The avant-garde wanted to demolish museums, believing they served to petrify and cultivate the past, which needed to be discarded in the name of a better tomorrow. But the avant-garde also dreamed of its own museums, places governed not by history, but by the future. They were imagined as laboratories where the artist would experiment with new forms and means of expression, and the viewer would learn to experience and understand reality in a new way. The museum became a vehicle for fulfilling the avant-garde utopia—the promise of a world where everyone has the right to and conditions for a creative life.
The history of avant-garde museology begins after the October Revolution, when the Russian champions of new art proposed the establishment of a network of Museums of Artistic Culture. Not much later, a group of New-York-based modernists and Dadaists started the Société Anonyme, a collective that sought to establish the first American museum of modern art. The successive chapters of this story were written by the Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky, who designed the Kabinett der Abstrakten at the Hanover Provinzialmuseum, and by the avant-garde a.r. group, whose efforts began the International Collection of Modern Art at the Łódź museum now known as the Muzeum Sztuki.
We mention these facts not only because they are an important, yet neglected part of the avant-garde legacy. First and foremost, we believe the ideas that informed the founders of avant-garde museums and the solutions they implemented still raise vital questions. What should the museum be like? What role should it play in society?
In the prevailing narrative, the avant-garde and the museum are usually cast as mortal enemies, their encounter inevitably resulting in the defeat of one or the other: the destruction of museums or the disarming of the avant-garde. This narrative could center on figures such as Edmond Duranty, a writer, columnist, and critic with a great deal of affection for the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists, who called for the Louvre to be burned down over 150 years ago, or the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who, half a century later, argued for the destruction of museums and libraries, as repositories of anachronistic and irrelevant cultural ideals. In the same narrative, the avant-garde was identified with living art, an art that wanted to be consonant with the rhythm of the present, while museums were seen, to quote Theodor W. Adorno’s well-known phrase, as mausoleums, family sepulchers where art withered away.
On a theoretical plane, this opposition between the avant-garde and the museum was cemented by Peter Bürger and his influential 1974 book, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, which has influenced scholars and artists alike. According to Bürger, at the heart of the avant-garde project was a promise to radically transform social life through art. This promise was meant to be realized not so much by introducing new, socially engaged content to art, as by changing the role of art itself: instead of describing reality, art should seek to transform it. This mission entailed abandoning the space art had hitherto inhabited, entering, and ultimately becoming fully integrated with, the practice of everyday life. The fact that the space of art had not been abandoned was, according to Bürger, proof the avant-garde project had failed. That avant-garde works ended up in museums reduced them to the role of “art works” of the same status as their historical predecessors, while they were intended to bring about a global revolution that was existential rather than artistic. Museums, therefore, along with the entire system that constituted the art world, were responsible for disarming the avant-garde.
Yet there is another story besides this one, a story where there are neither calls for museums to be burned down, nor suggestive images of art being lobotomized by museum curators. Instead, there are artists making an effort to develop their own museum institutions that they believe could be effective means of achieving avant-garde goals. Most intriguingly, these were artists associated with Dadaism and Constructivism, i.e. the most radical factions of the avant-garde movement, which, according to Bürger, strove most vigorously to dismantle the institution of art. This story combines Soviet radicals establishing a museum network meant to cover the whole republic, a Russian Constructivist designing a cabinet of abstractions at a Hanover museum, and uncompromising European and American modernists trying to start the first museum of modern art in New York. The a.r. group's creation of the international collection of Modern Art at the Łódź municipal museum, now known as the Muzeum Sztuki, belongs to this story too.
The beginnings of avant-garde museology date back to the stormy times of the October Revolution, and are bound up with efforts to affect the large-scale institutional reform of Russia’s cultural life. The desired course of such a reform was discussed by the leading representatives of the Russian avant-garde, including Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and Aleksandr Rodchenko. It was within this community that the idea was conceived of establishing a network of institutions to foster and disseminate modern art, which eventually came to be known as “Museums of Artistic Culture.”
It was Malevich who advocated the establishment of a central museum in Moscow to propagate contemporary culture and spread contemporary values to all the museums in Russia’s vast territory. At the same time, Tatlin and Sophia Dymshits-Tolstaya imagined the network as a set of interconnected parts that would contain not only exhibition spaces, but also lecture rooms, artists’ studios, and artistic laboratories.
In the course of further, heated debates—culminating in a museological conference organized in Petrograd in February 1919 by the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (IZO Narkompros)—it was agreed that the institution’s mission would be to collect, study, and popularize works of “artistic culture,” inventive creative production to stimulate and provide direction for the further development of art. To achieve this ambitious goal, art of the past was to be removed from the museum galleries and replaced by the art of the present.
The First Museum Conference announced the establishment of the State Museum Fund, led by Wassily Kandinsky. The Fund acquired nearly 2,000 works by 143 artists. Most of them were further distributed between thirty-two local museums and art schools around the country.
It was emphasized that the Museums’ programs should be devised by artists, rather than museologists or curators. According to the “Declaration of the Department of Fine Arts and Art Industry on the Principles of Museology”: “Museum workers cannot, owing to their professional qualities, be sufficiently competent in matters of artistic creativity and artistic education. (…) The acquisition of contemporary artworks falls within the exclusive competence of artists."
Only in a few cases did the demanding goals set by the founders of this new network lead to the establishment of permanent museum facilities. One of these, the Museum of Painterly Culture in Moscow, first opened to the public on June 10, 1920.
The creators of the first installation of its collection were Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Falk, and Aleksandr Rodchenko. The main focus of the presentation was to show formal and technical innovation throughout art history. This changed when, in October 1920, Rodchenko succeeded Kandinsky as the director of the museum. Consequently, in alignment with Rodchenko’s interests, the aim of the presentations shifted; from then on, they were supposed to function as a repository of “living [artistic—E.B.] forms,” an experiment-oriented laboratory to facilitate the further evolution of art. We might also mention that the Museum of Painterly Culture in Moscow worked in close cooperation with institutions such as the Institute of Artistic Culture (GINKhUK) and the Higher Art and Technical Studios (VKhUTEMAS), recognizing the necessity and potential of including education in the museum’s program. Following two changes of location, the Museum of Painterly Culture re-opened in the VKhUTEMAS building, which would host a specialty library and an examination cabinet, and hold lectures and public discussions.
Corresponding to its founders’ Constructivist and Productivist convictions, the museum was supposed to be actively used by contemporary artists for the further development of art, but also by technicians and engineers seeking inspiration for practical solutions to better organize the human environment. To emphasize this technological perspective, works would be organized by their contribution to the development of artistic methods and media rather than by chronology or individual authorship.
Each Museum of Artistic Culture in Russia had a different modus operandi in order to adapt to the surrounding social and political circumstances. The Museum of Artistic Culture in Petrograd was established to disseminate contemporary artistic achievements among a broader public and to clarify the avant-garde’s creative intentions. Just as with the museum in Moscow, the key initiators were artists, such as Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich, and Mikhail Matiushin, but also the critic and curator Nikolai Punin. The Petrograd museum opened on April 3, 1921. Rather than by individual artists, installation of the works was according to artistic typologies, illustrating their development from Impressionism to Dynamic Cubism. Suprematism—the theory behind the work of Malevich, the director of the Petrograd institution from 1923 on—was presented as the pinnacle of art’s historical development and the most advanced stage in the evolution of human creativity.
The Museums of Artistic Culture proved short-lived; moreover, there were precious few cases where initial plans yielded actual institutions, properly staffed with a permanent space. In the end, the Museums of Artistic Culture were entities that never went beyond the provisional stage. Although Moscow’s Museum of Painterly Culture attracted international interest (one of its many visitors was Alfred H. Barr), it was closed in 1928. Part of its collection was incorporated into the Tretyakov Gallery collections. The rest was either dispersed or destroyed. Works from the collection of the Petrograd branch were systematically transferred to the State Russian Museum from 1922 onward. Nikolai Punin remained the curator of the Department of New Trends established at the State Museum in 1926, a position he retained until 1932.
One museological project inspired by the Museums of Artistic Culture was the Kabinett der Abstrakten, designed by El Lissitzky and installed in 1927–28 as part of a new permanent exhibition at the Provinzialmuseum Hannover. The Provinzialmuseum’s director at the time, Alexander Dorner, had styled the exhibition as a series of Atmosphärenräume, where the color of the walls, lighting, the arrangement of the works, and other discreet design gestures were meant to evoke the moods of successive artistic periods.
