Vladimir Tatlin - Biography and Legacy
Russian Architect, Painter, and Sculptor
Kharkov, Russian Empire
Biography of Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin was born in 1885 in Moscow. He grew up in the Ukraine and attended school in Kharkiv. His father was a railway engineer and his mother was a poet. At a young age, Tatlin left home to work as a merchant sea cadet. He traveled to places such as Turkey, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and Bulgaria, continuing his adventures at sea intermittently until around 1915.
Having copied religious frescoes when he was young, he began formal artistic training as an icon painter in 1902. Many of the stylistic principles employed in icon painting and Russian folk art traditions - the peasant woodcut, or lubok, for instance - had a strong and lasting impact on Tatlin throughout his career.
Tatlin attended the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture from 1902 to 1904. Afterwards, from 1904 to 1909, he studied at the Penza School of Art under Aleksey Afanas'ev. He belonged to a group of artists whose work addressed the social and political concerns of contemporary Russia, and subsequently became one of Tatlin's greatest artistic influences. He was perhaps inspired by Afanas'ev to devote his efforts to socially relevant art.
After graduating from Penza, Tatlin resumed his studies at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture from 1909 to 1910. Around the same time, he also developed close friendships with leading artists of the Russian avant-garde, such as the Vesnin brothers, the Burluk brothers, Natalia Goncharova, and Mikhail Larionov. He became familiar with Larionov's movement, Rayonism - a style of abstract painting derived from the principles of Futurism. The characteristics of this style were the fragmentation of the object through reflected rays and the analysis of the object's relationship to its spatial environment. Tatlin later applied similar principles to his non-utilitarian sculptures. He also began exhibiting in major avant-garde exhibitions in cities such as Odessa, Moscow, and Petrograd.
In 1913, Tatlin traveled to Berlin and Paris. It was during this time that he met another great influence - Pablo Picasso. Tatlin visited Picasso's studio and became acquainted with the Cubist analysis of form through Picasso's three-dimensional mixed-media constructions. The effect of his exposure to these collages and essemblage works is apparent in his mixed-media reliefs, composed of industrial materials such as glass, metal, plaster, and wood, that he began to construct shortly after visiting Picasso's studio.
The earliest known relief from this period in which Picasso's influence is most clearly recognized is The Bottle (1913). This first construction is not yet fully abstract or fully three-dimensional, and, like Picasso's constructions, it is largely painterly in character - in other words, its concerns are no different from painting's traditional, pictorial preoccupation with representing the world. Indeed, Tatlin often referred to these works as "painterly reliefs," but after 1914 he began to create a new type of object and to describe these as "counter-reliefs." The latter are far more concerned with materials and with the space the object occupies; to emphasize this, Tatlin often erected them in the corner of rooms, making them resemble architecture more than painting or traditional sculpture. They were also entirely abstract, allowing the artist to explore the natural potential of the materials used and the new forms they can create through their interaction and juxtaposition.
In these sculptures, the surrounding space is used as another material for construction, interacting with the object and creating dynamism and tension. The geometric corner counter-reliefs, which he started to construct in 1914, are an example of this more developed abstract style. In these corner-spanning works, the flat rectangular frame is discarded and the object is able to fully interact with its spatial environment. By breaking away from the two-dimensional surface and into space, these sculptures embody Tatlin's slogan, "art into life." One might also read them as a fusion of art and engineering, and, in that regard, many critics have pointed to the talents of his parents, one a poet, the other an engineer.
His familiarity with religious icons, as well as his awareness of developments in Western art - from works by Monet, Gauguin, and Cézanne in Moscow collections - is also evident in his early work. In paintings such as The Nude (1913), the influence of icon painting and folk art is clear in the subject's monumentality, spatial configuration, and skewed perspective. What is also significant in some of these paintings is Tatlin's focus on the materiality - or faktura - of the paint. This became central to his later experiments with industrial materials and their natural properties, as well as the ideology of the Constructivist movement as a whole.
Though seeking to establish a new utopian society by breaking with tradition, prior to the October Revolution of 1917, Tatlin and other artists of the Russian avant-garde remained essentially apolitical. Following the revolution, however, Tatlin's artistic focus shifted and his work directly addressed socialist concerns, equating the artist with the proletariat and works of art with mass-produced factory goods. He became devoted to implementing social change through new forms and utilitarian works designed for everyday life.
Project for the Monument to the Third International (1919-20) was the culmination of Tatlin's earlier counter-reliefs, which had employed a non-utilitarian analysis of material and form. Tatlin's Tower, as it came to be known, evolved from earlier experiments with industrial materials into a fully functional construction, aesthetically and functionally symbolizing the ideal communist society of the new modern age.
While this monument was his most famous and last major work of the period, Tatlin remained devoted to the constructivist cause. He worked in the Department of Material Culture in Petrograd, between 1923 and 1925, and focused on creating versatile, multi-purpose clothing designs for the working class. Designs from this period include a multi-seasonal coat and practical working clothes, which provided insulation, freedom of movement, and sufficient air circulation. Tatlin also participated in the constructivist campaign to restructure society by working on designs for more efficient household appliances and furniture designed to better suit contemporary life.
After his project for the monument, Tatlin became primarily interested in teaching. In the 1920s, he held a professorial position at Svomas in Moscow and was the acting head of the Studio of Volume, Material, and Construction at Svomas in Petrograd. In 1923, he also established the Museum of Artistic Culture in Petrograd, which functioned as a laboratory for the experimental study of art. It was at the Museum of Artistic Culture that Tatlin designed, staged, and performed Velimir Khlebnikov's poem Zangezi in 1923. The production featured mechanized geometric planes created by Tatlin to complement Khelbnikov's transrational word constructions. The stage was an important outlet for the avant-garde, as it allowed for their new forms, language, and designs to be seen, heard, and experienced by a large audience.
Late Years and Death
Although he remained active until his death, Tatlin's career as an artist is considered to have ended in 1932 with his last major work, the Letatlin (1929-32), a human-powered flying machine. Tatlin began work on his Letatlin glider in 1929. He conducted extensive research on bird flight and the structure of birds' wings, with the idea that humans would be able to imitate the effortless, efficient, and harmonious flight of birds in nature.
Constructivism and the entire Russian avant-garde died out in the early 1930s when Social Realism became the official style. Tatlin began painting in oils again around this time. However, these later works make little reference to his previous abstract paintings and constructivist sculptures, as they are mostly limited to flower still lifes painted in an expressionistic manner.
The Legacy of Vladimir Tatlin
While the details surrounding Tatlin's life and work are relatively obscure, he remains one of the leading artists of the Russian avant-garde and the creator of the most visionary and influential architectural design to arise from Constructivist ideology. Though his project for The Tower was never fully realized, it is an icon for modernity and has since been an inspiration to artists and architects. His suspended corner counter-reliefs changed the relationship a work of art could have with its surroundings and revolutionized the way in which sculpture could be visualized. Tatlin's constructions, as well as the Constructivist ideology, continually influenced artists throughout the later half of the 20th century by seeking to revolutionize society by introducing new forms of art. Particularly, feminist artists and those involved with the pattern and decoration painting movement of the 1970s and '80s took the Russian Constructivists as direct inspiration. These artists employed craft methods and incorporated everyday objects and materials into their work to expand the boundaries of what could be considered art and to challenge the notions of "high" and "low" forms of art and culture.