Matyushin’s Anthropology: The ZOR-VED System in the Perception of Nature

“We must sow eyes.” (Velimir Khlebnikov)

On April 14, 1923, in one of his notebooks, Mikhail Matyushin wrote: “Yesterday at the association (a meeting of the artists from the sections of the State Institute of Art Culture -GINKhUK) I announced our artistic motto - ZOR-VED (Vision and Knowledge)’’ [1] The motto-manifesto was published in the journal Zhizn’ iskusstva (Life of Art) simultaneously with the exhibit in the rooms of the former Academy of Arts in Petrograd on 17 May 1923. The exhibit displayed works by Petrograd artists of all movements. Mikhail Matyushin was shown with his colleagues from the Department of Organic Culture at GINKhUK - Maria, Xenia, Boris, and Georgy Ender and Nikolai Grinberg. Next to their works was a banner proclaiming: “ZOR-VED. Expanded Looking.” The declaration’s text declared that Matyushin and his group were exhibiting works created in a “new method” of perceiving reality. What was this new method of observation proposed by Matyushin?
The certainty of the Swiss analyst psychologist Carl Jung that “perfect man is not so complete that further perfection is not possible” was also the profound belief of Matyushin; he believed in the unlimited possibilities of discovering and developing the unrealized and often forgotten qualities of the physical and spiritual nature of man. The holistic organic concept of world and man is based first of all on the assumption that first comes work on transforming man himself, and then will come the time “when not only people but objects will be resurrected,” wrote Matyushin in 1913. [2]
The concept of creativity as “God action,” i. e., the joint action of man and God to re-create natural man into a spiritual one was characteristic for Russian culture in the early 20th century. Andrei Bely wrote of the “true thirst for the coming wholeness” and Vyacheslav Ivanov of the coming “organic” era.
The idea of bringing up a “new man” with a “new consciousness,” a new Adam, and of universal unity were widely propagandized by numerous publishing houses established in that period. A very large quantity of Eastern philosophy and religious literature published, especially from India, whosesynthetic vision elicited great interest in the West. These were the works of Ramakrishna (Gadadhar Chatterji, 1836-1886) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Also translated were the works of Henri Bergson (1859-1941), the French philosopher and intuitivist; Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), the Englishman who called for a rapprochement of East and West in order to reach man’s higher possibilities; Robert Beck, who propagandized the coming new era of humanity with a cosmic consciousness; and Charles Hinton, whose ideas about the systematic education and development of the sense of space were popularized by the mathematician and Theosophist Pyotr Uspensky, an acquaintance and fellow-thinker of Elena Guro and Matyushin.
Matyushin used Uspensky’s Tertium Organum: The Key to the Mysteries of the World (1911) as the philosophical basis for explaining Cubism in his article “On ‘Du Cubisme’ by Metzinger-Gleizes” (Soyuz Molodezhi Anthology No. 3, 1913). The positivism and materialism of the 19th century led to the loss of a unified world outlook, to a loss of one of its major components - metaphysics. The cult of the machine and technology alienated man from nature. “The machine,” wrote philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev, “led man to the external periphery of life and the image of nature and the image of man himself has started to vacillate.” It was not through the machine or the machine aesthetic that the lost harmony between man and nature could be re-established. As we have noted previously, the main problem of the unified world view is to adapt to nature, rather than violate it. But how to create this great synthesis of man and nature? The problem is clear. As artist, musician, and theoretician, Matyushin showed a profound interest throughout his life in the problem of perception of reality. His ultimate goal was a “return” of man to nature, to plug him in to the inner and seemingly elusive processes of life, the rhythms and vibrations of nature, to become part of nature, to be one with what is visible: “Wherever you may stand, in forest or field, turn your soul to where it is coming from - hear what is coming and recognize the voices of the trees, the grass, and the earth. And you will hear their love, dissolved in the air and moving in waves, in clouds of warmth, and directed at you, since creatures love those who are attentive,” wrote Guro. [3]
