Exclusively for Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the co-curators of the project, artist Dmitry Gutov and art critic David Riff, comment on the books displayed as part of the show If Our Soup Can Could Speak: Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties.
Lifshitz, Mikhail. Reinhardt, Lydia. The Crisis of Ugliness
Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1968
Lifshitz’s book was published in 1968, and that year, as is well known, had a major impact on the fate of both the USSR and the whole world. The appearance of The Crisis shocked everyone: it was an unparalleled in its harsh critique of twentieth-century art. In the USSR of the 1960s such a style wasn’t widely accepted and looked more like a return to Stalinism. But in fact, The Crisis is as far from typical Soviet texts on the same subject as heaven is from earth. Moreover, it offered a critique of ideas that had dominated modernist literature since the 1930s. An acquaintance once asked Lifshitz whether for him, all Soviet aesthetic literature was a waste of valuable paper and got the reply "yes, it was".
The Crisis of Ugliness is a way to see contemporary art as a quintessence of all that happened to humanity in the unprecedentedly new and quite ruthless historical conditions brought by the twentieth century. If we assume that since then nothing more profound and pithy has been written in Russian language, it won’t be a mistake. A considerable part of the book consists of quotations by Kurt Schwitters, Andy Warhol, Picasso, Braque, as well as of quotations from literature and essays of that time. These quotations were meticulously picked by the author and are very informative. There are also black-and-white replicas of the most significant artworks of the century, as well as descriptions of the actions and performances by Nam June Paik, Yves Klein, and others, whose names at that moment had not yet become well-known. According to Lifshitz’s widow Lydia Reinhardt, who I had a chance to speak with, Lifshitz had full access to all of the Western literature and press on modernism that was sent to the USSR Academy of Arts—in all languages he had a good command of (he read in German, English, French, and Italian). Lifshitz received the printed crème de la crème with no delay, from which he picked things that were most important. Duchamp’s Fountain, Pollock’s dripping, Lichtenstein’s comic art—Lifshitz well understood what would go down in the history of art and what would not. This was the difference between him and many other Soviet authors who wrote on a similar subject but mentioned a lot of superficial and passing material.
But the best thing this book can offer is an unusual way to look at the object, introduced with a subtle insight into the essence of the matter. Lifshitz was an artist himself: he finished Vkhutemas in the 1920s. He knew the technology of art, knew how an artist could think. We see here not simply a text by some art critic or a philosopher; first of all, this is a text written by an artist who knows what he’s talking about.
From Lifshitz’s books, Soviet readers learned new information about modernism abroad. The Crisis of Ugliness influenced several generations of artists: authors like Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, Andrey Monastyrsky or Grisha Bruskin would definitely have something to recall about it. This work cannot be missed if you study contemporary art, as we all still live in the space discovered by avant-garde artists, which Lifshitz described from most original point of view. D. G.
Literaturny Kritik journal
1933–1940, a number of issues.
The exhibition includes an extensive selection of issues of Literaturny Kritik, the leading Soviet intellectual journal of the 1930s. It ran from 1933 to 1940, and today is hardly known to Garage’s younger visitors. Critical and polemical articles published in the journal by Lifshitz’s friends—Igor Satz, Andrey Platonov, Vladimir Grib, Elena Usiyevich, György Lukács—show how complex, contradictory and profound was one of the most dramatic decades in Russian history. The journal, which is obvious from its title, was first of all devoted to literature. But the aesthetic theory it elaborated touched upon questions of philosophy of art in the most general sense. Many years later Lifshitz outlined key theses of this theory in his program work, Person of the 30s.
Many surprising discoveries await anyone who would like to study this text in detail. For instance, Literaturny Kritik’s contributors had other interpretations for the notions of realism and truth, which were considerably different from the standard ones. By the end of the 1930s, The Central Committee of the Communist Party received a series of reports which accused the journal of popularizing anti-party ideas and politically harmful moods. The journal was shut down after The Central Committee issued a special decree.
Literaturny Kritik today is a bibliographic rarity. Copies on show belong to Galina Belaya’s library, who is currently the biggest specialist in all of the USSR’s aesthetic disputes of 1920–1930’s. D. G.
