not just be­cause of his unusual height and per­sonal charisma, but more be­cause of his wild be­hav­ior. One time that artist brought home a stork—a real stork that he had found on the banks of the Dnipro. And so that he could feed the bird, the land­lord be­gan breed­ing frogs that croaked in a nightly cho­rus all win­ter long. The bird pecked out a hole in the floor that could be seen in the apart­ment for many years.

As he stud­ied the wing struc­ture of the stork, Tatlin worked on his dream: a fly­ing bi­cy­cle called Le­tatlin. To con­struct the first model, he needed a lot of willow branches and so the artist could of­ten be seen on the banks of the Dnipro among the wil­lows. He would drag the se­lected branches through all of Podil and up the hill. One of his stu­dents, Di­nora Maz­iukevych, re­called how the model of the Le­tatlin filled al­most the en­tire space in his res­i­dence: it lay on a huge bed that stood on the di­ag­o­nal in the room. Oth­er­wise, Tatlin’s place was very or­di­nary: a huge table with draw­ings, two hand­made stools, a har­mo­nium, a ban­dura hang­ing on the wall, a shelf of books, and plumb­ing and wood­work­ing tools.

Tatlin was def­i­nitely an odd bird and his friend saw him as a real “char­ac­ter.” He was al­ways very punc­tual, dressed in sim­ple clothes that were al­ways in navy or blue. He never wore a tie—re­fer­ring to them as “nooses”—, but his clothes were al­ways per­fectly pressed. In ad­di­tion, he was very tall and had a scar on his left arm, a sou­venir of a nasty quar­rel he had had with his fa­ther as a teenager. He was not what any­one would call hand­some, but he al­ways drew at­ten­tion to him­self and was gen­er­ally well-liked.

In com­pany, Tatlin was tran­quil, cour­te­ous, like an old friend. Peo­ple said that when the po­lice were called to his apart­ment, he seemed to charm the po­lice of­fi­cer, who would leave with­out any com­plaints. When asked about his po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ences, he would say: “I'm nei­ther left nor right. I’m rad­i­cal. I don’t be­lieve in dec­la­ra­tions. I do the things that the coun­try needs.”

Tatlin was also obliv­i­ous to the con­flicts among the var­i­ous groups of artists in the Ukrainian art scene and never joined any of them. For a while, he did be­long to the or­ga­ni­za­tional of­fice of ARMU, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Rad­i­cal Artists of Ukraine. In ad­di­tion to his as­sis­tant Mykola Tri­askin, he be­came close to the sculp­tor Yevhen Sa­haidachniy, who had also started out as his as­sis­tant. To­gether, they signed the dec­la­ra­tion of the “groups of ma­te­rial cul­ture” that, in fact, never did any­thing of sig­nif­i­cance. Sa­haidachniy’s wife, Maria Kholodna, even­tu­ally mar­ried Tatlin.

Tatlin al­ways told his pupils: “It’s im­pos­si­ble to teach, but it’s pos­si­ble to learn.” For him, the main thing in art was “a sense of the new, artis­tic mas­tery, and, of course, taste.” Teach­ing did not, in fact, in­ter­est him that much, but free­dom in the or­der and meth­ods of work suited his ideas of a new artis­tic ed­u­ca­tion. Stu­dents re­sponded very well to him and he im­me­di­ately joined the ranks of young artists in Kyiv. This gave him the op­por­tu­nity to re­store him­self and fill once more with the en­thu­si­asm that he had lacked in the pre­vi­ous years. Tatlin slowly re­cov­ered from his cre­ative and psy­cho­log­i­cal de­pres­sion.

Tatlin was also no slouch when it came to art his­tory and he was a skilled or­a­tor, so his au­di­ence lis­tened en­thralled to his sto­ries about the chal­lenges that would face artists in the fu­ture. His friends even be­gan to re­fer to him as Zangezi, which in Per­sian meant “teacher.” In fact, that was what Tatlin him­self called his play on Ve­limir Kh­lieb­nikov. “If I could,” he said, “I would make a gallery of ugly things so that peo­ple would learn to hate ug­li­ness. Beauty is an im­mense power.” Tatlin him­self made beau­ti­ful ob­jects for the per­for­mance hall, plays, books and even ev­ery­day items.


The need for artists to have the­aters, movies and pho­tog­ra­phy was dic­tated by the times. On one hand, the re­newal of the­ater and on the other, the pop­u­lar­ity that pho­tos and movies were gain­ing. The film in­dus­try in Ukraine grew to an amaz­ing scale: the All-Ukrainian Photo and Film Ad­min­is­tra­tion, VUFKU, pro-



duced hun­dreds of films. Pro­fes­sion­als were needed in all kinds of new spe­cial­iza­tions: film­mak­ers, cam­era op­er­a­tors and film direc­tors. How and where were the peo­ple for this new art to be trained? Such ques­tions came up in all coun­tries. The Ukrainian press also reg­u­larly pub­lished lo­cal polemics. In Kyiv and Odesa, the first de­part­ments, and even­tu­ally fac­ul­ties, were set up to teach th­ese new spe­cial­iza­tions. Tatlin, Tri­askin, Vrona, Male­vich, and com­pany were very much in­volved in the process.

