Vladimir Tatlin
Biography of Russian Artist, Soviet Constructivist Designer.

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Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin.

Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953)


Early Life and Arts Training
Early Paintings
Soviet Constructivism
Monument to the Third International
Constructivist Artist-Engineers
Applied Art and Design

Monument to the Third International
(1920) Moscow original destroyed.
Replicas in Moderna Museet, Stockholm;
Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris;
new model also commissioned for the
Los Angeles County Museum and the
Smithsonian Institution (1980).
See also Russian Sculpture.


An important historical figure in Russian art of the early 20th century, the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin was a founder-member of Soviet Constructivism, a form of avant-garde art - best described as abstract sculpture made from industrial-type materials. Other Russian artists associated with the movement include Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962), El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Lyubov Popova (1889-1924) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), as well as the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). Tatlin is known in particular for his model for the Monument to the Third International (1920), which became a symbol of Constructivist art. Thereafter, despite his commitment to the new Soviet culture, his contribution to modern art was minimal. Active in applied art and theatre set design, as well as teaching and administration, he ended his life in obscurity. Sadly only a handful of his 3-D constructions have survived, although some of the world's best art museums hold replicas made from his original drawings. However, he is now ranked alongside Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), and Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) as one of the most innovative modern artists of his day, whose influence was felt in many different areas.

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Early Life and Arts Training

Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin was born in Kharkov, Ukraine. His father was a railway engineer, his mother a poet. At the beginning of 1902 he ran away to sea for almost a year, visiting countries around the Eastern Mediterranean. On his return he began his formal training as an artist (icon painter) at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, which he attended from 1902 to 1904. Afterwards he continued his studies in drawing and oil painting, under Aleksey Afanas'ev (1850-1920), at the Penza Art School (1904-9), where he became close friends with Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and his partner Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962). He returned to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1909-1910) to study with the celebrated Impressionists Konstantin Korovin (1861–1932) and Valentin Serov (1865–1911). He also met more members of the Russian avant-garde, including the brothers David Burlyuk (1882-1967) and his younger brother Vladimir Burliuk (1886-1917), Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Robert Falk (1886-1958), Ilya Mashkov (1884-1944), Liubov Popova, and others.

Early Paintings

Influenced at this time by folk art and other Russian themes, he began exhibiting his primitive paintings at various avant-garde exhibitions including the Second Izbedskii Salon exhibition in Odessa (1910), the Union of Youth group show in St Petersburg (1911), The Donkey's Tail Group Exhibition in Moscow (1912), the World of Art show in St Petersburg (1912-1913) and the Knave of Diamonds Group Exhibition in Moscow (1913). As well as trying his hand at illustration - he produced a number of drawings for a book by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1878–1930) - he also absorbed the principles of Larionov's Rayonism (1912-14) - a type of abstract art which combined the colour of Orphism, the fragmented structure of Cubism and the motion of Futurism - and Malevich's geometric style of Suprematism.



Soviet Constructivism

The origins of constructivism may be said to date from Cezanne's paintings, which he himself described as "constructions after nature", although a more immediate precursor of Soviet Constructivism was Picasso who, in 1912, began making mixed media constructions (junk sculptures) out of wire, sheet metal and other industrial materials: see, for instance Guitar (1912-13, MOMA, New York). Similar constructivist works were also made by Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine (1888-1944) - see Symphony No 1 (1913, MOMA, New York) - and by Futurists like Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), who was already beginning to use new materials in his works. Of course Picasso was still working within the illusionist tradition of western fine art, but it was his Cubist mixed media constructions, with their use of glass, plastic and other industrial oddments, that inspired Tatlin when he visited the Frenchman in his Paris studio in 1913. As well as the Spaniard, he also met the Cubist sculptors Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) and Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964).

