A Critical Look: How Science Cast Doubt on a Sculpture Attributed to Gustav Klutsis
In 1922, the Moscow-based Latvian-born artist Gustav Klutsis (1895–1938) designed a series of dynamic communication devices for Moscow’s streets and squares. Sparked by the historical coincidence of two events in the early life of the Soviet Union — the fifth anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) — these devices, called “radio orators,” were to display pro-Soviet agitprop slogans and both still and moving images and offer newspapers and journals for sale.
Though never fully realized, we know of Klutsis’s ambitions to imagine a means of revolutionary communication that would activate and agitate the populace thanks to a series of drawings in which he envisioned the details of the radio orator in extraordinarily diverse, intricate, and complex ways. Most of these drawings now reside in the collections of The Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga; the Costakis Collection of the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece; and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In 1979, The Museum of Modern Art acquired a three-dimensional rendering related to the project: a work known as Maquette for Radio-Announcer, dated 1922, and said to have been made by Klutsis (Figure 1, above). The Maquette was purchased from an art dealer in Paris just as it was about to be featured in the landmark exhibition Paris/Moscow 1900–1930 at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Since its acquisition, the Maquette has often been on view at MoMA, typically in galleries devoted to the Soviet avant-garde. It was believed to be the only extant sculpture by Klutsis.
In 2010, Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator in MoMA’s Department of Drawings and Prints, and Maria Gough, The Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University and an authority on Klutsis’s work — her book on the radio orators, How to Make a Revolutionary Object, is due out from Inventory Press next year — began collaborating on an exhibition devoted to Klutsis’s radio orator drawings. Given the opportunity to study a work by Klutsis, and with the idea that the Maquette would play a role in the exhibition, they partnered with members of MoMA’s David Booth Conservation Center and Department to look closely at the object’s making and history. As MoMA’s curatorial/conservation partnerships have been tremendously fruitful, the curators and the Conservation team — Senior Conservator Karl Buchberg, Conservator Lynda Zycherman, and I — were especially excited about what this investigation would yield.
The Scientific Investigation
We began by examining the work together, one observation provoking another, and each of us brought our own expertise to bear. We noted and took stock of the Maquette’s basic materials: paper, wood, string, brads, and white, red, and black paint. As a conservation scientist, I use analytical tools to understand the composition of a work of art and how it is made. Many of these tools have greatly improved in recent years, wholly transforming the field and our approach to works of art. For the Maquette, I examined many components, used a variety of analytic tools, and traveled across the globe to study works by Klutsis. Each step, whether with the object or with other works by Klutsis, and each part of the examination, whether with my own eyes or through the lens of the latest scientific technologies, provided information about the construction of the Maquette.
After the initial visual examination, I began my work by testing the bright white paint that can be seen in one of the speakers, the sound drivers at the base of each speaker’s interior, the antennae, and the wooden structure. X-ray fluorescence detected titanium and X-ray diffraction and Raman spectrometry were used subsequent to this discovery because they are able to differentiate the various crystal structures of titanium dioxide. Through these tests, I found that the pigment used on the Maquette was rutile titanium white, a pigment that was only available after Klutsis’s death in 1938. I wondered if the presence of titanium white indicated a later touch-up or repair, but it appears to be the first application of paint in many areas, a detail that can be seen in the way the paint fills the pores in the oak. The discovery of the titanium pigment and its application raised questions about the Maquette’s authorship and dating, casting doubt on Klutsis’s role in its making. So, even after an embargo on loans from Russia to the US forced the postponement of the planned exhibition, research continued, and I took the lead on investigating the issues raised by the Maquette.
I traveled to Riga, Moscow, and Thessaloniki, where I could study examples of Klutsis’s drawings. Together, these visits enabled me to study the breadth of his artistic career and also concentrate on his radio-announcer works. By traveling with handheld X-ray fluorescence equipment (XRF), I was able to identify the elemental composition of the pigments used in these drawings directly, without having to remove any samples. This was a highly efficient approach that allowed me to analyze his most important drawings in a short time. With those works I was able to confirm that he used zinc white throughout his career, never a titanium-based white.
Further analysis of the sculpture’s elements using microscopes and a variety of spectroscopic tools revealed that the Maquette includes both some materials available during Klutsis’s lifetime and many more available only after his death. Only two parts could possibly date from the early 1920s, when the Maquette was believed to have been made: one speaker and the small box on which it is glued (Figure 2, above). This determination was made by taking small samples of paper fibers from hidden areas and examining them under a microscope. The paper fibers were found to consist primarily of mechanically prepared softwood and some grass fiber, traits indicative of paper made in the 1920s or earlier. Interestingly, no titanium was detected in the white paint of this earlier speaker. The other speaker, however, is unlikely to date from the early 1920s by virtue of the level of softwood bleached kraft-process fiber identified. Likewise, the sculpture’s four antenna “fins” with text and graphics use papers that were most likely produced after 1950, an assessment based on the large amount of hardwood bleached kraft fibers found in two separate samples. Dating of samples from the white oak base using bomb carbon analysis was undertaken, but proved inconclusive.
