Autumn 1997

Instruments of radical change

The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy 1917-1946

By Victor Margolin
University of Chicago Press

Rodchenko, Lissitzy and Moholy-Nagy were founding fathers of modern graphic design. Art historians have assured them a dominant position in the history of Modernist design. It was their graphic works that fired Margolin, some years ago, to begin this book. Since then, his focus has shifted. He treats them now as representatives of the ‘artistic-social avant-garde’, and wants to show us how far they travelled towards their goal ‘to bring about utopia through the practice of art’. Although the careers of Rodchenko, Lissitzy and Moholy-Nagy coincided with the most extreme social and political upheavals, Margolin suggests that ‘by reflecting on their lives, we can better assess the degree to which art and design can gain social influence, and we can understand more clearly the social conditions within which that influence can be exercised and effective’.

These are huge ambitions for a small book, dense with detailed evidence from the works of these heroes and, more exhaustively, from the shelves of literature surrounding them. The results of Margolin’s delvings are presented in six essays. Arranged more or less chronologically, they deal with abstract experiments related to architectural form (Rodchenko and Lissitzky in Vitebsk and Moscow); Constructivism in Germany (Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy in Berlin); Rodchenko and three-dimensional design (the Vkhutemas school in Moscow); Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy’s photography; USSR in Construction (Lissitzky and Rodchenko’s magazine photography and layouts); and finally, Moholy-Nagy and the New Bauhaus (Chicago).

Berlin is at the centre of the story. In the 1920s, the city was the Russian revolution’s window on the west. Here Moholy-Nagy came in 1921 before he was called to the Bauhaus: not essentially political, he had seen a communist utopia turn to violent nightmare in Hungary. Lissitzky arrived in 1922 from a Russia worn out by famine and civil war. To introduce new Russian ideas, he launched the tri-lingual magazine Veshch (Object). ‘No more declarations and counter-declarations! Arise! Create Objects.’ At the same time, Lissitzky publishes his red and black letterpress booklet The Story of Two Squares. Margolin reproduces its six pages and he articulates their meaning as ‘intended instruments of change’ in an exemplary commentary, and brings similar critical sensitivity in dealing with Rodchenko’s photomontage illustrations to Mayakovsky’s poem ‘About This’ (Pro eto) – although in the Dadaist publications that Mayakovsky brought back from Berlin Raoul Hausmann (rather than George Grosz) is a more plausible influence.

For Margolin’s utopian investigations, Berlin is confusing. It was the site of Moholy-Nagy’s most creative period as an artist and designer, when ideas of utopia were fading with the unfulfilled promise of the Bauhaus. Margolin omits all this. Unhelpful to his plan, it suggests that the avant-garde flourishes better in a profoundly corrupt bourgeois metropolitan culture and is dependent on the patronage of an educated elite. With this precedent, can we draw conclusions from Moholy-Nagy’s subsequent career and the vicissitudes of the New Bauhaus in Chicago?

Margolin charts the declarations and counter-declarations of the artists, of their critics, and of later art historians, whose attentions he painstakingly records in 560 footnotes, but is reluctant to quote much of the artists’ own views – only 100 of his footnotes refer to them, none from original Russian sources. This draws attention to what – and who – is left out of the story. Most obviously, the marginalisation (in the text) of Rodchenko’s wife and co-worker, the brilliant designer Varvara Stepanova. Osip Brik is here, but where are the other writers they worked with, photographed with Rodchenko and Stepanova in the pages of LEF? Where is Rodchenko’s friend, the proto-Structuralist, Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky (form rather than content). With such potentially dangerous views, his presence in 1920s Berlin was a tactical withdrawal from his homeland. And where is Lissitzky’s co-editor on Vesch, Ilya Ehrenburg (his wife had studied under Rodchenko), who was later to repudiate its views?

In the important chapter devoted to the large-format propaganda magazine USSR in Construction (see ‘Eyes on the world’ in Eye 26), Margolin follows the development of its graphic language from 1930 to 1941, illustrating his description and analysis with 30 reproductions. But he cannot deal imaginatively with deception, self-deception and betrayal that were the real history of the time. Utopia now had little relevance. It has been estimated that in the Soviet Union between 1928 (the year Lissitzky installed the astonishing Soviet pavilion at the International Press Exhibition in Cologne) and 1952 (four years before Rodchenko’s death), 42 million had lost their lives; not in war, but as a result of forced collectivisation and purges. On the issue of USSR in Construction devoted to the White Sea Canal project, he deals with the fact that 100,000 workers are said to have died, yet accepts at face value Rodchenko’s account of the enthusiasm of the workers, published in the journal Sovetskoe foto in 1936.

‘Man came and conquered, he conquered and transformed himself. He had come downcast, punished, embittered, and left with his head held high, with a medal on his breast, and with a passport to life … I photographed simply giving no thought to formalism. I was staggered by the acuity and wisdom with which people were being re-educated.’

In the Soviet Union there was in effect only one client, the state, and it was to the state that designers looked for their bread and butter. Margolin interprets Lissitzky’s retreat from a filmic layout of oppositions of scale, contrast and visual metaphor to what he tactfully calls ‘epic narrative’ – a formal presentation of obvious symbols. It is impossible for anyone to know if Lissitzky’s more ludicrously kitsch designs of the late 1930s were serious attempts to connect with the petit bourgeois aesthetic notions of the Party, or to stay alive?

Or had Constructivism, like any movement in art, run its natural life, to which some kind of socialist realism was a natural reaction? And without a revolution, would these artists’ designs have taken a different form? Rodchenko was, after all, a painter with a social programme who also designed furniture and graphics – like Van de Velde at the turn of the century.

Most useful for designer readers will be Margolin’s analysis of the graphic works and his accounts of the teaching of design. But students will not warm to his academic convolutions: ‘For Moholy-Nagy,’ he writes, ‘the visual control inherent in his photographic ideology of the 1920s diminished the negotiation between perceiver and perceived that acknowledges the complexity of any encounter with the world.’ However, the book is mostly well written and jargon free, and is appropriately well designed. Not over generous in size (160 x 233mm) and printed in black only, the book does include more than one hundred illustrations, placed, like the footnotes, where the reader wants them. The index is somewhat unreliable, and omits important entries that appear in the footnotes, where the reader can trace the written sources of this heroic period: there is no bibliography.

That the reader will find no clear answers to Margolin’s ‘larger questions’ is because the book is too small to give the full context in which these designers operated. If design history’s field of vision is to be extended, then it must make more of the necessary connections. On this subject, it surely needs to link the pre-revolutionary aesthetic inheritance (artists such as the Futurists and Party men like Lunacharsky, for example); the technology (for example the Leica camera and its imitation, the FED – named after the head of the Cheka secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky); the economic and political pressures; and others working in the same area. These other designers include Telingater, for one; Elisaveta Ignatovich, Natalia Pinus and those like Klutsis, denounced and quickly shot (as the Soviet books say: ‘no biographical details available’) and many others, as well as all those who gave their work no signature.

Most perplexing of all is Margolin’s failure to take evidence from the dwindling band of contemporary witnesses to the events he describes. It might have brought the book alive.

Richard Hollis, designer and author of Graphic Design: A Concise History, London

First published in Eye no. 26 vol. 7 1997

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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