Finished in 1889, the Eiffel Tower still dominates the Parisian cityscape to this very day. It stands at 1,063 feet and was the tallest building in the world for 42 years. The tower was built to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution, an uprising that overthrew the Bourbon monarchy. It went into construction in order to work as an entrance for the 1889 World’s Fair. There were plenty of people who criticized the tower such as Guy de Maupassant who would often eat at its restaurant because “It’s the only place in Paris where I don't have to see it.” Despite early protests of its construction, the Eiffel Tower has proudly become synonymous with Paris. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 with Nicholas II and the Romanovs out and Lenin and the Bolsheviks in, there was a desire amongst the intelligentsia for something to commemorate the recent revolution just as the Eiffel Tower did. Lenin proposed the idea of “Monumental Propaganda” which would remove signifiers of the bourgeois epoch and usurp them with new visuals invoking communist ideals. This primarily came in the form of banners and posters inscribed with Soviet rallying cries as well as plaster-cast busts and statues of “great revolutionary leaders.” Yet there was this optimism amongst the avant-garde for a new art that broke from the past, one that would be just as novel as the new proletarian state. This energy would be embodied by a tower, one to rival the one in Paris. A tower, according to Soviet writer Viktor Shklovsky, that would be “made of steel, glass, and revolution.”
This comes by way of Vladimir Tatlin, a Russian painter and architect, who is associated with the art movement of Constructivism. This style aspired to create art for and of the industrial world. This includes an engagement on the part of art with mass production. Some of its practitioners and their artwork often have associations with the Communist revolution, directly and indirectly. Once this goal was achieved in Russia, Constructivists and other avant-garde sects like Suprematists sought to establish themselves as the new revolutionary art of the Soviet Union. The origin of Constructivism can be found when Tatlin toured Paris in 1913. There he met two profound influences: Picasso with his assemblage art and the Eiffel Tower. The assemblage would form a basis for Constructivism and the Eiffel Tower would inspire him to great heights. In 1919, Tatlin had a bold idea to this end, a radical tower that would break with tradition. After being appointed by Vladimir Lenin to implement his “Monumental Propaganda” campaign, Tatlin finally had the position in order to bring about the tower and a “classical content for socialist culture.”
The first glimpses of the tower came from Soviet art critic, scholar, and friend of Tatlin, Nikolay Punin, writing in the Commissariat of Enlightenment’s art journal, Art of the Commune. Punin boldly declared that the tower will be “one unified form which is at the same time architectural, sculptural, and painterly” and “large as possible in the context of our cities.” He went on to explain the structure itself, which over time evolved. The finalized concept includes two metal helixes rising out of the ground into the sky; setting the primary framework. Within the helix, there would be four glass forms from top to bottom: a cube, a pyramid, a cylinder, and a hemisphere. These glass shapes would also rotate differing amounts: the cube rotating once per year, the pyramid once a month, the cylinder once a day, and the hemisphere once an hour. This dynamism would allow the tower to appear to “raise itself above the earth.” The spiral, according to Punin, “is the ideal expression of liberation” because “it flees from the ground and becomes a symbol of the suspension of all animal, earthy, and groveling interests.”
Tatlin’s tower would not act solely as a “monument to the great Russian revolution”, but also was planned to be operational. It intended to function as the headquarters for the Third International also known as the Comintern, an organization founded by Lenin with the goal in mind of spreading communism globally. The Monument to the Third International is the label that the tower would go on to be known by. The internal glass structures all had separate purposes: the cube would hold the legislature, the pyramid would be for administrative offices, the cylinder for production of propaganda, and the hemisphere for “a radio station of global reach.” Punin also writes that on the top “searchlights will project slogans onto the night sky” and that the sides will have “projection onto large external screens...to show films.”
The design of the tower also subverted a major tradition throughout Russian history. From the Siege of Kazan in 1552 to the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, churches were often built in Russia to commemorate important events. Saint Basil’s Cathedral and its vibrant onion domes still permeate with any mention of Russia to this day. Yet to mark the Russian revolution, Tatlin did not make a traditional church, but rather a tower. Instead of a steeple pointing upwards to the heavens, the tower aimed diagonally towards the North Star. Glass and iron, “the materials of the new Classicism” as Tatlin called them, would replace the limestone and mortar of cathedrals. Symmetrical forms were nullified to produce asymmetry. Instead of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the messages of Marx and Lenin would be broadcast onto the sky and into the airwaves. A new structure for a new religion. This “temple” as entitled by Tatlin, himself originally an icon painter, would function as a start of a modern iconography, a proposal others were thinking about at the time.
Anatoly Lunacharsky, head of the Commissariat of Enlightenment and Tatlin’s overseer, wrote a work entitled Religion and Socialism in which he argues for the strategy of “God-Building.” This was meant as a means to spread socialism to peasants concealed in the terms, characters, and icons of Christianity which they would be familiar with and as a result evoke emotion. This Third Testament would make Lenin a “Christ-like figure” who would offer humanity a new salvation. After Lenin survived bullet wounds from a failed assassination attempt in 1918, it might have seemed to some that this was the case. For a while, the evangelical vanguard tried this approach in towns around Russia, but Lenin was vehemently against any sense of mysticism and inevitably this approach was rejected in favor for scientific socialism rooted in Marxian materialism. Yet an undercurrent of religious-rooted socialism would remain.
