Natalia Sidlina is a curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, London, and a guest curator of Gabo: Prototypes for Sculpture at Tate Britain, 2010.
Theodora Clarke: Why did you decide to write a book about Naum Gabo?
Natalia Sidlina: It’s a long story which started not in Russia but in Australia. Many years ago I went as a language exchange student to Melbourne University and I was browsing through the art books from Russia at the library and I came across a book entitled ‘Naum Gabo and Sixty Years of Constructivism’. I picked it up from the shelf and read the first few pages. I quickly realised that Naum Gabo, a sculptor I had never heard of, was one of the key members of the Russian Constructivist group. For my degree I specialised in Russian Constructivists so it was so strange for me to discover a totally new name. I realised that the art history, as it is taught and presented in Russia and outside of the country are quite different. I began background research and realised that the key works and materials of Gabo are in the UK. So I packed my bags, went to London and started working on the archive at the Tate Gallery.
After finishing my PhD, my dream was to publish my thesis especially as Gabo was unknown in Russia when I started. Two years ago, I was approached by a Russian publishing house publishing a series of books on unknown members of the Russian Avant-Garde movement. I had been looking for someone to commission me to write the book for years but there was a catch 22; I only had 4 months to deliver this book! I started working, hoping that I could rewrite my PhD and transform it into the book. Half way through, I realised that the structured and the language used in the text was too academic and not suitable for wide audience. I realised I would have to start all over again. For another 2 months I was practically writing 24/7 and I’m proud to say that on the last day of May the text was delivered!
TC: You mentioned that Gabo is not very well known in Russia but in the West he is considered one of the most important Russian artists. Why do you think he never achieved this status in his homeland?
NS: Gabo is a typical member of the modernist art movement. He never had any formal education in painting or sculpture; he basically taught himself. He realised that he had this talent and had enough self-assurance and belief in it to abandon everything else he was doing and dedicated his life to his art. He managed to convince other people about the importance of what he was doing. A very important part of what he was doing was education. He was constantly publishing, exhibiting and giving interviews and giving lectures. When radio became available he was there, when universities called him he came out and gave lectures. He became in a way a voice of the Russian Avant-Garde in the West, especially of Russian Constructivism. He believed that his art wasn’t just for a small group of connoisseurs but that art was there to transform the life of everybody, to actually change the world. That is a belief common to most of modernists and especially Constructivists in Russia and the West.
TC: Can you just explain to our readers what Russian Constructivism is and what Gabo’s role in the movement was?
NS: Russian Constructivism is probably the most famous art movement in Russia in the first quarter of the twentieth century. It started with Vladimir Tatlin – hopefully everyone saw Tatlin’s tower at the exhibition Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy in London a couple of years ago. Tatlin’s idea was that art did not necessarily need to be painted and sculptures need not necessarily be cast in bronze – they could be constructed. For those purposes any materials could be used. In a way he brought art closer to life and that process he started with his counter reliefs in 1914. Then the Revolution happened in Russia.
The new generation of artists who’d dreamed about reshaping the world, making it different not only from a social point of view but from a visual point of view as well, formed the first working group of Constructivists. They started thinking how best to approach this process and they decided that it would be through changing the everyday environment. So it would start with buildings – building new structures that would be purpose built, practical and create an easy environment for everyone to live in. They would look at the interiors: furniture, cups, cutlery and everyday objects. Graphic design developed a new typography which is still very much in use by our contemporary designers. So they were changing the world through everyday life objects for architecture.
Gabo considered himself Russian but he led a very cosmopolitan life. He kept his Russian/Soviet citizenship up to 1952 and as an artist he spent only five years in Russia. Those short years were the formative years of Russian Constructivism, the so-called ‘laboratory period’, when there were no Constructivist buildings, or furniture or tableware yet. He witnessed this period of laboratory experiments and that spirit of experiment he took away from Russia in 1922 when he moved to Germany. In a way Gabo was instrumental in spreading Russian constructivist ideas to the West at the very early stage of the movement.
TC: I read in your book that Gabo was very interested in working in a number of different materials, particularly forms of plastic. How important were materials to Gabo’s work?
