VICTORY OVER THE SUN, 1913
Mikhail Matyushin’s opera Victory over the Sun marks an important date in the evolution of 20th century art. It is the first truly cubo-futurist dramatic work to have been staged. Its authors are some of the most prominent representatives of “budetlyan” [будетлянский] art, i.e. Ukrainian and Russian futurist art. The transrational poet Velimir Khlebnikov provided the prologue, his friend Aleksei Kruchenykh, also a transrational [заумный] poet and theorist, is the author of the libretto, the music is by composer, instrumentalist, painter and theorist of painting and music Mikhail Matyushin; the stage and costume designer was Kasimir Malevitch. In a single act, a single performance, these four artists wanted to show the force and the validity of conquests of the art of the future.
Victory over the Sun received two performances on 3 and 5 December 1913 at the Saint Petersburg Luna Park Theatre under the auspices of the left-wing society of painters “the Union of Youth” that also financed another “budetlyan” production, Mayakovsky’s Vladimir Mayakovsky. A Tragedy staged on 2 and 4 December, with sets and costumes by Filonov and Chkolnik.
The decision to organise these events had been made at the “All-Russian Congress of the Bards of the Future” held in a small Finnish village between 18 and 19 July 1913. This meeting, pompously called “congress”, was in fact nothing more than a get-together of the three leaders of “budetlyanism” [будетлянство], Matyushin, Kruchenykh and Malevitch.
The manifesto published on this occasion is a declaration of war to the whole world, affirming that “the times of slaps in the face have come to an end” (an allusion to the budetlyan manifesto and collection published at the close of 1912 A Slap in the Face of Public Taste [пощёчина общественному вкусу]) and announcing the arrival of “the outragers” and “horrifiers” who would shake up the world of art. After calling for the destruction of “the pure, clear, honest and sonorous Russian language” that had been castrated by diehard literary men and for the destruction of logic, common sense, symbolist reveries and elegant beauty, the manifesto set itself the goal “to pounce upon the ramparts of artistic feebleness, the Russian theatre, and to transform it profoundly”.
While it is certain that Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurist Playwrights” published in 1911 was known to the budetlyans [будетляне], the latter retained only the general notion of refusing to dwell on the past and the provocative tone, adapting their rupture with theatrical routines to the Russian artistic reality. The “budetlyan” theatre was to sweep away not only the naturalistic, eclectic traditions, the pompous style dominating at the time, but also the inner realism of Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre, as well as the stylised symbolism of Meyerhold’s Alexandra Theatre in Saint Petersburg.
Victory over the Sun thus represents a complete rupture with the prevailing dramatic concepts at the beginning of the 20th century. The opera was the fruit of six months of joint efforts. It was staged by means of improvisation as, after paying large sums for the location of the theatre and the scenery, “the Union of Youth” no longer had sufficient funds to bring in professional actors. That was why amateur students participated in the production. Only two of the leading roles were played by experienced singers. The choir counted seven people, “only three of whom could sing”, according to Matyushin. There was no orchestra, just an out-of-tune piano brought in on the day of the rehearsal. There were a total of two rehearsals, dress rehearsal included! It bears a closer resemblance to what was called “happening” or “performance” in the second half of the 20th century.
The opening night caused a “major scandal”, with one half of the audience shouting: “Down with the futurists!” and the other half: “Down with the sensationalists!” Nevertheless, says Matyushin, nothing could undo the powerful impression that the opera had made, “such was the inner force of the words, so powerful and frightful were the scenery and the budetlyans that had never been seen before, such were the softness and suppleness of the music filling the words, the scenes and the futurist strongmen who had defeated the sun of cheap appearances and lighted their inner light”.
By taking on the sun, the budetlyans strived to crush one of the most powerful, the most universal mythic and symbolic images across centuries and cultures, one of the most characteristic images of figurative thought. It would be pointless to recount the history of mankind’s mythology of the sun, from ancient times to the symbolists at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. One of the characters in the opera declares:
“I won’t be caught in the chains of
Beauty’s snares [силки]
the silks are preposterous
the ruses crude” (scene 6).
The sun is nothing but a pretext for people to be slaves to the world-illusion. Its roots “have the rancid taste of arithmetic”, there is nothing but the darkness of reality outside:
“Our physiognomy is dark
Our light is within
We are warmed by the dead udders
Of red dawn” (end of scene 4).
Victory over the sun is a victory over the past and therefore the rediscovery of fundamental freedom. Rid of the figurative jumble, one feels at ease. The blankness “ventilates the whole city, everyone breathes easier”. With the fall of the sun, the weight and gravity of tangible reality, of the past “full of the sorrow of errors, of the breaking and bending of knees” disappears. One’s memory is stripped of useless rags. Defeating the sun, man is like “a clean mirror or a rich reservoir” reflecting only the blitheness and gratitude of goldfish!
