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Avant-garde iconographies of combat: from the Futurist Synthesis of War to Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.

In the opening pages of his 1916 book entitled Enseignements psychologiques de la Guerre Europeenne, Gustave le Bon wrote: "Today's war is a fight between psychological forces," adding that "irreconcilable ideals are engaged in battle. Individual liberty rises against collective servitude, personal initiative against statist tyranny, ancient habits of international loyalty and respect for treaties against the supremacy of cannons" (2).

To a reader familiar with twentieth-century art, these words cannot fail to bring to mind the schematic summary of World War I outlined by the Italian Futurists in their graphic manifesto of 1914, Futurist Synthesis of War (Sintesi Futurista della Guerra) (ill. 1). The image, in turn, by way of formal resemblance, anticipates El Lissitzky's famous propaganda poster created during the Russian Civil War (1917-1920), Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1920) (ill. 3). (1)

While scholars of Futurism have long recognized that there must have been some type of link between the two images (see for instance Salaris 178), modernist art historians have, in general, persistently ignored the issue. (2) In any case, we are still left to speculate about how this connection was, in fact, established, and why El Lissitzky, at that time, directly appropriated one of the Italians' most powerful icons.

Futurism against Backwardness

The Futurist Synthesis of War, signed by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo and Ugo Piatti, is the first manifesto of the group to appear as a tavola parolibera (free-word table), such as those that Marinetti had collected in his volume of the same year, Zang Tumb Tuuum. It was issued as a leaflet in more than 20,000 copies and distributed in November 1914 (Salaris 178), but Marinetti, Boccioni, Russolo and Piatti conceived it some time before, around the middle of September, while in jail. On September 16th, they had staged a demonstration in Milan to support Italy's entry into the War on the side of the Allies, and had burned an Austrian flag (Boccioni 128). Although Italy was still technically allied with Germany and Austria because of a treaty signed several years before, it was, at that time, still cautiously weighing its options. The Futurists were arrested and charged with attempting to disrupt the nation's friendly relations with a foreign state, a considerable offense according to the Italian penal code. They were released five days later, when a judge reduced their imputation to "offense to the flag of a foreign state," but they were required to abstain from any public demonstrations. As Boccioni wrote to his family: "Tutto finira in nulla, me lo ha detto lo stesso giudice istruttore ma volevano premere su noi per il futurismo e per il terrore che si ripetessero le dimostrazioni. Non ci moveremo piu invece, perche abbiamo dovuto firmare impegnandoci per ottenere la liberta provvisoria [Everything will end in nothing, the examining magistrate told me this, but they wanted to press on us because of futurism and for their terror that the demonstrations might reoccur. We won't move further, since we had to sign and bind ourselves in order to be provisionally released]." (Boccioni 128).

The publication of the Futurist Synthesis thus became a stopgap for the Futurists' direct involvement in political activity. The manifesto's layout (Ill. 1) is structured as a triangle, whose point, oriented toward the right, pierces a circle. Within the triangle, we can read the names of the Allied nations (some not yet directly involved in the conflict at the time of publication), each identified by a series of psychological qualities. The Central powers are instead comprised within the frame of the circle. At the exact center of the composition, the word "Futurismo" (Futurism), in big letters, fills the angle's point. At the extreme right-hand side of the angle, in smaller fonts, we can read: "contro" (against) and in front of it, already contained in the space of the circle, the word "Passatismo" (Backwardness). "Futurismo contro Passatismo 8 popoli-poeti contro i loro critici pedanti" (Futurism against Backwardness. 8 poet-peoples against their pedantic critics) is the slogan with which the Italian Futurists summarized the values at stake in World War I, merging political and aesthetic discourse. (3) Psychological attributes such as France's "velocita, eleganza, spontaneita" (velocity, elegance, spontaneity); Japan's "agilita, progresso, risolutezza" (agility, progress, resoluteness); Montenegro's "indipendenza, ambizione, temerita" (independence, ambition, and temerity) are thus visually opposed to Germany's "filosofumo, pesantezza, rozzezza, brutalita" (philosophic abstruseness, heaviness, coarseness, brutality); Austria's "bigottismo, papalismo, inquisizione" (bigotry, Papalism, inquisition) and Turkey's complete lack of qualities (indicated with a zero).

