Vladimir Tatlin biography

By Kate Fulghum

            Russian Constructivist Vladimir Evgraforich Tatlin was the founder and most well known of the Constructivist art community.  Tatlin believed that art should be appeasing to the eye as well as a functional and practical piece made from earthly, organic materials that could serve people in society.  While he participated and agreed with the main idea of the functionality of art with his fellow Constructivists, he stood apart due to the underlying organicism that some of his structures were based upon and rejected a purely functionalistic art piece.  Tatlin “Sought a harmony with nature and a connection with the past” with is constructivist works.[1]

Tatlin was born in 1885 in Moscow, but raised in a rural region of the Ukraine where he came to possess his love of nature.  He may have gained his appreciation for technology and functionality from his railroad engineer father, and an appreciation for fine arts from this poet mother.[2]  His childhood went downhill with the death of his mother when he was only two years old.  Tatlin’s father thought that art wasn’t an important pastime, and often criticized Tatlin for spending time appreciating it, insisting that artistry would be a useless occupation.  Tatlin lived an unhappy childhood with his father until he passed away when Tatlin was 13. Tatlin ran away to the sea to be a sailor until 1902, when his studies with art began to take shape.[3]  Tatlin began to paint under the directions of Levents and Kharchenko, and enrolled into the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture where he studied until 1904.  He studied at the Penza Art School under the artist Afanas’ev, who was a member of the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions.  This group of artists was committed to “creating an art relevant to Russian realty which would describe contemporary conditions and social problems”.[4]  The social and political commitment of these artists had a large influence on Tatlin, who later stated that Afanas’ev was one of the three artists that influenced him the most.

After graduating in 1909, Tatlin began visiting art exhibitions in Moscow, where he discovered the art of reliefs and counter-reliefs, which he explained as having “materials, volume, and construction” as their main foundations.[5]  He was fascinated with this new art form, and was inspired to make counter-reliefs of his own.  Tatlin declared “This investigation of material, volume, and construction made it possible… in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity.”[6]  In other words, Tatlin was interested in the way that these counter-reliefs used classic materials such as wood and glass in a completely new and unique way to create a new, modern form of art with abundant and antique materials.  Interested in these “antique” materials he saw being used in art exhibitions, Tatlin began experimenting with the flexible boundaries of these seemingly unbendable objects, such as wood and glass.  Tatlin wanted to see what possible shapes could be made out of these utilitarian materials, which was reflected in his counter-reliefs.  One of the counter-reliefs that he made in 1913 has a curved piece of glass and a concave piece of metal, which showed his interest in the flexibility of organic materials.  These counter- reliefs Tatlin created “referred to the more intense relationship they formed with the surrounding spatial environment; in other words, their outward expansion into space and their movement towards encapsulation the real spatial environment”.[7] Tatlin wanted his art to expand beyond the boundaries of a frame or a certain two-dimensional space; he wanted his art to become one with the viewers’ surrounding environment.

In 1920, Tatlin introduced his well-known model for the Monument to the Third International, which was considered one of his most famous works.  The model was made of the usual Constructivist materials of wood and wire.  Tatlin stated that he wanted to create “a union of purely artistic forms for a utilitarian purpose”.[8]  The monument would serve the important purpose of housing Russian government and administration offices.  The building was proposed to be double the height of the empire state building and to be made completely out of steel.  Unfortunately, due to lack of funding and materials, the monument’s construction never took off.  The model, however, is a perfect example of Russian Constructivism.  While Tatlin made the building visually appealing by using diagonal, spiraling lines upward to create movement, he also made the building practical and functional, a piece of art that could serve the Russian people.

After working for several years as an independent artist in the Constructivist movement, Tatlin began to center his efforts on being an art teacher.  Tatlin taught in art programs in Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev.[9]  Tatlin and his students redesigned ordinary objects such as teapots and stoves, staying true to the Constructivist belief of making art functional, utilitarian, and purposeful.  Tatlin strongly encouraged his students to compare different materials and test the boundaries of their flexibility and their ability to take shape, as he did when he was working independently.  These remodeled objects were to be made of affordable materials that Tatlin considered “appropriate to Soviet life and the Russian climate.”[10]  Tatlin also emphasized the use or non-industrial, organic materials to make the objects so they would cost less to make at a mass-production level.  Unfortunately, due to this radical, non-industrial way of thinking, the mass-production of these materials never took off due to lack of popularity and support from society.

After teaching, Tatlin returned to independently creating more Constructivist art in 1931.  Over the next two years, Tatlin created what is considered his last major work, the Letatlin.  The name is a combination of the Russian word “letat”, meaning “to fly”, and his name.[11]  The structure was a full-sized model of a human glider/flying apparatus.  Letatlin was inspired by Tatlin’s fascination with the flight patterns of birds and insects, along with his belief that art should live outside of an enclosed frame and should be built from simple, organic materials.[12]  Several of these utilitarian materials were used to make the gliders, including rawhide, cork, steel cable, wood, and even a whale bone for extra strength at the points that connected most of the pieces together, absorbing most of the stress.  Tatlin ensured all the materials fit the Constructivist view of being utilitarian, organic materials that were functional, flexible, and selected on the principle of their best possible use.[13]  While Tatlin held true to his Constructivist beliefs, he also made sure that the glider wouldn’t create harmful gases or by-products that could further pollute the environment, unlike airplanes.  Tatlin not only created art that was functional and held true to the Constructivist conviction, but also created a symbol to remind humanity that seemingly complex, industrialized objects can be made with simple, organic, and unprocessed materials, also meaning that pollution caused by urbanization didn’t have to be an option.[14]

Throughout his career as a Constructivist artist, Tatlin sought to “unify the past and the present, craft and industry, nature and urban industrial life, through artistic form”.[15]  Tatlin started with his counter-reliefs, showing that art could be made from simple and functional materials and escape the two-dimensional frame and become one the viewers’ environment.  He tried to combine craft and industry with his Monument to the Third International by creating a functional piece of art to hold government and administration offices.  With Letatlin, he desired to combine materials found in nature to create a modern, urbanized mode of transportation that was revolutionary and pollutant-free.  Tatlin created his art by looking into the past at objects that could be created more organically, and at the same time give it a modern twist, like Letatlin versus the airplane.  Tatlin’s visionary outlook on functional, utilitarian is what Constructivism is remembered for present day.

[1] Laurel Fredrickson, Design Issues 15, no. 1 (1999): 49.  “Vision and Material Practice: Vladimir Tatlin and the Design of Everyday Objects”,

[2] Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 8.

[3] Lodder, 8.

[4] Lodder,  9

[5] John Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902-1934 (New York: The Viking Press, 1976), 206.

[6] Bowlt, 206.

[7] Lodder,  34

[8] Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art: 1863-1922.  (London: Thames and Hudson, 1962), 225.

[9] Fredrickson, 49.

[10] Fredrickson, 61.

[11] Lodder, 213

[12] Lodder, 214

[13] Lodder, 214

[14] Lodder, 217

[15] Fredrickson, 71

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