The Literary Encyclopedia. In 11 volumes. Vol. 6. Chief Editor—Lunacharsky, Anatoly
Moscow: OGIZ RSFSR “The Soviet Encyclopedia”, 1932
In Lifshitz’s creative biography, one of the most important texts is Aesthetic views of Marx. The twenty-seven-year-old author wrote it in 1932 for an article which went by the title “Marx” and was published in the Literary Encyclopedia. The idea that Marx had his own concept of art, that he could actually have personal aesthetic views, seemed innovative and revolutionary in those days. Everyone was well aware that Marx was an economist and hadn’t left any complete work about art. However, Lifshitz believed that by collecting Marx’s disjunct statements on culture, by systematizing them and combining them into semantic blocks, one could grasp the very essence of Marxist philosophy of history. Lifshitz wrote his first text on this topic for the Vkhutein’s journal in 1927. In 1933, the text from the Literary Encyclopedia was published in extended version as a separate booklet. Lifshitz formulates the motto of Marx’s aesthetic views: "Art is dead. All hail art!" Later he comments this phrase in one of his letters: "You have to better understand the first half of this formula so that the other half doesn’t turn into idle talk.". So, as we see, in his text Lifshitz speaks about the concept of the "death of art," which excited many since the moment Hegel crafted in his Lectures on Aesthetics.
According to Lifshitz, within Marx’s attitude to art lies the quintessence of his basic ideas. Why do we need a revolution, he asks? To bring the world back into a state when art, in its old sense, will become possible again. Not because someone would want more classicist forms, but because the world will once again become harmonious, and humans will feel such closeness with the Universe that the Renaissance will start all over by itself. According to these ideas, the art of the Renaissance or antiquity cannot be simply resurrected or imposed on humanity. Its return is possible only when humans experience natural freedom, when there is a democracy like the one that was in ancient Greece.
While working on his article Lifshitz collected all he could find: notes from Marx’s texts on art, poems Marx wrote when he was young, letters he wrote to his father. The booklet was published in New York in 1938, translated into English by the title The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx. Later it was re-published in London twice, with a foreword by Marxist philosopher Terry Eagleton. In one of his letters, Lifshitz admits having created Marxist aesthetics eh nihilo—out of nothing. And his work still remains unsurpassed to this day. Purchasing a 1933 Soviet booklet is impossible, but for the show we managed to get an English-language copy dated 1938, as well as Volume 6 of the Literary Encyclopedia, for which the article was written. D. G.
From Under the Clumps. A digest
Paris: YMCA-Press, 1974
A significant part of the exhibition is devoted to the 1970s. If we created the previous chapters of the show based on archives and literature, this very chapter has a lot to do with me personally, because I remember those events very well. The focus here is on year 1976, when Lifshitz’s text On the Right Path was published—a text about young artists who addressed the aesthetics of Quattrocento and made their own show as a response to the 25th meeting of the Communist Party. News about this meeting was everywhere, and that was sickening. As was the whole ideology that supported it.
In his article, Lifshitz repeated once again the secret ideas of his youth: a better world is possible; it's coming will be related to a new revival of art in its classical forms, and those who have already turned to the heritage of the Renaissance are on the right path. If in mid-twenties those were radical and brave thoughts, fifty years later, on the verge of the death of Soviet power, they sounded just too strange. Our show features a book of major importance which allows to experience the atmosphere of those years—a digest From Under the Clumps, edited by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn himself. The digest appeared in 1974 and included articles by leading dissidents. I remember that time when they gave me this book to read and warned me that, if caught, I would be subject to penalty by the famous article #70 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR: “Agitation or propaganda carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening Soviet authority or of committing particular especially dangerous crimes against the state, or the verbal spreading for the same purpose of slanderous fabrications which defame the Soviet political and social system, or the circulation or preparation or keeping, for the same purpose, of literature of such content, shall be punished by deprivation of freedom for a term of 6 months to 7 years.”
Forty-four years on, From Under the Clumps makes extremely interesting reading today, because a lot of things we now witness, like religious conservatism and a right-wing turn, were already mentioned in the articles in this book. It seems to be not only anti-communist literature, but an anticipation of our era. For the show, we managed to get a copy of the digest in its original 1974’s version, published in Paris by YMCA-Press. D. G.
A selection of newspapers from the archive of Marlen Korallov
The personality of Marlen Korallov (1925–2012), a specialist in German aesthetics, is very important for our exhibition. In 1966, this man persuaded Lifshitz to publish his fateful text Why Am I Not a Modernist? in Literaturnaya Gazeta. Having just finished his studies at MGU, in 1949 twenty-four-year-old Marlen Korallov was arrested and sent to forced labor camps for twenty-five years. He was freed in 1955 and later became one of the founders of the Memorial—Human Rights and Humanitarian Society. His widow handed us a unique selection of cut-outs from newspapers which Korallov collected in 1973–1974. These are almost all articles from the Soviet press that persecuted Solzhenitsyn. This makes the brightest example of propagandist stylistics of those years, which reflects the complete degradation of the system on the eve of its decay. A whole wall within the space of the exposition is hung with these newspaper cut-outs.