The Futurists' somewhat brazen national characterizations reflect the widespread idea that the war originated in a clash of civilizations. Indeed, war acted as a catalyst for the merging of anthropological classifications and nationalist discourse that had defined the end of the nineteenth century (Giacanelli 394-97). Giovanni Papini, for instance, wrote that same year in the journal Lacerba: "C'e un tipo di civilta contro un altro. O meglio alcuni tipi di civilta contro un tipo solo che ha dominato per quaranta anni l'Europa; il tedesco" (There's a type of civilization against another. Or, better, some types of civilization against one single type which has dominated Europe for forty years; the German one) (Del Puppo 76). Le Bon himself, in his book, aimed to demonstrate how the current war could not be understood by using traditional logic because it was completely ruled by irrationality and by the Germans' almost religious furor. He wrote: "[...] hallucinated by their dream, the Germanic peoples believe to be, as the Arabs in the past at the time of Mohammed, a superior race, destined to regenerate the world, after conquering it" (3-4).

The visual solution of a pointed triangle piercing the circle of its enemies symbolized therefore Futurist dynamism against the immobile, enclosed and self-referential nature of traditional values or, as we can read on the leaflet itself, the characteristics of the "genio creatore" (creative genius)--elasticity, synthesis, intuition, invention, multiplication of forces, invisible order--against those proper to "cultura tedesca" (German culture)--rigidity, analysis, methodic plagiarism, sum of idiocies, numismatic order. Marinetti and the Futurists probably had the idea of enclosing Germany and its allies within the shape of a circle because of the symbolic values of stillness and constriction associated with this geometric form. This metaphor had already been widely used in the political arena. The Italian nationalist leader Enrico Corradini, for example, had forcefully employed it in a famous speech, Proletarian Nations and Nationalism (Le nazioni proletarie e il nazionalismo), that he had given in several Italian cities in 1911. "Il cerchio delle nazioni conquistatrici, cerchio economico e cerchio morale," he had said, "e stretto intorno a noi che ci nutrimmo di rinunzie per utopismo filosofico, per cecita popolare e per vilta borghese. Possiamo romperlo, questo cerchio?" (The circle of the conquering nations, a circle that is economic and moral, is closed around us who lived on abstinence because of our philosophical utopianism, our people's blindness, our bourgeois cowardice. Can we break this circle?) (Corradini 40). As for the dynamic force of the triangle or arrow, the Futurists had already used this simple geometric motif in their paintings. We can find it for instance in Russolo's 1911 Revolt (La Rivolta, oil on canvas, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague) and in several works by Balla dated 1913 (Del Puppo 72). The immediate and more significant precedent for the image of the triangle piercing the circle, however, resides elsewhere.

Well before the beginning of the war, Marinetti had already associated this image with Futurism's programmatic ideology of revolt against the past and its supporters. He had used it as a sort of seal, in French, to accompany his signature in several letters. Giovanni Lista has published the photographs of two of these documents, a message sent to Felix Marc Del Marle and, even more interesting for our discussion, a letter to the French writer Pierre Bure, written on the stationery of the Consulate of His Majesty the King of Italy in Moscow (Lista unpaged). (4) This latter item shows that Marinetti was using this emblem right at the time of his famous voyage to Russia, which took place between the 7th and the 27th of February, 1914 (January 25th-February 14th according to the old Russian calendar). Cesare De Michelis reports that Marinetti used this ideogram-signature in a dedication to Genrikh Tasteven (Henri Tastevin), who, that same year, translated several Italian Futurist manifestos in Russian. (5) De Michelis suggests that El Lissitzky might have seen one of these iconic dedications (the one to Tasteven reads: "Avec mes amis Futuristes Russes contre tous les > Passeismes") and this, in turn, might have directly influenced his idea for the poster (De Michelis 25). I, however, tend to think that the path from the Futurist Synthesis of War to Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge might have been somewhat less straightforward. And from Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1914, it brings us back, but just for a while, to the Western European battlefield.

