The Constructivist idea fell on fertile soil in Ukraine – especially in Kharkiv, the new capital after the Revolution. Given the rich cultural life of that city that should not come as a surprise. In 1919, for example, Vasyl Yermylov and Bernard Kratko founded the so-called “Educational-Industrial Workshops” that had much in common with those of Vkhutemas in Moscow and the Bauhaus in Germany. The primary aspiration of the Workshops – to transfer the visionary ideas of the avant-garde artists to “life” – was encapsulated by Aleksandr Leites, the celebrated literary critic, who declared that “Futurism wanted to be not so much a phenomenon of fiction, but rather a phenomenon of life – full of energy and with the screech of steam engines, the noise of propellers and the klaxons of automobiles that have now burst into the cherry orchards of yesterday’s poetry”.
Indeed, Yermylov burst on the scene with his painted propaganda trains, his poster designs, political parades, and agit-automobiles. As Valerian Polishchuk affirmed, “streets and buildings were painted in different colors with slogans, flags and billboards – created by Yermylov”. “Street art” also affected the design of public buildings. In 1919, for example, Yermylov and his colleagues decorated the foyer of the Kharkiv Circus. For the Kharkiv Actors’ Club, Yermylov painted murals based on the poetry of Velemir Khlebnikov, and in 1920 he decorated the walls of the Red Army Club.
As a result, the post-Revolutionary development of art in Kharkiv is often referred to as the “Yermilov” period. To this day, he is regarded as the leader of the Ukrainian Constructivist school and a key figure of the avant-garde. The works that Yermilov created in the early 1920s – what he described as “experimental” – are especially important, even if his artistic evolution of the 1910s and 1920s lies outside canons and conventional sequences. He might, for example, exchange one style for another or surprise us with his simultaneous and concurrent application of many different trends. At the same time, Yermylov remained true to himself and worked consistently towards his goal.
Yermylov’s early works – which he showed at exhibitions in Moscow and Kharkiv – were etchings reminiscent of Symbolism and their manner of execution had much in common with the plastic language of what was then called style moderne. These compositions reflect a crepuscular mood, evoking a sense of existential loneliness and universal fragility (a few of these etchings from 191 3-14 are now in the collections of museums in Kyiv and Kharkiv). Yermylov also painted his meticulous Roll of Bread in 1914. Here is an enormous filigree (the ornament on the loaf of bread) filling the entire space and enticing the viewer, as it were, with the aroma of a golden crust. This mass of dough even seems to be rising and swelling, so organic and vital is its inner energy. Here is a chunk of “quintessential bread”, a symbol of life, which, in its almost ascetic, simple plastic form elicits associations with the still-lifes and ample flesh of the Moscow “Jack of Diamonds” group.
That same year Yermylov visited Sergei Shchukin’s collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in Moscow, making copies of Picasso’s pictures and paying homage to the Parisian master with his Bread. Plate. Knife (1915). The objects seem to be advancing upon the viewer as if from above, while the wooden tabletop is depicted with meticulous detail. The faience plate is split into several segments and the surface of the bread impresses with its granular texture. Sight and touch are united, contributing to a complete sense of the materiality of the object. His Cubist composition Night Cafe (1917), on the other hand, looks like an etching, but it is now enhanced with newspaper collage, combining the velvet-like texture of a metal etching with the rigid clarity of a typographical font. Night Cafe occupies a perfect square and in spite of the dynamic rhythms is highly contrived and subordinated to the laws of logic. It was shown at the “Union of the Seven” exhibition in Kharkiv and was reproduced in the 1918 catalog Sem’ plus tri [Seven plus Three]. From his autobiography we learn that Yermylov was drafted into the army as a private in 1915 and the following year was sent to the front with the First Caucasian Cavalry Corps. Military service brought him many experiences – frontline action, contusion, military detention, even jail; and he was also decorated with the Cross of St. George. Returning from Persia to Kharkiv in the spring of 1918, he painted Dream (now lost) of which Viktor Platonov, his student, recalled, “When he was in the trenches, Yermylov depicted soldiers sleeping in unnatural poses. After returning home, in his studio, he made studies of female nudes (in the poses of the soldiers). Color is similar to that of Picasso of the blue period.” Yermylov himself recalled: “Late 1918…Who was painting “paintings” then? We were except that our paintings were posters. It was we who were working for the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) and Ukrainian Telegraph Agency (UkrROSTA) [display windows of the telegraph agencies used for propaganda] sometimes working three days straight off without sleep or food… so on public holidays the city acquired an especially majestic look and all this visual propaganda with its slogans, bright colors, constructions and other media (plywood, cardboard, paper, size paint, red cloth) presented in a new form constituted a proletarian art that was soon to become untenable”.
