Propaganda and Art After the Russian Revolution, Part One

The Russian Avant-Garde and Agit-Prop Posters

Out of “Art” and into the Revolution

In 1917, the Russian Empire, assaulted from within and without, finally crumbled under its own anachronistic weight, bending under the burden of the unheard demands of a people under the fashionable heel of an aristocratic boot. The Russian Revolution was a long process, unfolding during a years-long Civil War between the Reds and the Whites, ending with the Bolsheviks in charge and the Czar and his family gunned down in a basement and buried in a secret grave in Siberia. What the Communist regime, headed by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), inherited was a vast sprawling nation, nearly completely landlocked, weakened by a negligent monarchy, torn apart by the Great War and a revolutionary struggle. Having laid waste to centuries of autocratic rule, the people, led by a band of exiled intellectuals, who had come home to lead them, inherited their Slavic patch of the earth and gazed across the razed plain that had to be reconstructed from destruction. By 1918, artists and peasants alike had the opportunity—rare in history—to build a brave new world, one in which there would be economic and social equality. But there was a catch: the population of Russia was uneducated and illiterate. The proletarian masses and the huddled peasants knew they were downtrodden but, even after the new government came into power, outside of Moscow and Leningrad, there were millions, who had no idea that the Czar had been assassinated. Starting with that basic fact—the sheer ignorance of a blighted citizenry—and proceed with the hope and the resolve to help the people of Russia to rise from their knees and actualize themselves under the banner of communism then the question turned back upon Lenin’s seminal manifesto of Bolshevik philosophy: “What is to be Done?” The answer to the post-war challenge was contained within the 1902 document—the newly released Russians, the Soviets, would be re-educated. The Bolsheviks considered propaganda to be political education work, which involved agit-prop that would teach the people socialism. In his section on “Can A Newspaper Be A Collective Organiser?” in his long essay, Lenin wrote that

..the masses will never learn to conduct the political struggle until we help to train leaders for this struggle, both from among the enlightened workers and from among the intellectuals. Such leaders can acquire training solely by systematically evaluating all the everyday aspects of our political life, all attempts at protest and struggle on the part of the various classes and on various grounds. Therefore, to talk of “rearing political organisations” and at the same time to contrast the “paper work” of a political newspaper to “live political work in the localities” is plainly ridiculous.

Propaganda or the education of an entire population was both visual and verbal, and visual culture was the realm of the artists, who marshaled their considerable talents and skills and gave themselves over the government. Art was dead. The artist was dead. In the place of such bourgeoisie concepts, the engineer emerged full of projects and pictures and objects, all aimed towards propaganda. By the end of the Great War, an otherwise neutral word, “propaganda,” meaning persuasion or a spreading of a certain message, had morphed from a doctrinaire teaching of a received truth, such as that from a religious organization, or, on a lower level, the semiotics of selling a product, to a campaign to teach the audience to hate. During the War, vast and sophisticated machineries, based in the governments of the contending powers, cranked out posters, articles in newspapers, books, primitive films, even postcards, shaped stories and crafted messages with one goal in mind: to stir up the feelings and emotions of the people to hate the other side. In England, a nation without a universal draft, the messages were ones of shaming fit young men into serving in the military. In France, the content was simple, the Germans were barbarians. In Germany, the story was that the British Empire surrounded the world like a giant octopus. However, when the exiled leaders of the Russian Revolution returned to their homeland, joining those who had stayed behind to fight directly against the Czar, a sophisticated machinery had been honed through years. Aided by intellectuals and abetted by artists, all of whom came from the small middle class, the fight for the hearts and minds of the lower classes began.

