The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part Two

What to do During a Revolution

The Death of Art

It is one of the oddities of modernism that the nations most attached to the past gave birth to movements that yearned most strongly for the future—but that longing for a new way of life cannot be a coincidence. Mired in the past, Italy and the Russian Empire were, by any standards, “backward,” a word universally used, when comparing them to the rest of Europe, to describe these two anachronistic and decrepit nations, clinging to the past and unsure of the way forward. And yet on the eve of the Great War, Italy and Russia had two admittedly small groups of avant-garde artists, writers and poets, the radical intelligentsia, straining to find modernity in places mired in the past. In the case of Russia, the sprawling ungovernable Empire, stretching like a growth, reaching out from west to east, the imperial government was ambivalent when it came to its relationship with the rest of Europe. Russia had a Western face, the side that struggled to modernize and adapt technology to its needs, but Russia also had an Eastern face, a deep consciousness of Russian exceptionalism or uniqueness. And it would be that backwards looking traditionalist face that would—ironically—fuel Russian Futurism—a contradiction in terms.


Marinetti in Moscow in 1914

When Futurism came to Russia, first as a word, a neologism implying all that which was modern and then later in the person of Marinetti, it was in the waning years of the anachronistic reign of an incompetent Czar. Marinetti was badly received by his Russian audiences in 1914, whose “Futurism” derived more from literature than from contact with actual Italian art. Little did he or any of the other Russian Avant-Garde artists, realize that that winter was the last before the Great War. Although the Futurists could not realize that the Empire could not survive such a massive social and cultural disruption, they were keenly aware of the anachronistic and insanely melodramatic nature of an illegitimate regime. The Czar, Nicholas II, was ruled by his vindictive and unstable wife, Alexandra and, through her allegiance to a mad monk, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, called “Rasputin,” the royal couple had allowed this unstable character to control the affairs of state. For whatever reason, Rasputin had managed convinced the parents that he alone could keep their precious child alive and cast a spell over the poor doomed child Alexia, heir to a throne he would never mount. The situation of the royal family sounded like a plot from a horror film but was, in fact, indicative of how insular Russia had become, going far off course, drifting away from modernity and moderation. The pointless and parasitic aristocrats, like the Royal Family served little purpose, but the nobles plotted against Rasputin and eventually managed to murder him in 1916.


Russian Royal Family

Rasputin and the drama in the Royal Family were symptomatic of deep internal instabilities within the Empire that could not be sustained. In order to hold on to its power, the regressive Russian Orthodox Church had deliberately held back the hands of time—literally, for, unlike the other nations of the so-called family of Queen Victoria, Russia refused to adopt the Julian calendar and rejected Greenwich Mean Time. In terms of time, Russia was in one place, the rest of the world was in a totally different time, all in the name of tradition and all things “Russian.” So hostile was the Empire to all things foreign that the railroads in Russia were of a gage different from those in Europe. Nevertheless, the counterweight to this deliberate refusal to dilute the uniqueness of the Empire was the life line to modern life was a paradox: the railway that stretched from Moscow to Paris. In the annals of art history, the fabled Moscow to Paris train carried Sergei Schchukin to the studios of Paris where the wealthy art collector scooped up the latest canvases from the ateliers of Matisse and Picasso, browse the galleries and carefully stowe his purchases on the train which carried the art back to Moscow.


Matisse paintings in Sergei Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace (1920)

Compared to Cubism, Futurism was, before the Great War, a brief movement, only two years and, during this short time could be seen only in Italy, France, Germany, and England, and, in 1915 and 1917 in America. No Futurist exhibition was ever mounted in Russia. Although it was possible to receive Cubism if one were an artist invited to Schchukin’s mansion, a more reliable conduit for West European avant-garde styles would be black and white reproductions seen in magazines and postcards. Dr. Konstantin Akinsha gave an interesting lecture at the Neue Galerie in New York in 1915 in which he described David Burliuk coming in to possession of a post card of a Cubist portrait by Picasso and how the artist immediately did a portrait of his own, telling himself to make it as “good as Picasso.” In addition to scattered reproductions, there were two catalogues of Futurist exhibitions circulating in Russia. With the exception of Russian expatriates in Paris, Russian artists in Moscow received Cubism and Futurism in black and white, a mode of replication which would stress line and structure and obliterating the subtleties of color or facture. As a result, the early responses to both styles on the part of Kazimir Malevich and Nataliya Goncharova were labored and naïve and literal, and it is only when the Russian artists appropriate the reproductions and transform Western styles into something uniquely Eastern and deeply Russian do the Russian avant-garde artists come into their own.


Nataliya Goncharova. The Forest (1913)

But if we follow the usual Modernist narrative, the Paris to Moscow tale, which has privileged French art, assuming that paintings from the familiar “isms” perpetrated in Paris brought “culture” to the Russians, we will see the “avant-garde,” and totally miss the “Russian” aspect of the art world. In fact, Futurism was already alive and well in Moscow before Cubism arrived, but this is a Futurism that was created at a great remove from Italy. It is important that it was in Moscow where so-called “Cubo-Futurism” and then “Suprematism” were invented, because this was a city deep inside Russia. In fact, when Lenin moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow, it was not only because the port city was in danger during the civil war but also because having Moscow as the new capital sent a signal that Russia was no longer looking outward, towards the West and would turn inward, seeking its essence. The Russian artists, even before the Revolution, were dedicated to transforming the ideas coming in from Europe into Russian concepts or ideas that reflected the very nature of the Russian soul and mindset. Going back to the earlier statement that both Italy and Russia were technologically backward nations, carried into the twentieth century by a few pockets of modernism, the Futurists were interested in speed and dynamism in very literal ways, seeking to replicate the motion of fast objects, such as cars and trains, on the static canvas. The Russians, in contrast, translated the idea of “dynamism” into abstract forms, indicating a shift from the material to the spiritual.

