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Realistic Manifesto (1920)
Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner
Recording of the "Realistic Manifesto" (1920) [MP3]
The blossoming of a new culture and a new civilization with their unprecedented-in-history surge of the masses towards the possession of the riches of Nature, a surge which binds the people into one union, and last, not least, the war and the revolution (those purifying torrents of the coming epoch), have made us face the fact of new forms of life, already born and active.
What does Art carry into this unfolding epoch of human history?
Does it possess the means necessary for the construction of the new Great Style?
Or does it suppose that the new epoch may not have a new style? Or does it suppose that the new life can accept a new creation which is constructed on the foundations of the old?
In spite of the demand of the renascent spirit of our time, Art is still nourished by impression, external appearance, and wanders helplessly back and forth from Naturalism to Symbolism, from Romanticism to Mysticism.
The attempts of the Cubists and the Futurists to lift the visual arts from the bogs of the past have led only to new delusions.
Cubism, having started with simplification of the representative technique, ended with its analysis and stuck there.
The distracted world of the Cubists, broken in shreds by their logical anarchy, cannot satisfy us who have already accomplished the Revolution or who are already constructing and building up anew.
One could heed with interest the experiments of the Cubists, but one cannot follow them, being convinced that their experiments are being made on the surface of Art and do not touch on the bases of it, seeing plainly that the end result amounts to the same old graphic, to the same old volume, and to the same decorative surface as of old.
One could have hailed Futurism in its time for the refreshing sweep of its announced Revolution in Art, for its devastating criticism of the past, as in no other way could one have assailed those artistic barricades of “good taste”… powder was needed for that and a Jot of it… but one cannot construct a system of art on one revolutionary phrase alone.
One had to examine Futurism beneath its appearance to realize that one faced a very ordinary chatterer, a very agile and prevaricating guy, clad in the tatters of worn-out words like “patriotism,” “militarism,” “contempt for the female,” and all the rest of such provincial tags.
In the domain of purely pictorial problems, Futurism has not gone further than the renovated effort to fix on the canvas a purely optical reflex which has already shown its bankruptcy with the Impressionists. It is obvious now to every one of us that by the simple graphic registration of a row of momentarily arrested movements, one cannot recreate movement itself. It makes one think of the pulse of a dead body.
The pompous slogan of “Speed” was played from the hands of the Futurists as a great trump. We concede the sonority of that slogan and we quite see how it can sweep the strongest of the provincials off their feet. But ask any Futurist how does he imagine “speed” and there will emerge a whole arsenal of frenzied automobiles, rattling railway depots, snarled wires, the clank and the noise and the clang of carouselling streets… does one really need to convince them that all that is not necessary for speed and for its rhythms?
Look at a ray of sun… the stillest of the still forces, it speeds more than 300 kilometres in a second… behold our starry firmament… who hears it… and yet what are our depots to those depots of the Universe? What are our earthly trains to those hurrying trains of the galaxies?
Indeed, the whole Futurist noise about speed is too obvious an anecdote, and from the moment that Futurism proclaimed that “Space and Time are yesterday’s dead,” it sunk into the obscurity of abstractions.
Neither Futurism nor Cubism has brought us what our time has expected of them.
Besides those two artistic schools our recent past has had nothing of importance or deserving attention.
But Life does not wait and the growth of generations does not stop and we who go to relieve those who have passed into history, having in our bands the results of their experiments, with their mistakes and their achievements, after years of experience equal to centuries, … we say…
No new artistic system will withstand the pressure of a growing new culture until the very foundation of Art will be erected on the real laws of Life.
Until all artists will say with us…
All is a fiction… only life and its laws are authentic and in life only the active is beautiful and wise and strong and right, for life does not know beauty as an aesthetic measure… efficacious existence is the highest beauty.
Life knows neither good nor bad nor justice as a measure of morals… need is the highest and most just of all morals.
Life does not know rationally abstracted truths as a measure of cognisance, deed is the highest and surest of truths.
Those are the laws of life. Can art withstand these laws if it is built on abstraction, on mirage, and fiction?
Space and time are re-born to us today.
Space and time are the only forms on which life is built and hence art must be constructed.
States, political and economic systems perish, ideas crumble, under the strain of ages… but life is strong and grows and time goes on in its real continuity.
Who will show us forms more efficacious than this… who is the great one who will give us foundations stronger than this?
Who is the genius who will tell us a legend more ravishing than this prosaic tale which is called life?
The realization of our perceptions of the world in the forms of space and time is the only aim of our pictorial and plastic art.
In them we do not measure our works with the yardstick of beauty, we do not weigh them with pounds of tenderness and sentiments.
The plumb-line in our hand, eyes as precise as a ruler, in a spirit as taut as a compass we construct our work as the universe constructs its own, as the engineer constructs his bridges, as the mathematician his formula of the orbits.
We know that everything has its own essential image; chair, table, lamp, telephone, book, house, man they are all entire worlds with their own rhythms, their own orbits.
That is why we in creating things take away from them the labels of their owners all accidental and local, leaving only the reality of the constant rhythm of the forces in them.
1. Thence in painting we renounce colour as a pictorial element, colour is the idealized optical surface of objects; an exterior and superficial impression of them; colour is accidental and it has nothing in common with the innermost essence of a thing.
We affirm that the tone of a substance, i,.e. its light-absorbing material body is its only pictorial reality.
2. We renounce in a line, its descriptive value; in real life there are no descriptive lines, description is an accidental trace of a man on things, it is not bound up with the essential life and constant structure of the body. Descriptiveness is an element of graphic illustration and decoration.
We affirm the line only as a direction of the static forces and their rhythm in objects.
3. We renounce volume as a pictorial and plastic form of space; one cannot measure space in volumes as one cannot measure liquid in yards: look at our space… what is it if not one continuous depth?
We affirm depth as the only pictorial and plastic form of space.
4. We renounce in sculpture, the mass as a sculptural element.
It is known to every engineer that the static forces of a solid body and its material strength do not depend on the quantity of the mass… example a rail, a T-beam, etc.
But you sculptors of all shades and directions, you still adhere to the age-old prejudice that you cannot free the volume of mass. Here (in this exhibition) we take four planes and we construct with them the same volume as of four tons of mass.
Thus we bring back to sculpture the line as a direction and in it we affirm depth as the one form of space.
5.We renounce the thousand-year-old delusion in art that held the static rhythms as the only elements of the plastic and pictorial arts.
We affirm in these arts a new element the kinetic rhythms as the basic forms of our perception of real time.
These are the five fundamental principles of our work and our constructive technique.
Today we proclaim our words to you people. In the squares and on the streets we are placing our work convinced that art must not remain a sanctuary for the idle, a consolation for the weary, and a justification for the lazy. Art should attend us everywhere that life flows and acts… at the bench, at the table, at work, at rest, at play; on working days and holidays… at home and on the road… in order that the flame to live should not extinguish in mankind.
We do not look for justification, neither in the past nor in the future.
Nobody can tell us what the future is and what utensils does one eat it with.
Not to lie about the future is impossible and one can lie about it at will.
We assert that the shouts about the future are for us the same as the tears about the past: a renovated day-dream of the romantics.
A monkish delirium of the heavenly kingdom of the old attired in contemporary clothes.
He who is busy today with the morrow is busy doing nothing.
And he who tomorrow will bring us nothing of what he has done today is of no use for the future.
Today is the deed.
We will account for it tomorrow.
The past we are leaving behind as carrion. The future we leave to the fortune-tellers. We take the present day.
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