Dorner believed that the museum should educate its public not so much through texts, descriptions, and captions with ready-made information as by creating a proper setting, where the profound essence of the different historical periods could be experienced in an emotional and sensual way. Faithfully illustrating the stylistic changes that material culture had undergone was less important here than demonstrating how the human experience of being in space and time—and the understanding of those realities—had evolved over time. According to Dorner, following such a museum narrative, the spectators would gain a fuller awareness of their place in the world.
In the story narrated at the Provinzialmuseum Hannover, Lissitzky’s cabinet was tasked with visualizing the spatiotemporal dimensions explored by abstract art.
Next to Lissitzky’s work, the Kabinett presented the works of Piet Mondrian, László Moholy-Nagy, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Mies van der Rohe, Kurt Schwitters, and Alexander Archipenko.
The architecture of the Kabinett was supposed to help the spectators experience the new spatiotemporality explored by avant-garde works. The Kabinett was lined with narrow vertical metal slats painted so that, depending on the viewer’s position, the walls appeared black, white, or intensely gray. Moreover, some of the paintings were displayed in cassettes behind covering plates that the spectator could slide right or left, up, or down, revealing or obscuring a part or the whole of the given artwork. Such solutions, Dorner believed, allowed the viewers to experience the fluid, indeterminate, and multidimensional qualities of space of abstraction—thus elucidating the meaning of contemporary art.
Although the Kabinett der Abstrakten had a precisely defined role to play in Dorner’s museological project, it was largely an extension of El Lissitzky’s previous experiments, derived from his own preoccupation with avant-garde exhibition design. The technological and formal solutions employed in the cabinet—the color-changing wall slats, the moving cover plates—were transferred directly from the Raum für Konstruktive Kunst, a space Lissitzky had previously designed for the Internationale Kunstausstellung in Dresden in 1926. On a conceptual level, in turn, the cabinet built on the ideas contained in Lissitzky’s Prouns, a series of works conceived as an artistic analogue of the spatial models constructed by modern science.
Almost concurrently with the initiatives launched by the Soviet avant-garde, a museum project was emerging in New York, championed by two leading figures of European and American Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. That project was the Société Anonyme, an organization founded in New York in 1920 to promote modern art. Its main driving force was Katherine S. Dreier, daughter of a wealthy industrialist and civil activist, and at the same time, a talented painter who participated, for example, in the famous Armory Show in New York in 1913.
From the very start, she envisaged the Société and the gallery it initially ran as a museum, calling it the “Museum of Modern Art” in documents and publications. It was meant to work with experts, collectors, and critics, but it was artists (just as with the Museums of Artistic Culture) who would have the final say on the matters of exhibitions and acquisitions. Besides Dreier, Duchamp, and Ray, the Société’s board of directors also included, at various periods, Wassily Kandinsky, Joseph Stella, Marsden Hartley, Heinrich Campendonk, and Naum Gabo.
In each of the four museological initiatives discussed within the frame of the Avant-Garde Museum project, the idea of establishing a museum network was raised, at least at a certain stage. The Museums of Artistic Culture in Soviet Russia are the most obvious case in point here, but the Société Anonyme also envisaged setting up branches in other American cities. In 1920, the first version of the Its Why & Its Wherefore brochure, presenting the organization’s goals, mentions plans to institute a “chain of galleries and reference libraries where these expressions of this present desire of the modern artist can be studied throughout the country.” Those plans never came to fruition, but the Société worked together with several dozen private galleries, colleges, and educational societies around the country.
Its Why & Its Wherefore stresses the need to establish a place, where the public could experience new art through exhibitions and a library, for an institution that functioned not solely as an exhibition space, but, perhaps more importantly, as a space for education.
Following these postulates, the Société Anonyme staged exhibitions—most famously, the International Exhibition of Modern Art in 1926 at New York’s Brooklyn Museum—first at its own space and then increasingly at third-party galleries, museums, clubs, and educational centers. It also organized lectures, debates, and concerts, and published books to popularize modern tendencies in the arts.
However, what remains the most lasting and spectacular effect of its activities is its collection, which, by the late 1930s, had grown to over 600 works, both by leading representatives of the international avant-garde (e.g., Constantin Brâncuşi, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Max Ernst) and by artists virtually unknown outside their local communities.
The collection was meant as a chronicle of the “new age,” as a means of popularizing contemporary art and familiarizing the usually skeptical American public with recent developments in visual arts. The collection was eclectic (J. Szupińska and J. Myers call Dreier’s views on modernism “ecumenical”) and reflected its founders’ aesthetic preferences, free, as they stressed, from the prejudices found in the general audience in the USA.
Dreier and Duchamp chose the works according to a subjective sense of “artistic merit,” while taking heed of the recommendations of their artist friends.
The artworks from the Société’s collection were presented in exhibitions organized by Dreier, established as valuable, and loaned to other institutions, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art (opened in 1929). The Société Anonyme made several attempts to secure a space for itself—one plan envisioned the creation of the Provincial Museum of Visual Education in the Haven, Dreier’s Connecticut estate. Unfortunately, this project, combining a showcase of the collection and a continuation of the Société’s educational mission, never came to fruition. The Société Anonyme collection would be donated to Yale University (near to Dreier’s estate), so that it could be viewed and studied there.
Of the four avant-garde institutions covered in this project, the a.r. group’s International Collection of Modern Art was the last to be started, yet it has proven the longest-lasting.
Władysław Strzemiński, a leading representative of Eastern European Constructivism, and the spiritus movens behind a number of the Polish avant-garde’s key projects, was behind the a.r. collection. Together with Katarzyna Kobro, an artist and later, his wife, he began his artistic career in post-revolutionary Moscow, alongside such figures as Vladimir Tatlin, Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Kazimir Malevich. Working in this community, and performing administrative functions in promoting and exhibiting art, he participated in the debates on the Museums of Artistic Culture. Among his other capacities, Strzemiński served as head of the central Exhibitions Bureau in Moscow, and later, having moved to Smoleńsk, co-organized an exhibition at the municipal gallery. Inspired by his experiences in Russia, he set out to establish a modern art museum in Poland, a goal he and Kobro achieved at the turn of 1921–22.
Favorable conditions emerged in Łódź, a rapidly developing city with modest cultural traditions, known, above all, as one of Poland’s largest industrial hubs. The city had for some time been governed by the socialists, who initiated a series of educational and cultural projects aimed at bolstering the cultural competences and the intellectual/spiritual development of its citizens, notably the working class. One of those projects was a municipal museum, based on a collection donated by Cracow historians and antiquarians Julian Bartoszewicz and Kazimierz Bartoszewicz. This collection consisted of historically significant archival materials, valuable incunabules, and artworks, mainly Polish paintings from the second half of the nineteenth century. A museum created on this basis would have resembled dozens of other provincial institutions of its kind. Yet this case was to be different, because of Strzemiński’s project to create and house a permanent collection of modern art in Łódź.
Having moved from Soviet Russia, Strzemiński and Kobro never left Poland again; however, they maintained a lively correspondence with leading members of the European avant-garde, including Piet Mondrian, Jean (Hans) Arp, Filippo Marinetti, Malevich, and Theo van Doesburg. Strzemiński and Kobro were not unknown figures, and their art enjoyed recognition among radical avant-gardists, which meant that the initiative met with an enthusiastic response in the European art world. Others who helped to build an international coalition of support were Henryk Stażewski, associated with the avant-garde Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création collectives, and Jan Brzękowski. Through their efforts, supported personally by Arp and Michel Seuphor, a.r. received—as donations, no less—works from artists such as Arp himself, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Legér, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Calder, Sonia Delaunay, Max Ernst, Vilmos Huszár, Amédée Ozenfant, Enrico Prampolini, Sophia Taeuber-Arp, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, and Georges Vantongerloo. In all, between 1929 and 1939, a total of 112 works were gifted to the collection, representing all the significant trends of the European avant-garde, including extensive exponents of both geometric and non-geometric abstraction in various forms. The permanent exhibition of the a.r. International Collection of Modern Art at the Łódź museum was inaugurated on February 15, 1931. Soon it became the catalyst for an institutional process that resulted in the establishment of the Muzeum Sztuki, whose identity remains faithful to the avant-garde ideas of its founders to this day.
Behind the idea of organizing a museum collection of modern art was a realistic evaluation of avant-garde art’s social impact in Poland. Strzemiński saw avant-garde art as an instrument of social change, and so its promotion and the popularization of its ideas, paving the way for its wider acceptance and understanding, were matters of utmost importance to him.
Popularizing and educating were the main rationales behind the founding of a.r. The group pursued this mission through exhibitions, lectures, and publications.
The final chapter of Strzemiński’s museology was his design, in 1946, of one of the Łódź museum’s exhibition rooms. As the museum had been moved, after the Second World War, to a new, much larger space—the nineteenth-century palace of one of the city’s industrial tycoons—its director, Marian Minich, began efforts to reorganize the permanent exhibition. Informed by the philosophy of the Vienna school (and one of its most prominent thinkers, Alois Riegl), he systematized the works so that they visualized the history of art as a sequence of styles conceived as a logical development. This evolution was to start with Impressionism and Postimpressionism, continue through Expressionism and Cubism, and culminate in Constructivism, Neoplasticism, Unism, and, separately, Surrealism. Minich commissioned Strzemiński to design the room devoted to Neoplastic tendencies, which was the centerpoint of the show.
a.r. ↔ MAC
The Social Agency of Art
This text is based on essays by Jarosław Suchan (“The Avant-Garde Museum”) and Frauke V. Josenhans (“A Museum Without Walls, for Artists by Artists: The Société Anonyme”) sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; 2020).
One of the defining qualities of the avant-garde movement was its conviction about the social relevance and transformative qualities of contemporary art. This belief was reflected in the conceptual foundations of numerous museological projects. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, art has proven to be a powerful ally of both social and political change. Instead of creating purely decorative, aesthetically gratifying objects, the artists behind the avant-garde museological projects established both in Russia and in the USA wanted to play an active role in this shift.
As such, the discussions accompanying the structural development of Museums of Artistic Culture not only focused on what these institutions should preserve and what historical narrative to choose, but also on the viewer experience. This meant high importance was attributed to exhibition design that was to serve as a viable alternative to well-worn arrangements showcasing chronological development. One of the artists behind the Museums’ conceptual foundations, Kazimir Malevich, believed that the entrenched practice of exhibiting art according to schools, trends, or periods weakened the impact of individual works. Instead, he proposed arranging the works on the wall “in the same way the composition of forms is arranged on the surface of the pictures” (Kazimir Malevich, “Our Tasks: The Axis of Color and Volume”). From then on, owing to their temporal connection to the contemporary viewer, art exhibitions were to be designed to promote a critical, skeptical attitude toward imitative, derivative art, laying the foundations for the universal acceptance of artistic culture.
Alexandr Rodchenko, the artist behind the Moscow branch of the network, also rejected the traditional exhibition model along with the reception paradigm bound up in it, based on a passive contemplation meant to provide purely sensory pleasure. He also spoke against perceiving the work of art as a decorative “complement” to the wall. Instead, he wrote, the work should become an “active agent” (Alexandr Rodchenko, “On the Museum Bureau”). Artworks would be arranged in the museum gallery so as to stimulate the spectator’s activity and encourage them to intellectually reconstruct the processes that have led to recent artistic innovations. The aesthetic experience was identified with what Varvara Stepanova (a Constructivist artist and Rodchenko’s collaborator and partner) called “active thinking” and “laboratory work.” Through the actions of the artists themselves, the museum, which started off as a site of sophisticated entertainment and harmless, passive contemplation, turned into a workplace that activated the revolutionary subject’s perception.
Though the structures conceived within the USA and Soviet Russia are usually presented as binary opposites, the case of Société Anonyme bears many similarities to the endeavors of Soviet avant-garde museologists. Yet unlike the Russian avant-garde, who were after the total transformation of the world based on artists’ ideas, the American project was much more modest and pragmatic: it sought to secure the presence of modern art in the average American home. The difference reflected two interpretations of how art can operate: as a collective, revolutionary act and as an individual, liberating experience.
The former was aligned with the spirit of “educating the masses,” a unification of the sensory experiences of the working classes; the latter was based on a belief in emancipatory qualities of education.
In her correspondence with the artist Alexander Archipenko, Katherine Dreier (who, along with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was behind the Société Anonyme’s conceptual foundations) emphasizes education as the organization’s primary aim, defining the Société Anonyme’s goals as follows: “To break ground for the new men by establishing a perfect place to show the pictures, an excellent reference library, where they can read what other people think about the pictures and where lectures on modern art are held. In other words, in a country which is as commercial as ours, one has to absolutely divorce commercialism from the educational side, otherwise people will think that it is just a commercial idea”(Katherine S. Dreier Papers / Société Anonyme Archive).
Dreier understood the necessity of presenting modern art to an American audience that had seldom been exposed to it. From the beginning, Dreier was determined to present the organization as a museum, despite its having had no permanent location, only rented spaces. She emphasized the “museum” because she thought it necessary to present modern art as recognized by an institution that preserved traces of civilization. Given how little American audiences had seen or heard of modern art, the organization’s educational role was primary. In one of her letters, Dreier explains the mission of the Société Anonyme as follows: “We are not a Museum along the old lines of collecting and conserving Art, but are acting as a circulating museum where the movements in contemporary art may be studied” (Katherine S. Dreier Papers / Société Anonyme Archive). The Société’s work was meant to overcome the American public’s aversion toward modern art, Which Dreier suggested stemmed from spiritual backwardness, consumerist materialism, and a parochial hostility toward the unfamiliar. Dreier believed that contact with modern art, “which is an international language,” contributes to a “better understanding of the nations” and to an opening up to the onset of a “new era” of humanity, heralded by its universalism, when all national and cultural divisions are erased.
“It is not enough to create a good work of art. [...] It is also necessary to create the right conditions for it to have an impact.” This statement by Władysław Strzemiński, a founder of the a.r. collection, reflects his belief in the importance of contemporary art’s agency.
Just as in the endeavors spearheaded by Russian and American artists, Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro no longer saw art as mere decor. Its role was seen as giving shape to life itself, “organizing the course of life processes” (Katarzyna Kobro, Władysław Strzemiński, “Kto chce, niech szpera...”).
This radically expanded concept of art holds on to the possibility of continuing such traditional art practices as painting or sculpting, while endowing them with new functions and meaning. An artwork is a formal experiment, an exercise, but also a kind of research task. This makes art akin to science, whose methods it may also employ. Art becomes the production of knowledge: experiments lead to the discovery or creation of new organizational rules and methods that are inferred from a work and articulated as coherent concepts. Such concepts, when applied to mass production, can serve as the basis for designing buildings and everyday objects, which start to shape the living spaces and actions of mass consumers. In this way, art was to organize the course of life according to the standards and norms of the modern world: art was to be a tool for modernizing social life according to the principles of scientific management and, therefore, for making life more productive, functional, economical, and efficient. More specifically, it was to become a laboratory of organizational and anthropotechnical models for the design of architectural and urban spaces, as well as mass-produced utilitarian objects. Having been built and produced in this way, these spaces and objects were supposed to reshape human habitus and affects, increasing human energy and improving quality of life. Eventually, they were meant to stimulate the creation of a rational social community.
The impact on the spectator, although in a more perception-oriented way, was also a key aim of the endeavors of El Lissitzky and Alexander Dorner in Germany. In conceptualizing the Kabinett der Abstrakten, the artist sought to create an environment that would let the viewer experience and comprehend the fact that the conventional character of what is perceived as real space is merely a naturalization of customary ways of imagining it. In the “PROUN” Manifesto, he stated: “If futurism put the spectator inside the canvas, we take him via the canvas into real space; we put him in the center of a new construction of distance” (El Lissitzky, “PROUN”). The Dresden and Hanover projects were a culmination of those experiments, being examples of “imaginary space” that, rather than existing objectively, is only temporarily brought into being in the viewer’s mind, through the psychophysical activity aroused by visual stimuli (lighting, texture, color combinations, composition of forms). According to Lissitzky, in this space, human thought frees itself of the limitations imposed by the three-dimensional world, perceptual capabilities expand, and creativity is heightened.
Therefore, the exhibition designer faces two interrelated tasks. The first is to create a situation whereby each of the works has a chance to capture the spectator’s attention: “In order for all the works to operate in a comparable way,” Lissitzky writes, “the room should be designed as best as possible in terms of optics, just as a concert hall needs to be perfect in terms of acoustics” (El Lissitzky, “2 Showrooms”). The second task is to orchestrate the viewer’s experience, to rouse them from passivity and provoke them to adopt a position toward the works on show. Indeed, the work comes to be solely through the activity of the spectator, who, in a sense, must become its co-creator.
Katherine S. Dreier Papers / Société Anonyme Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Dreier, Katherine S. “Introduction.” In International Exhibition of Modern Art: Assembled by the Societé Anonyme. Brooklyn NY: Brooklyn Museum, 1926. Exhibition catalog.
Strzemiński, Władysław. “Kto chce, niech szpera...” In Władysław Strzemiński–In Memoriam, edited by Janusz Zagrodzki. Łódź: Sztuka Polska, 1988.
Lissitzky, El. “2 Showrooms.” In The Avant-Garde Museum, edited by Agnieszka Pindera, Jarosław Suchan, translated by Olesya Kamyshnykova. Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020.
Lissitzky, El. “PROUN” (1921). English translation based on Eva Forgács, “Definitive Space: the Many Utopias of El Lissitzky’s ‘Proun room’.” In Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk Berlin Moscow, edited by Nancy Perloff and Brian Reed. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2003.
Malevich, Kazimir. “Our Tasks: The Axis of Color and Volume.” In The Avant-Garde Museum, edited by Agnieszka Pindera, Jarosław Suchan, translated by Krzysztof Pijarski. Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020.
Rodchenko, Aleksandr. “On the Museum Bureau.” In The Avant-Garde Museum, edited by Agnieszka Pindera, Jarosław Suchan, translated by Jamey Gambrel. Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020.
Bowlt, John, ed. Varvara Stepanova: The Complete Work. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.
a.r. ↔ S.A.
The Conception of Modern Art
This text is based on essays by Maria Gough (“Futurist Museology”), Jarosław Suchan (“The Avant-Garde Museum”), and Rebecca Ucchil, (“Why Have Art Museums? Alexander Dorner, El Lissitzky, and the Dimensions of History”), sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020).
A distinguishing feature of avant-garde museum projects was their stance toward art history. The avant-garde appreciated the importance of the museum’s symbolic capital, but rejected the authority of the past and its study, which was closely connected to the museum. As Malevich stated firmly during the debate on the Museums of Artistic culture, “We must not allow our backs to be platforms for the old days” (“On Museums”). Museums were meant to support the education of “artists of living forms rather than dead representations of objectivity,” to forge the new human, rather than “force it into the cloaks and togas of the past” (“Our Tasks”). Only such historical works whose inventiveness served as fresh inspiration for living artists would be preserved. At the same time, art’s past was to be presented as a “road already traveled by” rather than something still worth imitating and “bowing down” to (Nikolai Punin, “On the Question of Museums”). In order to perform its educational function, the past had to be freed from the bonds in which art history had tried to contain it. The Museums of Artistic Culture were founded on a crucial declaration: “Artists! Free the art of the past from lifeless historical pedantry.”
One of the great and bold ideas behind the avant-garde museological proposals was to introduce an alternative to the positivist, chronological, and teleological narrative that dominated the museum landscape in Europe at the time. The paradigmatic example, for which the avant-garde sought an alternative, devoid of an obsequious attitude towards history, was Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s design of the galleries of the Altes Museum in Berlin. This design was seen to be a physical embodiment of progress, “marching” the visitor “through the history of man’s striving for Absolute Spirit” (Douglas Crimp, “On the Museum’s Ruins”). This view—focusing on the development of art’s formal qualities, rather than its chronology—strongly affected each “Avant-Garde Museum” project.
The main theorist behind the Museums of Artistic Culture, Wassily Kandinsky, sought to present the history of painting as a process of formal evolution, governed by its own inner logic (the other goal was to present the historical enshrinement of the avant-garde movement, as a culmination and a logical consequence of artistic development). The Museums of Artistic Culture, he writes, were to avoid a merely chronological account in which the position of a work of art within the museum was a function of its date. Such chronicling—or “historical sequencing,” as he put it—was an utterly “chaotic” way to track art’s development over time. Unfortunately, the artist notes, it remained the most pervasive approach to organizing museums, both in Russia and abroad: “Such art historical museums have a definite value as a treasury of artistic production... [But] the evident deficiency of this kind of museum is... its lack of any guiding principle or system” (Wassily Kandinsky, “The Museum”). Kandinsky’s concept met with substantial criticism and, in the end, the museum network went with the policy proposed by Alexandr Rodchenko, who was also involved in drafting the institutions’ theoretical foundation. Following Rodchenko’s guidelines, the Museums of Artistic Culture were to present “living forms” (that is: works by living artists) and not these whose potential to influence the social status quo was already exhausted.
The members of the Société Anonyme also showed an irreverent attitude toward art history. Katherine Dreier stressed that their collection had special value because it had not been created according to expert hierarchies. She accused art historians of being guided by a narrow-minded rationality, alleging that their perspective was exclusively intellectual and ignored the spiritual dimension of the work: “through their historic[al] attitude of mind, they are often blocked from recognizing the seed from which the tree will grow” (Katherine S. Dreier, “Western Art”).
Corresponding with the Société Anonyme’s democratic beliefs and social mission, its founders pointed out that “art belongs to the creative functions of man,” and as such, it “expresses itself in [the form], depends upon the century in which it makes its appearance,” which is why contemporary artists, like their great predecessors, had the right to seek forms proper to their era, rather than to prove that modern art was an inevitable consequence of historical/artistic development.
Although Alexander Dorner’s museum concept had a similar grounding—his view of “art as a living form” may be observed in his freehand diagram of modern art’s genealogy (resembling a phylogenetic tree)—his understanding of teleological development focused on an individual, sensory-based experience. Rebecca Uchill, a historian focusing on institutional conditions for the display and dissemination of art, notes that: “Dorner used the trope of advancing compositional perspective to evince an evolution of art history bound to such powerful attributes as vision, cognition, and subjects’ experience, rather than the confines of style, rendering, representation, or beauty. In his ‘Amtlicher Führer durch die Kunstsammlungen’ gallery guide to his Hanover museum, Dorner wrote about stylistic progressions in art in terms of representations of depth and space. Art from the Middle Ages showed ‘no interest in faithfully reproducing lifelike forms’ (preferring a stylized, ‘abstrakt’ ornamentation); the more exacting geometries of the Renaissance showed how ‘the problem of the correct representation of space was solved through the discovery of perspective’” (Alexander Dorner, “Amtlicher Führer durch die Kunstsammlungen des Provinzial-Museums Hannover”).
What further connects Dorner’s endeavor to the one in Soviet Russia is that, in either case, the last room the public entered was avant-gardist indeed: Dorner ended his museum’s narrative with Lissitzky’s Kabinett der Abstrakten.
This work’s abstraction of space was presented as a constructive, progressive step toward the future: “expanding on conventions of perspectival perception, resisting the retrograde primitivism of Expressionism, and adding the dimensions of movement through time and space.”
Strzemiński’s vision of contemporary art’s past stemmed from conclusions that were similar to Dorner’s (the artist demonstrates how the human perception of the world has evolved over the centuries, influenced by various aspects of culture and civilization, in his famous treatise “Theory of Vision”) and Dreier’s (with whom Strzemiński shared a conviction of art’s power to educate). Making the public familiar with works of avant-garde artists, lending them respectability, the museum was meant to expand the field of social acceptance less for art itself than for the project of which it was an emanation.
Unlike in Kandinsky’s conception, legitimacy here would not be based on the construction of a narrative presenting the avant-garde as the necessary culmination of art history. The surviving photographs do not allow us to fully reconstruct the a.r. collection’s first exhibition at the Łódź museum, but they do make it clear it was not arranged in a historicizing sequence. The layout seems associative, but perhaps—proving this intuition would require further research—it served to illustrate certain formal and constructional issues, as well as how the various modern art movements sought to solve them. The installation would then be more in line with what Rodchenko envisaged, stating that the adjacency of “artists and works should correspond to the stages of development of artistic forms.” For Strzemiński, the museum was not only a means of educating the public, it was also a place where artists would study what had already been achieved—it was an archive of existing innovations whose knowledge was essential for creating new ones. Designers, technicians, and social engineers would be able to acquaint themselves with the most advanced artistic achievements to be inspired to design practical solutions to improve the quality of contemporary life. Artists, in turn, could analyze the shortcomings of their predecessors’ works and perfect their own technique, so that, through free experimentation, they could take art further and make it capable of responding to the challenges of the future. This way, art could develop alongside its increasing social relevance.
Crimp, Douglas. On the Museum’s Ruins. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.
Dorner, Alexander. “Amtlicher Führer durch die Kunstsammlungen des Provinzial-Museums Hannover. Erster Teil: Mittelalter 4 und Renaissance.” Berlin, Julius Bard Verlag, n.d. (ca. 1927).
Dreier, Katherine S. Western Art and the New Era. New York: Brentano’s Publishers, 1923.
Malevich, Kazimir. “On the Museum.” In Avant-Garde Museology. Arseny Zhilyaev, ed. e-flux classics, distributed by the University of Minnesota Press, 2015, 272.
a.r. ↔ KdA
Space of the Museum / Space in the Museum
The following text is an edited version of an essay by Marcin Szeląg (“The Kabinett der Abstrakten and the Neoplastic Room: Avant-garde Approaches to Permanent Museum Exhibitions”), sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020).
The projects devised by Władysław Strzemiński (Neoplastic Room, Łódź) and El Lissitzky (Kabinett der Abstrakten, Hannover) reflected the artistic practice and thought of two outstanding representatives of the European avant-garde and played an important role in the history of museum exhibitions. They were also expressions of the artists’ conscious efforts to exert an influence on the reception of contemporary art, and a manifestation of their theories regarding museum exhibitions. Although the ideas introduced and programs implemented by the founders of both the Société Anonyme and the network of Museums of Artistic Culture introduced innovate ways of thinking about the museum space as well (for instance: the inclusion of home decor in the Brooklyn International Exhibition of Modern Art and interpreting the museum as a place for laboratory experiments), the connections between the artists’ theoretical investigations and practice are most visible in Strzemiński and Lissitzky.
In his Kabinett der Abstrakten, opened in October, 1927 at the Provinzialmuseum in Hanover, El Lissitzky applied solutions he had been testing since the early 1920s. Its conceptual forerunner, according to Boris Brodsky, was Lissitzky’s PROUNS (compositions based on a Suprematist visual language and the spatial aspects of architecture and multiple perspectives) and their innovative presentation in the Prounenraum (shown at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung in 1923). The Berlin exhibition was more of an intermediary phase, during which Lissitzky focused primarily on the relationship between painting and architecture. The artist’s efforts to activate the viewer were more clearly evident in two later projects: the aforementioned Kabinett der Abstrakten in Hanover and the 1926 Raum für konstruktive Kunst at the Internationale Kunstausstellung (International Art Exhibition), Dresden. The Kabinett der Abstrakten, designed as a permanent modern art exhibition, turned out to be the most significant.
The director of the Hanover Museum, Alexander Dorner, entrusted Lissitzky with the design of a contemporary art space. Given this authority, Lissitzky was able to develop and expand his idea of interactivity. However, he modified the project to emphasize the involvement of the senses and enhance its importance for the understanding of the room. Lissitzky added two new solutions. The first was a display case in two conjoined “L”-shapes, placed in the center of the south wall. There was a horizontal display case with two sliding plates, which served both as display units and as shutters for the works behind them.
The second innovative element was a wall-mounted table showcase with glass cuboids rotating on their horizontal axis, their sides creating display windows. In the Kabinett der Abstrakten, the “optical dynamics” involved in the lighting and wall arrangements were also solved differently. The room was lit from a window above the tabletop display case. Lissitzky obscured it with an “illuminating object” which controlled the light intensity. The planned electric light (unavailable at the time) was intended to animate visitors and guide their attention toward different parts of the gallery, encouraging them to be involved in the space. The way the light entered the room also affected the wall coverings. Thin two-color metal strips were embedded in a gray wooden panel. The result was an effect similar to what was achieved in Dresden: depending on one’s point of view, the walls would appear gray, white, or black. Since the main light source in Hanover was to one side, not, as in Dresden, from above, Lissitzky changed the sequence of tones in different parts of the wall, encouraging viewers to move around the room. In moving toward the display case, the viewer experienced the inversion of the tonal scale of the wall segments on both sides: from black to gray to white. This shift corresponded to the change in the viewer’s perception of depth, as the white and black created the impression of fading in and out, and the gray seemed in between. This effect was also used in the coffers and the double L-shaped display case, with alternating black and white, square, or rectangular shapes in the background. As the sequences changed on all walls, the space seemed to move, creating a destabilizing and disorienting effect.
Visual sensations were the main component activating viewers in both spaces, though there were others, as well. The rooms were meant to be standardized exhibition spaces for various works of art, each of which required appropriate display and lighting. This was achieved not only through the exhibition space, but also by activating the viewer and affording them more possibilities than a conventional space would. The invitation to participate fundamentally reformulated how viewers explored the exhibition: the stress shifted from contemplation to physical activity.
Arranging the Kabinett der Abstrakten with an emphasis on the viewers’ activity allowed the audience to affect the appearance of the exhibition. Some paintings were placed in sliding frames, and the viewer rotated the cabinet to see all of its contents beneath the blind window. Each visitor could find a different arrangement, altering it slightly. This meant Lissitzky proposed a very different experience, one that can be called “psychophysical.” According to Charlotte Klonk (whose work in part concerns museum interiors), this shift anticipated the subject’s activity in a post-capitalist society, where commitment to interactivity matters more than individuality and privacy.
Although Strzemiński’s Neoplastic Room did not posit interaction, the artistic ideas behind the project blurred the boundaries between the paintings and spatial objects on display, distorting them as individual pieces to create a total space, as noted earlier. In the Hanover and Łódź museums, the viewer experienced a similar sense of the exhibition space being separated from other museum rooms, owing to the wall decorations and balanced arrangements of primary colors and “non-colors.” In this way, Strzemiński isolated the space from the divisions and ornaments of the museum’s historical architecture, as well as what was happening outside, and created a kind of independent system governed by its own spatial logic. The best example of this logic was the skylight, whose neoplastic form referenced the character of the gallery, and concealed the woodwork of the original window with opaque glass. This relativized the visible interaction of objects, sculptures, planes, and pictures hanging on the walls. The effect was to “suspend” the properties of the individual exhibits in favor of their inter-connections. Furthermore, the room was arranged so that the three-dimensional sculptures and furniture had their two-dimensional compositional equivalents on the walls, as paintings. This impression was reinforced by wall decorations, designed with mathematical precision, according to the principles of Neoplasticism.
In the context of the exhibition as a whole, the Neoplastic Room can be seen as a spatial exemplification of the complex relationship between Unism (Strzemiński’s theory aiming at pure visual expression, affecting the viewer not through the objects represented in the painting, but solely through its visual elements: color, shape, and proportionate divisions of the visual plane) and “The Theory of Vision'' (Strzemiński’s breakthrough text on the development of visual and historical processes). On the other hand, the dynamic, physiological experience this space offered the viewer approached “The Theory of Vision'' in that the relationship between the works and the decorated walls problematized how visitors usually viewed art in a gallery, and thus emphasized the process of seeing and apprehending. Hence, in the Neoplastic Room, Strzemiński touched upon a typically phenomenological intuition, forging a link between theory and practice.
In the Neoplastic Room, the a.r. group’s ideas were implemented in the museum space, both fitting director Marian Minich’s program and adopting strategies to appeal to a broader audience. In this sense, the Neoplastic Room might be considered an extension of the “collection–exhibition–education” project, combining the development of visual awareness with the dissemination of art, an aim Strzemiński pursued before World War Two with the creation of the International Collection of Modern Art by the a.r. group.
Though a contradiction between Lissitzky’s and Strzemiński’s concepts has been noted (the latter treated the museum exhibition space “seriously, as an educational space, and not as a space of play [as it was for Lissitzky—ed.], ‘gimmicky’ exhibition strategies designed to ‘dazzle’ the viewer, and to distract the audience from the work of art” (Iwona Luba, “Koncepcja muzeum sztuki nowoczesnej według Władysława Strzemińskiego”), both strove to enhance the educational potential of the exhibition space. Especially after the war, a break with the traditional language of the exhibition did not have to mean denying the importance of education at the museum. It may have stemmed from a need to find a different way of communicating with “new” audiences, a recognition that was understandable in Polish postwar culture.
Observing the exhibition practices of interwar and postwar avant-garde artists in our day, it may be impossible, especially in institutional theory, to avoid juxtaposing them with Stephen Wright’s proposals for refreshing the conceptual apparatus and forms of institutional support surrounding art. The collective activity in the Kabinett der Abstrakten and the unifying totality of the Neoplastic Room hampered the autonomy and singular authorship of the works they presented. Interactivity and movement, in turn, marked an attempt to break free from the passive, contemplative reception of art by providing some forms of usership, though certainly not in the strict sense that Wright has in mind today.
Luba, I. “Koncepcja muzeum sztuki nowoczesnej według Władysława Strzemińskiego – próba rekonstrukcji.” In Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi. Monografia, Tom. I, edited by Aleksandra Jach, Katarzyna Słoboda, Joanna Sokołowska, Magdalena Ziółkowska. Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2015.
Klonk, C. Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800–2000. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
MAC ↔ S.A.
The International Collection
This text is based on essays by grupa O.K. (“Bachelor Modernism: on the Société Anonyme’s International Exhibition of Modern Art”), Agnieszka Pindera (“The Fine Art of Self-Institutionalization”) and Jennifer R. Gross (“Alike and Yet So Different: The Artists’ Museum, Société Anonyme, Inc., and Alfred Barr’s Museum of Modern Art”), sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020).
Even though the avant-garde primarily concerned itself with art’s agency and the ways to develop its formal qualities, the artists were well aware of the limitations and opportunities arising from the political and socioeconomic contexts in which their institutions were to function. The most obvious example of state and artist cooperation is probably the Soviet Museums of Artistic Culture, where they joined forces to create a “new man” for the post-revolutionary era. Russian artists acquired an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the nation’s artistic life. Since the revolution was supposed to be international and unite the working classes beyond national borders, its artistic representation had to be international as well. Magazines and publications were one way of sharing new ideas globally, yet it quickly became evident that new kinds of exhibiting institutions and collections were also needed.
The artist-run initiatives in the USA, Russia, and Poland aimed to promote modern art by organizing exhibitions and lectures, but most enduringly by building international collections. Katherine Dreier’s “ecumenical” approach to modernism, which levelled art from different geographical climes, was reflected in the Société Anonyme’s International Exhibition of Modern Art and the accompanying catalog, but most importantly, in the Société’s collection. Its geographical and aesthetic diversity was unmatched at the time; it remains the most lasting and spectacular result of its activities.
By the late 1930s, the collection had grown to over 600 works by leading representatives of the international avant-garde (e.g., Constantin Brâncuşi, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Max Ernst) and by artists virtually unknown outside their local communities (including some Poles: Alicja Halicka, Gustaw Gwozdecki, and Louis Marcoussis). In the selection process, the artist’s market value, affiliation with this or that movement, or nationality were not considered. Instead, Marcel Duchamp and Dreier, who made most of the choices, followed their intuition, informed by their own artistic experience and their personal sense of the significance of an artist. The result was a collection of extraordinary breadth in terms of styles, ideologies, and nationalities. It suggested that what mattered most was the artist’s individuality, ignoring national and stylistic divisions and connecting with other creative individuals in a “cosmic” spiritual community beyond all borders. While the existence of local differences was not denied, their significance was downplayed; Dreier called them a “dress” concealing the unity of human strivings. This internationalist approach to building institutions signified that artistic creation was a common human urge.
Popularization and education were the main rationales behind the founding of the a.r. group. They pursued this mission through exhibitions, lectures, and publications. The “a.r. Library” was launched, going on to publish seven titles, including volumes of avant-garde poetry with Strzemiński’s revolutionary graphic designs, but also theoretical essays on avant-garde poetry, typography, and art. Moreover, Strzemiński promoted modern artistic ideas in articles published in the professional and popular press, and through his teaching.
Unlike the Société Anonyme, however, the artists of the a.r. group did not have even modest funds to buy works. In 1928, Władysław Strzemiński’s letters first mentioned plans to build a collection of educational and social value that could be placed in the museum in Łódź. Asking a fellow avant-gardist Jan Brzękowski in Paris to “begin a collection of paintings,” he wrote: “We will have what not everyone in Europe has” (in a letter to Julian Przyboś). He was also willing to donate his own works if artists in other countries agreed to go along.
Brzękowski joined artists Wanda Chodasiewicz-Grabowska and Henryk Stażewski, who regularly traveled to France, in making the first efforts to obtain the works of artists Strzemiński suggested as donations. Brzękowski’s invitation to join Cercle et Carré (a group of artists publishing the magazine of the same name, led by Michel Seuphor and torres-García) and later, Abstraction / Création, also helped the cause: this, and Stażewski’s presence in these groups, made it possible to obtain substantial gifts from their members for the a.r. collection. The first set of donations included twenty-one works by Juan Torres-García, Enrico Prampolini, Serge Charchounne, Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Louis Marcoussis, Maria Nicz-Borowiakowa, Stanisław Zalewski, Tytus Czyżewski, Henryk Stażewski, and Karol Hiller. In the same year, the collection was expanded with further acquisitions. In total, the contributions to the a.r. group consisted of 112 works of art, seventy-six of which arrived at the museum by May 1933. At that time, this was a unique public collection, featuring works by the best artists of the European avant-garde, both Polish and foreign, French and German in particular. The very idea of developing a collection of modern art was practically unheard-of.
It was also difficult to bring the donated works into the country. From the beginning, however, Władysław Strzemiński had the support of the Łódź magistrate. In 1928, Przecław Smolik became the chairman of the department of Education and Culture, to which he brought a penchant for modern art. At a time when the city was spending just one zloty and sixty-eight groszy per inhabitant from its budget on culture, he proposed a rapid promotional campaign, believing that “with cultural activity [...] one cannot wait until the masses mature, need it and demand it themselves...” (Henryk Anders, “Z dziejów mecenatu artystycznego w Łodzi”). At the same time, he did not forget about support for artists who, like their colleagues in France, were going through difficult times.
This feature of the a.r. group’s collection, its international character, was also a major strength of the Société Anonyme collection. Both organizations operated outside of cultural policies, which could have been imposed on them if they had had a closer relationship with business or public-sector sponsors, maintaining their autonomy as the guiding principle of avant-garde self-organization. Nor were their program decisions affected by the shift toward national art supported by the state or totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s, which resulted in the marginalization of the transnational avant-garde. Writing on the first two decades of the twentieth century, Marci Shore draws attention to a belief visual and literary artists held at the time: that they were living in a post-national era. “The avant-garde felt similarly about internationalism. The critical issue was time, not place; generational identity, not ethnic or national identity” (Marci Shore, “On Cosmopolitanism”), she writes. Meanwhile in European politics, rather different sentiments were taking hold: the birth of Nazi ideology and its consequences, including the outbreak of World War II. But before these were to escalate, artists held transnational exchanges in the pages of various periodicals published throughout the interwar period.
Shore, M. “On Cosmopolitanism, the Avant-Garde, and a Lost Innocence of Central Europe.'' In Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility, edited by Michael D. Gordin, Helen Tilley, Gyan Prakash. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Gross, Jennifer R., ed. The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America. Yale: Yale University Press, 2006.
Grupa a.r. Materiały z sesji naukowej z okazji 40-lecia powstania w Łodzi Międzynarodowej Kolekcji Sztuki Nowoczesnej. Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 1971.
MAC ↔ KdA
Museum as Laboratory, Art as Catalyst
The following text is an edited version of an essay by Maria Gough (“Futurist Museology”) sourced from “The Avant-Garde Museum” reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020).
The many connections between art and science—after all, the two disciplines share their roots in the Renaissance—are probably most recognizable in the Kabinett der Abstrakten and the Neoplastic Room. Strzemiński’s insights into human perception in his Theory of Vision, a theoretical treatise deeply indebted to phenomenology, where the artist summed up and connected his artistic activity and aesthetic reflection, distinguished between “seeing” and “awareness of seeing.” Strzemiński defined the former as an unchanging physiological act, only conditioned by the processes of biological evolution. His theory is based on the assumption that our image of the world is constantly evolving, the how we apprehend it changes and grows, and that external conditions, such as historical experience, and cultural and social background, have a decisive impact on it. Meanwhile, he understood “visual consciousness” as a social and “historical process, conditioned by the demands of socially determined labor processes in successive historical systems.”
The role of Albert Einstein’s relativity theory in El Lissitzky’s work on the PROUNS (and the expansion of these concepts in the Kabinett der Abstrakten) is now well documented and many have noted the resemblance between Lissitzky’s compositions and scientific diagrams. Hermann Minkowski’s space/time continuum diagram is quite a good example here. Minkowski was a Russian-born German mathematician and a teacher of Einstein’s (he was one of the first to appreciate the potential of Einstein’s theory). Minkowski supported Einstein’s concept that our perception of reality is invariably associated with the four dimensions of space and time, but furthermore, through the use of imaginary numbers and non-Euclidean geometry, expected scientists to replace the notion of absolute space with relative space: “We should […] have in the world no longer space, but an infinite number of spaces” (Hermann Minkowski, “Space and Time”).