Certainly, the Russians were aware that the pace of modern life was quickening and as in Italy this incursion of modernity would have been a sharp contrast to the motionless and becalmed regime of the Czar. The poet the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky remarked in 1914, on the edge of the Great War that, “In Russia the nervous life of cities demands quick, economical abrupt words.” It is important to stress that, in Russia, Futurism predated Italian Futurism and was always a linguistic exercise in finding a new form of expression. Kazimar Malevich (1878-1935) learned basic lessons of the appearance of the European avant-garde works in his series of paintings in the so-called “Cubo-Futurist” style but his understanding was surface only. These paintings, oddly enough, often focused on subjects that are anything but modern, the traditional Russian peasant. In foregrounding the peasant, Malevich was stressing his Russian heritage but there are political overtones as well in his presentation of a group long exploited by the government. The painting show that he was far removed from the theoretical underpinnings of either Cubism or Futurism and this separation allowed him to seize upon a visual vocabulary, rather than an intellectual concept, and translate Cubist semiotics and linguistics from an exploration of space and time to a leap into the spiritual realm. Suprematism, based upon the Latin word “supremus” which means “extreme” or “highest” and of course “supreme.” Malevich’s version of Cubism, especially his take on collage, did not rest upon fragmentation but upon the idea of combination.


Kazimir Malevich. Bureau and Room (1913)

For Malevich, Cubism was unsatisfactory, not just because its basis was strictly material, but also because any understanding of the style depended upon an exercise of logic in which the viewer accepted the premise that the object was being depicted from multiple points of view. But for the Russian artist, logic was limited and he sought something beyond logic, outside the materiality of the object itself. Malevich proposed a stance called the A-logic or the non-logical, stating, “The ‘Alogical’ movement has been created to free it from preconceptions.” In other words, the exercise of logic creates certain preconceptions which then limit thought and consequently burden art as well. The notion of the alogical was borrowed from the modern movement in poetry and referred to the “zaum” or the idea that words must be freed from their task of having to make meaning. The word, divested of its traditional role, could transcend spiritually. Malevich himself explained that his leap into the void of painting, manifested by the Black Square of 1913, was out of a desire to throw off the “ballast of objectivity.” Once Malevich had made the leap, he had launched his own personal premature Revolution, if you will, preceding the actual political changes just a few years in the future. As he said of Suprematism:

The Suprematist square and the forms proceeding out of it can be likened to the primitive marks (symbols) of aboriginal man which represented, in their combination, not ornament, but a feeling of rhythm. Suprematism did not bring into being a new world of feeling but, rather, an altogether new and direct form of representation of the world of feeling..The new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer these forms from the surface of canvas to space..Only with the disappearance of a habit of mind which sees in pictures little corners of nature, madonnas and shameless Venuses, shall we witness a work of pure, living art.


Kazimir Malevich. Self Portrait in two Dimensions (1915)

Thus the “zaum” and Surpremtist art were closely related to the idea of translational poetry, being developed in literary circles. The poet, Aleksey Kruchenykh, who was the first poet to use the non-word, “zaum,” explained in 1915, “Writing and reading must be instantaneous,”or in other words, visual, graspable at a glance. The notion of the fourth dimension, time, was a popular one, much buited in intellectual circles, and, like many artists early in the twentieth century, Malevich was interested in the possibility of totally freeing artistic forms from “objectivity” or reality. In creating what he called Sprematist “Zero Forms,” Malevich slipped the bonds of logic and was able to mobilize forms without any worldly reference points on to his canvases. The artist had complex and deeply felt concepts which explained and justified his extreme art, blank forms, so shocking at the time, and he invested an enormous amount of time in polishing his rarified positions. Out of the large group of Avant-Garde artists, Malevich had created his own uniquely Russian spiritually based approach to art. Without the competition of Mikhail Larionov and Nataliya Goncharova, after the Great War began, Malevich was the leader of the avant-garde in Moscow; a leader with followers and a new Russian style. But fate intervened, and a Revolution, political and social, suddenly exploded, demanding new art, an art that was practical and useful for the new state regime. After 1917, the fate of Malevich and his art was on the line.

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The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part One

Artist and Revolution

Art at Ground Zero, Part One

In 1981, the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a remarkable exhibition, selections from the collection of an otherwise unknown individual, George Costakis (1913-1990). Born in Russia, a nation he considered his home, Costakis was the son of Greek parents who did business in Russia. He was “Greek” and had a Greek passport, but he lived most of his life in the Soviet Union, working at the Canadian Embassy, where his job was organizing the service staff for the ambassador. According to one of his biographers, Bruce Chatwin, Costakis wanted to do “somethimg” to make his life worthy and began collecting art in Moscow around 1946, a time of hardship when a number of privately held goods came up for sale. Undoubtedly there are entire stories attached to each object he purchased–pieces from collections sold off by “white” Russians fleeing the “reds,” and later, perhaps even art looted from Germany, unmoored from provenance, but the total collection grew into something impressive and unprecedented. However, his interests changed from traditional classical art to an obscure view of “modern art” when Costakis was introduced the the brightly colored works of long forgotten artists, once part of the then forgotten “Russian Avant-Garde.”


The 1981 Guggenheim Museum Catalogue

Under Stalin, abstract art was banned and Socialist Realism ruled as the desired mode of communication. No one wanted, much less remembered, the art produced by a disgraced and discarded group of artists, many of whom were dead. The Guggenheim Museum described how Costakis was impacted by his discovery of the avant-garde: “One day he was shown a brilliantly hued abstract painting by Olga Rozanova, an artist of whom he had never heard. Its impact upon him was instantaneous: ‘I was dazzled by the flaming colors in this unknown work, so unlike anything I had seen before.'” Stunned by finding a neglected body of art by Russian artists, Costakis began to hunt for the paintings of Kandinsky and Rozanova and Popova, searching like a detective on the trail of treasure for lost works of art. In the fifties, there was no competition for these works, and Costakis, as a Greek, was able to amass an impressive collection, which lined the walls of his home, covering all available space, stacked in piles, and numbering in the thousands of objects. Over the years, his Moscow apartment on Bolshaya Bronnaya Street became a place of pilgrimage as the grip of Stalinism slackened and people began attempt to fill in the early Revolutionary years lost to unending oppression.