The earliest posters were plastered onto the windows of the Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, located in cities from Moscow to Petrograd to Odessa and points beyond. ROSTA had its own Moscow-based art department until 1921 and its posters were the joint products of an artist, Mikhail Cheremnykh, and a journalist Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), who directed a project that eventually employed local teams beyond Moscow. Given that this endeavor existed for only two years and yet over two million posters were distributed. Although the founders of the program were sophisticated, the audience was working class and largely illiterate. To reach this audience, which needed to be informed of the latest news, the ROSTA artists appropriated the look of a lubok or traditional Russian folk art print was deployed. Avant-garde artists, such as Ivan Maliutin, were recruited to communicate with a public that had a horizon of expectations limited by a low level of literacy and a visual acuity trained by Russian icons. The Russian people could read images fluently and the simple narrative style of the ROSTA posters—rather like cartoon drawings—could be easily followed. The Bolsheviks needed to convince the people of the righteousness of their philosophy, one of empowering the working class, de-legitimating the ruling class, and establishing a centrally controlled economy valorizing the laborers. ROSTA text was kept to a minimum and the weight of the message rested upon simple but graphically effective images.

Vladimir Mayakovsky. Sowing Campaign: Let’s fulfill the decree!
“Everyone fulfilled the Soviet plan” (February 1921)

In an interesting article, written on the occasion of a 2014 exhibition at the Gallery Thomas Flor in Berlin, Alexander Roob, explained,

In February 1919, the painter and caricaturist Mikhail Cheremnykh in collaboration the journalist Nikolai Ivanov started an artistic campaign in the shop window of an empty confectionery with a visually designed news agency report. The campaign was to last three years, from the devastating period of the civil war to the introduction of a rudimentary market economy. The initiative was taken up a few weeks later by the popular revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had recently caused a stir with the publication of an anthology of his futuristic poems and the performance of an elaborate satire spectacle, the “Mystery Bouffe”. When passing by one of Cheremnykh’s ROSTA windows, it seemed he immediately grasped the potential of the initiative. If one can believe his own accounts and those of his hagiographer, Mayakovsky soon functioned alongside Cheremnykh as the spiritus rector of a constantly growing illustrated news collective.

These posters told stories, sent messages, taught lessons with images that would have been at home in a child’s picture book. The colors were bright and arbitrary, applied by assistants who would work from a basic linoleum block, allowing the strong colors to run outside the lines. The result was an image that was friendly and persuasive, sophisticated and amateurish at the same time, with the folkish charm selling strong political messages. In 1921, ROSTA was abruptly shut down by the new government, and its windows were closed so to speak, and the large brilliant posters disappeared. But the way in which the agency was run would be typical of propaganda efforts: workers would be radicalized or co-opted to the cause and there could be no deviation from the party line. The concise and consistent message would dominate and it was the task of the artist to become an engineer in the service of the permanent revolution.

Agit Prop Train

Following the civil war and the consolidation of power, the Communists then set out to transform and unify the vast Russian territories to knit them under the Soviet rule and way of life. The railroads, the one accomplishment of the Czarist regime became avenues of education as the new government reached out to the masses. Long agitprop trains, painted on the exterior with colorful designs that captured the eye and informed the mind traveled everywhere, pausing at towns and small cities. The populations would gather around to receive information, written, verbal and visual, on topics from best practices in health and the values of Communism. The workers, the peasants and the downtrodden learned that they were now heroes, enlisted in the great revolution of the Russian people, now powerful and in charge of their own lives. The visuals of these agitprop trains were closer to ROSTA posters than to the avant-garde posters of the cities, where the audience was more sophisticated. In the 1920s, there was still no set aesthetic for the Revolution and the avant-garde artists moved into the vacuum and gave their lives to Communism. But the story of the Russian avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia is nothing short of tragic. The artists, mostly from Moscow and Petrograd, had been politically left-leaning before the Revolution and most enthusiastically joined the new government with high hopes and good intentions. They willingly gave up the pretensions of “avant-garde” and happily become workers, engineers, and cultural producers, reinventing themselves in the cause of the workers and in the name of the Bolshevik creeds. For a few short years, these artists flourished and were appreciated, supported by the young government, but a revolution never stops, it is only paused from time to time. By the time it reached its natural end—the evolution of a strong totalitarian leader—Stalin—avant-garde art and artists were purged and silenced. Russian avant-garde graphic design and its fate were a case study of the trajectory from aspiration to suppression.

