Tatlin’s Tower

Monument to Revolution

by Norbert Lynton

Yale, 240 pp., $50

Imagine that a critic had written a book centered on Olympia and Triumph of the Will without emphasizing the fact, however well known, that the Nazi ideology to which the director of those movies had dedicated her talent had led to the slaughter of millions. You can’t. It would be inconceivable. Few can deny that, at their best (if that’s the adjective), Leni Riefenstahl’s films were works of genius, but their hideous context should never be ignored. And generally it isn’t.

The artists who promoted Soviet communism are given an easier ride. To take perhaps the most prominent, Sergei Eisenstein is remembered today as a stylistically revolutionary filmmaker. Fair enough. But who mentions that he, no less than Riefenstahl, was a flack for totalitarian savagery? And Eisenstein was not alone. As the Bolsheviks hacked their millennial way to a radiant future built on slaughter, medieval despotism, and the annihilation of the society that had preceded them, they were cheered on by some of the brightest creative spirits of their era, by Malevich, by Rodchenko, by Mayakovsky, by—well, take your pick.

Amongst those who cheered the loudest was Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), designer of the immense (perhaps 1,200 feet tall) unbuilt structure that became a defining emblem of revolutionary élan. He is the subject of this fascinating, if in one sense tellingly uncritical, study completed by the noted British art historian Norbert Lynton shortly before his death in 2007. Scholarly, densely argued, and rendered more opaque still by the gaps in Tatlin’s foggy biography, the book is wonderfully illustrated but not the easiest of reads. That said, persevere for long enough and you will be left mourning the brilliant culture of Russia’s imperial twilight, struck by the strangeness of what replaced it, and appalled by the moral vacuum at the heart of Lynton’s book.

Already deservedly (as Lynton demonstrates) famous as one of Russia’s leading modern artists, Tatlin began planning his building, the “tower” of Lynton’s title, in early 1919, shortly after taking a senior position in the ministry run by Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin’s commissar for enlightenment. The tower was to be a monument to the Third International (the Comintern) and thus to global revolution. As such, it would have been a celebration of massacres past, present, and to come. Dreamt up as a wonder of the modern world, Tatlin’s tower was to be the lighthouse of some nightmare Pharos, a beacon illuminating only the way to destruction.

None of this seems to have bothered Lynton overmuch. He confines himself to anodyne remarks about the tower’s role as an incitement to revolution without worrying too much what that revolution might mean in practice, a peculiar omission from a man (a Jewish boy in Hitler’s Reich) who had himself been forced to flee the rage of a state.

On the other hand, one of the strengths of this book is the manner in which Lynton links Tatlin’s plans for his tower to the curious (and now largely forgotten) fusion of mysticism and futurism (Lynton’s suggestion that the tower also reflects Christian imagery is less convincing) that could be found in the thinking of some sections of the pro-Bolshevik intelligentsia: His “temple” would, Tatlin gushed, be the precursor of a future “temple of the worlds—which would .  .  . move in infinite space,” emancipating “all the world from bondage to gravity” and paving the way for the “expression .  .  . of mutual love of all the generations,” of a mankind that must become “sky-mechanics and sky-physicists.”

A marginally less overexcited Nikolai Punin, future lover, companion, and heartbreaker of the poetess Anna Akhmatova, and a man ultimately destined to perish in the Gulag, explained how the tower, home to the coming world government, would be an “organic synthesis of architecture, sculpture, and painting.” It was to encompass three large halls, one “for legislative purposes,” shaped like a cube, that rotated annually, one pyramidal (for bureaucrats) that rotated monthly, and one cylindrical, dedicated to “disseminating information to the world proletariat,” which was meant to rotate daily. These halls would be enveloped within a double helix framework that hinted at the ziggurats of antiquity and myth. Location, too, was crucial. The idea was that this vast, asymmetrical edifice of steel, iron, and glass would squat in the middle of the former St. Petersburg. Taunting and overshadowing the elegance and grandeur of the old imperial capital that had itself once represented a new direction for Russia, it would stand as a rebuke to history and homage to the future.

Spiraled, pointing, angled, closer in appearance to a giant telescope or piece of artillery than to a building, Tatlin’s work conveyed both an impression of coiled power and energy unleashed. This was an architecture parlante intended to roar, a stupendous symbol of the new age. Statues of men on horseback were, like the aristocrats—the individuals—they depicted, to be consigned to the past. Tatlin’s tower would be utilitarian, a manifestation of the collective will, a “living machine” made of industrial materials yet somehow organic, functional, more-than-modern and, like the revolution, in perpetual motion.

Of course, it was never built. The resources were not there; the political will was not there (those running the new Soviet state preferred their monuments representational, solid, and stolid); and the technology was not there. Failing to take account of the last was a rare lapse for Tatlin, the son of an engineer and a man who took pride in his technical savvy, unless the tower was (as plausibly claimed by John Milner in the fine monograph on Tatlin he wrote in the 1980s) not so much impractical as explicitly utopian from the get-go, a manifesto rather than a blueprint.

Tatlin did manage to build at least three large-scale models of his tower, photographs of which are included in Lynton’s book. The first stood around 15 feet high above a circular base (in which someone could crouch, turning the cranks that moved the tower’s halls); the second, slightly smaller and decidedly more elegant, was exhibited in 1925 in Paris, home of the Eiffel Tower that had partly inspired it; and the third, stripped down and simplified, made an appearance, like some futurist fetish, at a ceremonial parade in Leningrad the same year. All three have since vanished, long since lost like so much else in the Soviet junkyard, but Tatlin’s original vision itself endured in the leftist imagination as a statement of the what-could-be and, later, the what-could-have-been. Artistically, its status as one of the 20th century’s most influential icons of architecture unbound remains undiminished.

As for Tatlin, his career went into a decline in the culturally more conventional years of full Stalinism, neither out of favor, nor quite in. His became a life of smaller-scale projects, from furniture design, to stage sets, to art more traditional than anything he had produced for decades. What was left of his old utopian obsessions revealed itself in prolonged attempts to perfect the Letatlin, his final challenge to “the bondage of gravity.” A man-powered flying machine of remarkable beauty—oddly, no images of this craft are included in Lynton’s book—it was inspired by the work of Leonardo da Vinci, another artist uncomfortable with strict divisions between the aesthetic and the practical, in the same field. It never flew.

Towards the end, Lynton includes a picture of an older Tatlin. He looks sad, beaten, crushed, an Icarus who had fallen to earth without ever reaching the heavens.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.

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