It is only then that a new perception of reality begins gradually and organically to arise in the artist and with it its most basic quality - the sense of space. The systematic development of a sense of space in the artist is the main goal of Matyushin’s method “ZOR-VED. Expanded Looking.” Matyushin’s anthropologism is unique: it is the only instance among artists of a complete system of educating the sense for the perception of reality. His system was stimulated by the uniqueness of his natural worldview. But the artist did not exclude the study of the latest theoretical and practical data in physiology (for instance, optics) or scientific results in new measurements of space. Matyushin took the wise path of the East, with its approach to the perfection of man: in order to know the Universe, one must start with oneself. Matyushin’s diary for 1915-1916 is filled with notations on the great significance of what he called the “de-compacting” of the body for the creative spirit: “Thickness, compactness, and movement of physical emotions do not give the spiritual image time to express itself,” he wrote.[4]
In the 1920s the essence of Matyushin’s system was the inseparability of selfperfection, creativity, and laboratory experiment. He set as his goal the increase in the capabilities of the effector apparatus of the sensory organs - vision, hearing, touch. The main focus of attention was on physiological optics - the eye.
The most important part in the mechanism of perception of spatial relations is played by the movements of the muscles in the eye. Considering the development of the visual system inadequate at the current level, Matyushin suggested using not only the so-called daylight, direct vision, but to complement it with the sensations of the peripheral sections of the retina (the side, twilight ones), which would permit “expanding” the angle of vision along the horizontal and vertical up to 180 degrees. Matyushin even sought an expansion of our sensitivity not only in the known sensory organs. He looked for methods of obtaining information in man’s hidden capabilities - in the sensory functions of the brain: a new organ of vision - the visual nerve located in the back of the head and connected to the brain. He spoke of perception through the feet, “the solerplexus,” of unconscious and parapsychological phenomena, of clairvoyance as a phenomenon of the supernatural deprived of flight but accessible to man at a certain level of spiritual and physical development. Thus, the possibility of expanding the means of perception activity goes into the sphere of sensory cognition, when the entire organism is involved in perceiving the environment - this state is supposed to lead to a new vision.
And new vision in turn gives a new understanding of spatial measure of the environment, in which forms are cleansed of unnecessary details, and the universal spatial connection of color-forms arises, the gaps of objectivity are excluded, new sensations of width, height, depth, bottom, and top appear, and interfaces and crossings occur between color-forms. In other words, the phenomenal world, which according to Matyushin is the “periphery” of the world, will appear before the eyes of the artist as the real world, authentic and deep, like the world of the highest realities up to and including reality in other dimensions. And on the surface of the canvas will appear the “objective-nonobjective truth.”
“We must shorten the length of movement to the stroke of lightning, only then can you understand and reveal the uninterruptibility of growth, crystal, bacteria, animal, and man,” Matyushin wrote. But, in order to sense that “compression” of time, it is necessary to have the sense of true unity of Existence, “to live in the element of Existence,” in the words of philosopher Alexei Lossev. Method and the attitude towards the body are important in Matyushin’s system. In the body he sees a companion to the spirit. However, no “expanded looking/’ if treated only as an external method, can give “new vision” and cognition of the hidden ties of the harmonic order of the universe. Biologism is apparent in Matyushin’s system of education, but there was yet another form of coordination between artist and object besides the sensory functions of the brain: the psychic one.
That is, sensation, concept, intuition, knowledge. These “functions” form the other half of the ZOR-VED system -vedanie, knowledge - and are more subtle and metaphysical than simple knowledge or intuition alone. It is a state, existence that presupposes a strong activity and culture of the spirit, when the metaphysical unity of observer and object is attained, giving a “cosmic seeing” that forms a new spatial image. The theses of Matyushin’s system are similar to and even surpass modern empirical psychology, which holds that the archetype of unity and wholeness is always within man. For that man must develop as an integrated whole. Matyushin made the “ZOR-VED system. Expanded looking” the central problem of creativity, and it led to the creation of a unique plastic form on the painting surface, in which every object, every part, and the spatial medium interact. The goal is to see in the visible world, in the reality, the grandeur and the profound beauty of forms of a single order that penetrates all of Nature, the entire Cosmos without artistic imagination and individualism.

Alla Povelikhina

[1] M. Matyushin, Notation in notebook, 14 April 1923, RO IRLI, notebook No. 2, f. 656, d. 108, p. 58..

[2] Troe [Three], an anthology, Zhuravl’, St. Petersburg 1913, From Matyushin’s foreword..

[3] E. Guro, From the poem, “The Poor Knight”, in the anthology: Elena Guro: Selected Prose and Poetry, Stockholm 1988, no. 25, p. 159-160..

[4] M. Matyushin, Diary 1915-1916 (ch. 6, p. 7)..