Joffre's Angle of Penetration on the Marne

Of the five Futurists who signed the Futurist Synthesis of War, Carlo Carra was the only one that did not spend any time in jail in September 1914. At the time, he was in Varzi, a small town on the outskirts of Pavia. On the 14th of that month, just a few days before the Futurists' demonstration in Milan, he sent a postcard to Marinetti, commenting on the most recent reports coming from the French front. He wrote: "La odierna vittoria Francese mi ha fatto grandissimo piacere. L'Italia, pero, rimane eternamente immobile--abbasso l'immobilita!" (Today's French victory has made me very happy. Italy, however, remains eternally immobile--down with immobility!) (Carra, Postcard to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti). Carra's reference was to the battle of the Marne (September 5th-12th, 1914), the event that at the time was engrossing the European public with astonishment and excitement. The Franco-British troops, under the command of General Joffre, had finally succeeded in stopping the German army in its swift and, until then, seemingly inexorable progress into French territory.

Joffre's victory was immediately interpreted as the result of a radical change of tactics, which gave birth to "one of the most intellectual [battles] known to military history" (Hanotaux III). Instead of continuing to oppose the Germans all along the border, the Allies retreated and then, when part of the enemy started to move eastward, concentrated their forces and attacked united, in order to break the front and push their way through enemy lines. Joffre continued to pursue this successful strategy throughout the winter of 1914-1915. In his memoirs, he explained: "[...] the main concern was how to break [the front], in order to subsequently exploit the split to the maximum. And there, too, what was important was to identify the breaking points, not for one aim or another, such as in order to re-occupy a certain region, but in a manner that, if the front would break in those particular areas, the enemy would have to face the most serious consequences" (Joffre 60). According to this new tactic, in other words, "once the line is pierced in a point, all the rest will probably fall simultaneously" (Le Bon 223). For Le Bon, the Battle of the Marne was "the most important event in the annals of our country. It shows, once again, the action of human willpower over the supposed fatalities of history" (Le Bon 334). Joffre's strategy soon became the symbol of individual determination against blind force. Again, as Le Bon put it: "In the fight among nations, willpower plays a preponderant role. A battle is mainly a fight of wills. The Battle of the Marne offers a memorable example of this" (Le Bon 27).

As Carra's postcard shows, the Italian Futurists were among the first to recognize the importance of this battle not just from a military, but also from a strategic and psychological point of view. While they still had to abstain from carrying out other pro-war demonstrations, they did not miss the opportunity to create iconic celebrations of Joffre's tactics. Marinetti later explicitly linked the battle with the Futurists's own interventionist actions, saying: "While the Battle of the Marne was raging and Italy remained completely neutral, we Futurists organized the first two demonstrations against Austria and in favor of intervention" (White 217).

