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Excerpt from Harmony and Dissent: Film and Avant-garde Art Movements in the Early Twentieth Century by R. Bruce Elder

From the Chapter 6: Eisenstein, Constructivism, and the Dialectic

Fedorov’s belief in the aesthetic transformation of humanity led him to consider a question that would play a large role in art theories in early twentieth-century Russia: How could new bodies be created that would be suited for the future world? Art, Fedorov argued, lies at the intersection of material and ideal reality, so it is able to transfigure the human body. Science will resurrect the bodies of the departed, Fedorov predicted, but art will restructure them. A principal concern of Fedorov was how to bring forth a blissful collective organism. His solution: The body’s earthly constitution would have to be fundamentally changed. Cosmic nutritional substances would be invented, along with new organs for digestion. Cosmic transmutations of the body would then occur that left behind the body’s zoomorphous nature as it developed vegetative organs. These new vegetative organs would make the body capable of feeding on and accumulating the all-pervading cosmic substance—that is, light (just as plants are nourished through photosynthesis). The flesh body would be converted into a photosynthesizing biomass that would flourish in the light and warmth of special greenhouses in outer space. This new body would make sunshine (and light generally) a primary economic resource, one that could be consumed and reproduced by the new human organism. The worker and the machine that produced the cosmic resource (light) would in time fuse into one entity.

Fedorov’s ideas on the transformed human being of the future resurrection made possible the broad acceptance, among Russian artists of the early twentieth century, of the conviction that the technologies the historical process brought forth would ultimately transform the human body, endowing it with increased sensory abilities. That idea appeared in the theories of Vertov (which celebrated technology as the latest step in the evolution of sensory devices) and Eisenstein (consider “Laocoön), as well as in Pobeda nad solntsem, Opera (Victory Over the Sun: An Opera, 1913) mounted by Burliuk, Matyushin, Malevich, and their colleagues.(145) The belief was widespread that the human form could be improved or even perfected. Mikhail Vrubel pointed out the need for supplementary limbs and even proposed developing a supplementary body, one that would allow one to reach freely in all directions (such would be the make-up of its new wrists); Pavel Filonov (1883—1941) argued that changes in diet could result in greater visual acuity; and Mikhail Matyushin (1866—1934) developed a conception of Zor-Ved (seeknow), to which his paintings and microtonal music were linked. Matyushin was a formidable theorist and at the time one of the most learned avant-garde artists in Russia (which suggests how he gathered a fascinating group of young artists around him).(146) Matyushin’s aesthetic theory had been inspired by Symbolism, Pantheism, and Futurism as well as by the Theosophical theories of Hinton, Ouspensky, and Gurdjieff. He was also a musician, composer, painter, and colour theorist who in 1932 published “Zakonomernost’ izmeniaemosti tsvetovykh sochetanii. Spravochnik po tsvetu” (The Laws Governing the Variability of Colour Combinations: A Reference Book on Colour, hereafter Colour Handbook), one of the last manifestos from the Russian avant-garde, in an edition of four hundred copies.

In the preface to Colour Handbook, Matyushin argued that having a “world view” is essential to understanding colour concepts; he termed the fundamental concepts of his “world view” as follows: “Organic Culture” and “Spatial Realisma.” These had also been the names of the workshops he had supervised as a Bolshevik professor.(147) For those workshops, Matyushin had developed a training program that included yoga, meditation, and various other pneumatic exercises, the purpose of which was to encourage his students’ artistic development. His notions about how these exercises would foster their artistic development are fascinating: Learning that the common housefly has a very wide radius of sight, while a dog has a very narrow one, brought Matyushin to reflect on the natural variability of optical phenomena, and those reflections led him to conclude that human beings could expand their optical radius. But this expansion was not to be effected simply by improvements to the eye itself: his Zor-Ved system, developed after 1913, maintained there are dormant optical reflexes in the soles of the feet and the back of the head and that these reflexes could be awakened, allowing one to paint “landscapes from all points of view.” Among the exercises that he proposed for developing these abilities was to practise seeing with each eye separately, to develop a sort of strabismus. Matyushin referred to this sort of seeing as “expanded” or “amplified” vision (recall how the intelligensia had responded to the discovery of X-rays). “Amplified vision” did not include just the eyes; he expanded it to involve hearing, tactility, and thinkingin short, a kind of conscious synaesthesia. He considered this analogous to the expansion of consciousness through yoga, in that it would allow people to see the world as revealed through meditation. His ideas about expanded vision may even have been influenced by the yogic belief (which is recorded in Boris Ender’s diary from March 1920) that the eyes are only the secondary organ of vision and that the primary organ of vision is a nerve centre, an “internal eye” in the brain. Once humans had developed the capacity for circumvision (at which stage of development their visual apparatus would encompass a panoramic visual angle of 360 degrees), not only would colours present themselves more intensely than through the visual apparatus that humans at present possessed, but as well, humans would experience a new spatial reality, that of the fourth dimension. Matyushin pointed out that to untrained eyes a stone would seem inert, immobile, static, dead; seen by the trained eye, it would be seen as belonging to the fourth dimension. Moreover, the low-frequency waves of solid materials (such as stones and minerals) would become visible; thus it would become evident that stones and minerals possessed vital energies (albeit of low frequency). To the untutored eye, cars seem to move at one speed, people at another, and trees to grow at yet a third; thus, to the untutored eye, the world appears a disorderly collection of fragments with no harmony among them. To the tutored eyethat is, the eye that had developed the capacity for “amplified vision”—the organic unity of the whole world would be evident.(148)