Olga Rozanova. Battle of the Futurist and the Ocean (1916)

In his biography of the collector, Peter Roberts, who saw the collection in 1957, recounted his experience:

In 1957 I was not alone in my ignorance of the avant-garde. Few people other than art historians, and not many of those, had any detailed knowledge of this movement. Except for those such as Chagall and Kandinsky who had gone abroad at the time of the revolution and had become famous in the West, the artists who comprised the movement were largely unknown. Most of them were dead by 1957; few of them had continued painting after 1934, when their brilliant style was peremptorily suppressed and forbidden by Stalin.

In his book, George Costakis: A Russian Life in Art, Roberts indicated that the unorthodox collecting of the Greek citizen working at the Canadian embassy using Canadian money attracted the attention of the KGB, which may or may not have understood what he was doing but were concerned at the growing numbers of foreigners who wanted to view the collection put together by a person who was considered “crazy.” However, those in the art world, curious as to the contents of his apartment, and those in the museum circles of Russia, were aware that the art was potentially very valuable–not in Russia, of course, but outside in the West. By 1978, Costakis was officially considered a “traitor” and was forced to leave the Soviet Union, his lifetime home. Because he was allowed to take only one thousand two hundred works from his collection out of the USSR, under duress, he generously gave a large portion of his collection to the State Tretyakov Gallery and departed for Greece.


Vassily Kandinsky. Red Square (1916)

Almost immediately, his collection, or what was left of it, became available to the West, supplementing what little was known of the suppressed Russian avant-garde movement, such as the foundational work by Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art. 1863-1922, published in 1962. In a 1963 review of this seminal and pioneering book, Mary Chamot wrote in the Burlington Magazine, “Armed with a knowledge of Russian, and an immense amount of courage and determination, Camilla Gray has succeeded in contacting the few survivors of the artistic groups she writes about; she has also had access to a number of documents to be found only in Russian libraries and, perhaps most difficult of all, she has managed to see and obtain photographs of the works of art closely guarded in Russian Museum Stores.” Other reviewers were less kind, pointing to the limitations in the book, caused, for the most part by Gray’s decision to begin in 1863 and end in 1920, but the research was undoubtedly shaped by the amount of access to materials in Russia obtainable by a scholar in a period when the Cold War was at its peak. That said, the book would have provided at least a platform or a foundation upon which to build a study of Russian art, and the arrival of the Costakis collection would have literally thrown open the doors to the wide range of artists involved in the avant-garde movement before they were suppressed by Stalin. Commenting in 2011 on the slow revelation of revolutionary art and the difficulty of building a discourse on unavailable art, Owen Hatherley wrote for The Guardian,

(Costakis) created what has been called a “futurist ark”, buying up drawings, paintings and sketches by artists who were dead, discredited, forgotten, prohibited, or who had moved on to the very different “socialist realism” prescribed from the 1930s onwards. Until Costakis’s collection went public, there was only a vague idea that something extraordinary had happened in the former Russian empire – perhaps a couple of mentions of Kasimir Malevich or Alexander Rodchenko, usually in connection with the German artists they had inspired. Costakis’s work was aided from the 1970s on by the archaeological research of the Soviet historian Selim Khan-Magomedov and the late English architectural writer Catherine Cooke; it’s no exaggeration to say that without this small group of people, the current prominence of the “Russian avant garde”, which has featured in seemingly dozens of exhibitions on the heroic era of modernism over the last decade, would have been impossible.


Aristarkh Lentulov, Kislovodsk Landscape with Gates (1913)

Obviously, what happened the the Russian Avant-Garde? is a compelling question, as is the question: what happened to the artists? The traditional attempts to understand these long-lost artists have usually relied upon the connections, both stylistic and intellectual, between the West and the Russian artists. As pointed out in earlier posts, there is a distinct break in the narrative of the progression of avant-garde art in Russia, and it is the trauma and freedom of the Revolution that severs the artists from the West, forcing them to produce not “Russian” art but “Revolutionary Art.” Before the War broke out, the artists responded to art from Paris and Berlin but translated what they saw into objects that were semiotically “Russian.” During the War, the artists continued mining and developing their pre-war ideas with little interruption. But the Revolution changed everything for these artists, isolating them from any ties to Western Europe they might have had, and, indeed, the authorities were inclined to force them to stay in their homeland. Signs of governmental oppression were apparent from the start of the Revolution and it quickly became clear that if one wanted to work, one needed permission and support from Communist leaders. The artists with pre-existing European connections were the first the leave, signaling that the first phase of “the Russian Avant-Garde” had ended. The great ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev chose to not return to Russia after the Revolution and, strangely, the famous Ballet Russes never performed in their homeland. Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov left for Paris when the Great War began. Marc Chagall left his homeland in the early twenties and only with special permission. Kandinsky left at the same time as Chagall, taking a job at the Bauhaus. None of these artists would ever return to Russia, except for Chagall, who made a quick visit in 1973, only to find the world he left behind gone forever.