Two years later Yermylov decorated the Central Club of the Red Army Garrison, the surviving studies and documentary photographs testify to a totally new artistic style. In March 1920, he wrote: “I did my best to ensure that the images reflected their original ethnicity. To obtain this result, I rendered the figures according to the spirit of old Ukrainian painting and etching”.
Undoubtedly, Yermylov was familiar with the art of Mykhailo Boychuk who was teaching at the Ukrainian Academy of Art and developing his Neo-Byzantine school of art. Religiously following the old national traditions, Boichuk saw Byzantine art through the prism of ethnic art, icon painting, pagan and ritualistic perceptions of nature, and symbols of folk art. By referring to ancient archetypes in his images of modern life, Boichuk guided the viewer from a contrived history to a mythical time or timelessness. But Boychuk also appreciated the conventionality of language, line, and rhythm – a view that Yermylov shared and supported when he was decorating the Red Army Club. For example, Yermylov incorporated the ironic and the grotesque rather than the hieratic into his mural for one of the Club halls – the so-called Chess Room. The way he depicted the Red Army soldier as St. George and the soldier of the White Guard as a fallen dragon reminds us of the ironical stylizations of Heorhiy Narbut who, like Boychuk, did much to develop the national trend. For example, on the cover of the magazine The Sun of Labor (1919) Narbut portrayed a worker, replete with rifle and hammer, in the pose of Doryphoros by Polyclitus; on the cover of the magazine Mistetstvo [Art] (1920), Apollo is walking across the flowered earth dressed in the blouse of a worker and holding a sickle in his right hand, his left hand imitating the gesture of the Apollo of Belvedere. Here was a play on images, a Post-Modernism avant le parole. Certainly, Yermylov put the Narbut tradition to good use as in his book designs and his images for the Red Ukraine propaganda train, although in the ornamental motifs we also sense an interest in abstract form. Appealing to the inner logic of ethnic art, he exposes the primary elements of ornament.
While he was working for the Red Army Club in the early 1920s, Yermylov began to develop his Experimental Compositions, abstract works consisting of sparse geometric figures and other elements. In them, Yermilov was trying to resolve complex formal assignments, producing multifarious, but still logical, combinations of materials and textures – wood, cardboard, copper, glass, wood shavings, oil, enamel. Both in monumental commissions and in the graphic designs, Yermilov took special account of mass psychology, turning to the traditions of folk art and primitivism as well as to contemporary artistic experience. His evolution was relentless, moving from fresco paintings through Cubism and mass propaganda towards Constructivism and the Experimental Compositions, Yermylov’s commitment to the material, painterly surface and to the creative process itself is constant.
Yermylov graduated from the Kharkiv Educational and Professional School of Decorative Painting in 1 909 and, after three years of practical work had become a professional muralist. Thanks to hands-on experience in Kharkiv and then Moscow, Yermylov soon excelled in drawing and painting. Meeting David Burliuk, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova and visiting Moscow exhibitions and collections, Yermylov was introduced to radically new ideas. Cubism, in particular, attracted him with its textures, its emphatic exposure of the structures and planes of objects and its “zoom-lens” effect.
