When H.G. Wells wanted to travel in time in his 1895 science fiction novella, The Time Machine, he rigged up a velvet chair with some ornate brass fixings and levers, and George Méliès sent the first explorers to the moon in his 1902 film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, by pulling the string of a (really) big canon. Think, then, of the radical break of the avant-garde from what we now call a “steampunk” aesthetic. Rather than relying on known objects in the world, avant-garde groups like the Russian Constructivists made an entirely new visual language, one that used geometric, abstract forms and principles of materialism to create a thoroughly modern language. And it can be begun with this man portrayed on the left with the large metal apparatus on his head.
Vladimir Tatlin led the way to this futurist Modern aesthetic of a “skeletal form, modesty of materials, antigravitational thrust, kineticism, and, most crucially, its creation of volume without recourse to mass” (Maria Gough, The Spatial Object). All of which can be seen in his model Monument to the Third International, below. This 1920 design for a grand monumental building by Tatlin was created in response to a call for proposals for monuments, and, more than a monument, it was also meant to be a functional building that housed the headquarters of the Comintern (the Third International). The judges shrugged off the design for a non-figurative monument, and indeed, the technology did not exist in 1920 to build this towering structure containing three internal levels that were meant to revolve at different speeds.
Meant to be an iconic modern structure, not unlike the Eiffel Tower, Tatlin’s model was hugely influential even if unrealized, notably on Alexander Rodchenko’s Spatial Constructions. The Modernist elements–abstract geometries and undisguised use of materials and construction–became the forms of Constructivism, associated with the progress of science and society to a Utopian, Communist end. This 2006 abstract short film by Theodore Ushev is also inspired by Tatlin’s Tower and uses that same language.