Four decades before Sputnik, Soviet avant-garde artists envisioned the conquest of space.
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In the winter of 1920, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich devised a plan to get to the Moon. According to his scheme, multiple satellites would be set in orbit—each circling Earth at a different altitude—and voyagers would ascend them one by one until they reached their destination. Malevich believed that his invention could also provide a ladder across the Solar System. “We come to the conclusion,” he wrote in a contemporaneous book of Suprematist art, “that travel along a straight line toward any planet can only be accomplished by means of intermediate Suprematist satellites in circular motion, which would form a straight line of rings from satellite to satellite.”
Though the technology was imaginary, Malevich’s concept was remarkably sophisticated, revealing a close reading of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian polymath who pioneered the mathematics of rocketry and suggested the possibility of artificial satellites orbiting Earth. Applying Tsiolkovsky’s science with minimal artistic license, Malevich predicted a future in which Earth’s orbit would be heavily trafficked, much as it is today. He explained to a friend that his concept was “almost astronomy” and reinforced his cosmological commitment by furnishing his studio with a telescope.
Malevich wasn’t the only Soviet artist to apply his talent to the conquest of space. Around the same time, mechanisms for space colonization were actively developed by fellow Suprematists including Il’ia Chashnik, Georgii Krutikov, and Lazar Khidikel. And Malevich’s artistic rival, the Constructivist sculptor Vladimir Tatlin, simultaneously pursued technologies ranging from a tower for extraterrestrial communication to personal flying machines for every Soviet citizen. Collectively the Russian avant-garde anticipated Sputnik by more than three decades.
Their pioneering art still looks visionary in this age of Mars rovers and the International Space Station, as is plainly evident in work on view currently at the London Science Museum and recently at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland. The Beyeler exhibition includes some of the artists’ earliest forays into space, such as Malevich’s Black Circle of 1915. The Science Museum show provides select examples spanning the idealistic post-Revolutionary years from 1917 to the advent of Socialist Realism in the ‘30s and also offers a striking coda: Sputnik-era propaganda posters produced by Soviet artists at the dawn of the Space Race.
In a very real sense, Soviet propaganda helped get humans to the Moon, first through the USSR’s unmanned Luna missions and then through the competitive thrust of America’s Apollo program. Nevertheless, while carefully calibrated to inspire awe, propaganda posters never really penetrated the imaginary space so successfully navigated by Tatlin and Malevich. The closest most Soviets came to leaving Earth—and the same applies to us—was through the agency of art.
Malevich was nearly as secretive about the launch of Suprematism as the Soviet government would later be about the launch of Sputnik. In the months leading up to the 1915 exhibition in which he first revealed his Suprematist paintings, he covered his studio windows with newspaper, and refused even to utter the word “Suprematism” to anyone except his most trusted friends. By his reckoning, Suprematism wasn’t merely a new style, let alone another transient art movement, but instead represented a fundamental breakthrough that (like Sputnik) would change everything in its wake. He therefore sought the kind of unconditional credit granted to inventors and explorers instead of just the subjective acclaim accorded to artists.
While extreme, Malevich’s egotism was merited, for Suprematism really did take painting into a completely new space. All previous art was “enslaved by the form of nature,” he justly claimed in a manifesto that accompanied the 1915 exhibition. “Up until now there were no attempts at painting as such, without any attributes of real life…. I am crossing over to Suprematism, to the new realism in painting, to objectless creation.” By his reckoning, Suprematist paintings would not merely warp the observed world, as Cubism and Futurism had done, but would present a universe never before seen, a realm that existed solely within the space of the canvas itself.
To encounter that realm, he imagined the unknown. Having never been breached, Earth’s orbit was a path to what he believed was absolute creativity as an artist. But personal creativity was really just one dimension. Free of people and places and even the force of gravity, Suprematist imagery offered an escape from Earth for everybody, which Malevich believed was needed to fulfill humanity’s infinite potential. In a letter to the avant-garde artist Mikhail Matiushin, he compared the world to a worm-eaten house and claimed that “an aspiration towards space is in fact lodged in man and his consciousness”. Until there were rockets capable of achieving escape velocity, the mind could be carried away by the undefined white expanses of his canvases, as ethereal as pure geometry. By 1917, Malevich had appointed himself “General Secretary of Space.”
It is within this context that Suprematist canvases evolved into Suprematist satellites, first within Malevich’s paintings and soon thereafter in the work of Suprematist fellow travelers. This was especially the case after Malevich took a teaching position in 1919 at the Vitebsk Art School, where he became increasingly interested in extending Suprematist principles into the third dimension and enlisted students to research Suprematist architecture.