George Costakis with his collection in the 1970s

From the time of the Revolution, especially the October Revolution, the artists who stayed behind were at ground zero, a site where an old world had violently ended with such finality that the old art, once thought so darling in front of the backdrop of the anachronistic regime, now was “bourgeoisie” and out of step with the brave new world that had to arise from the ashes. For a few brief years the artists had tentative government permission or benign neglect to create new art for a new world. Although they threw themselves into the task with great and naïve enthusiasm, those in power had no definitive concept of what the role of art should be in the Communist proletariate society and no instructions to give to artists. Over time, the Soviet Union would have very specific guidelines, but in the beginning, the officials were preoccupied by the internal civil war between the Reds and the Whites. As intellectuals, the artists were always on the side of revolution, which is to say they wanted change and they relished the opportunity to be part of the vanguard of a new visual language. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out earlier, the artists themselves were internally conflicted, split off into different factions and went in multiple directions. Some wanted to continue bourgeois painting, while others wanted to experiment constructively as engineers rather than create as artists, still others wanted to contribute to the production of an art dedicated to the Revolution.

Vassily Kandinsky, a traditional Expressionist artist out of place in Russia, complained in 1920: “Even though art workers right now may be working on problems of construction (art still has virtually no precise rules), they might try to find a positive solution too easily and too ardently from the engineer. And they might accept the engineer’s answer as the solution for art—quite erroneously. This is a very real danger.” Unlike Vassily Kandinsky who was still involved with German ideas, Kazimir Malevich was more the native son referred to the Productivists and Constructivists as “lackeys of the factory and production.” He equated utilitarianism and Constructivism, which he disparaged as “subsistence art.” On the other hand, the new antagonist to Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin declared, “The influence of my art is expressed in the movement of the Constructivists, of which I am the founder.” But he rejected the Moscow group of constructivists and its leading figure, Rodchenko, and went his own way. The result of the dissension about the use of art and its role in social change was a splintered art movement that failed to present a either a united front or an ordered or an orderly slate of solutions to the government.


Kazimir Malevich. Portrait of M.V. MatyUshin (1913)

The government, for its part, had issues more pressing than coming up with an art program for the artists, but, on the other hand, those in charge also recognized the importance of art, its power to do harm or good, support or undermine the ideals of the revolution. At first the most obvious reform to make was the extrication of the production of art from the bourgeois class and freeing art from the mechanisms of capitalism. Art should be in the service of the people, the state and removed from the corrupting effect of being a decorative luxury item. As the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, also known as the Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, issued a new definition for art very early after the Revolution: “The Proletariat must finally eradicate the sharp difference between life and art that has concerned the ruling class of the past. From now on art for art’s sake does not exist. In the hands of the Proletariat art will become a sharp weapon of communist propaganda and agitation. In the hands of the proletariat art is a tool, the means, and the product of production.” In other words, art would become art for everyone, not a consumer good for the wealthy elite, and, therefore, its role would change from passive to active, suggesting a reduced role for painting and an enlarged role for graphic design.


El Lissizky. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

As we move to the next posts on Russian Revolutionary Art, it is important to remember that, in the minds of the intellectuals, the Revolution itself was based in Marxist philosophy. They assumed that the Revolution was the result of the thesis-anti-thesis of capitalism and the failure of capitalism and class warfare. Having succeeded in bring about the inevitable collapse of the government, the Communists dreamed of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Without class hierarchies, everyone would be part of the proletariat or urban lower classes, the true revolutionary foot soldiers. The state would wither away, as Marx predicted, and the people would govern themselves. In her book, The Russian Revolution, Sheila Fitzpatrick noted that the most fervent dreamers imagined a cold, clinical and impersonal state, run by machine-like bureaucrats. The steely mind-set, devoid of personal (bourgeois) feelings and full of ideology imagined that the state would be a “well ordered machine.” In this new world, the family was secondary to the state and it was a given that, within marriage, women were oppressed. Children were recruited by the state to watch their nostalgic parents for any lingering bourgeois sentiments. The entire world was to be economically remade according the what the Revolutionaries considered to be Marxist beliefs and socially reexamined in terms of their interpretations of Engels. To be an artist in this utopian era was to be a righteous radical. As Fitzpatrick wrote,

Avant-garde artists like the poet Vladirnir Mayakovsky and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold saw revolutionary art and revolutionary politics as part of the same protest against the old, bourgeois world. They were among the first members of the intelligentsia to accept the October Revolu- tion and offer their services to the new Soviet government, producing propaganda posters in Cubist and Futurist style, painting revolutionary slogans on the walls of former palaces, staging mass re- enactments of revolutionary victories in the streets, bringing acrobatics as well as politically-relevant messages into the conventional theatre, and designing non-representational monuments to revolutionary heroes of the past. If the avant-garde artists had had their way, traditional bourgeois art would have been liquidated even more quickly than the bourgeois political parties. The Bolshevik leaders, however, were not quite convinced that artistic Futurism and Bolshevism were inseparable natural allies, and took a more cautious position on the classics.


Meyerhold’s 1922 production of Sukhovo-Kobylin’s The Death of Tarelkin

It is customary to begin any discussion of the avant-garde made during the Revolution to begin with Constructivism and Productivism, with a side bar about the quarrel between Malevich and Tatlin, but it is also useful to shift the focus away from elite art and to investigate popular culture and how certain artists embedded themselves in the vernacular in order to coin new visual currency in the service of the revolution. The raw materials, the foundational alpha and omega for the new language seeking to communicate with the proletariat and the isolated peasants in the rural regions, were sophisticated and effective at the same time. The next post will discuss the ROSTA art in ROSTA windows, a fleeting attempt at agitprop.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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The Russian Avant-Garde at War, Part One

