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.
The machine as a form of art
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 20thcentury 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.
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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.
Ugliness vs Beauty
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, produced 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 Berezillia. At the end of 1924, TYH 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 Sahaidachniy, who by now was an artist and sculptor in his own right and also taught at KAI.
One of the founders of TYH, 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 Sahaidachniy 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.”
A new texture
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 TYH was one by playwright Mykola Shkliar 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 dumason 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 living 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.
Illustrations for books
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 Mykhailo 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 Triaskin, 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.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj