G / Veshch Magazines
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If, as Linda Hughes writes, a “periodical’s layout mirrors the chaotic array of events and information which typify a modern urban culture as a whole,” Veshch’s layout brings us beyond the page, beyond Berlin, beyond the new objects of machine reading, to an idealized vision of an avant-garde culture, to that perpetual expansion of human achievement built on and of the architecture of the dematerialized object.
“Everything in 1921 in Berlin seemed to be an illusion.” So remembers Russian author Ilya Ehrenburg in his postwar memoirs. Wandering through memory—art shows at the Galerie Der Sturm, cold apartments, lively cafes, and heavy stone buildings adorned with “big-breasted Valkyries”—Ehrenburg repopulates a city not yet damaged by war. At the start of the 1920s, Ehrenburg was a standard-bearer of a thriving Russian scene comprising nearly 300,000 émigrés. Given the rampant paper shortages and famine in Russia, Berlin’s importance in 1921 and 1922 for Russian publishing cannot be overstated.
Among the publications of this boom in Russian-language publishing in Berlin was Ehrenburg and El Lissitzky’s constructivist journal, Veshch/Objet/Gegenstand—an international review of contemporary Western European and Russian art. Although Russian was the main language of all three issues (the first a double number), the trilingual journal was envisioned as part of an already ongoing “exchange of practical knowledge, achievements, and objects between young artists of Russia and the West.” Adorned by Lissitzky’s geometric Proun designs on each cover, the journal presented Russia’s modernist arts scene on the European stage, alongside Dada and the Bauhaus, and sought to promote a “new collective international style” defined by Lissitzky and Ehrenburg’s mercurial, constructivist object. This object—be it a poem, building, or simple square—would not simply adorn life but “organize it.” The periodical demanded that its readers “MAKE OBJECTS!”—a demand that was met by the object Veshch itself.
El Lissitzky and Ilya Ehrenburg outlined the purpose of Veshch in their first issue: The Blockade of Russia is Coming to an End 1922. The appearance of Veshch is another sign that the exchange of practical knowledge, realizations, and ‘objects’ between young Russian and West European artists has begun… we hold that the fundamental feature of the present age is the triumph of the constructive method…Veshch will take the part of constructive art, whose task is not to adorn life but to organize it… We have called our review Veshch because for us art means the creation of new ‘objects.’ That explains the attraction that realism, weightiness, volume, and the earth itself holds for us. But no one should imagine that by objects we mean expressly functional objects… Even organized work–whether it be a house, a poem, or a picture–is an ‘object’ directed toward a particular end, which is calculated not to turn people away from life, but to summon them to make a contribution toward life’s organization. An end to all declarations and counterdeclarations! Make ‘Objects.’
The very name of Lissitzky and Ehrenburg’s journal presents a near-endless site of investigation. In French, “objet” is more closely allied with an object or work of art as is the German “Gegenstand;” Russian sees a similar circular logic to the difference between “thing” (veshch’) and “object” (predmet/ob’ekt) that appears in English. Vladimir Dal’s dictionary provides predmet as the second synonym for veshch’; while predmet finds itself with a more precise definition: “everything that appears to the senses.”
Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” (2001) is illuminating here. As Brown argues, “objects are codes which our interpretive attention makes meaningful.” Thingness, or “thing-quality,” in contrast, returns to an object only when it breaks down—when it no longer functionally enters a system, a process, an exhibition. “We look through objects,” Brown writes, “to see what they disclose” about the world. Thus the object is like a window. The radical organization of objects—their latent potential for animation—is on display on nearly every page of Ehrenburg and Lissitzky’s journal, from exhibition reviews to the visual reproduction of (art) objects themselves. But nowhere is this radical organization so apparent as on the first page of the last issue.
Here reproductions of Malevich’s black square and circle (the two basic suprematist elements) are grouped to the right of a photographic print of a snow plow train (parovoz-snegoochistitel’). The latter’s perhaps unexpected presence forms a set of novel equivalencies—the utilitarian train and the suprematist, non-objective art form—under the article heading, “Art and the Public.” The suprematist squares emphasize the new order of “thingness,” forming new constructions—relationships—between object (like the plow) and the space of the journal, populating the public sphere with a new art. By tracing the errant square through the third issue of Veshch, we see how it functions as a symbolic vehicle. Miniaturized black squares make their appearance on nearly every page, functioning most often as line and paragraph breaks—not unlike a dingbat.
Lissitzky would write of these squares not only as central to typography and art, but to the very experience of space itself: The establishing of the square, ▫ , by K. Malevich was the first manifestation of expansion in the ‘set’ of Art. It is only now in the twentieth century that the ▫ is being acknowledged as a plastic value, as ▫ in the complex body of Art. The solidly colored ▫ stamped out in rich tone on a white surface has now started to form a new space. New optical discoveries have taught us that two areas of different intensities, even when they are lying in one plane, are grasped by the mind as being at different distances from the eye.