The Avant-Garde Artists and The Great War

Popular Culture

While it is undoubtedly true that the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 was somewhat responsible for the next war, the Second World War, it is also true that the First World War put an end not just to some empires but, most importantly, to the idea of “empire” itself as being legitimate. The German Empire ended on the battlefields of Flanders, the Ottoman Empire was systematically carved up by the Allies, happy to share the spoils of victory with each other, and the Russian Empire, undermined by incompetent leaders and unstable monarchs, fell like a precarious soufflé. Before the Great War, artists in Russia had been political in the sense of being part of the avant-garde, biased towards modernism and against the old order of things. The Russian Empire, abetted by the Russian Orthodox Church, was notoriously opposed to change and to all things modern. But, given that Russia was a police state, seething with plots and counter-plots, it would have behooved the intelligentsia to make revolutionary art and to not make political revolutions. However, these avant-garde artists lived in a time of political revolutions and were witnesses to the collapse of an empire. As they came of age, Kasimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharov would have learned of–through the veil of censors–the Russian defeat by the Japanese in 1903, the first time a European power had lost to an Asian power. Vladimir Tatlin and Varvana Stepanova would have lived through the Revolution of 1905, which was brutally put down by the Empire in what would be its last gasp or grasp on power. The social and political forces gathering against the Romanov Dynasty were merely interrupted by the Great War, for, with hindsight, it appears that revolution was inevitable, war or no war.

The Russian participation in the Great War started with patriotism and ended in the collapse of the Dynasty and the fall of the Empire as the Communist forces, attacking internally, spread discontent within the fighting forces. Unlike the other nations, Russia was not industrialized and was not prepared to fight a modern war. Despite the fact that Russia had a larger and better equipped army than the Germans, it was not as well led and, over time, it became unclear to the Russian soldiers what they were fighting for–a Czar who was content to sacrifice their lives on the Eastern Front? In fact by 1917, mutinies among the British and French militaries were not uncommon, and the Italian commanders would routinely execute soldiers who did obey orders; but patriotism depends upon a basic faith in the leaders and in the government. There was enough faith in the English and French authorities and their governments to convince the bulk of their armies to fight to the end. This loyalty or trust was absent among the Russian troops, especially after the terrible and humiliating loss at the Battle of Tannenberg. As early as August 30, less that a month into the war, 92,000 men were lost. Then a week later, another 100,000 casualties occurred at the Battle of Masurian Lakes. The “winter war” of 1914-1915 cost yet another 190,000 soldiers. All these losses in a few months. By the end of the year, two million Russian men were lost to the War. Once the Czar personally took command of the army, the end was not far away.

When the Czar abdicated, a provisional government under Alexander Kerensky was formed and kept fighting a War that no one wanted to continue to fight, fueling the victory of the Communist revolution. Once in power the Communists negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, giving away large chunks of the former Empire in order to get out of the War and carry on with the Revolution. For the next four years, civil war ripped the new nation apart as the “Reds” and “Whites” fought for control over what would become the Soviet Union. The fact that the Communists ended a War began by the Romanov Dynasty meant that when the history was written by the Communists, the Great War was an “imperial” war of “empire” and not an event to be proud of. After the War, the other nations, even the defeated Germans, marked the sacrifices with memorials, but in her interesting book, The Great War in Russian Memory, Karen Petrone noted that “As the successor state to the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union was unique among the combatants in the virtual absence of public commemoration of World War I at the level of the state, community, and civic organizations, or even individual mourning. Scholars generally agree about this erase of memory..The Soviet government generally ignored the war and instead poured its energies into creating a myth of the revolution, construction Sovietness through a conscious process of forgetting imperial Russia’s last war.”

In 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the Great War, the historian Sir Max Hastings stated for The Moscow Times, “World War I was very nearly written out of Russian history during the early years of the Soviet Union because of the Bolshevik view that it was a capitalist war in which the Russian people had been the victim rather than the protagonist.” But in August of that year, Vladimir Putin spoke in a rare commemoration ceremony memorializing The Brusilov Offensive in the Spring and Summer of 1916, when the Russians successfully attacked from the Eastern Front in an attempt to draw the Germans away from Verdun and the Somme. Although Putin was probably exaggerating when he spoke of the fame of this battle, he was literally the first Russian official to mark an event in the Great War. As he said, “Today, we are restoring the links in time, making our history a single flow once more, in which World War I and its generals and soldiers have the place they deserve, and our hearts hold the sacred memory that they rightfully earned in those war years. As the saying goes, ‘better late than never.’ Justice is finally triumphing in the books and textbooks, in the media and on cinema screens, and of course, in this monument that we are unveiling here today.”

The deliberate erasure of the memory of the Great War in Russia means that it has been in just the past few years that serious study of the War began among Russian scholars. But there is an existing and compelling narrative of the War, left behind by the artists who reacted to the War for the three years Russia was fighting. It is through their work that it is possible to view the patriotism felt by Russians when their country went to War. In the fall of 2014, the Grad Gallery for Russian Art and Design in London showed a collection of rare prints, popular art and outright propaganda pieces, many being displayed for the first time in a century. Some of these prints by Russian artists, both unknown and famous, are rather amusing and delightfully folksy, such as Aristech Lentulov’s The Austrians Surrendered Lvov to the Russians like Rabbits Defeated by Lions, 1914 (left) and others are outright fantasy propaganda, such as The Russian War Against the Germans (right), while others were visionary, such as The Great European War, A Battle in the Air, 1914 (below).
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Emerging unexpectedly in the midst of his Suprematist period, the series of prints executed by Kasimir Malevich supporting the War were totally uncharacteristic of the artist’s avant-garde oeuvre. The lithographs seem to be made for children for they are comic and not serious considerations of war and its consequences. But there are reasons for this unusual collection of prints from an artist who was working abstractly by 1914. In writing of the impact of the War upon Russia and its artists, Aaron J. Cohen noted that the Russian Empire did not have a tradition of heroic military painting and that Russian audiences for academic art seem to have preferred genre scenes to visions of martial glory. In addition, he noted that the defeat of Russia by Japan, which to us now seems to be a portent of things to come, went almost unnoticed or at least unreported in the Empire. The conclusion one can reach is that Russian artists rarely dealt with the topic of war and had not considered a modern war at all. Art was not necessarily supposed to react to war or to military affairs and, in contrast to England and France, the two spheres were kept apart. This history of detachment from war might explain the divided response of Malevich, who, on one hand, did a series of lithographs, which functioned within popular culture with simple slogans or descriptions aimed at a public with limited literacy, while on the other hand, participating in avant-garde exhibitions.