One of his students had a direct connection to Tsiolkovsky. The painter Ivan Kudriashev was from Kaluga —the town where the reclusive old theorist lived—and had helped to build model spacecraft for Tsiolkovsky before attending art school. Kudriashev brought to Suprematism a strong interest in ballistics. He may also have imported some of Tsiolkovsky’s mysticism, which aligned with Malevich’s sense of cosmic destiny. Tsiolkovsky believed that the whole universe was animate and that space travel would carry humanity to psychic fulfillment in this infinite cosmic community. “This planet is the cradle of the human mind, but one cannot spend all one’s life in a cradle,” Tsiolkovsky claimed. Kudriashev’s paintings—and Malevich’s—provided visual stimuli for the mind to travel toward cosmic maturity.
Suprematist architecture was intended to go beyond the picture plane, to actually transport the body. As Malevich’s student Il’ia Chashnik explained in the syllabus for the Vitebsk Art School’s new Department of Architecture and Technology, “The constructions of Suprematism are blueprints for building and assembling of forms of utilitarian organisms.” Accordingly, Chashnik and the architecturally-trained art student Lazar Khidikel worked diligently to convert the gravitationally-unbound forms of Suprematism into residential plans.
Chashnik did so more literally in the sense that his paintings often set conventionally Suprematist compositions in orbit around generic planetary spheres. Khidikel was more sophisticated. His designs for “cosmic habitats” and “aero-cities” perfectly balanced abstraction and realism. They rendered recognizably Suprematist structures in an architecturally intelligible space that is paradoxically otherworldly. In his futuristic architecture, Khidikel shrewdly followed Malevich’s conviction that Suprematist structures should be “whole without fastenings”. The lack of particulars makes Khidekel’s plans compellingly plausible. They complement Malevich’s paintings, advancing his plans to occupy the cosmos. Malevich showed people a realm they had never known. Khidikel evocatively situated the viewer in the greater universe, a space of pure potential.
Tatlin was more pragmatic on cosmic matters. Dismissive of Suprematist mysticism, the great Russian Constructivist wanted to ensure that sentient beings throughout the galaxy were well versed in Communist doctrine. Thus he initially prioritized interplanetary communication over space travel, making radio broadcast an essential dimension of his Monument to the Third International.
Tatlin’s tower was conceived in response to Vladimir Lenin’s 1918 plea for a new monumental architecture embodying Communist ideals. Unlike Czarist statues erected to inspire passive obedience, Lenin envisioned “rostra from which living words should fly to the mass of the people, stimulating minds and consciousness of thought”. Commissioned by the People’s Commissariat to realize this ideal, Tatlin proposed to erect the grandest rostrum that the world had ever seen. It was to be 400 meters tall—100 meters higher than the Eiffel Tower—a spiral of iron girders containing three revolving glass chambers. At the base was to be a cube containing the people’s congress, turning once a year. Above it was to be a pyramid for the party leadership, revolving once a month. At the top, Tatlin planned a cylinder containing the propaganda ministry, capped with a hemispheric radio transmitter, spinning once a day. The transmitter would broadcast Soviet news and dogma to the masses. To signify that the intended audience was not only to be Russian, or even terrestrial, Tatlin tilted his tower to coincide with Earth’s axis, pointing the antenna toward Polaris.
Contact with extraterrestrial civilizations would surely benefit the aliens that adopted Soviet Communism, but that was just one side of it. “If we succeed in making contact with the other planets, all our philosophical, social and moral ideas will have to be revised,” Lenin told H.G. Wells in a 1920 interview at the Kremlin. “In this event, these potentialities will become limitless and put an end to violence as a necessary means of progress.”
Alas, neither contact with aliens nor construction of Tatlin’s tower proved viable in the nascent Soviet Union. Though Tatlin’s wooden models were exhibited at Party meetings and May Day parades as late as 1925, enthusiasm for monumental folly died out with Lenin’s death. Tatlin recognized the nation’s shifting priorities, the growing emphasis on utility. As early as 1923, he’d begun to reposition himself as an “artistic constructor”, designing homely necessities such as a coat and a stove. He also quietly began tending to a less obvious need: that every Soviet citizen be able to counteract gravity.
He referred to his invention as Letatlin (a play on his name and the Russian word letat, meaning “to fly”). More informally, he called it an “air bicycle” and described it as a foot-powered one-man glider with wings structured like those of a bird. By 1929, his concept had advanced far enough to engage a group of students from Moscow’s Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops. Over a four-year period, they built three different versions using common materials such as leather, silk and wood. None flew more than a few yards.