During the winter of 1914-1915, he created a tavola parolibera originally titled--Mountains + Valleys + Roads x Joffre, but also known with the alternative title After the Marne, Joffre Visited the Front in an Automobile (Apres la Marne, Joffre visita le front en auto). It was published on the first page of a leaflet dated February 11th, 1915, and subsequently included in Marinetti's 1919 book Les Mots en liberte futuristes. John White has called this table an "anti-neutralist demonstration" in its own right and, along with Christine Poggi, has identified the way in which Marinetti merged letters, numbers and mathematical symbols with the codes of contemporary cartography (Poggi 23033; White 216-18). Roughly around the same time, Carra conceived a visual composition mixing words, collage and graphics, that he attributed to a dream. It is titled The Night of January 20th, 19151 Dreamt This Picture (Joffre's Angle of Penetration on the Marne Against two German Cubes) (ill. 2) and he inserted it in his 1915 visual book, Guerrapittura (Poggi 240-41). Carra drew a triangle (or cone) on the right (indubitably representing "Joffre's angle"), and two vertical parallelepipeds on the left (the two "German cubes"). These geometric figures are separated by a vertical stream (the river Marne), on the side of which Carra glued a star-shaped clipping, taken from a contemporary newspaper, to signal the site of the battle. On the upper left-hand corner a German cross indicates the enemy's territory. The composition is completed by a series of stenciled words: "silurare" (torpedoing); "63 gradi" (63 degrees); "piano prospettico" (perspectival plane); "Bazaine," a reference to the general responsible for the French defeat at the hands of the Germans at Metz (1870) during the Franco-Prussian War; and a celebratory exclamation "WW" ("viva viva" in Italian). At the bottom, Carra inserted some elements that recall the visual layout of Futurist Synthesis of War, such as a circle full of crickets' chirps with the inscription: "Musica opaca di 2 coppie di grrrrriiiiilliiiii poeti > contro" (Opaque music of two couples of crickets-poets > against). Linda Landis has suggested that the geometric forms in this work refer to three types of reconnaissance aircrafts used during the battle. In particular, the two "German cubes," as Carra called them, indicate a German Albatros B II, with its two-bay wing structure, and the triangle or cone on the right depicts a French Morane monoplane with its "sharply tapered fuselage" (Landis 64-65). This interpretation, however, is not convincing, since it completely dismisses the meaning of the title that Carra gave to his work. Moreover, if the triangular shape was to represent the fuselage of a Morane plane, Carra would have depicted the Morane, with its "tapered fuselage," flying away westward from the two "German cubes" and not moving against or "penetrating" them, as he had sought. (6) In reality, Carra's Joffre's Angle constitutes an accurate visualization of the military maneuvers that took place on the ground at the Battle of the Marne. Following contemporaneous reports of the battle, Carra offered an abstract rendition of Joffre's troops at the moment in which they were piercing or, to use Carra's words, "torpedoing" in between the solid blocks of the German divisions, creating a wedge that broke their resistance.

Thus, Carra's Joffre's Angle offers us a key to understanding the abstract visual schema employed in the Futurist Synthesis of War. According to what the Futurists wrote on the work itself, they conceived it in jail, on September 20th, roughly a week after the end of the Battle of the Marne, while Italian and foreign newspapers where busy praising Joffre's dynamic tactics, which had changed the fate of the war.

It is quite probable, therefore, that the Futurist Synthesis of War coincided with a moment in which the signature-ideogram (Futurism against Backwardness) already used by Marinetti, acquired an additional meaning in light of Joffre's celebrated military tactics. The emblem of the Futurists' fight against past values was already conceived as the stylized metaphor of an assault. In the light of Joffre's strategy, that assault gained, in the fall of 1914, an additional resonance, visually overlapping and intertwining cultural ideology and authentic, military tactics in a single, powerful icon.

"The whole thing is mine, words and design"

In 1915, Carra inserted the Synthesis, printed on a double-sized, foldable sheet, as the last diagram of his Guerrapittura. We do not know if, or when, the book made its way to Russia, but it is quite possible that Marinetti sent at least the leaflet of the Synthesis to some of the artists that, in the spring of 1914, had taken part in the Esposizione Libera Futurista Internazionale. On that occasion, four artists were reunited under the banner of "Russian artists": Alexander Archipenko, Alexandra Exter, Nikolai Kulbin and Olga Rozanova. In 1916, the latter published her own book devoted to the war, which, on the cover, featured a collage of geometric shapes: triangles, squares and circles (Mason 70-77). Natalia Gontcharova, who, according to the gallerist Giuseppe Sprovieri, had also exhibited in Rome at that time (Parton 142), published an illustrated volume devoted to the same subject in 1914. (7) A few years later, in 1918, she wrote to the Futurist poet Francesco Meriano explicitly asking him to send her Carra's book (Gontcharova, Letter to Francesco Meriano). Indeed, Carra's Guerrapittura became a renowned and successful example of how avant-garde artists engaged with the theme of the war, up to the point that it was even republished by the Istituto Editoriale Italiano at the end of the war in 1919.