NS: There’s a very interesting thesis in the library of the Courtauld Institute by a now very prominent art historian dedicated to Gabo – Christopher Green. He went directly to Gabo and asked him the very question that you have just asked me! Gabo wrote a not very flattering letter back saying ‘if you’re asking about materials then you don’t understand anything about my art. Materials are not important; it’s the ideas that make my art what it is.’ So for Gabo, as long as the material was enabling him to transform his very complex three-dimensional visions into real objects it was fine. He would use an earlier idea, such as from the 1920s, and create the work in a new material that was only available from the 1940s.
Thist process actually influenced on him dating his works as well. Sometimes you will see a work in which he uses Perspex. This material was only available from the late 1930s but it is used for works also dated 1924. Early plastics he experimented with would lose shape, colour and transparency (which was very important with Gabo), so he didn’t feel it was wrong to update his works using more modern materials, more modern plastics which had better qualities. He was always on the lookout for the new materials. He was in constant touch with professionals in the chemical industry and was kept updated. In his archive there are samples of the new plastics which were sent directly from the manufacturer to him so he could test them and see whether they would be appropriate for his works. So in a way he was always looking for new materials but it was the ideas that were more instrumental for his art.
TC: You mentioned the Tate archive – you’ve curated an exhibition there about Gabo and have had access to the Gabo papers. How instrumental to your research was this primary material and what sort of objects are in the archive which feature in the book and add to our knowledge of Gabo?
NS: The Gabo archive was an absolute revelation for me. When I first started working with the collection, which is now at Tate, during the late 1990s it was like getting as close to someone who is no longer around as possible. Going through Gabo’s personal notes, diaries, letters and sometimes just little scribbles on pieces of paper was like meeting someone in person. I got to know Gabo as a person, not just an iconic figure in the history of Russian art. I hope that this is reflected in the book. I present Gabo not just as this father of abstract sculpture, or as the key artist in a movement, but as a person, as a family man. He was someone who had his ups and downs and could be angry or very happy like anyone else. That feeling was given to me first by the archive and then through my personal encounter with his only daughter Nina Williams. She was a huge support throughout the entire process of writing the book.
Gabo’s archive is an absolute treasure hunt for anyone. It has everything: there are love letters, war diaries, models of unrealised works as well as three dimensional models, beautiful photographs and personal objects. So anyone who is interested in Russian art and the Russian avant-garde or Modernism should go and see it, especially now that it is fully catalogued. You can access the full listing of his items from the archive online plus there is an internet site dedicated to the Gabo archive. There you can see images, information and follow a timeline. The unique thing about the website is that it actually brings Gabo’s collection together.
The Gabo archive was divided into three parts. The early documents went to Berlinische Gallery in Berlin because Gabo spent the early years of his artistic career in Germany. The largest part of it is here at the Tate and the documents from the later years were bequeathed by Gabo himself to the Beinecke archive and library at Yale University. The website was done in collaboration with these three institutions. So together the site gives you an idea of what the entire body of papers and objects was like before it was divided and catalogued and turned into archival materials at these different locations.
TC: Many of our readers would be interested in the fact that Gabo spent a lot of time in the UK. He was part of the St Ives group in Cornwall with Hepworth and Nicholson – how important was the period of his life that he spent with these artists in Britain?
NS: For Gabo on all levels the ten years he spent in London and St Ives were the key period of his creative career. He became a truly recognised international figure whilst in the UK. He met incredible artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson and became very close friends with them. He also met his soul mate, Herbert Read, who was his closest friend and the person with whom he could have endless conversations about art, philosophy, history – they shared so many things. They were both anarchists and keen lovers of contemporary art with strong beliefs that art and society were inseparable and incapable of surviving without the other.
His family life also became much happier in the UK. He met the woman of his dreams Miriam Franklin, married the woman he loved and his only child Nina was born in St Ives. All of a sudden he was this international figure, a happy family man and someone who had established a very close connection with Western Modernism. He had his old friends as well; Piet Mondrian was here and other members of his European circle came to the UK to escape the war on the continent. His time in the UK resulted in a rise in his creativity. The objects he considered his favourite sculptures were conceived here. His “Linear constructions in space” series where he established the method of stringing sculptures were created here. Works like Spiral Theme, one of Gabo’s favourite works, were also conceived in this country.