Mikhail Dlugach, Electric Chair (1928)

Containing the stylistic seeds of their own destruction, the avant-garde posters designed by the Russian avant-garde artists were everything the ROSTA posters were not. Rooted in Suprematism and Cubism and Futurism, rather than in folk art, borrowing the tactics of photomontage rather than simple block printing, these posters were complex, not simple, and often constructed on the strong diagonal, giving the images a feeling of dynamism and a sense of change and progress, they were more artistic than communicative, with an alienating aesthetic that put off the masses at which they were aimed. The artists did not help their cause by debating among themselves about which avant-garde style would be appropriate for the masses. Given that Futurism, for example, was Italian rather than home grown, the use of pre-war styles seems out of step with the main goal of the artists, which was to create a new visual universe, full of new objects, in which a new language would appear and communicate the meaning of the brave new world. The new language would be that of the proletariat. But despite the obvious complications, the artists proceeded along their own path to what historians John E. Bowlt and Olga Matich described as “the leftist artists and writers snarled relationship to power and language as the media of political control.” Indeed, as the writers continued, “the avant-garde artist can be seen as the politician’s rival who usually loses the battle to the more powerful opponent.” It is possible to make the argument that the Russian avant-garde ended for all intents and purposes with the end of the Great War, and, after that, the artists carried their memories and their styles from non-revolutionary bourgeois contexts forward with them into a revolution for which this language was profoundly unsuited. Yet out of this ultimately unsuccessful relationship came some of the most striking designs of the twentieth century.

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The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part Three

Creating a Language for the Revolution

The ROSTA Windows

In 1917, Russia was a nation no longer a nation, but an empire unraveling, torn between a weak provisional government and rear guard resistance of the so-called “White Russians.” The Russian Empire collapsed under the unbearable weight of an un winnable war, resulting in a wholesale refusal to carry on under the weak and ineffectual Czar. This was the February Revolution, which, according to the new calendar happened in March, and it was a simple and spontaneous strike, a rejection of not just an unwanted war but also a failed ruler. Despite the will of the people who wanted to extricate themselves from the Great War, the Provisional government continued to participate, leaving the door open to continuing discontent and further rebellion. Even though the Czar abdicated, no doubt hoping for a peaceful retirement, another coup took place in October Revolution (November). The arrival of the “Reds,” or the Communists, under Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) pushed the temporary regime aside and established a new kind of revolution, the first Marxist government, led by the Bolshevik Party. Once Lenin had negotiated a withdrawal from the War–at great cost to Russia–making peace with Germany, a five year struggle for the soul of the new nation began with the Whites. This fight was waged militarily and politically, but Lenin, recognizing the power of the visual image, called upon artists to join the conflict as part of the propaganda effort to educate the Russian people on the merits of Communism.

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Comrade Lenin is Sweeping Scum off the Earth

At the time of the Revolution, “Russia” consisted of a few cities, located mostly in its western half. it was here in the municipalities and the urban centers, that culture, both high and low, was produced, mostly for a literate population. However, the new Soviet Union was a huge and vast expanse of land and forty five percent of its inhabitants were illiterate. The stupefying fact that half the people could neither read nor write was an outgrowth of an elitist system in which the upper classes spoke French and the vernacular Russian speakers, the middle classes, strove to produce a specifically “Russian” culture with Russian roots and history. Adding to that division between classes was the total neglect of the lower classes who were left to fend for themselves and remain uneducated. Under the autocratic and ruthless rule of the Czar, the illiteracy hardly mattered, but when the Bolsheviks came into power, they had to fight a civil war to consolidate that power. Part of the war, beyond actual fighting, involved convincing people–all the people–of the benefits of a revolution that promised the level the class system, eliminate all traces of elitism and former loci of collusion, including religion, and to redistribute the wealth and property of the aristocracy. It would be less a matter of convincing the people that this revolution would be preferable to the Czar and more a commitment to informing the people as to the progress of the Reds in their battle against the Whites.