This re­newal af­fected even the most con­ser­va­tive form of art, the the­ater. Les Kur­bas was al­ready de­vel­op­ing his “Berezil” the­ater. At the end of 1924, TYA or the The­ater for a Young Au­di­ence was es­tab­lished, which Tatlin also joined af­ter mov­ing to Kyiv. In fact, he was one of the main au­thors of Ukrainian chil­dren’s the­ater. In a few years’ time, he di­rected a ver­sion of Tales of Hoff­mann based on “In the dawn,” a play by a young Ukrainian writer called Volodymyr Grzyt­skiy, to­gether with Sa­hay­dachniy, who by now was an artist and sculp­tor in his own right and also taught at KAI.

One of the founders of TYA, ac­tor and direc­tor Olek­sandr Solo­marskiy, later wrote: “Amvrosiy Buchma was in­volved in the pro­duc­tion of ‘In the Dawn.’ … At one point he came to a re­hearsal with Tatlin. Buchma then be­gan to tell us in a very lively, in­ter­est­ing and vivid way about the inim­itable Carpathian Moun­tains, which he had known and loved since he was a child… Tatlin was at­ten­tively lis­ten­ing, along with the ac­tors, when he sud­denly said, ‘Iron, iron, it’s all about iron…’ and swiftly left the re­hearsal hall.

“In no time at all, Tatlin came back into the the­ater with a model of the stage set for ‘In the Dawn.’ His Carpathian Moun­tains were made of cast iron leaf. ‘Only this tex­ture un­der the right kind of light­ing can cre­ate a bril­liant im­age of the mar­velous Carpathian hills. Buchma ac­cepted the model: ‘The Carpathian Moun­tains in iron—let’s give it a try. There’s some­thing to this, it’s good!’ The artist Yevhen Sa- haidachniy worked to­gether with Tatlin, but I don’t re­mem­ber much about him. The two artists worked for a long time over the light­ing with the the­ater’s light­ing en­gi­neer. At last the moun­tains came into play. Of course, the ac­tors had to skate around th­ese moun­tains that tore up from the deeps, and so the stage was filled with the whirr and rum­ble of iron. But the artist who made the set was ec­static: ‘This is ex­actly what I was hop­ing for, this breath­ing, the real life of the Carpathi­ans.’

“The cos­tumes were bright, col­or­ful Hut­sul out­fits. The stage was a mod­est one and the au­di­ence was able to see con­struc­tions of var­i­ous heights clad in iron. They were placed at two dif­fer­ent lev­els, 1.5 me­ters and 2 me­ters… The au­di­ence liked the per­for­mance even though it went on for a long time… Among artists, the unusual tex­ture be­came very pop­u­lar, be­cause af­ter this per­for­mance an­other artist, Va­len­tyn Shyli­ayev used the tex­ture of white fur to rep­re­sent a river when Yakiv Ma­mon­tiv’s play ‘Ho’ was put on by our the­ater. There was a clear echo­ing of tex­tures.”

Nei­ther the mock-up nor any sketches from the per­for­mance sur­vived. The only pho­to­graph that cap­tures one of the scenes from the sec­ond act of­fers no view of the props at all. Crit­ics took lit­tle no­tice of the artists’ work, other than two con­tra­dic­tory con­clu­sions: “The set de­sign by the artist Tatlin is mar­velous” and “Tatlin’s ab­stracted stage de­signs are not some­thing an au­di­ence of chil­dren can grasp.” The artist had be­gun to use iron struc­tures back in 1913-1914 in his counter-re­lief work. His as­sis­tant Tri­askin noted that Tatlin thought dec­o­ra­tions needed to be made from real ma­te­ri­als, es­tab­lish­ing a “new tex­ture,” such as bricks. Tri­askin him­self did not care for this ap­proach and he did not par­tic­i­pate in Tatlin’s projects.

The sec­ond play that Tatlin worked on at TYA was one by play­wright Mykola Shkl­yar called “Boom and Yu­lia,” based on mo­tifs from sto­ries by Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen. It was put on in many the­aters start­ing in the 1910s. The artist con­tin­ued to work on his “new tex­ture,” and to co­op­er­ate with other the­aters. His friend the direc­tor Anna Begicheva later wrote about Tatlin’s in­volve­ment in the pro­duc­tion of Haidamaky, based on Taras Sheve­henko’s epic poem or duma. In ad­di­tion to the stage set dur­ing the pro­logue and epi­logue, he played kozak du­mas on a ban­dura that he had made him­self.

Tatlin knew the qual­i­ties of wood in­ti­mately and said once, “How in­cred­i­bly lucky—I got mu­si­cal wood. That’s for the harp. Maple, my fa­vorite, is for the ban­dura. The sound is so clean and beau­ti­ful.” That is what took the artist to Western Europe in his youth, where he earned a liv-



ing play­ing on the ban­dura. There is even an apocryphal story that Tatlin man­aged to get into Pi­casso’s stu­dio by pre­tend­ing to be a blind min­strel and that when the older artist dis­cov­ered that the man not only could see but was also a young artist, he chased him out of his house.