Lissitzky’s fascination with relativity manifested itself not only in his two-dimensional compositions, but primarily in the Kabinett der Abstrakten. In his analysis of the relationships between contemporary art and science, John G. Hatch calls the Hanover room the: “most ingenious and successful aesthetic embodiment of Minkowski’s statement that ‘Nobody has ever noticed a place except at a time, or a time except at a place.’”(footnote: John G. Hatch, “Some Adaptations of Relativity in the 1920s and the Birth of Abstract Architecture,” Nexus Network Journal 12, no. 1 (2010): 145.)
Hatch’s later notes mark the importance of the viewer’s movement in the space Lissitzky composed: “As one moved within the room, its appearance changed continuously in a mesmerizing way.”(footnote: “As spectators at a 1991 retrospective in Paris of Lissitzky’s work were able to witness a reconstruction of the Hanover room, the effect created by this exhibition space on the viewer was remarkable. It was best experienced by visualizing the appearance of the room just before entering, and then proceeding into it with one’s head down; once inside, the immediate impression upon raising one’s head was a sense of disorientation, caused by the feeling that the space you are in is not the same space you saw just before entering. As one moved within the room, its appearance changed continuously in a mesmerizing way. This accomplished Lissitzky’s goal of uniting time and space, where for each point in time, defined as movement, there was a unique spatial configuration, i.e., visual appearance of the room or “room-space,” as Lissitzky called it,” ibid., 145.)
The scientific ideas behind both the Neoplastic Room and the Kabinett der Abstrakten can be precisely identified. The base concepts behind the Museums of Artistic Culture however, were also closely connected to science, though in a more comprehensive way. The center of both art and science is the experiment and this gave birth to the concept of “museum as laboratory,” focused on artistic experiment rather than a static presentation of its effects.
In a long diary entry of June 15, 1920, Alexandr Rodchenko began to flesh out a model of the museum as a laboratory, prefacing his thoughts with a note that he had been wanting to write on the subject of “A Museum of Experimental Techniques” ever since the winter. According to his own testimony, therefore, the inception of Rodchenko’s thinking about the foundation of such a museum roughly coincided with his February 1920 appointment as Bureau Head and Keeper of the collections of the museum network. It also coincided with his production around this time, wherein faktura (“texture,” or the “working of the material”) became the very subject of the work of art, and the art of painting a self-reflexive laboratory operation. Rodchenko was not alone in this concern. In a March 1920 diary entry, the artist Varvara Stepanova remarked upon the recent emergence of a group of artists who were engaged in “experimental–analytical” work—including Rodchenko, Boris Ioganson, Vladimir and Georgy Stenberg, and Konstantin Medunetsky (in other words, the soon-to-be Constructivists)—who talked “about the future liberation of art from painterly culture.”
While both Wassily Kandinsky and Rodchenko shared a commitment to formulating a museological practice that would emphasize the procedural aspects of making art, they did so for quite different reasons. If Kandinsky sought to construct a historical pedigree for his own preoccupation with composition as a means of expression, Rodchenko believed that the museum should foreground the making process as the very subject of art. Accordingly, Rodchenko’s ambitions with regard to his hypothetical Museum of Experimental Techniques were much grander in both scale and media than IZO’s original provision for devoting a small “section” within the Museum of Artistic Culture to “experimental techniques in painting.”
The first acquisition for the techniques section was a spatial construction by Ioganson; works by Rodchenko and the Stenberg brothers soon followed. But for Kandinsky, who was anxious about the hard sciences making inroads into the realm of art, the value of such experimental works lay only in their redress of the previous neglect of the issue of form in Russian art. They did not, in his opinion, constitute works of art per se because their forms, he asserted, “clothed” no “pictorial content.” By contrast, Rodchenko sought to expand the museum’s section of “pure experiments” into a full-blown Museum of Experimental Techniques, in which the very air would have “the coldness of a laboratory corpse... the dryness of mathematical formulae... the analyst’s sharp, unrelenting realism,” wherein “everything [would be] invented, broken down, measured, dismembered, calculated, deliberated, reduced to pure formulae.” In a related text, entitled “Everything is Experiment” (October 1920), Rodchenko declared the total abolition of the traditional distinction between the experiment and the work of art, stating that all of his work was but “experiment.” Written to accompany his contribution of some fifty non-objective paintings and spatial constructions to the nineteenth State Exhibition—to which Kandinsky also contributed—this wall-mounted manifesto was one of a series of interventions by which Rodchenko announced his “aversion to [Kandinskian] emotion,” and the end of his alliance with his former mentor.
According to Stepanova, who began working in the Bureau in October 1920, Rodchenko was aware as early as January 1920 that easel painting was exhausted, and that new media and methods in art were needed “besides canvas and brush.” This gave strength, Stepanova suggests, to Rodchenko’s conviction that it was necessary to found a Museum of Experimental Techniques, in order to accommodate new pigments (enamel and metallic), tools (rollers instead of brushes), and methods (ruled lines instead of freehand drawing), while sculpture would be constructed rather than carved or modeled.
But while Rodchenko’s ambitions for a Museum of Experimental Techniques shaped his input into the organization of the Museums of Artistic Culture, they were not ultimately realized on the scale he had intended. Instead, in November 1920, Rodchenko and his laboratory comrades had to settle for a single gallery within the museum, and even this space seems to have been difficult to secure. Among the works in this gallery were relief constructions by Tatlin, a black faktura painting by Rodchenko, a spatial construction by Konstantin Medunetsky, and a painting entitled White Circle by Vladimir Stenberg.
In this gallery, Rodchenko and his circle of soon-to-be Constructivists sought to abrogate the traditional conception of the space of exhibition as an arena for contemplative and sensory pleasure, transforming the viewer’s relationship to the practice of viewing in much the same way as the inventor’s relation to production had been transformed. In order to grasp the conceptual path of the artist’s experiment, viewers would have to adopt an “analytical method” which, as Stepanova put it, was based not on contemplation, but on “experimental cognition,” “active thought,” and “laboratory work.” The laboratory artists sought less to eradicate consumption than to shift it from the realm of leisure and contemplation and move it toward labor, thereby adumbrating a model wherein consumption was stripped of its former association with acquisition, and newly reconfigured as the perceptual activity of an activated, revolutionary subject. The consumption of art, in other words, was retheorized as a mirror of its production, thereby calling into question Khlebnikov’s galactic division (Vladimir Khlebnikov, “The Trumpet of the Martians'').
Minkowski, Hermann. “Space and Time.” In A. Einstein, H.A. Lorentz, H. Minkowski and H. Weyl, The Principle of Relativity: A Collection of Original Memoirs on the Special and General Theory of Relativity. New York: Dover, 1952.
Hatch, John G. “Some Adaptations of Relativity in the 1920s and the Birth of Abstract Architecture.” Nexus Network Journal 12, no. 1, (2010): 131–47.
Khlebnikov, Vladimir. “The Trumpet of the Martians.'' In Russian Futurism through its Manifestoes. 1912–1928, edited by Anna Lawton (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), 103–5.
S.A. ↔ KdA
The Beginning of Curatorial Mediation
The following text is an edited version of essays by Maria Gough (“Futurist Museology”) and Jarosław Suchan (“The Avant-Garde Museum”), sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020).
The usual genealogy of the curator profession seldom strays beyond the history rooted in the institutional museum. Meanwhile, the curator’s “artistic genealogy” is equally important. Artists’ modi operandi in their pursuit of creating museum-like institutions were not unlike the curatorial practices of today. The most vivid examples are perhaps provided by Marcel Duchamp and Katherine S. Dreier and their International Exhibition of Modern Art, and the debate between Alexandr Rodchenko and Wassily Kandinsky around the conceptual foundations of the Museums of Artistic Culture.
During the selection process of the works for the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the artists’ market value, affiliation with this or that movement, and nationality were ignored. Instead, Duchamp and Dreier, who mainly made the choices, followed their intuition, informed by their own artistic experience and their personal sense of an artist’s significance. What counted above all was innovation—Dreier liked to quote John Ruskin’s “invent or perish”—and an ability to express the Zeitgeist (Société Anonyme, “Its Why and Its Wherefore”).
