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>> Malevich and the Bolsheviks
>> Everything and Nearly Nothing: Malevich and His Effects
>> Russian Berlin in the Nineteen-Twenties
>> Deutsche Bank and the German-Russian Cultural Exchange

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Berlin Under the Sign of the Square:
Russian Berlin in the Nineteen-Twenties

To this day, the city of Berlin owes a large part of its reputation as a vibrant cultural metropolis to the so-called Golden Twenties of the past century. It was often, however, artists from outside Berlin who enriched the city's avant-garde, enabling it to outshine both Munich, the art capital at the turn of the century, and even for a time Paris, the center of modernism.

Wladimir Nabokov in Berlin, 1923

Wladimir Majakowki

The fact that Berlin came into focus was due to its geographically central location in Europe and to the political upheaval occurring in many countries following the First World War. In Germany, the empire had recently been dissolved; there were powerful leftist revolutionary forces at work as well as prominent nationalistic and restorative tendencies seeking to reinstate the monarchy. On the other hand, the October Revolution of 1917 had just brought about the collapse of the Czarist rule in Russia. A huge flood of refugees resulted; at first, rivers of fleeing people poured into the neighboring countries, but Russian colonies developed as far away as Africa and South America. Those fleeing Russia were often nobility whose property had been stolen and whose lives were in danger; others were fleeing from the civil war and its devastation. When the "Whites" were finally overpowered by the Red Army in 1920, another massive wave of refugees followed. Also among those stranded in Berlin, however, were Bolsheviks who wanted to proclaim the achievements of the Revolution.

Natalja Gontscharowa

Marina Zwetajewa

Berlin was the most important station of the Russian Diaspora, the first city in the west and a coveted goal for many. The channels from east to west via Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest had already been probed prior to 1900, when a large number of Jews headed west to flee the Russian pogroms and many of them stopped over in Berlin. Over the course of time, hundreds of thousands of Russians had settled in the city. The numbers varied between 300,000 and half a million, temporarily turning Berlin into the "third largest city in Russia" between 1919 and 1923.

Numerous renowned Russian writers and artists such as Marina Zvetayeva, Sergey Yessenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Vladimir Nabokov harked back to Russian Berlin in their works. Victor Shklovsky, who spent time in Berlin during 1922/23, wrote: "The Russians are circling around the Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) like flies." The area surrounding Nollendorfplatz, Wittenbergplatz, and Kurfürstendamm, called the "New West," became the most popular place to live or stay, as the painter Segal described: "One goes for a walk in the west and an array of signs and advertisements presents itself to the eye: Rodina's Bookshop, Medved Restaurant, Moskva Café. And at the newspaper stands, the papers Dni, Nakanune, Rul… it's like a peaceful conquest! The Germans have gotten used to it. And as a joke, they've even renamed Charlottenburg Charlottengrad."

Cover of Alexander Tairoff's
"Unleashed Theater"
Gustav Kiepenheuer Publishers,
Potsdam 1927, 2nd Edition

Marc Chagall, Lisa at the Window, 1914

A Russian edition of Grieben's Berlin Guide of 1923 lists countless associations of every kind and even political parties that had organized themselves in the city in a short period of time. Over the years, six banks, 87 publishers, three daily papers, and 20 bookstores established themselves in Berlin. The theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold met with Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, and Alexander Tairov published his book "Entfesseltes Theater" (Unleashed Theater) with Kiepenheuer Publishers. In 1926, Sergey Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" premiered in the Apollo Theater in Friedrichstrasse and met with tremendous response.

A great number of artists had contacts to Berlin dating back to the time before the war. Thus, the Russian artist Marc Chagall had already exhibited in Herwarth Walden's gallery "Der Sturm" as early as 1913, in the famous First German Autumn Salon. In 1914, he had an important one-man show in the city. In his gallery, Walden presented the international avant-garde with Expressionism, Cubism, and Futurism, and it was he who introduced Vasily Kandinsky, Alexey Javlensky, Michail Larionov, Alexander Archipenko, and Natalya Goncharova to Berlin.

Marc Chagall, Store in Vitebsk, 1914

In 1922, Chagall came to Berlin for approximately one year to realize the series of 20 etchings entitled "My Life" for Paul Cassirer Publishers. Chagall, who had led an important art school in the Russian city of Vitebsk, employed many folkloristic, but also many Jewish elements in his work. In Berlin, Shklovsky wrote: "All of the youngsters of Vitebsk paint in Chagall's style, which does great credit to him. He's managed, though, to remain a Vitebsker, both in Paris and Petersburg."