TC: There are probably far Gabo works in the public consciousness than perhaps people realise. I love for example, that the fountain outside St Thomas’s hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament, is actually a Gabo sculpture. Gabo was interested in ‘kinetics’, could you tell us more about his work with kinetic sculpture?
NS: Gabo’s first kinetic sculpture was created in 1920. In fact kinetic artists considered Gabo one of the forerunners of kinetic art. He certainly wasn’t the first person who created an object with moveable parts but his experiments in the field were an absolute breakthrough to the point that Gabo himself hadn’t realised the importance of the object he had created. For him Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) was just a demonstration tool, not the true work of art. It is its impact on the new generation of artists that makes Standing Wave a work of art. Gabo devised it to show his students what he meant when talking about kinetic rhythms and incorporating time into space. It’s actually the interpretation of this object which made it a work of art and it is now a widely recognised so, although Gabo himself didn’t consider it as such. So Gabo was a forerunner, but unfortunately there aren’t that many kinetic works of art because the mechanical part of kinetics always bothered Gabo. He felt his entire creative career was looking for ways of avoiding any mechanics in his works. This is why there are very few objects which actually move and the fountain at St Thomas’s Revolving Torsion is one of the few truly kinetic works Gabo created. It was also one of his last works.
TC: You’ve mentioned Tate’s archive already and why there is such an important collection of Gabo works in London. The museum also owns several of Gabo’s extraordinary series of heads. Could you tell us a little more about them and how they were constructed?
NS: Gabo was an autodidactic artist. He studied medicine and then technical science at Munich. Ater the First World War broke out he tried to escape Germany and on the way to Russia he got stopped In Oslo. For four years between the start of the war and the Revolution he was stuck in Oslo and couldn’t continue his studies. He started experimenting with his creativity instead. He put together his aesthetic ideas, which he already had, and his experience with working mathematical models at Munich. He came up with this revolutionary method which was called the stereometric method. Basically it was the method of building a form in a completely new way. This meant building an open form through intersecting flat planes. It could be anything from a piece of paper to a sheet of metal.
Gabo started initially with the materials available to him which was cardboard. He started making various shapes, arranging them together until he managed to transform something as familiar as a human head into a construction. So his idea for those constructions was to introduce the new method and to show that a familiar form could be rendered in a completely new way. So basically it was like building a card house; a very simple principle with an absolutely ground-breaking result. We are so fortunate to actually have original models from 1915-1917 and one of those models is at Tate. At the archive we have all sorts of cut outs and unused bits and pieces which took me ages to work out which construction they belonged to. Those pieces were tested and they are definitely from the period so Gabo had the collapsibles as well as the templates used to make new pieces to replace worn out ones, should he need to.
TC: My final question for you is what is your favourite Gabo work? I know that’s a difficult question!
NS: They are all absolutely incredible but I probably should say that Spheric Theme for me is an absolute revelation although it’s probably not as well-known as the Linear series. Conceived in the UK, Spheric Theme is just a very simply structured form. It’s a circular form which is just constructed from two cut circles – metal, plastic, whatever came to hand – with a little incision in the centre. They are put together in a way that forms a three dimensional object. The simplicity of the process of building it and the absolute beauty of the result: this is what attracts me to this form in particular.
You can buy the book at Amazon here:
‘Naum Gabo’ by Natalia Sidlina (2012), Tate Publishing
Russian-born sculptor Naum Gabo (1890–1977) is one of the 20th century’s most unsung artistic masters. In 1917, Gabo contributed to development of the theories and practice of a new art movement called Constructivism, and, along with his brother, he wrote the Realistic Manifesto of 1920, which promoted art as a part of man’s everyday existence without the confinement of artistic terms and convention. In the 1920s and ’30s, Gabo traveled extensively to the hubs of modernism in Europe, including a stint teaching at the Bauhaus. He was with Mondrian’s Abstraction-Creation group in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Paris, and upon the outbreak of WWII, the artist moved to Cornwall, England, and later to the United States. As this new book’s 142 colour plates demonstrate, Gabo’s work reveals rigorous inquiries into ways of representing volume and space. His sensitive and imaginative use of materials, ranging from fishing line to Perspex to wood, created a rhythm and balance within his sculptures that evokes an intense emotional response.