Poetic desacralisation is the main cornerstone of Victory over the Sun. It is a way of reanimating the topics and subjects belonging to the sublime style, overloaded with the secular sediments of meaning, giving them a trivial, naturalistic, even vulgar tone. It has been justly noted that the poetic system of Russian cubo-futurism had absorbed the numerous desacralising, “deaestheticising” elements of French poetics, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Mallarmé, Tristan Corbière, Charles Cros or Jules Laforgue. Consider, for instance, the following verses by Corbière:
You think the sun fries for everyone
These greasy scraps of stirring fat, inundated by a flood of gold?
No, the rain falls down on us from the sky.
From the dramatic point of view, we witness the same kind of desacralisation. The title indicates the cosmic challenge of the opera; the battle of the new titans – the new budetlyans, the strongmen of the future – with the god-Sun is treated in a grotesque fashion. Victory over the Sun is a “travestying tragedy”. The characters have no story. They are merely “types”: Nero-Caligula is the old aesthetics ridiculed to excess; the Cowardly are all those who prefer their spiritual comfort to the hard, dark and powerful truth of the only light within them; the Fat Man is the crowd of the cunning, the sly who think only of taking advantage of everything without concerning themselves with anything, it is the vulgar materialism, etc. The people of the future have several faces: the Strongmen [силачи] (strength), the Time Traveller (audacity) played by Kruchenykh, the New, the Sportsmen, etc.
There is no dramatic progression. The six scenes succeed each other according to the method of a mosaic. The two “dramatic” events are the taking of the sun in scene two and the plane crash in the last scene, evoking the accident that almost claimed the life of futurist poet and aviator Vasily Kamensky in 1911. There is nothing that triggers these events. Every scene is a pure, autonomous act.
As called for in futurist theatre by Marinetti, Victory over the Sun rejected psychology in favour of “physical folly” that destroys all logic, multiplies the contrasts, ironically disintegrates “all the worn-out prototypes of the Beautiful, the Great, the Solemn, the Religious, the Ferocious, the Seductive and the Horrifying” and “makes the incredible and the absurd sovereign rulers on the scene”. Marinetti’s great and visionary allegoric poem Let Us Kill the Moonlight (1909), a sort of wild futurist airplane, had provided some of the basic elements for Kruchenykh’s libretto: the taking of the sun, “the Pure free of all logic” waging a war of salvation against the hideous plague of “the Gouty” and “the Paralytic”, the intoxication of aviation, “the pitiful sun, decrepit and chilly”, defeated by “the furious copulation of battle”. The sun was always defeated by Marinetti, in his poetry written in French, La Conquête des étoiles (The Conquest of the Stars), 1902, Destruction (Destruction), 1904, La Ville charnelle (The Carnal City), 1908, as well as in his prose; in the novel Mafarka le Futuriste (Mafarka the Futurist), 1909, the sun must be overthrown by the new Prometheus, half-human, half-airplane.
As one of the Russian pioneers in malevitchian studies Evgeni Kovtun wrote, the last step in the path towards suprematism was the scenery of the opera Victory over the Sun. In the sketches preserved, we see that the quadrilateral is the basic form of six designs. Inside this quadrilateral there is another quadrilateral in each scene that is like the centre in which alogical cubo-futurist elements are to be fitted. In the sketch of scene 5, these figurative elements have disappeared. The central quadrilateral is cut diagonally into two sections, one black and the other white. It is not a square but a quadrilateral resembling a square, creating the impression of a “partial eclipse”, a theme that insistently comes up in Malevitchian alogism in 1914 (the two most well-known examples are An Englishman in Moscow, Composition with the Mona Lisa or The Aviator).
There is no doubt that the production “gravitated towards abstraction”. It represented the birth of “the square” that was to close in all the pictorial representation of the past in a symbol giving rise to considerable developments. This symbol, the black quadrilateral, “the royal infant”, “the icon of [our] times” is further elaborated in the mazes of Malevitch’s pictorial alogism between 1913 and 1915.
In his letter to Matyushin of 27 May 1915, Malevitch asks him to reproduce the sketch for the last act in which victory over the sun is achieved on the cover of an anticipated second edition of the Victory over the Sun libretto that was never published: this sketch for the final scene represented a black square, “the germ of all possibilities”, “ancestor of the cube and the sphere”, and Malevitch adds:
“This design will have great meaning in painting. What was created unconsciously bears uncommon fruit.”
The evolution towards the eruption of non-objectivity [беспредметность] is established in the costume sketches. They are also conceived on the basis of alogical cubo-futurist elements:
“The masks concealing the faces transform the actors and denaturalise them like the costumes of Oskar Schlemmer in the Triadic Ballet in later years.” (Denis Bablet)
Like the scenery, the surface is made up of geometric designs, painted here in clear and contrasting colours. Again, black and white play an important role but, in this case, in relation to other colours. In scene one, the walls of the box were white and the floor black. The costume sketches for the Futurist Strongman [будетлянский силач], Nero, the Time Traveller, the characters in the scene, are also in black and white.