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ROSTA poster

The solution was straightforward propaganda, an information campaign that would announce the new government and explain its new benefits for all. Lenin expressed the scope and urgency of the task, published in the Bulletin of the All-Russia Conference of Political Education Workers in 1920:

The transition from bourgeois society to the policy of the proletariat is a very difficult one, all the more so for the bourgeoisie incessantly slandering us through its entire apparatus of propaganda and agitation. It bends every effort to play down an even more important mission of the dictatorship of the proletariat, its educational mission, which is particularly important in Russia, where the proletariat constitutes a minority of the population. Yet in Russia this mission must be given priority, for we must prepare the masses to build up socialism. The dictatorship of the proletariat would have been out of the question if, in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, the proletariat had not developed a keen class-consciousness, strict discipline and profound devotion, in other words, all the qualities required to assure the proletariat’s complete victory over its old enemy.

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ROSTA poster

During the Great War, mostly due to German misinformation, the word “propaganda,” once a neutral and positive word, gained a negative connotation by the 1920s, but never in Russia. The Soviets used propaganda during the entire life of the Union as a vital tool to control public opinion. As soon as Lenin became the leader a broad strategy emerged called “agitatsiya-propaganda,” or political agitation and propaganda, or “agit-prop.” Agit-prop was dedicated to raising the consciousness of the people, in the Marxist sense, to inform the people of their exploitation at the hands of their masters so that their eyes would be open to the truth of their oppressed condition. In his book, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, José Alaniz noted that the earliest example of Civil War art was a series twelve posters showing the workers’ consciousnesses being “raised” when the peasant is freed from his blindfold and “sees the truth.” Alaniz described one poster, Once Upon a Time There Lived the Bourgeoisie, as resembling a comic strip with eight panels, a format that would become familiar to the public as a progression from one cell to the next. Once the readers understood that the Bolsheviks were their benefactors, the powers that had set the peasants free, the lower classes could be joined in solidarity against the enemy, whether the Whites or an outside threat. To achieve the proper level of communication and education and consciousness raising, agit-prop was deployed as theater, as trains, as posters, as art forms of all kinds form verbal to visual. The agit-prop efforts were especially intense during the war between the Whites and the Reds, from 1917 to 1922, when the activities were less controlled by the government and more in the hands of the artists themselves. After the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, the agit-prop activities were formalized and brought under the command of the victorious regime.

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ROSTA poster

From the very beginning of the propaganda campaigns, the question of the language of art came up in the form of a dialogue of sorts between artists and officials. Most avant-garde artists were enthusiastic supporters of the Marxist cause and worked hard to ensure the success of the new government, but their efforts did not always please the new masters. Artists and politicians are very different kinds of individuals with entirely distinct educational and cultural experiences. Artists such as Marc Chagall in Vitebsk celebrated the October revolution with his own fantastical version of traditional Russian luboks and Jewish imagery, but the authorities were not pleased with the green cows and blue donkeys, improbably flying through the air. The problem for the artists would be two fold: first, as in the case of Chagall, his or her imagination and singular perspective could interfere with what the government needed: a clear message to the people. Second, as in the case of Malevich, art that was too intellectually “advanced” or “avant-garde” was equally incapable of being recognized by the illiterate public as “art,” much less as communication. The artists were deeply sincere, willing to lay down their art in the service of the revolution, but they were also equally committed to their art and the logical outcomes of avant-garde art. This aesthetic outcome, as demonstrated by Malevich’s abstract Suprematism and Tatlin’s spectacular but unbuildable “monuments,” was not very useful to the government and its needs. As Raphael Sassower and Louis Cicotello pointed out in their 2006 book, Political Blind Spots: Reading the Ideology of Images,

