- Introduction to Iakov Tugendkhol’d, “In the Iron Dead-end” (1915)
Out of the Archive provides a regular forum for the publication of rare or little-known documents concerning the history of modernism and the avant-gardes. Its compass is global and its aim is to prompt critical reflection on how the past’s material remains shape present understandings. [End Page 899] [End Page 900]
During the 1910s and the 1920s, Iakov Aleksandrovich Tugendkhol’d (1882–1928) was one of the main connoisseurs and interpreters of modern Western art in Russia, and later in the Soviet Union. From 1902 to 1913, he lived in Munich and Paris, attended the studio of Alexej von Jawlensky and the Académie Ranson, became the Parisian correspondent for the literary and artistic journal Apollon, and published books on Puvis de Chavannes (1911), French art and its representatives (1913), and the Serge Shchukin collection of modern art. Upon his return to Russia, he reviewed attentively albeit often sceptically the contemporary Russian art scene, with a particular interest in the decorative and monumental values in Natalia Goncharova’s paintings,1 and an eager admiration for Marc Chagall that led to a monograph (1918).2 After the Bolshevik revolution, Tugendkhol’d was active as art critic and editor for Izvestiia and Krasnaia Niva, and as art history and heritage scholar at the Academy of Artistic Sciences and other state institutions. In 1925 he took part in the organisation of the Soviet section at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris. In addition to a monograph on Alexandra Exter (Berlin, 1922), he continued publicizing modern Western art in books on Van Gogh (1919), Degas (1922), The First Museum of New Western Painting (1923, former Shchukin collection), and The Artistic Culture of the West (1928). Excerpts from Tugendkhol’d’s extensive writings have become available in English only very recently.3
The essay “In the Iron Dead-End” appeared in the summer of 1915 in the liberal literary and political monthly Severnye zapiski (Notes from the North) to which Tugendkhol’d had been contributing [End Page 901] since 1913.4 While the general framework of the text is set by the First World War and its relation to Futurist aesthetics, its immediate topics originate in two 1915 events: the series of improvised and rather radical assemblage-based on-site interventions that disturbed the muscovite group exhibition The Year 1915;5 and the inclusion of several transrational (zaum’) poems by Alexey Kruchenykh together with a study of Vasily Kamensky’s “ferro-concrete” poetry6 in the new literary almanac Strelets [The Archer].7 Tugendkhol’d asserts his strong disagreement with the idiosyncrasy of the poems, as well as with the arbitrariness of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, Mikhail Larionov’s, and—above all—Vladimir Tatlin’s post-Cubist constructions (and in doing so, provides the modern scholar of the history of exhibition practices with precious depictions of these ephemeral, little known yet significant actions).
The article sets forth an informed cross-cultural comparison between the development of modern art in Europe—since the impressionist dissolution of the pictorial unity via Cézanne’s quest of solidity up to the cubist investigation of shapes and volumes—, and the appropriation of these new trends in Russia.8 But its focus smoothly shifts away from the critique of the somewhat radical provincialism of Russian artists, to a discussion of the state of art and literature and their social functions. The object-like assemblages and futurist poems thus become symptoms of a crisis in the social relations between individuals. Hence the metaphor of the “iron dead-end” stands not merely for Tatlin’s constructions of everyday materials9 nor solely for Kamensky’s “ferro-concrete poems,” but for the loss of shared values in an eclectic urban society that evolves around individualism. In a similar way as the French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau had pleaded, two decades earlier, that emotions were the sole basis of a functional social network, and that the great mission of art and the artists was to affect emotionally their beholders in order to build and maintain a social space based on shared emotions...