Theodora Clarke, editor of Russian Art and Culture, interviews Professor John Milner regarding the recent exhibition of Lissitzky’s work at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.
Theodora Clarke: With us today is John Milner, Professor of Russian Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Thank you so much for talking with us today John, I wanted to ask about your recent exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. How did you conceive the exhibition, with the focus on El Lissitzky?
John Milner: The Van Abbemuseum has a lot of works by Lissitzky and they have long been quite a focus for study of Lissitzky and they had a very harmonious, traditional kind of hang of the works. However, I was asked to look at works by Lissitzky there and to design a new way of looking at them. They wanted to make it a lot more accessible than it already was, instead of them being precious fine art objects. They have a lot of Lissitzky but much of it is drawings, some quite large drawings, and many of them are very faint – quite hard to see and interpret. So, it was necessary to think out that aspect of things too. In the end we decided to evolve the show as a display which would have some loans and which would largely be displaying nearly all of the stuff from the Van Abbemuseum collection. They are works which Lissitzky handed over in safe keeping, in the early 1930s so that they have a very sure provenance. A lot of them relate to Victory Over the Sun, a Futurist Opera.
TC: For those of us who don’t know, what is Victory Over the Sun and why was it quite such a significant opera?
JM: Well it was a Futurist opera and it was very difficult to understand. It contained a lot of noises and invented ‘Zaum’ language and bizarre costumes and sets. Not surprisingly in some ways it only ran for two nights in St. Petersburg in 1913 but it was written about and caused quite a fuss. It is a very bizarre opera, written by a man called Kruchenykh, who was one of the inventors of a kind of noise language, which was really an attempt to find out if you could talk with the roots of words, or what kind of meaning they carried.
TC: And am I right in thinking that Malevich did the original designs but you were looking at Lissitzky’s designs?
JM: Malevich did the designs, yes, in 1913. Quite unprecedented, bizarre designs, barely wearable – almost impossible to move in some of them. The music was by a man called Mikhail Matyushin, whose work barely survives and doesn’t even appear on wax cylinder recordings, but the score exists. It does recur, this Victory Over The Sun play, and Lissitzky was involved in a revival in 1922. Lissitzky was an engineer, he was a close follower of Chagall, who returned to Russia after the revolution and ran the People’s Art School in Vitebsk, and Lissitzky was employed there. Chagall left pretty well as Malevich arrived – he was a geometric artist for those who don’t know, and a great visionary. Lissitzky was thoroughly converted. He had been working with Chagall to revive Jewish theatre and Jewish culture…
TC: …because Lissitzky was also a Jew as well as Chagall.
JM: Yes, and the Soviets encouraged at first… for some Jews the Russian revolution appeared like a liberation because they could travel, they could work in the big cities and so on, they didn’t have to stay in the ‘Pale of Settlement’. So it appeared as a release, and there was a great move to revive and invigorate Jewish theatre in particular, but the Soviets were against religion, so it was a very difficult mixture for people like Chagall and Lissitzky. Anyway, Lissitzky had been trained as an engineer and he thought he could do quite a lot with Malevich’s ideas and really between them they squeezed out Chagall.
TC: And I notice in the exhibition you’ve done the ‘Proun Room’, you’ve actually recreated it as it would have been. So what is a ‘Proun’ and why did you decide to include that in the exhibition?
JM: Lissitzky I think was given jobs by Malevich. Malevich devised this thing he called Suprematism; a whole new way of articulating space and movement in painting and so on and he right from the start had a vision of its architectural potential and it was this that he got Lissitzky to pursue, so that Lissitzky then became someone that worked between painting and architecture, between art and design if you want to put it that way. He only ever built one building, which has just been rediscovered strangely enough in Moscow. He did a printworks behind the Pravda building in Moscow and there’s an effort to conserve it now; prevent it being demolished and built over, going on at the moment. But really he was an engineering trained expert of this Suprematist system and in his designs, which he called ‘Proun’ meaning ‘affirming what’s new’. He described it famously as an ‘interchange between painting and architecture’- an ‘interchange station’. He devised isometric drawings, which architects used to use until computers took over, and he would suggest three dimensional forms and whilst working on them he would turn the page round so that you get an interlocking of different viewpoints and different perspectives and these forms would appear to link together; to suggest structures which might be built. As you can see, if you are going to keep turning the page round, you’re going to have images which appear to defy gravity because you don’t have the ground at the bottom and the sky at the top anymore. So they are full of illusions in that way, and contradictions and they could only really be built in outer space and this was something that interested Malevich too.
