In January 1973, on a morning of Stygian gloom, I called on Konstantin Melnikov, the architect, at his house on Krivoarbatsky Lane in Moscow. I had already been in Moscow a couple of weeks trying to ferret out survivors from the heady days of the leftist art movement of the early twenties. I had, for example, a wild-goose chase in search of an old gentleman, once a friend of Tatlin’s, who owned a wing-strut of the glider Letatlin. I even tried to find the man who, as a homeless student of the Vkhutemas School, had installed himself and his bedding inside the constructivist street monument The Red Wedge Invades the White Square.
One evening, I went to supper with Vavara Rodchenko, the artist’s daughter, in a studio flat that had also been the office of the magazine LEF. The shade of Mayakovsky, one of its editors, seemed to linger in the room. The bentwood chair you sat on was Mayakovsky’s chair, the plate you ate off was his plate, and the fruit compotier was a present brought from Paris by a man who called himself ‘the cloud in pants’. On the walls there hung a selection of Rodchenko’s paintings – less fine, of course, and less mystical than those of Malevich, but making up for that with their dazzling display of vigour. In his daybooks, crammed with sketches, you could watch him anticipate and race through every style and variation of the postwar abstract movement in Europe and America. Small wonder, then, that by 1921 he had believed that easel painting was dead, and when I asked his daughter whether she still possessed the three canvases he had shown at the exhibition ‘The Last Picture Has Been Painted’, she unrolled on to the floor three square monochrome canvases: one yellow, one red (and what a red!) and one blue. For all that, my visit to Mr Melnikov was the high point of the trip, since, by any standards, the house itself is one of the architectural wonders of the twentieth century.
The Arbat was once the aristocratic quarter of Moscow. It was largely rebuilt after the Napoleonic fire in 1812, and even today, in palaces of green or cream-coloured stucco, one or two of the old families linger on with their possessions. Melnikov’s house – or rather pavilion in the French sense – is set well back from the street, a building both futurist and classical consisting of two interlocking cylinders, the rear one taller than the front and pierced with some sixty windows: identical elongated hexagons with constructivist glazing bars. The cylinders are built of brick covered with stucco in the manner of Russian churches. In 1973 the stucco was a dull and flaking ochre, although recent photos show the building spruced up with a coat of whitewash. On the front façade above the architrave are the words KONSTANTIN MELNIKOV ARKHITEKTOR – his proud and lonely boast that true art can only be the creation of the individual, never that of the committee or group.