Nevertheless Tatlin proudly showed all three prototypes in a 1932 exhibition of his work at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. He explained that Letatlin interested him as an artistic constructor because “it is the most complicated dynamic form that can become an everyday object for the Soviet masses as an ordinary item of use.” And why should the Soviet masses need such a machine? Because, he said, it “corresponds to the need of the moment for human mastery of space.”
The idea that such a flimsy and primitive device should facilitate the human mastery of space may seem laughable in retrospect. However, much as Malevich and his acolytes were well versed in Tsiolkovsky’s theory, Tatlin was attentive to the pioneering innovations of Soviet rocket engineer Fridrikh Tsander. Tsander believed that the most effective machines for reaching other planets would have wings, and sought to test his ideas by installing the first liquid jet engine on a wood-framed one-man glider.
Tsander didn’t expect wooden gliders to support interplanetary travel. Rather, he argued that the conquest of space would need to be incremental. Rocket-powered aircraft would prepare humans for departure from Earth. Letatlin should be understood in this context, as should Tatlin’s grandiose claim that his air bicycle would lead to human mastery of space: If the path to space was to be blazed by a glider powered by rockets, then why not start with one driven by pedals? Letatlin was foremost a dream machine, a complicated dynamic form that impelled the Soviet masses to envision an unbounded future beyond hardscrabble subsistence.
Of course such flights of fancy ran contrary to Josef Stalin’s consolidation of power and repression of freedom. By the mid-1930s, the Soviet space program was moribund and the Russian avant-garde was squelched, forcibly replaced by Socialist Realism. If the artistic exploration of space in Russian Constructivism and Suprematism was a low-tech way to expand the cosmic horizons of humanity, Socialist Realism was an artistic incarceration of the Soviet imagination.
In 1959, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to orbit the sun. They called it Mechta, meaning “dream” in Russian. Lest the significance be lost on anyone, a poster was published showing a Soviet worker with an arm raised toward a diagrammatic solar system, with Cyrillic above his head proclaiming The Tenth Planet Symbolizes the Victory of Communism!
While the destination of Mechta was impressive, the mission hadn’t quite gone as expected. On launch, Mechta had been called Lunik, and was intended to land on the Moon, but missed its target by 3,700 miles due to a system malfunction, accidentally sailing into orbit between Earth and Mars. Because details about the Soviet space program were state secrets, the public was unaware of these intentions. In the Khrushchev era, space was a top-down arena for Communist propaganda.
Poster artists played a central role. The mania sparked by the launch of Sputnik in October 1957—which shocked Americans and galvanized Russians—inspired the Kremlin to bolster rocketry with agitprop. The first space-age poster was designed by Iraklii Toidze, who reworked imagery he’d conceived back in 1941 for the first Soviet propaganda poster of the Second World War. In the original, beneath the words The Motherland Calls, a stereotypical Russian mother fixes the viewer with a steely glare, her arm raised in a call to battle. Eighteen years later, the same model (reputedly Toidze’s wife) is shown in a similar pose, only now she’s elated, with an outstretched arm waving toward a rocket headed for the moon.
This juxtaposition was clearly deliberate, emphasized by the newer poster’s inscription, In The Name Of Peace, a motto as inspiring as it was disingenuous: In the brinkmanship of the Cold War, launching spaceships was not only a demonstration of scientific commitment, but also an effective way to advertise the terrifying range of Soviet ICBMs.
The poster is equally notable for the lunar missile’s cartoonishness. Classified as military equipment, spacecraft were never seen by artists or the public. Graphic artists attempted to compensate for the want of technical information with visual imagination, but the strictures of Socialist Realism severely limited their creative range. Aeronautic technologies appear to come out of a sci-fi prop house. Commissioned to make a poster commemorating the flight of Belka and Strelka—the first dogs to return from orbit alive—the artist Konstantin Ivanov showed two mutts peering through the portholes of a rocket that even Jules Verne would have recognized.
The late 1950s and early ‘60s are widely considered to be the golden age of space poster art, a reputation well deserved. Soviet space posters are first-rate agitprop from some of the greatest propaganda artists. (Toidze had the dubious honor of winning the 1947 Stalin Prize.) Posters from the first decade of the Space Race are almost invariably eye-catching, and must surely have been patriotically stirring.
Nonetheless there is a vast abyss between midcentury agitprop and early 20th-century avant-garde art, a distinction that cannot be accounted for only in terms of genre and politics. Uniquely in Russia during the early Soviet years, art and space were on equal terms, mutually reinforcing. Equally precarious and equally audacious, both were boldly engaged in expanding the human mind by stretching toward the unknown.
By Jonathon Keats