Lifshitz had an interesting and dramatic history of relationship with Solzhenitsyn. In 1961, a friend and a student of Lifshitz, Alexander Twardowski, who was editor of Novy Mir journal, gave him a handwritten copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to read. Lifshitz wrote an internal review which ended with words: "It would be a crime to leave this novel unpublished." D. G.
Roger Garaudy. Realism without borders
Moscow: Progress, 1966
A really important and somehow harmful book by a scary character. Roger Garaudy was a communist member of parliament, philosopher, and lapsed Catholic who broke with the Party over Prague in 1968. Before that, he was one of the chief “revisionists” in the French Party, one of those intellectuals who philosopher Louis Althusser attacked as “humanist” revisionists in the later Sixties. Realisme sans Rivages revises the conception of realism—upheld officially by the European parties—to include Kafka and Picasso as realists for the twentieth century, while fully accepting their "Copernican turn" to a modernist aesthetic. THIS is the new realism, says Garaudy, appropriate for a world dominated by modern mythologies. Lifshitz objects wholeheartedly to that claim. A different realism is possible, he insists, with communism still on the horizon. Garaudy’s further fate illustrates Lifshitz’s idea that ideas always have consequences. After breaking with the Communist party, Garaudy drifted toward Islam, becoming one of the chief theorists of the religion’s radical politicization in the Seventies and Eighties, and a referential figure for leaders like Quaddaffi, Nasrullah and others. He was also a Holocaust denier, claiming that Israel was based on little more than a modern myth. D.R.
John Golding. Cubism: a history and an analysis, 1907-1914
London: Faber and Faber limited, 1959
John Golding’s book was one of the most popular canonical books on cubism. You could find it in almost every educated household, sometimes in several editions. It presents an overview of cubist theories and practices and draws heavily upon primary sources. Lifshitz accuses Golding of simply regurgitating the theories of the cubists themselves, without ever really historicizing the movement. Golding’s reception of cubism, in that sense, is naive, but its effect as a massively popular book was to normalize radical claims as a new aesthetic law. Essentially, it is well-written, solid, easily comprehensible, but otherwise quite unremarkable. (I knew Golding vaguely as a child in London and remember him as a nice old gentleman, kindly and a little dull.) D.R.
Robert Rosenblum. Cubism and twentieth-century art
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers., 1960
This is a funny little episode. Lifshitz had access to one of the first books by New York art critic Robert Rosenblum on cubism. That particular edition of the book was printed in London, so Lifshitz assumes that Rosenblum would be a taciturn Englishman—a bit like Golding, as described above—now inspired to great passions by the cubist craze. Little did Lifshitz know that Rosenblum was a New Yorker known for his irreverent scholarship, his quirky curating, and his eccentric, if not affected way of expressing lucid insights into art history. Rosenblum was also one of first to draw a connection between cubism and pop via Dada. Had Lifshitz known this later work, he would have found it to contain plenty of confirmation for many of his theses. D.R.
Graffin L. Andre Mare: Carnets de guerre, 1914–1918
Paris: Editions Herscher, 1996
Andre Mare, the designer behind the Maison Cubiste, was also a pioneer of camouflage. His ink and watercolor drawings, collected in Carnets de Guerre, show the close interplay of abstract art and war. Not only is abstraction Mare’s preferred medium of expression to document his experience of combat, but it is constantly applied in his actual work as a soldier. Mare was part of the newly formed Section du Camouflage, where he used cubist techniques to hide artillery guns. After the war, Mare used these materials to write the book Cubisme et Camouflage, 1914–1918. Even when he later teamed up with Louis Suë to become a pioneer of art deco interior design, he would constantly return to military commemorative topics in his painting. D.R.
Robert Lebel. L’envers de la peinture
Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1964
This book is one of Lifshitz’s most important sources, and, one could argue, inspirations for his method in Crisis of Ugliness. Lebel was a prominent Paris critic who fled Paris in the war and lived in Greenwich Village next door to Andre Breton. He was close to Breton, Max Ernst, Giacommetti, and to Marcel Duchamp in particular. Lebel was also a collector, and very well informed about the art world’s inner workings, which he seems to have discussed at great lengths with his friends. Duchamp in particular would have been a great informant, both as an artist and as a successful dealer of other people’s art. Especially important are the collages Robert Lebel made for the book. They inspired not only Lifshitz’s method of collaging texts but also our own method of working with Lifshitz’s legacy, as articulated in documents and images. D.R.