After the Revolution, Yermylov headed the Artistic-Industrial Section of the Art Committee in Kharkiv. In 1920, he was employed at the South Russian Telegraph Agency and, in 1921 he was appointed head of the studio of the Art Industry Enterprise, and also began work in the Central Studio of Artistic Design and Propaganda. Polishchuk, author of the first monograph on Yermylov (1932), wrote: “This phase…confronted Yermylov with real objects and materials: a train car, a piece of plywood, a club, a fence, a banner, a stage, an automobile…” The artist decorated the streets and squares, building platforms, arches, and panels out of plywood, cardboard, paper, cloth, and size paint, resolving spatial and constructive problems with a minimum of means. As for studio painting (and Cubism was still his common denominator), Yermylov painted an almost monochrome piece called Mandolin, in which the planes, divided and abrasive, seem to render the sound of the melody. Thereafter, he moved from this kind of voluminous painting to the colored wooden relief: his Guitar (1924), for example, is no longer a dynamic melody, but a Constructivist harmony – which, with the beauty of logic and the perfection of an instrument, evokes a different sound. Rather similar to this kind of instrument – to a mechanical toy – is the head in relief entitled Harlequin of the same year.
At this time, Yermylov was heavily involved in color analysis, studying the theories of Wilhelm Ostwald and drawing up his own color primer or so-called ABC of the Language of Painting. He took the primary colors and extended their effect by whitening or darkening the pigment with achromatic white and black so as to obtain a great number of tints and shades. We know, for example, that for the color green, he created 360 index cards – later on arranging them so as to document the performance factor of color chords. Much later, in 1945, he suggested establishing a laboratory of painting technique and technology at the Kharkiv Art Institute and two years after that presented a detailed teaching plan for a course on chromatics. In 1957, Yermylov compiled a curriculum entitled “The Spatial Idea” that included topics such as “The Esthetics of Numbers and Compasses” and “Linear Thought”. In his “Technique and Technology of Painting Materials” Yermylov surmised that “by acquiring professional mastery (craftsmanship) and by extending and broadening his knowledge, the master [can] turn a vocational skill into art, something which distinguishes him or her from the ordinary handyman”. Indeed, throughout his professional career, Yermylov experimented with the language of plastic forms so as to “produce a means of production”.
In the early 1920s, Yermylov was particularly fond of working with textures, often introducing metal into his reliefs. In Portrait (1923), for example, a metal sheet renders the surface of the skin, forms the volume of the head, and outlines the round collar. The head is a trapezoid, the neck a single diagonal. The arches of the eyebrows and the eyes are marked with protrusions and depressions, the straight line of the nose protrudes, while the geometrical outlines seem to manifest vitality and a will for action. In another work of the same year, Portrait of a Man, Yermylov balances the face within the spatial coordinates of verticals and horizontals, accenting the perpendicular lines and the soft arches; supported by the emphatic angles and congruent with the frame, a sophisticated silhouette glides over the black space of the background. The artist presents the human image as a solid surface, beneath which, however, pulsates the unknown. Here and elsewhere Yermilov was combining the abstract and the concrete in a smooth synthesis, while avoiding obvious boundaries and contradictions.
In The Window (1922) Yermylov featured the window of his own studio along with the fragment of a triangular billboard on the wall of the neighboring building, recreating both the window frame and the curtain. It is as if he was positioning a still-life, placing the segment of a plate on a square table and bolting down the cone-shaped object. Here are two viewpoints – from the front and from above. As a result, the recognizable shapes also generate a new image, resembling a human face (or at least, a certain anthropomorphism). The window now undergoes a metamorphosis for, as a symbol of the desire to see the world, it is also a desire to be in hiding and to conceal.