TC: You mentioned there about geometry and working out in Vitebsk. I know that he was involved in the Unovis group; what exactly was the Unovis group and how did Lissitzky fit into that?
JM: Unovis is an invented word, meaning the assertion or affirmation of the new art. It was a group around Malevich – very close followers ranging from quite old people to school boys. Anyone could join this art school of Vitebsk and Unovis was their action group and it was separate from Vitebsk only as far as it had outreach in other places and took on followers in maybe five or six other cities in the Soviet area. So it was devoted to exploring the potential of this geometric way of working and it led to tribunes for lecturers to cinema designs, it put bizarre and fantastic geometric decorations on everything from trams to government buildings in Vitebsk and parades and all sorts of things like this. It was a kind of secret society in a way; the members had a little black square sewn onto their sleeve to show that they were believers of Vitebsk.
TC: It’s interesting you say that they are Soviet. It seems that Lissitzky is one of the artists who was not an émigré and that he didn’t leave Russia – he actually returned to Soviet Union. So how was he involved in the Soviet new apparatus of setting up these new art schools?
JM: He was directly involved and he travelled with a Soviet passport, so he was not an émigré as you rightly say. We now know that he travelled with particular jobs in mind, particular aims, which had been negotiated with the Soviet External Cultural Affairs Committee (VOKS) that set up little red cells all over the place to promote Soviet Communist thinking about culture and to set up exhibitions and so on. And Lissitzky, when he travelled west, always made contacts, mostly with very lively and inventive western artists. Some many of them in fact quite surprising people, like Kurt Schwitters and so on – you wouldn’t think they’d have any common ground. But he always made something out of it, often a publication, sometimes an exhibition or the design of an interior or something which was collaborative. So in a way when he got back to Russia he said this is what we did, here is evidence of some kind of contact. So I don’t think he was directly involved in promoting Communism but he certainly had that job. It was more a question of forming links, of setting up dialogues.
TC: In the exhibition you’ve reconstituted some of the Lissitzky models based on the drawings. Obviously that’s quite a controversial thing to do in a museum. Should you actually be creating an object that has never been made? So why did you decide to do that and how did you go about doing it?
JM: At Eindhoven they have a complete copy of the VOTS portfolio which was a set of coloured lithographs that Lissitzky made in 1922 in Hanover. On one of his early adventures to the west he met the person who became Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, who became his wife, a German who was involved with the great Hanover gallery and she arranged for his first exhibition there. So he had the opportunity to print these lithographs with top quality paper and materials and presses and so on, and they were images of major figures from the Victory Over The Sun portfolio. Now, he was working post revolutionary time; of course Malevich’s production had been in 1913, even before WW1 and the whole regime had changed and in Lissitzky’s version the opera includes the emergence of a new man who has put the past behind him and who is staring at a chaotic future. However by the 1920s it was necessary for the new man to be a communist, so he takes on a new kind of radical and political edge and message. The portfolio has these beautifully made lithographs and its in a big red box with a big F for ‘Figoren’ – figures or figurines for Victory Over The Sun and then the title page Lissitzky says ‘I’m not going to make these figures you can make them and I suggest you might use some glass, and something else, you know, maybe a bit of zinc’. So this I always thought was just an artist showing off in a way, but I then came across two other occasions on which he said ‘you can do this, I’m not going to do it. This is a collaboration, I’ve started it, you can finish it’. And this idea of collaboration I can see also in all the people he worked with: the Bauhaus or through De Stijl with Theo Van Deusberg, with Schwitters, all kinds of people. This idea of collaborating is something that appeals to the Soviets of course as a collective. The whole idea after the revolution was to be political, collective and public so that was his remit if you like. And this appealed a lot to the Van Abbemuseum, because of their own rather leftwing views and they wrote in large letters, I mean people sized letters, on the walls of the museum ‘you can do it’; they’re not doing it, you can do it! So we took seriously this idea and this fitted in well with the drawings because the more I looked at the drawings the more I could see that he was showing these different viewpoints. There is in the drawings all the information you need to construct these figures. Now, either he constructed and lost them or they were destroyed, or he didn’t make them if he knew them so well that he could turn them round in his mind. And we discovered that in some of the drawings there were maybe up to 10 different viewpoints, and although they are rather contradictory it is always, we discovered, possible to use one version of these. So we constructed them. They’re not fakes in a sense; well they’re not fakes at all. Let’s call them ‘fabrications’ in the sense that they’re done with new materials, they’re done with vinyl and plastics and so on. They’re very dynamic and handsome and it was a revelation to me to see how much energy there were in these projects once you became involved with them – very exciting!