While the papers used in the two speakers differ in age, both appear to have been glued up at the same time, later than the supposed date of the work. The border between the black-and-white graphic bursts emanating from the sound-driver inside each speaker has a coating of polyvinyl acetate (PVA), a material that was not available in 1922. This was detected using a microscope fitted with Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). FTIR is a useful way to classify the organic components of an unknown material, and it works particularly well for polymers like PVA. The purpose of the coating may have been to act as a barrier to prevent paint-bleed as subsequent applications of adhesive and paint were applied to finish the speaker, or it may have helped give a clean edge as the paints were being applied. Regardless, the attachment of both sound-drivers is so strong that paper fibers from the interior of the speaker pulled away in areas that did not have this coating (Figure 3, below). This observation confirms that the coating goes into the deepest recesses of the speaker and was most likely applied when the paper was flat. PVA became available in Germany in the late 1930s and it is unlikely that Klutsis would have had access to this material prior to 1938. All of this suggests that the speakers were assembled some time after Klutsis’s death. Thus, even if some of the elements were made in the 1920s, they could not have existed as a three-dimensional structure at that time. When taking into account the date of the paper used for the construction of the antenna fins, the earliest date the work could have been assembled is 1950.
Comparison with Klutsis’s Drawings
After examining Klutsis’s drawings in Riga, Moscow, and Thessaloniki, I found a number of discrepancies between the approach to construction in the Maquette and the rendering of the drawings. The drawings display Klutsis’s adept handling of pencil and paintbrush. With and without magnification, one can see what his measure was for considering something complete. Ways that certain details in the Maquette are rendered differ from their handling in the drawings. For example, in the uppermost layers of the composition, in some areas of the black-and-white burst pattern of the speakers, and in some markings around the Cyrillic at the top, there are fine pencil lines — observed under magnification — that suggest the fabricator was either not quite finished with the work or wanted to strengthen the underdrawing. Whatever the motive was, this kind of detail is not found in the artist’s drawings.
There is also an inconsistency in the use of language between the Maquette and the drawings, which was brought to my attention by Maria Gough. In the drawings, Klutsis conveys the centrality of radio broadcasting to his devices with the phrase “Lenin’s voice” (Ленина). In the case of the drawing that most resembles the Maquette, from the Tretayakov collection, that phrase is rendered across the topmost fins. The Maquette, in fact, appears to be a three-dimensional realization of this drawing, except for the way the phrase is rendered. On the Maquette, that same phrase is written without the possessive: “Lenin Voice” (Ленин). This may indicate a shift in emphasis, by making an equivalence between Lenin and his voice, or may simply be a grammatical mistake. However, it is striking that among the radio orator drawings the construction with the possessive is consistently deployed.
If Klutsis Didn’t Make the Maquette, Who Did? And Why?
Klutsis had, in fact, created sculptures and designed exhibition architecture, but these three-dimensional works are only known through photographs or drawings. Could Klutsis’s widow, Valentina Kulagina, also an artist, have realized a sculpture based on her husband’s drawings or completed a construction he started? The two had indeed worked closely during their lifetimes, and she lived much longer, until 1987. At this point, however, no connections have been documented between Kulagina and the Maquette. Klutsis was also a teacher at the Moscow art academy VKhUTEMAS. Could one of his students have built the Maquette after the drawings? Another intriguing avenue of exploration is a 1967 exhibition in Poland celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Nowa Sztuka Czasanów Rewolucji Pazdziernikowej, organized by Szymon Bojko at the Gallery Wspolczesna, included radio orator models based on research carried out in Moscow. Bojko remembers his models being much taller than MoMA’s, but no documentation of that exhibition has yet been found and, as the exhibition was shut down by authorities, the models are believed to have been destroyed or confiscated. But could one of them have survived and made its way to Paris as an “original?”
So What’s Next?
Given the scientific and art historical evidence, we no longer believe that the Maquette is a work by Gustav Klutsis. Perhaps the most significant and lasting result of this investigation is the knowledge about Klutsis’s work that has been generated. Until now, no conservator or conservation scientist had used the most advanced technologies to examine a work attributed to Klutsis. Thanks to those tools, deployed hand in hand with rigorous art historical scholarship, much has been learned about his overall approach, his drawing techniques, materials then available and how he used them, and his utopian vision for communication technologies. There are still many questions to be answered about the Maquette’s authorship. In the context of the impending anniversary of the Russian Revolution and a renewed focus on the achievements of the artists of the Soviet avant-garde, we hope one day those answers will come to light.
Many MoMA colleagues helped with this research, including Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints; Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Paintings and Sculpture; Karl Buchberg, Senior Paper Conservator (retired); Lynda Zycherman, Sculpture Conservator; and Jim Coddington, Agnes Gund Chief Conservator. Maria Gough, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. Professor of Modern Art (Harvard, Cambridge) was generous in sharing her knowledge on Klutsis and helped formulate my approach to the technical examination of his drawings. Paulina Pobocha, Assistant Curator, Paintings and Sculpture, assisted with translation and our exploration into the 1967 Warsaw exhibition, and Samantha Friedman, Assistant Curator, Drawings and Prints, assisted with research and documentation. I am grateful to MoMA’s International Council and our Mellon Scholars Fund for Research for financial support of my travel and transport of equipment. Marco Leona, David H. Koch Scientist in Charge, and Tony Frantz, Research Scientist (retired), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, provided help with X-ray diffraction and Raman spectroscopy equipment. Colleagues at other institutions with important works by Klutsis were generous with their time and granted me unrestricted access to their collection. These include Iveta Derkusova, Deputy Director for Administration, The Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga; Maria Tsantsanoglou, Director, Angelica Charistou, Curator, and Olga Fota, Conservator, Costakis Collection and Archive, State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki; and Natalia Adaskina, Head of the Graphics Department of Twentieth-Century Art, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.