If we examine the information that El Lissitzky has left us regarding his poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, however, we find no mention of Carra's book, or of the Futurists' Synthesis. Documentation on the work, in fact, is mainly offered by the artist's own recollections, and even the poster itself is known today mostly through a series of later copies (ill. 3). In a letter in German to Jan Tschichold, dated July 1925, El Lissitzky wrote: "My old works are scattered to the wind. It was all done for the daily needs of the revolution, and I did not collect it [sic]. I am sending you as printed matter by registered mail: 1 POSTER from the period of the war with Poland. It was issued by the Staff on the Western Front. I found at home a completely battered and decayed copy, which I would like to keep for myself, so I am sending you a tracing done in the original colors. The type means: WITH THE WEDGE WITH THE RED STRIKE THE WHITE [sic], but you can see that it cannot be translated. It grows from 4 to 9 words and nothing remains of the sound: KLINOM KRASNYM BYEI BELIKH. The whole thing is mine, words and design" (Lissitzky, Letter to Jan Tschichold 243).

El Lissitzky's characterization of Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge as an interaction of words and images reveals the importance that typographical experiments had in his own artistic production in the mid-1920s. In the same period, he wrote an essay retracing the history of modern typography. He highlighted the contribution of Sonia Delaunay and the English magazine Blast, but did not even mention the work of the Italian Futurists. Among the Russian artists responsible for typographical innovations, however, he listed Gontcharova, Rozanova and his own mentor in Vitebsk, Kazimir Malevitch. It was only with the advent of the Russian Revolution, according to Lissitzky, that typographic design underwent a radical change: "It is the great masses, the semi-literate masses, who have become the audience [...]. The traditional book was torn into separate pages, enlarged a hundred-fold, colored for greater intensity, and brought into the street as a poster" (Lissitzky, "Our Book" 358).

Lissitzky's idea that Russian propaganda posters, such as Beat the Whites, were a direct transposition of the experiments carried out in the avant-garde book reflects the way in which he himself became involved in producing agitprop in Vitebsk in 1919. He arrived there that year, called by the director of the local art school, Marc Chagall, and, in turn, he extended an invitation to Malevitch, who also joined the school soon after (Rakitin 62). Aleksandra Semenova Shatskikh has pointed out that a series of political drawings started to be published in Vitebsk right after the arrival of Lissitzky. One celebrated Leon Trotsky, who, at the time, was the head of the Red Army. In July 1919, the citizens of Vitebsk could see for the first time a series of locally created Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) posters, the famous "window posters" or "wall newspapers," which already graced Moscow's walls and shop windows. Indeed, Semenova has found documentary evidence linking Lissitzky to the design of Vitebsk's ROSTA posters (Semenova Shatskikh 62). Until that time, Lissitzky's style leaned mostly toward folkloric Russian-Jewish models but was also influenced by the experiments in abstraction carried out by Alexandra Exter in Kiev (Semenova Shatskikh 61). With the arrival of Malevitch in Vitebsk, however, he was soon deeply involved in applying Suprematist principles to propaganda.

If Lissitzky, in his 1925 recollections, was reluctant to give any credit to the innovations of the Italian Futurists, Malevitch's attitude toward them was always much more straightforward. He had met Marinetti during the latter's visit to Russia in 1914 (Bowlt 116) and appropriated not only his exclamatory rhetoric and aphoristic manner, but also several of the Futurists' formal and ideological concerns, such as the centrality of intuition, machine aesthetics, anti-academicism, anti-humanism and an interest in the representation of war and aviation. For him, Marinetti was, along with Picasso, one of the "two pillars, the two 'prisms' of the new art of the twentieth century" (Marcade, "Malevich, Painting, and Writing" 37-38). His theoretical writings of the time show an in-depth understanding not only of the literary production of Italian Futurism, but also of the movement's achievements in painting and, in particular, of Boccioni's theories. (8) To Malevich's mind, Futurism was a general tendency, encompassing Russian and Italian achievements. Following his arrival in Vitebsk, in November 1919, he gave a lecture on the "Latest trends in Art (Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism)," a topic that he had already addressed in his publications (Rakitin 62). Cubism and Futurism were, in point of fact, the main focus of the first two issues of a journal that Malevich had planned together with Exter, Rozanova and others between 1916 and 1917 (Gurianova).