While experimenting with various materials and textures, Yermylov never lost the clarity of his vision. Take, for example, the titles of the three compositions Moon in the Window, Moon Arisen and Moon Emerging (lost, but known from photographs): in Moon in the Window the window frame is highlighted by the repetition of the straight angle and seems to be swaying in the night breeze; the diagonals and the oval provide a sense of mobility and instability; the circle of the moon gravitates toward the base of the window, drawn to the world of domesticity, so tangible and solid compared to the emptiness of the night sky. In Moon Arisen, however, the rectangles are disconnected and the verticals stagger as the moon stubbornly floats upwards; the textured, uneven background elicits a sense of black infinity, of the cosmos – here are both the density of matter and the emptiness of the abyss; moreover, such associations are generated by the physicality of the materials – the wooden window frame seems warm, the disconnected line of the metal prompts a certain caution, the coldness of the moonlight, perhaps the loss of home. There is also mystery in Moon Emerging, wherein thin furrows traverse the diagonal, metallic semicircle, instigating a sense of movement.
Yermylov might be called not only a Constructivist, but also a founder of Minimalism. He needed only the outline of a circle or of a right angle to establish a correlation between our human world and the cosmos in a clear and simple way, tempered, however, by intuition. Polishchuk noted: “Yermylov’s precise calculations keep clashing with poetic explosions”. This synthesis of intuition, sensuality and reason brings Yermylov to his artistic ideal – of an architectonic and spatial wholeness as if he were bringing order both to the human condition and to our vision of the material world. He established correlations whereby we might recapture harmony.
These qualities can be identified in Composition No. 3 (1924, Museum of Modern Art, New York). The broad wooden frame here is also a part of the composition, while the floating fibers of the wooden texture produce a soft rhythm, accentuating the purity of the white area which, in turn, assumes a cosmic resonance. The purity of this composition in wood, brass, oil, and varnish is comparable to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction in philosophy, for here is a dialogue with the object as such. Of course, with its white background, its arch and diagonals, Composition No. 3 has much in common with Suprematism, although the density and weight distinguish it. True, we tend to look at the piece as an open angle, along which moves the arch, but if we look at Yermylov’s own photograph, we see that Composition No. 3 is presented differently – as a closed angle, which hinders the movement of the arch.
Along with these abstract compositions, Yermylov also constructed a number of works that connect with visible and tangible phenomena, among them the commemorative plaques for Lenin’s death: 21 of January. 6.50 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne) and Hills. 18.50. 21. 1. 1924 (Fine Art Fund Ltd., London). The numbers in the former are carved in the board against the black background, the core tragically burning in the darkness, surrounded by the glittering nails, a combination that gives a sense of despair in the face of harsh reality. The second commemorative plaque consists of two squares at the intersection of which are the metallic numbers “18.50” – here is the soulless registration of facts in a soulless language, and yet, visually, the broad white frames of the squares place the captured moment within a different dimension. Yermylov also made a another panel consisting of four sections dedicated to the memory of Lenin: in the upper left corner, we again see the word “Hills”, in the lower right, the word “Moscow”; both words being counterbalanced by squares carrying quotations. In the “Hills” section, a right angle is superimposed on a disk, while the square proceeds from the angle, breaks away, and floats through the black space as if departing this earthly life. The composition in the lower part, “Moscow” glittering in metal, consists of various rectangular forms, closed and open, finished and unfinished, while the wooden and metal details in the composition are either bolted or nailed. Yermylov selected the of size of the nuts after long contemplation, a fact that becomes poignantly clear from the most succinct of Yermylov’s “socio-political” compositions, i.e. the wood and metal Marx. Lenin of 1925. In the capital letters against the background of metal plates, the small screws, symmetrically positioned in pairs within the letter “M” and the four huge screws fastened at top and bottom of the letter “L” convey a very expressive resonance.