Veshch’s publication run was short and its circulation limited. At the close of their last issue, Ehrenburg and Lissitzky satirize their critics at the Scythians, who cried out against the jarring “objective” and “materialistic” name of the journal. Ehrenburg and Lissitzky’s sarcastic dialogue, drawing on their perceived reading of the apocalyptic and hyperbolic language of their artistic adversaries, is finally punctuated with a bold question mark on the journal’s last page. The question mark’s function repeats that of the small black squares so often used as paragraph breaks throughout the issue. They write: “The question mark turns out not to be the ‘face of the Antichrist.’ But such a small object can be the hero of a complicated novel. Veshch is not the agent of some artistic school, but of left art.”
The square is again a central element on the cover of Hans Richter’s journal G: Material zur elementaren Gestaltung, designed by Lissitzky in 1923. Lissitzky’s design of the first issue allowed him a wider stage on which to deploy his self-taught typographic skills. The logotype was a simple ‘G’ (for Gestaltung) with an additional edge to the end of the letter, which abuts with an adjacent square, as if to point at it with an arrow. It has been suggested that the square is an homage to Theo van Doesburg.
The contributors to the first issue included van Doesburg on ‘Elemental Formation,’ a piece shared with the first issue of Veshch. Hausmann wrote on optophonetics, Mies van der Rohe on office building, El Lissitzky on the PROUN Room at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, 1923. There were also four statements from Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner’s “The Realistic Manifesto” of 1920.
The second and third issue of G changed paper and design formats and increased by considerable length. Raoul Hausmann wrote an overview of the struggle of the organic against the mechanical, a feature on fashion, complete with photographs of a man’s shirt, coat, hat, and gloves. In it, Hausmann gripes about the inability of German tailors to produce a suit jacket whose sleeve drapes gracefully from a well-constructed shoulder, his sentence imitates the continuous cut of a tailor's scissors and the careful trail of his stitches without to heed to the rules of grammar. The Berlin Dadaist George Grosz deployed a text from a book he would later publish on Dadaism in Germany, accompanied by a summary in English: ‘G. Grosz hates exploiters but likes producers.” Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters supplied poetry. There are extracts of essays on art therapy by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn. Tristan Tzara discussed ‘Die Photographie von der Kehrseite’ (Photography in Reverse), translated by Walter Benjamin.
The term Gestaltung and the related verb gestalten have a broad range of connotations: to shape, form, mold, produce, create, construct, design, pattern, arrange, configure, and fashion, among other meanings. It thus takes some effort to reconstruct historically what Gestaltung and its multiple connotations might have meant in the early 1920s. Gestaltung refers to form as well as to the process of formation. Gestaltung describes the process through which a person takes a thing (object, topic, structure, etc.) and through their own actions makes it their own, changes it, and makes it usable. It implies that traces of the vital, creative forces and energies of becoming, which are not known or predetermined at the outset of the process are retained in the concreteness of the resultant form. At the same time, it implies a figure or configuration that is a clear and individuated totality.
In the issues of G, most instances of the term have been translated as "form-creation'' in deference to the role the term played in the thought of Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling; where the notion of creation remained central; and where the term is used by a writer whose commitments are to a historical materialist position. However, when the context suggests that the discussion is shaped by constructivism, it has occasionally been rendered as "form-production." It should be clear that Gestaltung emerged as the designation of a process that could be applied to diverse materials in diverse spheres of operation, but it was not a style. After World War I, even those with the urgent desire for a new art and a new architecture eschewed the term style, and Gestaltung emerged as a powerful alternative, an alternative that was vital, dynamic, and attuned to the conditions of modern life. Where style relied on predetermined formal motives, form-creation was a mode of work and production based upon the inner unfolding and self generation of material forms. The proponents of elementare Gestaltung thus sought to discover and forge a natural language that would be objective, scientific, collective, universal, and comprehensible to all. As Richter put it, the journal had been born of an optimism that "the possibility of a culture" was emerging "in the utter chaos of our days, in the thoroughgoing disintegration in which we find ourselves, in the excess and deficit of civilization."
Taking cues from the new realities of engineering, industrial construction, industrial design, photography, film, and typography, the traditional arts —painting, sculpture, poetry —could participate in this new comprehensive paradigm once they were similarly redefined in terms of their elemental properties, syntactic laws, and generative procedures. By clarifying the terms for a new relationship of art to life, the journal hoped to guide and assist creative workers, now understood as technicians, theorists, ideologues, economists, or pedagogues.
In this regard, G was not overtly affiliated with international constructivism but rather advanced the notion of elementare Gestaltung as the basis of the new art. The journal's graphic form, then, was intended to evidence a new paradigm, a new comprehensive mode of cultural production based on elemental means. The specific, autonomous, and elemental logics of each medium were employed: painting as a medium of color and form; film as a medium of light and motion in time; and architecture as a medium of material structure that utilizes new industrial materials at a new scale and is occupied by the new functions of mass society. At the same time, this set of works demonstrated homologies that pointed toward a universal foundation for all cultural production. While separate and distinct, the disciplinary definitions put forward in the journal had strong parallels and shared a common elemental basis.