The End of the Russian Avant-Garde

Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938)

The Last of the Avant-Garde

Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova were lucky to live out their lives peacefully. In the brutal period of Stalin’s Russia, artists were suppressed. Starting in the late 1920s, the mood of the government became less tolerant of avant-garde efforts and the turn towards the illustrative realism that would dominate from the late 1930s to the fall of the Berlin Wall began. The journey of the posters of Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938) was a case in point as they became less and less radical as the years passed. Like Rodchenko, Klutsis had an equally talented wife who was also an artist, Valentina Kulagina (1902-1987), and like Rodchenko, he used photomontage in a straightforward fashion for didactic purposes. Like Rodchenko, Klutsis reduced his palette to a few colors, red, gray, black and white, and these colors became identified with Russian avant-garde art during the revolution.

Gustav Klutsis. In Memory of Fallen Leaders (1927)

In Revolutionary Russia, there were certain iconic images: Lenin himself, the god-like deity of the Russians who was always elevated above those whom he ruled. The reader of the poster invariably saw Lenin, larger than life, and photographed from below. He strides the universe Klutsis made for him like a colossus, capable of everything and anything. The left arm of Lenin is frequently outstretched, a simple orator’s gesture that became a gesture towards the future—a sort of visual semiotics of moving forward. Like his speeches, Lenin’s messages were brief, identical, and repetitive, like an incessant drum beat, directed to the peasants and the workers of Moscow and Petrograd and beyond. The posters had to compliment the precision of the spoken words, and it is here that the difference between agitation, the practice of Lenin, and propaganda, which is a longer and more doctrinaire explanation of ideology, can be located—one is simple and emotional and the other is the province of intellectuals. Agitprop, in the talented hands of Klutsis, was simple and direct, focusing on the heroic figures of the Revolution, from Lenin himself to the worker and the peasants, soldiers in the Revolution. But it was Lenin who walked through the posters of Klutsis. The artist, a Latvian, was an ardent Communist who remained faithful to the Revolution. As if to follow the outstretched arm of Lenin, the basis of the style of Klutsis was the diagonal, leaning in, tilting forward, angling towards the future, marching to victory.

Gustav Klutsis. From NEP Russia Will Come Soviet Russia (1930)

Lenin was frequently depicted by Klutsis as a Gulliver, moving purposefully among his Lilliputian peoples, creating miracles in his wake. “From the Russia of the NEP, new economic policy period, there will arise a socialist Russia,” a quote from Russia inspired an exemplary poster by Klutsis, featuring a giant photomontaged Lenin, wearing his familiar cap, with his arm outstretched above the tiny workers toiling on industrial projects. Facing right, Lenin is silhouetted against a red triangular banner, bearing his own words. In a near flip of the earlier poster, a late work of 1931, used the same drop of a diagonal red shape reinforced by a flag pole carried by a photograph of a worker in overalls, facing left, urging on the workers of the world, who project from the red globe at the bottom of the poster. Beneath the elaborate and often delicate photomontage work in the posters of Klutsis are the shapes and the movement found in the Suprematist paintings of his colleague, Kazimir Malevich.

El Lissitzky. First Russia Exhibition poster (1922)

One could argue that the year 1922 was the last great year of artistic freedom for the Russian artists and the first year in which an international language for post-war art manifested itself emerged. Vladimir Tatlin and Malevich faced off, as it were, in the Van Diemen Gallery in Berlin near the Russian Embassy. The First Russian Art Exhibition showed off seven hundred works of almost two hundred artists who had developed a new art style, Constructivism, since the Russian Revolution. Malevich represented the pre-Revolutionary avant-garde styles, while Tatlin represented the new and strident anti-art idea of the artist as being an engineer who constructed objects for the Revolution. But in terms of basic composition, Constructivists artists absorbed the diagonals and the dynamism of Suprematism, which, in turn, had been inherited from Futurism. Whether with photomontages or actual constructions, such as Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International, on view at the Van Diemen Gallery or with traditional paintings, the style of Malevich had become knitted into the post-war Revolutionary art of the Russians. The combination of Constructivism and Suprematism impacted the artists of Europe and the First Russian Art Exhibition traveled to Amsterdam in 1923, where it was favorably received by the Dutch artists. A post-war international style was born, bringing Russia, Germany, and Holland together in a visual vocabulary that expressed itself in architecture, agitprop posters, graphic design, and, for a short time, painting.