This work fol­lowed the prin­ci­ples of the­atri­cal con­struc­tivism, which Tatlin had started back in 1922–1923 when he was work­ing on the Zangezi show ded­i­cated to Ve­limir Kh­lieb­nikov. He con­tin­ued to de­velop th­ese prin­ci­ples in his lessons at the Art In­sti­tute. It got to the point where he wanted to re-do his Zangezi pro­duc­tion and turned to Les Kur­bas for help. In Zangezi, Tatlin was the direc­tor, the set de­signer and the lead. The re­sult was an ex­per­i­men­tal “syn­thetic” per­for­mance de­vised as a “play+lec­ture+ex­hibit of ma­te­rial con­struc­tions.” In­stead of pro­fes­sional ac­tors, in par­al­lel with the main event, art critic Niko­lai Punin gave a lec­tor on Kh­lieb­nikov’s “laws of time, while lin­guist Lev Yakubyn­skiy talked about the word­smithing of the poet. Un­for­tu­nately, the au­thor was un­able to con­tinue this ex­per­i­ment in Kyiv. Kur­bas sug­gested that Tatlin put on Jules Ro­mains’ play “Mon­sieur le Trouhadec saisi par la débauche,” but artis­tic clashes meant that this never came to be.


Volodymyr Tatlin also did graphic work for books, although only some cov­ers and il­lus­tra­tions for books and mag­a­zines are known. The most fa­mous was the cover to a col­lec­tion of po­ems by Ukrainian writ­ers called “Meet­ings at the Cross­roads,” pub­lished in 1926, where his name is writ­ten next to those of poets Mykhaylo Se­menko, Geo Shku­rupiy, and Mykola Bazhan. He also il­lus­trated the Kyiv film mag­a­zine Kino, with which he col­lab­o­rated in 1917. One of th­ese was a col­lage to go with an es­say by Yuriy Yurchenko (Yanovskiy) called “The Story of a Mas­ter,” ded­i­cated to Olek­sandr Dovzhenko’s film “The Diplo­matic Pouch.” An­other one was an il­lus­tra­tion for a poster of the film “Bo­ryslav Smil­ing,” which is based on a story by Ivan Franko. All th­ese works are based on the in­ter­sec­tion of di­ag­o­nal lines along which words are placed, of­ten play­fully, or spa­ces and let­ters are mixed up.

Volodymyr Tatlin’s out­put at the In­sti­tute was shown at the All-Ukrainian Ju­bilee Ex­hi­bi­tion in Novem­ber 1927. His pupils and his as­sis­tant Tryaskin, who took over Tatlin’s po­si­tion when the artist moved away, ex­hib­ited mod­els and sketches to the­atri­cal and cin­e­matic sets. Most of th­ese young peo­ple even­tu­ally be­came renowned artists of the stage and movie set, and had their own stu­dents: Va­len­tyn Bo­rysovets, Petro Zlochevskiy, Moritz Uman­skiy, Se­men Mandel, Volodymyr Kaplunovskiy, and Volodymyr Moskovchenko. In this way, the Tatlin school con­tin­ued to at­tract peo­ple from the 1920s un­til the present time, un­like Male­vich, who never man­aged to es­tab­lish a cir­cle of pupils and fol­low­ers in Kyiv. Not only was Tatlin’s work very prom­i­nent and im­por­tant for the arts scene in Kyiv, but the city also played a very sig­nif­i­cant role in the life of the artist.

Still, for the artist, work­ing at KAI, espe­cially or­ga­ni­za­tional tasks, were un­in­ter­est­ing to Tatlin and he quickly lost in­ter­est and be­gan to com­plain that Kyiv was “bor­ing.” At the height of work on Depart­ment of The­ater, Cinema and Pho­tog­ra­phy, he aban­doned every­thing and re­turned to Moscow. In 1928, he helped set up the Les Kur­bas Ukrainian The­ater Stu­dio, which lasted only 2.5 years. Later on, af­ter the war, Tatlin re­turned to Kyiv a few times, sup­pos­edly to see Ve­lasquez’s famed “In­fanta” at the Kyiv Mu­seum of Western Art. In­deed, to­day, the only known pho­to­graph of Tatlin in Kyiv was taken in 1926 in this mu­seum dur­ing a meet­ing of the artists with Ana­toliy Lu­nacharskiy.

Friend or Ideational Op­po­nent? Volodymyr Tatlin's Por­trait of Male­vich, 1912

Volodymyr Tatlin on the ban­dura. When he was young, the artist trav­elled across Western Europe and made money as a min­strel. He made many of the in­stru­ments him­self

Pro­to­type of the or­ni­topter. By study­ing the wings of a stork Tatlin was able to work on his dream: a fly­ing bi­cy­cle, which was called Le­tatlin

Shku­rupiy, Se­menko, Bazhan and Tatlin. Tatlin's Cover of the col­lec­tion, “Meet­ings at the Cross­roads,” Kyiv, 1927

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