In another sense, some found an afterlife in the revolution. Many with futurist and utopian hopes attached themselves to the project in hopes of prolonging life. The concept of life extension finds itself in Nikolai Fedorov, a nineteenth-century librarian and Russian Orthodox philosopher, whose ideas became very influential around Russia. Fedorov presumed that humanity must unite in order to manifest the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth by means of abolishing death itself. This came by way of not only curing death for the living but revival of those that have left already. With this abolition, Fedorov believed that evil will be done away with. In the posthumous publication of his work, Fedorov even addresses the role of art in this project, declaring that “all knowledge and art will serve as tools in the great cause; and only in this way can faith and knowledge be united.” Art must reconstruct itself to be subservient to these ends. With the unification of the arts and sciences, Fedorov believed his prophecy could be realized. Some of these hopes were adopted by Communist intellectuals such as with his student Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a pioneer who pushed space exploration in the early Soviet Union, Alexander Bogdanov, and with others; they would go on to influence Tatlin. Then there became a linking of achieving revolution with acquiring immortality, an afterlife realized. Revelation became revolution.
This utopian optimism paralleled that of many artists who regarded revolution as a means in which to transform art. Just as Marx reimagined history as contrived from material conditions without the influence of the “great man”, Tatlin’s art sought to be personless by means of abstraction and dynamism. This can be discerned by Punin’s writings on the Monument to The Third International in which he calls “to finish for ever with human images.” He concedes the fact that Communist governments “will use, as a means of monumental propaganda, figurative monuments in the style of Greek and Italian classicism.” A two-pronged problem lies with these forms according to Punin, “they cultivate individual heroism and conflict with history” and that they “are too private for places where there are ten versts (old Russian measurement equal to around 0.66 miles) of proletarians in rows.” The art had to be massive as well as for and by the masses, “Who expresses the tension of the emotions and thoughts of the collective thousands?” Tatlin, unfettered from the “feudal-bourgeois Renaissance tradition”, would answer the call. His tower would reveal a way forward away from the busts and statues of revolutionary leaders being made at the time. This approach intended to supersede a long history of portraiture and sculpture and go “beyond the representation of man as an individual.” Not only was it seen that there was a problem with individualism in bourgeois society, but as well as one with debauchery.
Vladimir Tatlin and his tower were seen as a potential upheaval from the day’s “decadent art.” This parallels similar thinking with the revolution. The Soviet project had no time for the wanton ways of the capitalist societies; Punin addresses this, “Bourgeois societies love to develop the animal life on top of the earth, working its surface: they build shops, arcades, banks. Bourgeois life, based on the urban squares, was played out in full view and for show. Creative humanity disappears with its animal life into the earth, where the co-operatives’ work is not visible. The square is a place for agitation, games and for festivals.” These critiques are akin to some of the opinions on the Eiffel Tower such as Leon Trotsky’s, who was “repelled by its aimlessness.” The Eiffel Tower, despite patriotic undertones and a glorification of rationalism, was primarily, according to art historian Norbert Lynton, “an object of pleasure.” The origin of the structure was to work as an entrance for the World’s Fair, a commercial exercise. It held restaurants on every platform and served as a vantage point to see Paris, and to this day it remains most visited tourist attraction in the world. The tower’s communication station broadcasts music and television while Vladimir Tatlin’s tower would project propaganda. This juxtaposition reveals an important part of Tatlin’s mission; this neoteric art would not be art for art’s sake, but rather had to be art for the revolution’s sake. This sets the underlying basis for art and architecture striving to have a utilitarian role. Rejecting the Earthly Delights, Tatlin’s tower would be what Bruno Taut deems “a monument conceived in terms of work.”
A hundred years later from its conception, the tower is still not built. This is partly due to early on party pushback, Leon Trotsky questioned it, “ Is not the whole thing untimely? How could anyone propose so new and demanding a building, technically and formally and therefore also economically, when we were just ‘beginning to repair the pavements a little, to relay the sewage pipes, etcetera.” Trotsky made clear the priorities of the new central planning economy. They could not devote the scarce resources of steel in the post-war Soviet Union to something so trivial in comparison. The tower would ironically only ever take form in wood and on paper. A model of the tower even went to Paris in 1925 to take part in the Soviet Union’s pavilion at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts which would have given it a great view of the erected Eiffel Tower. This fair would also popularize and name the movement of Art Deco; a style which would dominate the 1920’s and conjure notions of luxury and modernity. It would adorn the new era of monoliths, the skyscrapers, and influence sculptures that upheld notions of individualism.
If it was ever to be constructed at the planned scale of 400 meters (1312 feet), the tower, according to modern architectural analysis, would crumble underneath its own weight; as would the Soviet Union 60 years later. This modern Tower of Babel aspired to achieve new heights in its ascent to heaven. As the headquarters of the Third International, the tower would attempt to unite the workers of the world to a common task and perhaps eventually in one tongue. The Biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel reveals the arrogance of man, and so does the Soviet project exemplifies the hubris of the intelligentsia in which they thought that mankind could be organized just as clay by the potter. Tatlin and others saw art as a means to bring about this system, but did not stop to think about the consequences of their actions. It might be nice when one has the backing of the state, but what happens when it turns on you? Tatlin witnessed this. Stalin ended the subsidization of the avant-garde and established a strict regime of Socialist realism in its place. Official Soviet critics then would deem Tatlin to be “no artist whatsoever” and his art would constitute “the natural death of formal experiments in art.” Tatlin would live the latter end of his life on the outskirts of the arts, painting purely for himself.
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Norbert Lynton’s Tatlin’s Tower: Monument to Revolution, 2008
The Museum Tinguely, Tatlin new art for a new world
Nikolai Punin, The Monument to the Third International, 1920
Addison Nugent, The Russian Philosopher Who Sought Immortality in the Cosmos https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-is-russian-cosmism-nikolai-federov
Inventing Abstraction: Vladimir Tatlin by MoMA https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/inventingabstraction/?work=226