Joost Schmidt. Poster for the Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar (1923)

Walter Gropius, Director of the Bauhaus, was so impressed with the First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin in 1922, he returned to Weimar, the city of the first Bauhaus, with a new idea and a new slogan: “Art and Industry: A New Unity.” The following year, almost precisely a year later, the Bauhaus held an exhibition to show off the achievements of the new art school, its students, half of whom were female, and its distinguished faculty, many of whom were left-leaning. While the town of Weimar, suspicious of the Communist inspired imported philosophy of Constructivism, did not warm to the new non-traditional style, impacted by the diagonals of Theo van Doesburg and the Futurist-inspired dynamism of Suprematism, artists in Europe saw this new version of modern art reaffirmed. The poster for this exhibition by Joost Schmidt is not unlike that designed for the First Russian Art Exhibition by El Litisszky. The main difference is that the logo designed by El Litisszky is a straight vertical and the shape designed by Schmidt was set on a diagonal.

Vladimir Lenin. Sverdlov Square in Petrograd on May 5, 1920

The Germans were more fortunate than the Russians in that they had the opportunity to carry out their slogan and put art and design in the service of industry. The new Communist regimes had far fewer resources than Germany in the mid-twenties and the government, after the death of Lenin, were less favorable to the avant-garde artists and their ambitious ideas. Tatlin’s Monument was a mere scale model and most avant-garde architectural proposals remained dreams on paper. And yet with these designs, which resembled agitprop posters, the Russians had combined the structure of constructivism and its real-world purpose with the shapes seen in the paintings of Malevich. Beginning with a photograph, then composed like a Suprematist painting, rendered as a proposal for an architectural project, these hybrid posters evolved but were rarely manifested. For example, perhaps the most famous image of Lenin came from his speech Sverdlov Square in Petrograd on May 5, 1920, when was photographed from a variety of angles, one of which shows the tall lecture he climbed to rise above the crowd of soldiers—Petrograd Communists—leaving for the Polish front. Lenin’s speech ended, “Long live our Red Workers’ and Peasants’ Army!” In fact, this platform became so iconic that El Lissitzky built a drawing model of a Tribune for Lenin, in which the old-fashioned wooden platform was mechanized, multiplied so that each level could be hoisted in stages high over the crowd, depending on its size. In other words, as the span of the crowds increased, the leader could ascend to a higher platform via a striking red and black Eiffel Tower like structure which slants to the left. Designed in 1920, this photomontage of an imaginary piece of architecture was contemporaneous with Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International but was not made public at the time. El Lissitzky added a photograph of Lenin speaking from the highest platform with a signboard above stating a favorite theme, “Proletariat.” In 1924, this Tribune on paper became a model in which stairs were added on as a practical gesture. But by 1924, Lenin was dead and El Lissitzky’s Tribune became a de facto tribute.

El Lissitzky. Tribune for a Leninist (1927)

Meanwhile, Gustav Klutsis reimagined the concept of the Speech harnessed to propaganda to mass media through a series of narrative machines, from loudspeakers to kiosks. Time moved fast in revolutionary Russia and in 1921, Klutsis made posters that were muted in tone with sharp-edged drawings anchored with softened photomontages. In “Electrification for the Entire Country,” the poster seems closer to a print or an etching than the eye-catching red black white and gray posters that became the signature style of the artist. The famous electrification poster contained the ghost of the academic artist that Klutsis used to be but showed the devotion of the Latvian soldier who, according to legend, was among those in the 9th Regiment of the Latvian riflemen who escorted Lenin and the government from Petrograd to Moscow. After the Revolution, he was re-educated at the Higher state artistic and technical studios—spelled VKhUTEMAS—a Russian version of the Bauhaus where he later taught. Klutsis taught his students to be revolutionary artists who should be cognizant of “..all the contemporary achievements of science and technology.” To that end—to communicate with the masses—Klutsis designed a group of stationary objects that were the counterparts of the agitprop trains—machines for transmitting propagandistic speeches and kiosks for printed information. The designs were, once again, this dynamic and spare and dramatic translation of Suprematist painting into actual constructions which transformed Malevich’s abstractions into practical machines.

