Norbert Lynton, Yale University Press; £35
Norbert Lynton's book gives fantastic insight into the work of the extraordinary artist, Vladimir Tatlin. Lynton follows Tatlin's transition from paint into materials and three-dimensional construction. The development of constructivism as an art of the Russian revolution is explained and explored.
Anyone who has been to Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop in London, will have seen blacksmith Keith Dowber's model of Tatlin's Tower constructed in metal. The tower, designed by Tatlin as a monument to the Third International nearly a century ago in revolutionary Russia, still fascinates and remains an icon of the first ever successful workers' revolution.
Tatlin was born in Moscow in 1885, his formative years were spent at sea in the merchant marine or studying art in Moscow. All of his creative life was shaped by innovation and a constant search for a unity in form and content. The Third International first met in March 1919. It was to bring together representatives from mass workers' organisations from across the globe. In April 1918 Lenin put forward a Plan for Monumental Propaganda, partly to ensure artists did not starve, but mainly seen as an education in the tradition of revolution. The responsibility for the plan was given to Tatlin.
In March 1920 Tatlin set about constructing a model of his tower - projected to be over 400 metres tall with each of its three parts rotating at different speeds. It was to meet the demands of the International, its congresses, administration and printing needs. However, not only did the shortages of the period mean that the tower would not be built, but it was impossible to build: Tatlin was an artist and inventor, not an engineer or architect.
Tatlin's Tower can be seen as a monument to a possible, and realisable, future: its size and complexity fitted an age of heroic experimentation and unbounded hope.
Lynton's book suffers from a misunderstanding of the nature of the revolution, or an inability to see how the passions of the age would influence Tatlin. Without reference he creates a picture of Lenin unrecognisable to anyone who has studied the revolution. There is a continuing problem with studies of the revolutionary art of Russia - the acceptance that Lenin led automatically to Stalin. But experimentation, argument and tension were expected and accepted during the revolutionary years. It was the defeat of the revolution that led to the suppression of the avant-garde, who were identified with October.
This book should be read alongside Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin, Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, and Lenin's State and Revolution. I feel that the book would have been richer if the author had done so.