For Yermylov, as for many of his contemporaries, the name of Lenin was synonymous with “revolutionary” in its broadest sense. For an artist foreign to political doctrine such as Yermylov, here was a universal notion of global transformation according to the laws of reason. In 1948, expelled from the Union of Artists of the USSR and the target of merciless criticism, Yermylov wrote to his old friend, the artist Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov: “imagine, how it feels… to be formalist, cosmopolitan, unpatriotic… that I’ve been expelled is nothing less than evil and slanderous”. Even in the 1960s the artist still believed that the “Lenin era represented a totally new style and form in the fine arts” and when we look at his works of the 1920s, we cannot but be impressed by the ways in which he melded socio-political ideas and the pure esthetics of material.
Yermylov moved on from the commemorative plaques to designing cigarette packs, supporting the Constructivist aspiration to import art into everyday life-after all, conscientious proletarians would be carrying the cigarette packs Lenin, llich and Hammer and Sickle in their pockets. Yermylov fulfilled this public commission with the usual formal logic: he painted the curve of a sickle into a red square; he placed a hammer horizontally and enfolded the crimson circle in a zigzag of a black ribbon carrying the name of llich. Who knows whether Soviet workers did, in fact, think of Lenin as they smoked Lenin or swap a pack of llich for a pack of Hammer and Sickle?
For Yermylov scale was not especially important – for he always carried out his assignment (whether great or small) in a monumental way. For example, he designed an advertising platform for the exhibition “10 Years of October” actual size and with real material, which then became the highpoint on the cover of the anniversary edition of the magazine New Art. What made a big difference was the way Yermylov used various materials and textures or the way in which he played with the flatness of paper or the open space of a town square, i.e. how he resolved these formal issues. Yermylov provided a synopsis of his agenda in the advice that he gave to one of his art students in 1924: “Don’t try to do too much at once! Focus on form, line, color. The theme, I mean the literary part, will come later on”.
Yermylov’s Constructivism is well represented by his graphic works. In the 1920s he was greatly involved in designing books, especially covers, rendering typographical signs monumentally as in a playbill. He applied the principles of Cubo-Futurism, Constructivism and Suprematism to the books that he designed, thus bringing the art of the avant-garde (which J. Ortega y Gasset defined as “unpopular in essence”) closer to the masses. Still, in the 1920s, Yermilov and other Ukrainian constructivists did not use typeset for their book covers, simply because at that time publishing-houses lacked types that could be polished and perfected to meet the new demands. That is why books and their covers often had to be designed at the expense of an artistic idea that was sacrificed to accommodate standards dictated by the “voice of masses”. A felicitous exception is the design for the magazine Avangard [Avant-Garde] (1929) in which the handwritten letter “A” resembles beautiful serpent, even if the line locks in the lower contour and effuses rhythmical horizontals out into the material world. The black circle glides towards the edge of the cover, but retains its place through the magnetism of the “first letter of the alphabet”.
One way of importing the avant-garde into life was to apply the traditional and sacral color triad – white, black and red. The cover of the catalog of the “Exhibition of Ukrainian Book Graphics” (Kharkiv, 1929), for example, reminds us of Piet Mondrian. Certainly, we recognize a similar quest for harmonious equilibrium, not in colors, but in the interplay of black and white, the black being the letters composed in different typefaces and fonts. Yermilov decorated the brochure entitled “Bolshevik Crops” with gridded, Suprematist compositions.
Yermylov also combined the collage techniques of revolutionary propaganda (photographs, newspaper and magazine clips) with the Constructivist elements of metal and wood. That is how he composed the two wall newspapers (intended to document ten years of Revolutionary Ukraine) called Generator and Cable Cars that he showed at the Press Exhibition in Cologne in 1928. In the latter he used a collapsible screen to create a portable, wall-mounted construction, parts of which could be folded up, so that when the newspaper was open, it could be read from both sides. In Generator, Yermylov presented a centerfold of five equal planes of complex counterbalanced, rectangular forms: you started reading where the small black square was and finished with the small black plane carrying the inscription. Beneath the title Generator, Yermylov put a Constructivist composition of wood and metal, interconnecting the angle, the segment of a circle, and the rectangle. The gravity of the polyhedral plane was counterbalanced by the rhythm of the photographic frames of important events of the previous decade – mirrored in the ten steps of the rhythmical horizontals. The typography, the photographs, the dates and the color accented forms of squares, circles, and narrow oblongs produced the impression of an integrated movement, an efficient machine and an esthetically proven construction.