Kazimir Malevich, Our French Allies

Kasimir Malevich. Our French Allies Have Filled a Cart with Captured Germans, And our British Brothers have a Barrel full (1914)

In his book, Imagining the Unimaginable. World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917, Cohen wrote, “The main forum for Russia’s visual culture of war was not the art world but the mass media,especially the popular prints (lubki), posters, pamphlets, and illustrated journals that flooded the book market with wartime images during each conflict. War and art are seen to be mutually exclusive activities..War art did not exist within the official sphere.” It seems clear that Malevich was active in the area which had been traditionally available for artists and altered his art to fit the audience’s expectations, producing a group of semi-amusing lubki.

Kazimir Malevich, Look Look, Near the Vistula, The German Bellies are Swelling Up, 1914, lithograph. Courtesy of GRAD

Kasimir Malevich. Look Look, Near the Vistula, The German Bellies are Swelling Up (1914)

The work Natalia Goncharov (1881–1962) executed for the War followed the same pattern of doing prints in a folk style for a general non-art audience. Her series of lithographs, issued in the Fall of 1914, presented a powerful narrative of Good, as led by mystical and spiritual forces, against Evil, no doubt the Germans. This message that God was on the side of the Russian Empire was not merely a patriotic reassurance. By the fall, two major battles had been lost and the armies had been soundly defeated and decimated, so the news that heavenly help might be on the way, would have been welcomed. The saints and angels descend to earth and mix in with the humans, blessing them, protecting them, comforting them. Shortly before the War started Goncharova had produced a series of Neo-Primitivist paintings, based on Russian folk icons and was criticized by conservatives for a sacrilegious appropriation. But the reception for these prints, with her “style” being removed from the precincts of the avant-garde, was more positive.

MSE-REE 0004 Ginzberg

Natalia Goncharova. The Christian Host, no. 9 from the series Mystical Images of War [Voina: misticheskie obrazy voiny] (1914)

The war series is a follow up, if you will, of the exhibition that had in fact established her reputation in Moscow, a huge showing of nearly eight hundred works. This event, Vystavka kartin Natalii Sergeevni Goncharovoi, 1900-1913, took place at the Khudozhest vennii Salon in the fall of 1913. This Moscow show was followed by a highly successful joint exhibition, organized by her artistic partner and lover, Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) for the Galerie Paul Guillaume. In 1914, therefore, Goncharova was the most famous Russian avant-garde artist, a leader in the international art world, with a major German exhibition to be mounted by Herwarth Walden at Der Sturm in the offing. However the War intervened. According to Natalia Budanova’s article, “Russian Avant-Garde Women, Futurism and the First World War,” Walden protected the large body of work, already in Berlin, for the artist and returned it to her at the war’s end. Larinov and Goncharova were forced to return to Russia, taking circuitous route. Larionov, an excellent promoter for Goncharov’s career, was drafted and badly wounded during the first year of the War. The round faced narrow eyed artist, who had invented “Rayonism,” could never as active as he had been before the War, and the couple returned to Paris. Intending to capitalize on her 1914 success with the Coq D’Or ballet, Goncharova continued her work with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. When the couple left Russia in 1915, their exit was a rare exception, granted perhaps due to the prestige of the artist or the military service of her badly wounded companion, or the importance of the Ballet Russe. The couple was to never return to Russia. Budanova put their departure from Russia into perspective:

Larionov and Goncharova left the country at the very moment when the Russian avant-garde was gathering momentum. The mass repatriation of many Russian artists triggered by the war, however traumatic and disadvantageous on a personal level, produced a positive side-effect on the evolution of Russian modern art. In fact, it ‘marked the heyday for the Russian avant-garde,’ because such a high concentration of vigorous, creative and ambitious personalities, counting practically as many women as men, was destined to invigorate artistic life in Russian capital cities and reinforce the avant-garde Russian cultures.

One could ask “what if?” the famous art couple had remained in Moscow and mingled with Malevich and the returning expatriates, such as Luibov Popova, had been present at the creation of a revolutionary art, and had taken advantage of their fame. Although the pair lived the last thirty years of their lives in Paris in obscurity and poverty, the fate of those who stayed in Russia was equally tragic, for this was a starred and cursed generation of artists. Those who remained in Russia were impacted by the War and it can be argued that the jolt of being part of a “great,” as in expansive war, woke up that particular generation to wider social responsibilities. In Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe Before World War II, Tibor Iván Berend quoted László Moholy-Nagy of Hungary,At the time of the War, I developed a feeling of social responsibility, and today I feel it to an even greater extent. My conscience spoke to me: is it fitting to be a painter in an era of social change? In the past century, art and reality were a painter I can serve the meaning of life..”

Moholy-Nagy’s awakening to social responsibility would direct the rest of his life, and this artist would immigrate to Germany to work at the Bauhaus. But what of the Russian artists during the Great War? Certainly they must have reacted to the War as Moholy-Nagy did and were poised to enter into an art of the social if not immediately an art of the political. The artists made a distinction between supporting the Russia people and the Russian Czar, whom they viewed as an anachronism. The War, then, could be viewed as a prelude to readiness for the Revolution and the art they would gladly make on its behalf. The majority of histories of the Russian Avant-Garde divide the production of these artists in half, splitting their work between Pre-War and Post-War work, eliding the narrow slice that directly addressed the Great War. As was pointed out, there was almost no history of Russian artists gesturing towards any war and the normal behavior on the part of the art world was to simply carry on and make art as though nothing else was happening. For the purpose of this series, a distinction will be made, however, separating the avant-garde from the art made in Russia that directly addressed the War. This narrow task is difficult because the Russian government has suppressed this slice of time and then, in turn, hid the labors of the avant-garde artists from the 1930s on. That said, the next post will continue to discuss art in Russia during the Great War, between 1914 and 1917.