TC: So what’s going to happen to the models now? Are they going to stay with the museum or do you have plans to use them in other projects?
JM: No, they are going to exhibit them in different ways. They did go on show in Shanghai at the World Fair in the Dutch building strangely enough, and they’re been on show more recently at Łódź in Poland and we may make some larger ones. We also put [Lissitzky’s proposal] to a local team of blacksmiths in the Brabant area of Holland and commissioned them to interpret these designs and they did enormous figures of the Grave-diggers. These are the figures who destroy and bury the sun and the old world and they did marvellous versions of them in steel which still stand in the lake by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven.
TC: Obviously this has been a two year long project; do you have any future plans to do anything else with Lissitzky or with the Van Abbemsuem?
JM: the Van Abbemuseum have been working on a sort of confrontation of Lissitzky’s work and Ilya Kabakov’s work. Kabakov is a now very celebrated international figure, but he was a kind of Moscow conceptualist in the 1960s and one of his most famous works is called the ‘man who flew into space’. [Its] a rather marvellous dingy room with old posters and so on; a tiny room from a Soviet block of flats really and the extraordinary thing is there has been an explosion through the ceiling! The man is no longer there because he flew into space. So there’s this fantastic idea of escaping from planet Earth, which is quite like Lissitzky and Malevich. I’ve been asked to do an interview with Lissitzky; it’s a fantastic undertaking really, as Lissitzky is long dead, but it is possible to ask questions that coincide with his writings – Lissitzky wrote quite a lot and published quite a lot. But it is also possible of course to ask questions that illicit the answer ‘no comment’! So it is possible therefore to ask all kinds of questions that he might not have wanted to answer, like did he give up his Jewish faith? Did he ever consider absconding whilst he was in the west? I think it opens up the possibility of a speculative exchange in a way.
TC: And just one final question: I know that you are involved in this new enterprise called CCRAC, could you just tell me about what this is and what your role is?
JM: CCRAC is the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre and it arises from Dr Rosalind Blakesly at the Art History department at Pembroke College, Cambridge working with the Courtauld Institute to bring our teaching together initially, but it has led to maybe ten or twelve major ventures – conferences and research ventures. We began with a series of conferences, still going on, called ‘Utopia 1’, ‘Utopia 2’, Utopia 3’. The first was 1900 to 1932, so from the private enterprise period through WW1 to the early years of Soviet rule. The second conference, which had a great turn out – about 150 people and a lot of speakers – was about the Stalin period and after. It was astonishing; the interesting thing is there is a lot more new material there. Utopia 3 happens in February 2013 and is again a two day conference devoted to art since the fall of communist power in Russia, which has all kinds of rich material in it. But there are other schemes: there is a scheme underway called ‘hidden collections’, which is about Russian art in Britain initially, which is hidden in the sense that it is swamped in much bigger collections. The idea ultimately is to put the images and information online as a kind of virtual collection so that people can investigate Russian art in Britain.
All provenance is always fascinating, so it tells us quite a lot about Russians contributing to British culture in a way. There’s another great scheme called Russian Art Online, which is still in its first stages, which is dealing with all the strange names, acronyms, misspellings and all that kind of thing and initially begins like a dictionary format. But there are a lot of other projects too and it’s astonishing how much material is coming together and it will all be on the website which is almost formulated. One thing we want to do it to put Russian museums, especially provincial museums, in touch with equivalents in Britain. There are a number of institutions wishing to collaborate including the Academy in St Petersburg as well as the European University in St Petersburg and the Stroganov College in Moscow. So there’s lots to do! Cambridge also is organising conferences, ‘The Spiritual in Russian Art’ is coming up in September and a conference ‘Design Without Frontiers’. And at the Courtauld we have ‘Art in Exile’ which is about the Russian artists in the Gulag and elsewhere or sort of in a psychological exile that enables them to get through the Stalin period.
TC: Sounds like you have a busy year John, thank you very much!