This notion of modern art also found its reflection in the design of Société Anonyme exhibitions. The aforementioned International Exhibition of Modern Art, staged at the Brooklyn Museum at the turn of 1926 and 1927, might have initially created the impression of a chaotic compilation. The works did not seem to be arranged by any affinities whatsoever, whether stylistic, chronological, or genealogical; instead, the show was composed with an associative method and conceived, according to Dreier, as “one big painting,” where parts of various origins combined to produce a whole of a higher order—the emanation of a universal spirit of modernity. The way the paintings were hung in a single line, evenly spaced apart, with none emphasized more than others, made it clear that this spirit manifested itself in the work of established artists as much as in that of lesser-known ones.
“It is very important,” wrote Dreier in a letter, “that art should be brought to all classes and that we should develop in our country a genuine love which does not end in attending lectures, but ends in the desire to own pictures. If they could develop in our people the need to own paintings, with which they could live constantly, it would be a great step forward” (Susan Greenberg, “Art as Experience: Katherine S. Dreier and the Educational Mission of the Société Anonyme”). In order to demonstrate how art could become a part of daily life, Dreier arranged several small exhibition spaces within the Brooklyn museum’s exhibition as typical middle-class interiors. Paintings and sketches by artists from the Société’s collection (El Lissitzky, Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters) and other modern artists were juxtaposed with eclectic furniture pieces from the popular Abraham & Straus department store. This, according to Dreier, was how to erase the division between art and life. From today’s perspective these gestures may seem excessive; nevertheless, they bear the traits of a curatorial intervention.
The ultimate objective for the Museums of Painterly Culture in Moscow, as defined by Wassily Kandinsky, its first director, was to foreground the history of art as in terms of “composing,” rather than “transcribing.” Kandinsky’s new organizational model sought to present an alternative to realism (embodied by the works of the painter Ilya Repin), with its concentration on perfecting mimesis. As we have mentioned, it was replaced by composition, whose longue durée Kandinsky hoped to narrate.
Although the artist’s notion of “composition” was not clearly defined, we are well aware that Kandinsky believed in the affective powers of “pure painting” and the emotional, subconscious impact of forms and colors. The importance of “emotion” and “intuition,” both of which are emphasized in the discourse on the curatorial practices today, is stressed by Varvara Stepanova. Stepanova, an artist and partner of Alexandr Rodchenko (who advocated for a plan for the Museums of Artistic Culture quite different from Kandinsky’s), reported that Kandinsky and the painter Robert Falk installed one gallery “without any system” whatsoever, proceeding “simply by feeling.” The result was analogous to “the composition of a painting.” “It’s good,” she admits, “but very emotional.” Stepanova thought Kandinsky was pursuing an “eclectic” approach to installation, wherein the main objective was supposedly to create the most pleasing composition of the exhibited objects. By contrast, she continues, Rodchenko’s approach was totally “systematic”: “from the start he had in mind a connecting thread for the [whole] gallery.” This thread was none other than faktura, the surface and material facet of the work (its texture, density, weight). Rodchenko’s preoccupation with the material aspect hints at the importance he saw in the process of producing the work, and sheds some light on the genesis of his “museum as laboratory” concept.
Perhaps the most important is that, in the two aforementioned approaches, represented by the founders of the Museums of Artistic Culture and the Société Anonyme, the genealogy of the curator’s profession is closely linked to art’s relationship with its audiences, and does not rely on passive, one-sided contemplation of the object. Dreier’s aim to present art as a significant part of daily life and Kandinsky’s curatorial gesture to recognize the “emotional” or “intuitive” aspects of experiencing art, clearly mark the early curators’ interests.
Société Anonyme. “Its Why and Its Wherefore.” In The Avant-Garde Museum, edited Agnieszka Pindera, Jarosław Suchan, translated by by Jamey Gambrel. Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020, 295–99.
Susan Greenberg. “Art as Experience: Katherine S. Dreier and the Educational Mission of the Société Anonyme.” In The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America, edited by Jennifer R. Gross. New Haven–London: Yale University Press, 2006.
1 Jarosław Suchan, “The Avant-Garde Museum,” The Avant-Garde Museum (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020), 20.)
2 Ibid., 21.
3 “Declaration of the Department of Fine Arts and Art Industry on the Principles of Museology, adopted by the Board of the department at the meeting on February 7, 1919,” The Avant-Garde Museum op. cit., 251–55.
4 Jarosław Suchan, “The Avant-Garde Museum,” in The Avant-Garde Museum (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020), 24.
5 Société Anonyme, “Its Why & Its Wherefore,” in The Avant-Garde Museum, op. cit., 295-99.
6 Jarosław Suchan, “The Avant-Garde Museum,” in The Avant-Garde Museum, op. cit., 28.
7 J. Myers, J. Szupińska, “Bachelor Modernism: on the Société Anonyme’s International Exhibition of Modern Art, 1926,” in The Avant-Garde Museum, op. cit., 148.
8 Jarosław Suchan, “The Avant-Garde Museum,” in The Avant-Garde Museum (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020), 35.
9 Suchan, op. cit., 39.
10 Jarosław Suchan, “The Avant-Garde Museum,” in The Avant-Garde Museum (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020), 22-23.
11 Ibid., 31.
12 Frauke V. Josenhans, “A Museum Without Walls, for Artists by Artists: The Société Anonyme,” in The Avant-Garde Museum, op. cit., 131.
13 Suchan J., ibid., p. 28.
14 Suchan J., ibid., p. 33-35.
15 Suchan, op. cit., 25.
16 Ibid., 26.
17 This text is based on essays by Jarosław Suchan (“The Avant-Garde Museum”) and Frauke V. Josenhans (“A Museum Without Walls, for Artists by Artists: The Société Anonyme”) sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; 2020).
18 Jarosław Suchan, “The Avant-Garde Museum,” in The Avant-Garde Museum (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020), 43.
19 Rebecca Uchill, “Why Have Art Museums? Alexander Dorner, El Lissitzky, and the Dimensions of History,” in The Avant-Garde Museum (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020), 112.
20 Uchill, op. cit., 112.
21 This text is based on essays by Maria Gough (“Futurist Museology”), Jarosław Suchan (“The Avant-Garde Museum”), and Rebecca Ucchil, (“Why Have Art Museums? Alexander Dorner, El Lissitzky, and the Dimensions of History”), sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020).
22 Marcin Szeląg, “The Kabinett der Abstrakten and the Neoplastic Room: Avant-Garde Approaches to Permanent Museum Exhibitions,” in The Avant-Garde Museum (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020), 237.
23 Ibid., 240.
24 The following text is an edited version of an essay by Marcin Szeląg (“The Kabinett der Abstrakten and the Neoplastic Room: Avant-garde Approaches to Permanent Museum Exhibitions”), sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki; Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2020).
25 This text is based on essays by grupa O.K. (“Bachelor Modernism: on the Société Anonyme’s International Exhibition of Modern Art”), Agnieszka Pindera (“The Fine Art of Self-Institutionalization”) and Jennifer R. Gross (“Alike and Yet So Different: The Artists’ Museum, Société Anonyme, Inc., and Alfred Barr’s Museum of Modern Art”), sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020).
26 John G. Hatch, “Some Adaptations of Relativity in the 1920s and the Birth of Abstract Architecture,” Nexus Network Journal 12, no. 1 (2010): 145.
27 “As spectators at a 1991 retrospective in Paris of Lissitzky’s work were able to witness a reconstruction of the Hanover room, the effect created by this exhibition space on the viewer was remarkable. It was best experienced by visualizing the appearance of the room just before entering, and then proceeding into it with one’s head down; once inside, the immediate impression upon raising one’s head was a sense of disorientation, caused by the feeling that the space you are in is not the same space you saw just before entering. As one moved within the room, its appearance changed continuously in a mesmerizing way. This accomplished Lissitzky’s goal of uniting time and space, where for each point in time, defined as movement, there was a unique spatial configuration, i.e., visual appearance of the room or “room-space,” as Lissitzky called it,” ibid., 145.
28 Maria Gough, ibid., 64.
29 Ibid., 65.
30 The following text is an edited version of an essay by Maria Gough (“Futurist Museology”) sourced from “The Avant-Garde Museum” reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020).
31 The following text is an edited version of essays by Maria Gough (“Futurist Museology”) and Jarosław Suchan (“The Avant-Garde Museum”), sourced from The Avant-Garde Museum reader (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2020).