Issachar Ryback, The Old Synagogue, 1917
Tel Aviv, Collection of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (2017)

Along with Chagall, it was also the young Issachar Ryback who brought this form of Jewish modernism from the Shtetl to Berlin. Like so many others, the two artists only stayed temporarily in the city and later moved on to Paris. Presumably, one of the reasons was that they never really felt at home in Berlin; they perceived themselves as being in a "realm of shadow," as Andrey Bely wrote. For Chagall, however, there were also artistic reasons; his highly poetic art had little to do with Constructivism, which was pressing more and more into the foreground. His departure from Vitebsk, where he'd summoned Ivan Puni, El Lissitzky, and Kasimir Malevich to teach, had already been brought about by controversy of this kind. Recall Vladimir Tatlin's polemics against Expressionism, which came to the fore at the Dada Fair of 1920. George Grosz, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, and others argued for the world's and for art's mechanization and rationalization: "Art is dead. Long live Tatlin's new machine art."

Puni Exhibition in the Sturm Galerie, Berlin, February 1921

The painter Ivan Puni began living in Berlin in 1920. The doors to his studio in Kleiststrasse were always open; friends from Russia met here regularly, and other artists such as Rudolf Belling, László Moholy-Nagy, or Theo van Doesburg came frequently, as well. A lecture on "modern painting" that Puni held in the "Haus der Künste" on Nollendorfplatz demonstrated that this lively exchange among artists pursuing to a certain extent very different goals could also, however, lead to controversy. Ilya Ehrenburg, a well-known writer and chronicler of the time, wrote: "There was a place in Berlin that was reminiscent of Noah's Ark, where good and evil assembled together peacefully. It was an ordinary German café in which Russian writers met every Friday… a great uproar broke out following a lecture by the painter Ivan Puni: Archipenko, Altman, Shklovsky, Mayakovsky, Gabo, Lissitzky, and I fought furiously with each other."

Max Missmann:
Middle Promenade of the Boulevard Unter den Linden,
Corner of Friedrichstrasse, 1910. Berlin, Märkisches Museum.

The context was Puni's rejection of Malevich's non-objective art and his position that these forms should also be used as decorative elements for interiors, textiles, and books. Puni, who had an exhibition in "Sturm" in 1921 in which he showed his latest, partially abstract works, employed a casual room design to this purpose, while figures advertised on the streets of Berlin wearing costumes adorned in the same style.

Ivan Puni, Synthetic Musician, 1914
Berlinische Galerie, Museum for Modern Art

Puni, whose father was a cellist in Petersburg, was inspired by the contemporary music of Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ferruccio Busoni. He tried to convert musical processes into visual terms, to give color and form to sound. In 1921, with his Synthetic Musician, he created a masterpiece portraying a musician with an instrument assembled together in cubist style. Puni tried to combine cubo-futurist and suprematist elements with one another. With this work and two other compositions, Puni was present at the First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin in 1922. He moved to Paris in 1924, where he lived from that point on under the name Jean Pougny.

The 1922 art exhibition marked a high point in the artistic exchange between both countries and presented an overview of Russian art of a kind never before seen. It was largely made possible through the Rapallo Contract of the spring of 1922, which once again normalized official relations between Germany and the Soviet Union, including those in the cultural area. A co-organizer of the exhibition was the sculptor Naum Gabo, who lived in Berlin for ten years between 1922 and 1932 and who spent one of his most creative and productive periods in the city. He'd changed his surname in 1915 from Pevsner to Gabo in order to distinguish himself from his brother Nathan, who later became known as a sculptor in Paris under the name Antoine Pevsner.

Naum Gabo, Constructive Head No. 2,
Photo: David Wharton


Issachar Ryback, Berlin Woman,
Kiev and Berlin, 1919/1921-24
Bat Yam, Ryback Art Museum
Photo: Zev Radovan, Jerusalem

Around 1915, Gabo began transforming his cubist drawings and paintings into plastic, spacial works. He constructed his heads and torsi using sheets of metal and wood; in the abstract works, he combined together various materials. In 1919, in the midst of hunger and civil war, he conceived one of the most modern works of art ever made with his Kinetic Construction: an electrical motor induces a thin, upright metal rod to vibrate in such a way that it produces a spacial figure in wave form – a temporary body created by energy alone. Gabo showed eight plastic constructions in the Berlin exhibition. These were extensively reviewed in the press, and his artist colleagues regarded the work as simply sensational. The works, made in Berlin, are marked by a great transparence achieved primarily through the use of Plexiglas. Under the influence of the Bauhaus, his sculptures began showing evidence of architectonic elements, and it seems almost logical that he should design monuments and buildings, as well. He sent his most famous design to Moscow in 1932 when he took part in the competition for the design of the Palace of the Soviets with drawings, models, and patented constructions.