In the collages incorporating photographs, Yermylov was again appealing to immediate, visual reality, even if his objects and compositions were also “things in themselves” – for we are also aware of another world, self-sufficient and independent. At this point the metaphysical deliberations of priest, art historian and mathematician, Pavel Florensky, come to mind: “Only an extremely sharp vision… can distinguish the spiritual aspect of our fallen society or reveal the symbol within the phenomenon. That is why the activity of the metaphysician must be based on a meticulous and “concrete examination”, one that can penetrate to the core of matter”.
In 1929, Yermylov made a few compositions incorporating tangible objects such as a knife, a box of matches or a plate and a hunk of bread, the latter two made of wood. These objects impress with their simplicity, bringing to mind Martin Heidegger’s fundamental question that “things close to us we usually call objects. But what, however, is, an object?” Yermylov’s world of objects lives its own life, synthetic and natural, although in these compositions he combines the two realities of the everyday and of the essential and eternal. Using readymades, he created works that looked Suprematist, except that he was not rejecting the “world of meat and bone” (to quote Malevich); on the contrary, he was incorporating the object “as is” and erecting a border between his perception and Malevich’s philosophy: in other words, Yermylov was creating material abstractions.
From the standpoint of its supporters, Constructivism corresponded to the idea of democratization in art: “The workers… want to feel and sense the elements of their perception – machinery, manufacture, industry – through the laws of creative work and in an artistic form”. Indeed, Yermylov’s artifacts strike us by their corporeality, their substance and their flesh, since he was representing the visible world. He transformed reality analytically, he assembled abstract “experimental compositions”, he created new objects that entered houses, clubs, streets, space and railroads, he was drawn to the sheen of metal, the transparency of glass and the fibrous structure of a wood surface. In the symbolism of ancient cultures to an object is sacral: “Every sacral object must be in its place”, wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss, “One may say that the very fact of it being in its place makes the object sacral, since if there’s any, even mental, violation of this state of affairs, then the whole world order would be destroyed, thus the object occupying the place assigned to it, promotes this order”.
Yermylov constructed a universal order out of the materials at his disposal. He asserted the value of the ordinary by exposing the fundamental, architectonic principles of everyday objects – their simplicity and their authenticity. In creating a pictorial composition such as Box of Matches (1922) Yermylov was approaching reality as something totally concrete, but, in making the familiar unfamiliar, he also arouses our intuition and reminds us that beneath every object there is the unknown quality of matter itself, its flesh and its structure.
But Yermylov was neither philosopher, nor theoretician and, according to Polishchuk, he had no intention of revolutionizing the laws of form or of formulating any kind of philosophical or esthetic system, for “he was a practical man and “thought” first and foremost with his hands”. Indeed, Yermylov appreciated simple and steadfast relationships with the phenomenal world, but in this appreciation he was also attracted to the harmony of things and to what Heidegger identified as a “bowl and a table, a bridge and a plough”. Things that are near and dear furnish a feeling of confidence and sustenance, stability amidst a confusion of contradictory phenomena.
Yermylov’s world was balanced, geometric and in harmony with the sacral coordinates of verticals and horizontals. Interpreting different objects, surfaces and textures, he makes us reflect on how to perceive the “thing as a thing” (following Heidegger’s definition). Each of Yermylov’s compositions is solid and material, but at the same time is a thing in itself. Suddenly, the familiar now reveals a dimension at once metaphysical and cryptic, one that we are bound to accept, even if it lies beyond our comprehension.