The most astonishing costume sketch is without a doubt that of the Pallbearers appearing in scene 3 of the opera. For this scene, the walls and the floor were completely black. The body of the pallbearer is a “black square” that is a figurative evocation of the extremity of a coffin but already suggests the meaning ascribed to this image in Malevitsch’s works between 1913 and 1915, namely the utter intrusion of the absence of objects. The “black square” carried like a flag in the sketch for the Pallbearer marks the birth of suprematism in 1913, as Malevitch had always maintained.
In the twenty sketches used for the performance in 1913 preserved in Saint Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music, the characters are conceived like primitively geometrised mannequins. They are constructions of geometric designs, some of them painted in bright colours: lilac pink, red, green, blue, yellow. These coloured surfaces stand in contrast to the black and white appearing in all of the sketches. These cubo-futurist robots may be regarded as part of a range of exaggerated parodies of characters from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi to Appolinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias. The drawing for the Cowardly reduces geometry and colour to their simpler expression. This laconism announces the constructivist theatre of the 1920’s that would find lessons of economy here.
One of Malevitch’s major contributions to Victory over the Sun is the scenographic use of light. Malevitch used projectors to portray the disappearance of objects, their reduction to nothingness, their dematerialisation. Poet Benedikt Livshits provides an account of the embryonic abstract character of the performance:
“Within the limits of the box, the pictorial stereometry took form for the first time; a rigid system of volumes was established, minimising the random elements imposed from the outside by the movement of human bodies. These bodies were broken up by beams of light. They alternately lost arms, legs, head, because, for Malevitch, they were only geometric bodies yielding not only to decomposition into elements, but also to complete disintegration in the pictorial space. The only reality was the abstract form that had swallowed up all the satanic vanity of the world, leaving nothing behind.”
On the basis of Victory over the Sun and the creation of suprematism, the space of the world emerges through “the colour semaphore in its infinite abyss”. Having reached zero with the “black square”, that is, Nothingness as “the essence of diversities”, “the non-objective world” [беспредметный мир], Malevitch explores the spaces of Nothingness beyond zero. The suprematist scenes establish a decisive break with the world of objects; they create a space that is analogical to that of the world, a space where there is no weight or gravity, up or down, right or left. The non-objective space fills up with more and more cosmic bodies that emit their own light, have their own radiation, forming new pictorial constellations each time.
The suprematist brilliance is the establishment of a difference between the support medium and the pictorial surface in the complete integrity of flatness. That is what produces this immateriality, this feeling of freedom in relation to earthly abstraction. The Suprematist Painting of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is particularly telling of such malevitchian poetics. All quadrilateral designs are as if concentrated around three green, black and blue trapezoids. Some geometric units intersect, others are placed alongside each other. And yet, they are all on the same plane without any attempt on the part of the painter to use Euclidian stereometry. They are all different and the same. We are dealing with a new suprematist device heralded by the famous 1920 text, Suprematism, 34 Drawings:
“The suprematist device – if we can call it that – will be a unified whole without any joints.”
A painting like the one in Venice announces the interplanetary cities conceived by the author of “planits”. Malevitchian suprematism aims to defeat chaos, disorder, the entropy of nature by favouring the formation of a new cosmos, free of figurative weight.
The work Supremus N° 58. Yellow and Black is a sort of street map seen from a plane. These combinations of rectangular forms were the basis of numerous architectural designs. The curve of the grey-yellow targe (shield) is the curve of the Universe as a result of the gravity of quadrilateral designs. This figure of a rounded shield is also featured in Supremus N° 56 that is perhaps the most complex whole of the suprematist universe. Several units float around the central unit intersecting the canvas diagonally. While the quadrilateral form dominates, it is animated by the blue curve of a “targe” represented by a red triangle, a black ellipse, a green circumference and a grey half-sphere, all small in dimension. None of the elements is more important than the others, whatever their size.
It is evident that the theme of Victory over the Sun had continued to haunt Malevitch after 1913 not only because of the spatial developments of suprematism of which I have provided some insights, but also because Kruchenykh’s libretto was restaged, without the music, in Vitebsk in 1920 by the group Ounovis, “the Affirmators-Founders of the New in Art”, the suprematist school formed around Malevitch. One of his disciples, Vera Yermolayeva, collaborated in the making of the production. Another one of Malevitch’s disciples El Lissitzky used the motifs of the Victory over the Sun in 1923 for a performance that was never staged and made lithographic sketches of figurines representing the characters of the libretto using suprematist geometrised forms. They were designs of mechanic dolls, more decorative and narrative that the 1913 malevitchian cubo-futurist robots, but highly visually effective owing to the finesse of the design and the harmony of colours. Lissitzky was, after all, a trained engineer.
With its few remaining elements, Victory over the Sun continues to astonish and shock us to this day. Its obvious nihilism is the affirmation of the triumph of vital energy in man, ready to face and take on the cosmos. And finally, this performance from a hundred years ago calls for us to throw away the crutches of fantasies and illusions, lighting only the light that shines within us.
 All the citations from the Victory of the Sun are taken from the English translation by Larissa Shmailo [Translator’s note].