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Podcast 51: George Grosz—“The World’s Saddest Man”



Nothing is more sad than a perpetually disillusioned person. George Grosz spent his art career as a social critic; an artist who dissected his own tragic era with a knife-edged line. This podcast investigates that brief moment in time in Germany when art told the truth in an instant of “New Objectivity.”


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are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

De Stijl

DE STIJL 1917-1931

Between 1914 and 1918 it became clear to any thinking person that an old world had died in an agonizing spasm and that a new world was desperately needed to take the place of a graveyard of discredited ideals. De Stijl or “The Style” was founded in Holland during the Great War, and the desire for harmony and balance expressed by the artists in this group certainly reflected their abhorrence of the chaos and conflict raging around them. De Stilj emerged at the same time as Dada and the Russian Avant-Garde movement—all dedicated to the rebuilding of a Brave New World out of the ruins of the old. Whether it was the nihilism of Dada or the missionary spirit of the Russians or the Utopian dreams of De Stijl, these groups were forged from the urgency of the time. Although the roots of the style of De Stijl can be traced back to Cubism from which it is derived, the dates of the movement itself are linked to the magazine, De Stijl. De Stijl the group and the journal, was founded in Leiden in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg, the organizer of the diverse group of artists and architects. Carrying on throughout philosophical disagreements and defections over doctrine, van Doesburg personified the group, carrying its ideas throughout Europe until he died in 1931. The journal ceased publication in 1932 with a commemorative issue edited by his wife. By then, the original artists had long since gone their separate ways.

It is useful to distinguish between the origins of De Stijl as a style, based on an abstraction of Cubism, and the impetus of the movement, which was founded in the consciousness of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. De Stijl evolved, as did many of the avant-garde movements during the early decades of the twentieth century, out of a realization that a new kind of society was coming into being and that this modern culture must be expressed by an entirely new art form. As van Doesburg stated in his Manifesto in 1918,

“1. There is an old and a new consciousness of time. The old is connected with the individual. The new is connected with the universal. The struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world of was as well as in the art of the present day. 2. The war is destroying the old world and its contents: individual domination in every state. 3. The new art has brought forward what the new consciousness of time contains: a balance between the universal and the individual. 4. The new consciousness is prepared to realize the internal life as well as the external life. 5. Traditions, dogmas, and the domination of the individual are opposed to this realization. 6. The founders of the new plastic art, therefore, call upon all who believe in the reformation of art and culture to eradicate these obstacles to development, as in the new plastic art (by excluding natural form) they have eradicated that which blocks pure artistic expression, the ultimate consequence of all concepts of art. “

The Manifesto needs to be read as a refutation of Expressionism and its emphasis on the individual, upon emotions, and upon spontaneity. The rejection of pre-War Expressionism was common after the Great War. Romantic notions of glory in war and of individual heroic actions led to the first mechanized war and the post-war world sought refuge in the universal laws. Van Doesburg concluded,

“7. The artists of today have been driven the whole world over by the same consciousness, and therefore have taken part from an intellectual point of view in this war against domination of individual despotism. They therefore sympathize with all who work to establish international unity in life, art, culture, either intellectually or materially.”

This first manifesto was signed by the principle artists associated with the group at that time, including Robert van‘t Hoff and Jan Wills, architects, George Vantongerloo, sculptor, and Vilmos Huzar, Hungarian refugee, and Piet Mondrian, both painters. Notably absent was Bart Van Der Leek, a close associate to Mondrian, attesting to the conflicting ideas among this loose group of artists, scattered among Dutch cities. Van Der Leek and Mondrian were from Laren, a rural town and a popular artists’ colony, while van Doesburg and the others, including J. J. P. Oud, were from the Leiden-Hague area. Eventually, Van’t Hoff and Oud, left the group, attesting to the difficulty of trying to get individual artists with clashing perspectives to work within an artists’ collective. Van Der Leek disagreed strongly with van Doesburg, who liked to blur the distinction between painting and architecture, and broke contact with the rest of the artists by 1920. Although he and Mondrian both contributed to the journal, they did not want to be associated with De Stijl, except as contributors. Mondrian, himself, left Laren for Paris after the War ended in 1919, and his contacts with van Doesburg were limited until he formally dissociated himself with the group in 1925. Despite the strong differences and divergences among the artists, certain key concepts emerged from De Stijl.

First, the group wanted to join art and life, to make art reflect modern life. There was a “new sense of beauty” that coincided with the new age. “The Brown world had to be replaced by a White one.” “The Brown” referred to the Baroque era of seventeenth century Holland, the Holland of Rembrandt, and, most importantly, to the reliance of previous art upon nature. “The White” was a world derived, not from nature, but from the elementary construction of Cézanne and Cubism, which would replace the vagueness of the Baroque with the logic and rigor of geometry. Second, the idea of “the style” is an absolute concept, meaning that De Stijl is the best and most appropriate to modern culture. Art can never return to representation. Art must eliminate the “profanity” of the illusion in its search for the absolute truth. The “absolute” is the cornerstone of De Stijl, for the absolute can be expressed only through abstraction. Therefore, De Stijl art is always abstract. This third idea united the artists who rejected the curves of Art nouveau and its sensual connections to reality. They also eliminated mixed colors in favor of the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. Straight lines and right angles ruled and eliminated all traces of the artist’s personality. “I abhor all which is temperamental, inspiration, sacred fire and all the attributes of genius that conceal the untidiness of the mind,” van Doesburg said. And finally, De Stijl sought the precision and exactness of the machine and its clean and efficient forms.

