Progression of Art
The Sailor: Self-Portrait
In his self-portrait as a sailor, Tatlin displays an early interest in mixed media. He combined different textures of paint, applying it heavily in certain areas and allowing for thin strokes in others. His subject is centered and monumental with respect to the background objects and other figures in the painting, making him the obvious focus and most important feature. These features especially link the work to his prior experience with religious icons. Also in the style of icons, the central figure is flatly rendered and pressed close to the picture plane. The background figures are dark silhouettes, and their considerably smaller size is the only suggestion of depth in the image. The thick black outlines and bright white highlights are also characteristic of his abstract style.
Oil on canvas - The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
The Fish Monger
Here, Tatlin fragments the image and separates it into various planes, using heavy outlines to provide definition. The approach suggests the influence of Cubism, though the picture has none of the sharp geometric lines that typically form the fragmented Cubist image. Instead, Tatlin employs curvilinear lines and rounded forms, and predominantly a palette of three colors. Though this is a representational painting, depth and perspective are skewed and the forms of the figures and objects are simplified and flattened.
Oil on canvas - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
The technique and color palette employed in this early painting suggest the influence of traditional Russian woodcuts, icon painting, and folk art. Though there are elements of Cubism in The Nude, such as distorted perspective and the breaking down of forms into planes, it is not a Cubist picture. The image is composed of curvilinear planes and lines, and is pressed close to the picture plane in the fashion of an icon (and the use of curvilinear forms would be something that would continue in Tatlin's work up to and beyond his famous Monument to the Third International). The reduced palette and the use of white highlights and black outlines flatly applied are reminiscent of Russian religious icons. Tatlin might have employed such references in an effort to suggest that the picture offers a new icon to replace the old - an icon for modernity that would incite people to action and bring change to society.
Oil on canvas - Tret'yakov Gallery, Moscow
The Bottle is Tatlin's earliest known relief. This work can be viewed as a bridge between his earlier figural paintings and his three-dimensional counter-reliefs, but it was influenced above all by the reliefs the artist saw in Picasso's studio in Paris when he made a trip there in 1913. Indeed, Tatlin later said that Picasso was one of the three painters who influenced him most. In The Bottle, he combines the use of various industrial materials with a painterly analysis of form to produce a work that is not yet completely abstract and has not been liberated from the restrictive, flat, painterly surface. The result is a semi-abstract exploration of materials in the style of a three-dimensional collage, which has not yet fully broken away from the canvas and into the surrounding space. Picasso's collages were clearly a revelation for Tatlin, since they showed that art could be made of all kinds of materials and need not confine itself to oil on canvas.
Wall paper, wood, metal, glass - Photograph: collection of D. Sarabyanov, Moscow
Counter-relief provides an example of the influence of icons on Tatlin's constructions. Its flat form recalls the heavy metallic embellishments often found in religious paintings. The title Tatlin chose for this series of works suggests an intensification of the object's relationship with the surrounding space (it may also have been inspired by the martial atmosphere of the ongoing World War I). However, this piece does not extend into space in all directions, as would later Counter-reliefs. Instead it draws attention to its surface texture, with metal and leather attachments of various shapes and sizes fixed to the rough, worn wooden frame. This particular selection of materials seems to evoke the elaborate gilded metal frames typically used for religious icons.
Wood, metal, leather - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
An important element in Tatlin's strategy to dissociate his Counter-reliefs from traditional painting and sculpture was to erect them in the corner of a room. This was a place where a religious icon would be traditionally displayed in a pious Russian household; hence Tatlin suggests that modernity and experiment should be Russia's new gods. The idea is something that may have come from the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912), a volume by the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni, in which he calls on sculptors, "Let's split open our figures and place the environment inside them." Corner Counter-relief evokes the dynamism of modernity, with the various intersecting lines overlapping and moving in different directions to create rhythm and tension. The way that the object spans the corner changes the space of the room and establishes a unique relationship to the surrounding environment. The diagonal wires are evocative of a musical instrument and were perhaps inspired by Tatlin's experience as a musical instrument maker.
Wood, copper, wire - The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Monument to the Third International
Monument to the Third International, also sometimes known simply as Tatlin's Tower, is his most famous work, as well as the most important spur to the formation of the Constructivist movement. The Tower, which was never fully realized, was intended to act as a fully functional conference space and propaganda center for the Communist Third International. Its steel spiral frame was to stand at 1,300 feet, making it the tallest structure in the world at the time. It was to be taller, more functional - and therefore more beautiful by Constructivist standards - than the Eiffel Tower. There were to be three glass units, a cube, cylinder, and cone, which would provide functional space for meetings and would rotate once per year, month, and day, respectively. For Tatlin, steel and glass were the essential materials of modern construction. They symbolized industry, technology, and the machine age, and the constant motion of the geometrically shaped units embodied the dynamism of modernity.
Wood, iron, and glass - Destroyed
Tatlin's last major work, the innovative Letatlin, proves his talent as a visionary. His interest in movement and the forms and harmony of nature prompted him to create a more efficient mode of flight. Having observed the graceful and efficient way that birds travel long distances without expending too much energy, and while remaining seemingly motionless, Tatlin sought to recreate this method by constructing a human powered winged mechanism. For this project, he assembled researchers to study the wings of birds at times even dissecting them to better understand their structure. Through his persistent experiments with materials, Tatlin had gained an understanding of and appreciation for natural structures, and sought to emulate them. Though it was unsuccessful overall, this last construction designed for a more efficient way of living in the new society, remains one of Tatlin's most important projects and solidifies his position as a true innovator and engineer.
Wood, metal, whalebone, silk - Aeronautical and Astronautical Museum, Monino, Russia