Tatlin duly returned to Moscow and determined to abandon fine art painting in favour of sculpture (constructions), and to focus on the possibilities inherent in new materials. He began constructing a series of 3-D mixed-media reliefs or assemblages (from wood, glass, wire, iron and other scraps of metal like zinc and aluminium), which he developed according to the faktura (materiality) of the components and their specific characteristics. These works were shown to begin with at the First Exhibition of Painterly Reliefs (1914), held in his Moscow studio, and then at the Tramway V art exhibition in St Petersburg (1915). After this, he moved on to Counter-Reliefs, which were exhibited at the 0.10 Exhibition (1916) in St Petersburg and The Store (1916) in Moscow. After this came a series of so-called Corner-Reliefs - sculptures suspended in the corners of rooms. In all these abstract constructivist artworks, the space around the object is used as another construction material, and interacts with the object to create dynamic tension.

Throughout much of Europe, during the era of World War I, but especially in Russia in 1917, the universal desire to create a better society was based on the liberating effect of science, with its new ideas and new industrial machinery. Thus Tatlin's exploration and use of new materials in his scientific-looking structures was exactly in keeping with the mood of Soviet Russia, as was his focus on design rather than art.

Monument to the Third International

Tatlin was one of the first modern artists in Russia to embrace the spirit of the Bolshevik October 1917 Revolution. Accordingly, in 1918, he was made director of IZO Narkompros, the Arts Department in the Commissariat for People's Enlightenment, and instructed to arrange statues in Moscow and elsewhere, glorifying working class heroes and communist achievements. Unimpressed with the range of designs and sculptures submitted to the Commissariat, Tatlin decided to build a huge monument to the Revolution, to be located in Petrograd. Intended as a massive structure made out of steel and glass, spanning both banks of the River Neva, it would rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris and house the headquarters of the Comintern, the international communist organization. His completed model for the building, known as the Monument to the Third International (1920, Moscow original destroyed, replicas in the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris; and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm), which fully reflected his utopian vision of the future, was a cross between an architectural model, a piece of scientific apparatus and a Dada assemblage. It was displayed at the VIII Congress of the Soviets, in the winter of 1920-1, and later became the central feature of the Soviet Pavilion at the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris.

Constructivist Artist-Engineers

With fine art now deemed to be dead, constructivist-type industrial designwork was the new artform. In late 1920, a group of artists inside the Moscow Institute for Art Research (INKHUK), which included Rodchenko, his wife Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), Lyubov Popova, El Lissitzky and Alexei Gan (1889-1942), formed the First Working Group of Constructivists and were known as "artist-engineers". In 1922, a Constructivist Manifesto, was written and published by Alexei Gan, the movement's theorist. In the same year, INKHUK promulgated the Theory of Productivism which banned all types of traditional easel art and compelled painters and sculptors to switch to industrial designwork. Rodchenko even established a special section in the Moscow Institute's workshops to teach this new type of design. However, in the end, Stalin's need for propaganda led him to make Socialist Realism the only permitted form of official art. Soviet Constructivism - be it artistic or scientific - was dead.

Applied Art and Design

Meanwhile, Tatlin, having created his famous model for the Monument to the Third International, now disassociated himself from Rodchenko and his First Working Group of Constructivists, and sought a new career in applied art and design: first in ceramics, later in furniture and clothes. He also taught in several of the new soviet art institutes in Moscow, Petrograd and Kiev, including the Higher State Artistic and Technical Institute (VkhUTEIN) in Moscow. In the early 1930s he designed a glider reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Flying Machine," called Letatlin, before becoming involved in theatrical set design. Later in the 30s, he took up oils again, but wisely confined himself largely to still life painting of flowers. Despite devoting himself to a variety of projects and being awarded the title of Honoured Art Worker of the Soviet Union, he was never fully accepted by the Stalinist administration. Although he survived the pre-war purges under Yezhov, in 1948 he was condemned as an "Enemy of the People" and died in obscurity. He was interred at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

• For biographies of other Soviet Russian artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of sculpture in Soviet Russia, see: Homepage.

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