After the Russian Revolution, many Russian Futurists responded enthusiastically to the requests of the new Regime. In all likelihood, the need for new propagandist material also led to a renewed interest in the Italian Futurists' visual experiments. It was at that time that the Soviet authorities showed an unabashed attraction for Marinetti and his movement. Toward the end of 1919, the leader of Futurism met with an envoy from Moscow to discuss the purchase of Italian Futurist paintings for the State collections while, in the summer of 1920, Anatoly Lunacharsky publicly stated that "in Italy there's one revolutionary intellectual, and it's Filippo Tommaso Marinetti" (Versari 579-81). According to other sources, it was actually Lenin himself who pronounced those words (De Michelis 39). Lissitzky probably saw a copy of the Futurist Synthesis of War through Malevitch, at the time in which they were both busy working for the Vitebsk propaganda authorities. He might have also seen it earlier in Exter's studio in Kiev, while she herself was developing agitprop designs. Incidentally, before the summer of 1919, and thus while Lissitzky was in Kiev, Exter had re-established contacts with her longtime lover, and one of Carra's best friends, Ardengo Soffici (Soffici 371).

In an essay titled "Futurism" and published in the Moscow anarchist newspaper Anarchiia in 1918, Kazimir Malevich summarized the attitude of many artists regarding Futurism's status within the Revolution's system of values. He wrote: "Cubism and Futurism are the revolutionary banners of art. They are of value to museums, like the relics of the Social Revolution. Relics to which monuments should be erected in public squares. I propose creating in squares monuments to Cubism and Futurism as the weapons that defeated the old art of repetition and brought us to spontaneous creation" (Gurianova 53).

Surprisingly, right at the time of the article published in Anarchiia, a public monument had just been erected in Moscow. It restaged, in three-dimensional form, the visual structure of the Futurist Synthesis of War.

Monuments to the Red Wedge

The work (ill. 4) had been designed by the young architect Nikolai Kolli and was part of a series of monuments erected, in Lenin's words, "to commemorate the great days of the Russian Socialist Revolution" (Guerman 8). In a document dated April 18th, 1918, the Soviet leader had called for the removal of "monuments erected in honor of tsars and their servants" and the creation of a set of alternative monuments to replace them. The work of the Commission charged with the task started off with some delay, prompting repeated reprimands from Lenin, but a list of personalities to be celebrated with new monuments was finally published in August of that same year (Lenin 209-10; 234-35; 236-37). Between the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 several busts and statues were erected in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Petrograd) in a variety of styles. Some, such as the memorial to Sophia Petrovskaya by Italo Griselli, revealed a distinctive (Italian) Futurist influence (Pacini 1978; Brucciani 2010). (9) Retrospectively, Lunacharsky reported that the monuments designed by "Futurist artists" were "less successful." At the inauguration of Griselli's work, for instance, many people "took a step back, in fear" (Lunacharsky 271). In any case, a certain number of projects created for Lenin's Plan for Monumental Propaganda were distinctively modern in nature. Kolli's was one of them.

Simply titled The Red Wedge, Kolli's monument was built, like many others at the time, with ephemeral materials. It consisted of a red triangle vertically inserted as a wedge into a white rectangular block. A very visible crack snakes downward from the tip of the triangle, suggesting that the force of the red wedge has succeeded in breaking the solidity of the white structure. The abstract metaphor was intended to signify the victory of the Red Army over the White, counter-Revolutionary forces. According to Christina Lodder, "by harnessing military and political terminology, which imbued the forms and colors with ideological associations, the monument manage[d] to convey an ideological narrative, which would have been comprehensible to all levels of society, the literate as well as the illiterate. The effectiveness of this approach was later recognized by El Lissitzky, who adopted an almost identical language for his poster, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge of 1920" (Lodder, Constructive Strand 193-94). (10)