El Lissitzky, Proun 12 E, 1920
Proun 30 T, ca. 1920

One of the most famous mediators between both countries, but also between various disciplines, was El Lissitzky. When he arrived in Berlin at the end of 1921, he was already a well-known representative of the new Russian revolutionary art. Chagall had summoned him to Vitebsk, and during 1921, together with Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, he'd taught at the famous school WCHUTEMAS in Moscow, which was comparable to the Bauhaus in its interdisciplinary approach. Influenced by Malevich, he created his "Proun" works: images using abstract, geometric forms that contain painterly and architectural elements. In 1922, Ehrenburg characterized Lissitzky as a guest in the Café on Prager Platz: "Altman bought a motorcycle, yet preferred not to ride it. Lissitzky – he would have ridden it. He might have broken his neck doing so, but he would have ridden it. How should he have done otherwise – Constructivism… met with constructivists of all countries. Even in the café, he continued to concern himself with inventing."

Cover of the magazine "Wjeschtsch/Objekt/Gegenstand," 1922
The magazine, edited by Ilya Ehrenburg and El Lissitzky and designed
by Lissitzky, only appeared in three editions.

Ehrenburg and Lissitzky co-published the magazine "Weshch" (object), which reported in three languages on the most recent international developments: "The 'Object' takes on the case of constructivist art, whose task is not to decorate life, but rather to reorganize it." His Proun, as well, was to serve this purpose, "beginning in the surface, proceeding through the spacial construction of models and on to the construction of all objects of life in general." Lissitzky concerned himself with painting, graphics, typography, and photography. From Berlin, he accepted numerous invitations, translated between the Dadaists and the Constructivists in Weimar, and organized the Amsterdam station of the First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin. In Hanover, he was commissioned by the "Pelican" company to design their typeface, which continues to be used to this day. Here, he was once again given the opportunity to design a series of lithographs in 1923. Characteristically, Lissitzky chose the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, which had already inspired Malevich in 1913 to create Suprematism.

Proun Room, Berlin, 1923

In 1923, Lissitzky presented his Proun room, in which he consistently realized his ideas in three-dimensional space for the first time. He designed, or rather organized walls and ceilings with geometric surfaces and objects: "The new room doesn't need or want any pictures. We don't want the room to be a painted coffin for our living bodies. Interior space is there for people – and not the other way around." This work led to the abstract cabinets that he realized in Dresden in 1926 and shortly thereafter in Hanover. With these demonstration rooms, Lissitzky anticipated art movements that would arise after the Second World War, when concepts such as "environment" and "installation" were formulated for the first time.

Russian Berlin from the twenties left behind nearly no traces; its former places of residence, studios, and cafés were for the most part destroyed during the war. It can still be found, however, in the archives, contemporaries' memoirs, and in the world's museums in the form of art works made in Berlin during the time. It was only after 1990, following German Reunification and the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russia has come closer to Berlin once more. Today, it is said that almost 100,000 Russians are living in Berlin again, and – how could it be otherwise – Charlottenburg forms the center of their life.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

Selected Reading:

Exhibition catalogue Berlin – Moskau 1900–1950, Berlinische Galerie 1995/96, eds. Irina Antonowa, Jörn Merkert, Munich, New York 1995
Exhibition catalogue Ilja Ehrenburg und die Deutschen, Deutsch-Russisches Museum Berlin, ed. Peter Jahn, Berlin 1997
Exhibition catalogue Iwan Puni, Berlinische Galerie, Stuttgart 1993
Exhibition catalogue Marc Chagall: mein Leben – mein Traum; Berlin und Paris 1922–1940, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen 1990, ed. Susan Compton, Munich 1990
Exhibition catalogue Naum Gabo Retrospektive, Sechzig Jahre Konstruktivismus, Akademie der Künste 1986, eds. Jörn Merkert, Steven A. Nash, Munich 1986
Exhibition catalogue The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde 1912–28, ed. Ruth Apter-Gabriel, Israel Museum, Jerusalem 1987
Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, El Lissitzky, Maler Architekt Typograf Fotograf, Dresden 1967
Fritz Mierau, Russen in Berlin 1918–33, Leipzig 1987