It is not well known that the Soviets were pioneers in developing radio. When they came to power in 1917, “radio” consisted of a Morse code transmission which was accepted by a receiving station whose job it was to decode the message which was then distributed in print. Recognizing the potential of mass communication, the new government threw its efforts into upgrading the capabilities of radio. By 1920, scientists had learned how to send the human voice via radio waves and in 1921, a real radio station was established to transmit news and propaganda or educational materials. The Spoken Newspaper of the Russian Telegraph Agency was heard with a radio receiver which individuals could not afford, and to solve the problem of communicating with large numbers of people, loudspeakers were installed in public sites and blared out the Bolshevik point of view. Lenin was quite fond of this new technology and in 1922 Moscow had the most powerful radio station in the world. In response to this new demand for public sites for listening, Klutsis created loudspeakers to amplify the voice and project the radio addresses. These structures were always red black and white or metal and were planned in posters or preliminary drawings and sometimes manifested in maquettes. These extraordinary designs were very complex and difficult to realize but Klutsis imagined a live speaker on a platform with his voice being projected while the same loudspeakers could be used for radio broadcasts. Some of these larger stands had screens for film projections. He even combined a set of screens with a kiosk for the fourth congress of the comintern and fifth anniversary of the October revolution in 1922. Only a few of his constructions seem to have been put to actual use.

Gustav Klutsis. Worker and the Worker woman all to elections! (1933)

The poster Worker and the Worker woman all to elections! of 1933 is composed of one hand, photomontaged in different sizes overlapping the large lead hand and contained on a black and white diagonal of photographs against a red background. The poster’s words were plain white with the words “Worker and “Woman” in bold for emphasis. In many of his graphics, the leitmotif is always the diagonal or the slant or the lean forward as in We Shall Pay Back Our Coal Debt to This Country. Photographs of miners, some with modern drilling equipment paired with an old-fashioned lamp and hammer, show the workers as heroes marching forward with grim determination. The artist tilted the miners to the left behind a simple and strong red background relieved only by the slogan above the heads of the stalwart miners. This posted was dated 1930 but also in that year, he designed a poster that might, in hindsight, signaled the beginning of trouble to come. Under the banner of Lenin for socialist construction is a very strange poster, almost spooky. Lenin has been dead six years and yet he appears as a disembodied head with a tender expression on his face as he views—from the grave?—construction sites. Looming behind him and obscured is the darkened face of Stalin, the new leader of the Soviets. Some scholars have suggested that this juxtaposition of overlapping faces meant that Klutsis was showing the transfer of power and the fate of Russia from Lenin to Stalin but the face of Lenin, whose visage is almost sweet, is full of light contrasting with Stalin who seems to be a negative force. From a formal point of view these colliding heads, silhouetted against the familiar red background, the dark and light provides a color or tone contrast, but from a historical perspective, Stalin, who was a mass murderer seems to be foreshadowed by an artist who may have had an intuition.

Gustav Klutsis. Under the Banner of Lenin for Socialist Construction (1930)

Indeed, by the next year, 1931, Klutsis was in trouble—he was expelled from the party because he had failed to pay his dues for many months. But he was also charged with something called “political illiteracy,” a phrase that was a catch all indicating displeasure. Was his attitude or his art? We shall never know, but Klutsis apologized and was reinstated. Although Klutsis had been a powerful artist, shifting from Lenin to Stalin, he was dedicated to Communism rather than to a specific leader, suggesting that he had no protection against one of Stalin’s many mad purges. Klutsis had given up his Latvian identity but when the Latvians became restive towards to the Soviet Union, he was swept up in the arrests. A victim of the Great Terror of 1934 to 1940, he was accused of being a member of what was termed “the fascist plot of Latvian nationalists.” The contributions of Kultsis, who had created a powerful and lasting visual vocabulary for the Russian Revolution and its leaders, meant nothing to the fanatics who were in charge of the nation at that point. The purges were well under way and in1938, Gustav Klutsis was executed in 1938. It could be said that the death of Klutsis served as a head on a pole or a warning to his colleagues, that no matter how important an artist, no matter how selflessly the artist worked, no matter how dedicated he or she was to the ideals of Communism, no one was safe. The avant-garde in Russia was over and the remaining artists assumed an even lower profile, hoping to survive. The striking avant-garde designs of Klutsis were expelled in favor of an illustrative style called Soviet Realism, considered more readable or more legible for the vast audience that needed to be educated into the cult of Stalinism.

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