Kolli's Red Wedge, and its embrace of an overtly abstract language, however, originated in a much more specific set of circumstances. In some preliminary sketches, the monument's white block bears a visible inscription: "EaHgbi KpacHOBa," meaning "Krasnov's Bands." (11) In a photograph of the monument erected in Moscow, however, only the first word ("bands") is clearly discernible (ill. 4). According to Dimitri Kozlov, the final version displayed a more general inscription referring to the White Army (Kozlov 57). Until now, the originally planned version of the inscription has failed to attract the attention of scholars. It is nevertheless quite significant if we want to understand the way in which Kolli conceived its monument and how it might have affected El Lissitzky some time later. At the time of the monument's inauguration, in the first years of the Civil War, the public in Moscow's Revolutionary Square would have surely recognized the full implications of a reference to Krasnov's forces.

General Peter Krasnov was one of the leaders of the White Army during the Russian Civil War. In May-June 1918, he beat the Red Army repeatedly, marching toward Moscow in the second half of the year. It was at that point, however, that he was defeated, when the city of Tsaritsyn became the main theater of the Civil War. Krasnov put the city under siege, but was overpowered by the resistance of the Red Army's local unit and by the sudden arrival of additional forces from the Caucasus that attacked his troops from the rear. From a visual point of view, the Reds' attack at Tsaritsyn recalls the strategy employed by Joffre at the Battle of the Marne. Already in February 1919, Krasnov was no longer a problem for the Red Army: he retired from the front and went into exile in Germany. In the wake of the Red Army's many previous defeats, the dissolution of Krasnov's units greatly boosted Soviet morale. According to Peter Kenetz: "Whether the eastern and southern fronts could be united depended on the battle for Tsaritsyn. It would have been extremely advantageous for the Whites to establish a common front, and the Bolsheviks did everything within their power to prevent it" (Kenetz 166).

In the end, Kolli's monument did not include any specific references to Krasnov's name, becoming a more general celebration of the unity finally achieved by the Red Army and the disintegration of the Whites' cohesive force. Trotsky had already used the metaphor of the "wedge" in one of his political texts (Kozlov 56) without, however, referring to the Red Army or to a specific military tactic. The idea of the wedge, inserted with force within a solid object in order to break its integrity, was nonetheless widespread at the time. Before the end of World War I, for instance, a reporter from the Manchester Guardian explained that, for the Allies, "the Russian Revolution is a potent weapon. It is capable of being thrust like a wedge into German unity" (Farbman 46). In 1919, the memory of Krasnov and his army had already been eclipsed by other, more pressing, military events. Still, the idea of a piercing force, capable of breaking the monolithic unity of the enemy, survived. What Kolli succeeded in creating, with his monument, was a new, powerful link between the metaphor of the "wedge" and the identity of the Red Army.

In his famous poster, El Lissitzky appropriated not only Kolli's icon (at the time visible to anyone in Moscow), but also his linguistic metaphor, which identified the "Red Army" as the "Red Wedge." But the reference to a specifically Soviet visual tradition stops here: the layout of Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge reproduces with astonishing accuracy the Futurist Synthesis of War. Instead of a three-dimensional wedge, we see a triangle which does not pierce a solid rectangular block but, again, as in the Futurists' original, a circle. The triangle is slightly tilted upward, the background is divided into contrasting black and white surfaces, but the underlying structure of the two images is the same. When, in 1926, he retraced his career as a graphic designer, El Lissitzky wrote that "every invention in art is a single event in time, [it] has no evolution" (Lissitzky, "Our Book" 356). Still, his iconic poster overtly positioned itself at the end of a line of development, which was simultaneously formal, historical and ideological. For the general public, the poster's message was understandable because of the continued presence of the Soviet metaphor of the "Red Wedge," but for an artist engaged in translating ideology into form it revealed the appropriation of a distinctively modernist tradition, whose origins lay with the Italian Futurists and their visual experimentations with war.

