Pursuing the Logical End: Rodčenko and Witkiewicz at the Crossroads of Artistic-Social Avant-Garde

In his 1918 work, New Forms in Painting and the Misunderstanding Arising Therefrom, the most original Polish writer and painter Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, or Witkacy, expressed the underlying ideas that would serve as a model for the lonely Polish avant-garde of intense individuality and nonconformism and provided a critical framework of his own ominous artistic theory in a bourgeois interwar Poland. Alexander Rodčenko’s experimentation in the sphere of visual and plastic arts provided an optimistic vision of arts in the Communist society. Yet both artists share seminal ideas on the fate of art in the modern age. The present paper has two main goals: to trace the transformation of the initial creative impetus of the Polish and Russian avant-garde artists from their similar yet distinct beliefs in the power of art and to show the transformation of their strategies along their way—to the art’s disintegration and its formal end.

Witkiewicz’s original concept of art in its relation to society sheds light on the exclusive demeanor of the phenomenon of the Polish artistic-social avant-garde. The central philosophical question for Witkacy was the search for the essence of Being through seeking “metaphysical feelings,” the totality of which determine Pure Form—the cornerstone of Witkacy’s aesthetic theory. His theory is inclined toward the apocalyptic vision of human history. Even before Oswald Spengler’s monumental Decline of the West, Witkacy believed in the irreversible decline of Western culture. The artist’s fears were based on the belief that humanity will eventually lose its individuality in the name of social progress and the necessary pragmatic adjustments to the needs of mass production.

The second part of this comparative analysis reveals a creative impulse behind Rodčenko’s views on art in the context of Soviet Russia. The years 1918 through 1921 were a period of intense creativity in Rodčenko’s art. Taking as his point of departure the abstract vocabulary of Malevič and Tatlin, he isolated individual qualities of painting and analyzed them in successive series: the planar surface of the work, its faktura, the density and weight of color, the complete absence of color, and line. In Moscow in September 1921, Rodčenko exhibited three monochromatic canvasses: Pure Red Color, Pure Blue Color, and Pure Yellow Color. Similar to Witkacy’s pursuit of Pure Form and the resulting rejection of art, Rodčenko also reduced painting to its logical conclusion. The three paintings realized a key imperative of modernist art: to pursue formal investigation to its logical end. Achieving this, Rodčenko renounced painting and turned resolutely to new forms of art as instruments of social progress. This bold stroke soon led him to outstanding achievements in a wide range of design and in photo collage and photography.

Despite the obvious formal similarities, Witkiewicz and Rodčenko clearly should not be considered coeval thinkers. Ironically, Witkacy abandoned the pursuit of Pure Form in art and engaged solely in the utilitarian production of portrait painting. Having earlier denounced utilitarianism, he opened a quasi-capitalist enterprise—a portrait studio. As he pursued his art, Rodčenko identified the systematic investigation of the material and formal logic of art with the creation of a new Communist society. For him, the artist was no longer an intuitive spirit but a constructor or visual engineer.