Because De Stilj was exclusively a Dutch movement, there has been speculation that the art and architecture is uniquely Dutch. However, any resemblance between the flat, human-produced landscapes of Holland and the flat paintings of the artists is purely coincidental. A better connection would be to the philosophical tendency towards abstraction through mathematics that is part of the Dutch tradition. Mathematics is a way of expressing the realities of the world in numerical terms. Numbers immediately abstract and universalize the particular and subject the local to the universal logic of abstract though. Equally Dutch was the tendency to eliminate the incidental in favor of abstraction, as exhibited in the iconoclasm of the Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One can better understand De Stijl from viewing a painting of the bare and stripped interior of a Protestant church by Emmanuel De Witte. De Stijl removed iconoclasm from its religious origins, eliminated nature, and substituted a more universal and absolute quest for a utopian harmony. “The art of painting,” van Doesburg said, “can be explained only by the art of painting.”

Cubism suggested to the De Stijl painters that it was possible to move into abstraction. Bart van der Leek stated, “Modern painting transmutes physicality into flatness by reducing the natural to the terms and proportions of the flat plane; and through the understanding of space, painting achieves relationships.” The Dutch artists seemed to understand that Cubism, particularly that of Braque and Picasso, suggested that line and color and form could be used as signifiers instead of as describers. If that was the case, then Cubism had created a new visual language that substituted ideas or concepts for resemblances. The Cubist artists themselves were unwilling to take the final step into total abstraction and to relinquish their hold on reality, but the De Stijl artists were concerned with concepts that were abstract compared to the more mundane sources of Cubism. In addition, Cubism was a pre-War movement and De Stilj was a post-War movement with the goal of rethinking the world. But the impact of Cubism upon De Stijl would be a strong one, particularly the author of the 1920 series of articles on “Neo-Plasticsm,” Piet Mondrian, who used cubist ideas as a vehicle through which he made concepts concrete through painting.

Van Doesburg brought the Section d’Or exhibition in the Salon des Indépendants to Holland in 1920: the Section d’Or-Paris: Works by Cubists and Neo-Cubists. The “neo-Cubists” were the Dutch painters who were compared to the French Cubists by van Doesburg as those who realized the abstractions of the Cubists. It is apparent two years later in the anthology issue of De Stijl published in the journal in 1922 that Mondrian emerged as the leading painter in the movement…in the eyes of van Doesburg. He gave the artist credit for inspiring new artists “with the possibility of a new creative image” through his series of essays on Neoplasticism in De Stijl. However the year to come would lead to a rupture between the two artists over van Doesburg’s “Elementalism,” a form of painting which would allow the dynamism of the diagonal, borrowed from the Russian Avant-Garde painting of Malevich. Mondrian, whose belief system was wrapped up in the idea of balancing opposites into a harmony of equilibrium, broke from the leader on the issue of the dynamic line in 1925.

From 1922 on, van Doesburg understood architecture as the primary means of expressing the Neoplasticism or new forms of De Stijl. His third Manifesto was devoted entirely to architecture. By this time, he was without his primary painters and even his architects are breaking away to attain their own goals. The leader becomes a traveler and promoted his movement, which became more and more of a dream than an actuality, throughout Europe. Increasingly, his travels brought him under the influences of other movements, which fit uneasily with the De Stijl precepts. Dada was of great interest to Rosenberg and is linked to De Stijl in its insistence that art and life should be merged. Equally compelling was the Russian Avant-garde artists who shared to dreams of a new world and a new utopia. However, both movements, like the educational ideas of the Bauhaus, were firmly rooted in real world situations. De Stijl always sought universality and absoluteness. The aim of the movement was to make the abstract concrete and, through this materialization, it would change the world.

Under the influence of new acquaintances, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius from Germany, van Doesburg began to think of architecture as the overarching and all-inclusive. The Bauhaus was founded on the principle of the medieval cathedral where all the arts were combined under the auspices of architecture. During the 1920s, De Stijl, outside of the Parisian studio of Piet Mondrian, was exemplified as architecture. In the exhibition of De Stijl art in Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie l’Effort Moderne, the movement was introduced primarily through a series of architectural models, based upon the De Stijl designs for Rosenberg’s proposed home. Unfortunately, only two examples of De Stijl architecture remain today, one of them being the famous Schröder House of 1924, built in Utrecht by Gerritt Rietveld, a cabinetmaker turned architect, who transformed a Mondrian painting into a building.

From the beginnings of De Stijl there had been a clash between painters and architects. While both agreed that it was important for both art forms to move forward and to manifest the modernity of the actual world and above all to merge art and life, the collaborations between the artists were difficult. Who should control the space? What should determine the space, the structure of the architect or the paintings of the artist within the structure? The painter did not want his/her paintings to be subordinated to the will of the architect any more did the architect want to allow the painter to undermine his/her vision. Mondrian approved of the idea of his theories of Neoplasticism being manifested in architecture and used his studio as a site where he manipulated space through the dispersal and arrangement of cardboard planes of primary colors. For a brief moment there appeared to be the possibility of the merger of painting and architecture dreamed of by van Doesburg in the Schröder House, where Rietveld dematerialized the exterior walls of the home by painting the Mondrian white against which the red balcony railings drew sharp lines in the air. In the end, De Stijl dissolved on its own and died with Theo van Doesburg in 1931. None too soon, the age of utopia was about to come to an end.

The next posts will focus on Piet Mondrian and on De Stijl Architecture.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast 38 Painting 4: Cubism to Dada

When Art Became Code

If Expressionism was a temperamental predilection, then Cubism became the basis for a new artistic language that would dominate the rest of the century. But during the Great War, a younger generation of artists rebelled against the artistic tradition of the avant-garde. Dada artists positioned themselves as “anti-art,” but, like the Cubist artists, Picasso and Braque, they attempted to re-define art and its mode of communication and production.


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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]