Carnegie Mellon University

1. Marinetti, Boccioni, Carra, Russolo, Piatti, Futurist Synthesis of War, central page of the manifesto leaflet, 1914, private collection (F.T.M. Marinetti and C. Carra[C] 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome)


2. Carlo Carra, The Night of January 20th, 1915 I Dreamt This Picture (Joffre's Angle of Penetration on the Marne Against two German Cubes), from Guerrapittura, p. 29, 1914, private collection (C. Carra[C] 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome).


3. El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919-1920, reprint 1966 offset on paper, Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands (Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands) (El Lissitzky [C] 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York).


4. Photograph of Nikolai Kolli's monument, The Red Wedge, in Moscow (circa 1920).


Works Cited

Adamowicz, Elza, and Simona Storchi, eds. Back to the Futurists. The Avant-garde and Its Legacy. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013.

Boccioni, Umberto. Letter to his family, Milan, 22 [September 1914]. Lettere futuriste. Ed. Federica Rovati. Rovereto: Egon/Mart, 2009.

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(1) Scholars are not unanimous about when the poster was designed, dating it alternatively to 1919 or 1920. See in particular Nisbet 348, Kozlov and, on the subject of Lissitzky's propaganda boards, Clark 199.

(2) One significant exception is offered by Dimitrii Kozlov's recent monograph, which I will discuss in the course of the present essay.

(3) The first version of the Synthesis, published as a leaflet, reads "8 poeti" while the version subsequently published in Carra's Guerrapittura reads "8 popoli-poeti". The leaflet also lacks any reference to Turkey.

(4) In the message to Del Marle, probably a book dedication, Marinetti inscribed his signature ("FuturMarinetti") within the triangle; in Pierre Bure's letter, he used the icon on top of the letter, as an alternative letterhead, the triangle of "Futurisme" piercing the ribbon of "Passeisme"

(5) In Futurizm, Na puti k novomu simvolizmu, Moscow 1914. That same year, Vadim Shershenevich published another anthology of Italian Futurist manifestos, Manifesty italyanskogo futurizma, Moscow 1914. For a list of Italian Futurist texts published in Russian, see De Michelis 289.

(6) For a discussion of these two models of airplanes used during the conflict, see Wohl 207-09 and 220. Carra depicted a warplane, in a much more detailed manner, in another illustration of Guerrapittura: War Sky (Cielo di guerra) (Carra, Guerrapittura 21).

(7) The exhibition catalogue, however, does not mention any work by Gontcharova (Esposizione Libera Futurista Internazionale 29-34).

(8) In his book Ot Sezanna do suprematizma: Kriticheskii ocherk (From Cezanne to Suprematism: A critical sketch, 1920), for instance, Malevich addresses the Italians' idea of the centrality of the spectator within the artwork and the concept of force-lines.

(9) The Tuscan-born Griselli had moved to Russia before the War to carry out some commissioned portraits. He remained in the country during the conflict and for a few years following the Revolution. From 1918 to 1921, he was employed as a professor of sculpture at the School of Art in St. Petersburg. His portrait of Sophia Petrovskaya, heavily influenced by the work of Boccioni, was apparently removed in 1919, following scathing critiques for its daring style (Brucciani 2010). Griselli, who took part in the 1914 Esposizione Libera Futurista Internazionale in Rome, where he exhibited a portrait of Marinetti (Esposizione Libera Futurista Internazionale 17), might have also fostered contacts between Italian and Russian artists after the Revolution.

(10) Lodder's chapter, entitled "Monuments to the Masses" (186-218), appears in her book Constructive Strand in Russian Art. 1914-1937.

(11) One of Kolli's sketches (Design for an architectural construction, 1918, black lead and crayons on paper, 30.5 x 228 cm) is at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Because of the similarity between the Russian words Kpacrnm ("red") and KpacHOB (the family name Krasnov), Lodder (Constructive Strand 193) reads the inscription as "gangs of the red," a reference to the Red Army, and interprets it therefore as a dedication of the monument to the Red Army.
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Author:Versari, Maria Elena
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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