..the avant-garde style of geometric abstraction typical to the experimental art of the pre-Revolutionary aesthetics..began to arouse objection from supporters of traditional representation imagery in both the artistic and government circles. Art historians associated with the government publication of posters for the military argued for realistic rather than abstract work. Workers, soldiers, and peasants drawn in squares, circles, and triangles were senseless images that couldn’t express the integrity of the revolution..Public decorations in the avant-garde manner, often referred to by Pravda reviewers as “the fashionable futurist style,” met with opposition as being incomprehensible and condemned as a mockery of the taste of the working class.

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ROSTA poster

The most successful art form dedicated to the Revolution was the production of ROSTA posters, an outpouring of artistic enterprise that cranked out thousands of lithographs. Only a few of these posters survive today but they are the best examples of art made on the fly, responding to the urgent need of the Revolution to communicate with the people. The English writer Arthur Ransome had traveled through Czarist Russia in 1913, acquainting himself with the culture, learning the language and collecting Russian folk tales. The publication of Old Peter’s Russian Tales, (1916) took place during the War and, in fact, Ransome spent the four years in Moscow, reporting on the war. After the Great War, Ransome’s long stay in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, and Moscow was considered valuable to his newspaper, the Daily News, and he began reporting on the Revolution. His book Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 ccontained an account of his encounter with agit prop. Ransome noticed that posters were everywhere:

When I crossed the Russian front in October, 1919, the first thing I noticed in peasants’ cottages, in the villages, in the little town where I took the railway to Moscow, in every railway station along the line, was the elaborate pictorial propaganda concerned with the war. There were posters showing Denizen standing straddle over Russia’s coal, while the factory chimneys were smokeless and the engines idle in the yards, with the simplest wording to show why it was necessary to beat Denizen in order to get coal; there were posters illustrating the treatment of the peasants by the Whites; posters against desertion, posters illustrating the Russian struggle against the rest of the world, showing a workman, a peasant, a sailor and a soldier fighting in self-defence against an enormous Capitalistic Hydra. There were also-and this I took as a sign of what might be-posters encouraging the sowing of corn, and posters explaining in simple pictures improved methods of agriculture. Our own recruiting propaganda during the war, good as that was, was never developed to such a point of excellence, and knowing the general slowness with which the Russian centre reacts on its periphery, I was amazed not only at the actual posters, but at their efficient distribution thus far from Moscow.

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ROSTA poster

ROSTA stands for Russian Telegraph Agency (Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA) which was an organization that transmitted messages and the news across the nation. These agencies had windows which would be plastered with posters, changing hour by hour, “broadcasting,” as it were, accounts of the most recent events and the need to get medical vaccines and bulletins about the Civil War. The idea of the ROSTA windows being the ground for posters has been attributed to Mikhail Mikhailovich Cheremnykh (1890-1962), who created the first poster filled window. The images needed text and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), a revered poet, supplied the slogans and phrases needed to inform the public in a succinct and direct form. As Mayakovsky said, “A machine like speed was demanded of us; it would often happen that a report of some victory at the front would come in by telegraph–and 40 minutes to an hour later, the news would be hanging out in the street, in the form of a colorful poster.”

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

The posters were a collaborate production and most of the artists, such as N. Treschenko, O. Savostyuk and B. Uspensky, labored unknown or unsung, working under difficult conditions, using stencils and linotype to facilitate the speed of output to capture up to date news. These posters were widely distributed, flowing far beyond Moscow to the provinces, where there would be plastered in the windows of the local Telegraph Agency. The massive numbers and expansive distribution of these perishable art forms should be contrasted with the work of artists in Moscow, where photomontages by Alexandre Rodchenko and posters by El Lissitzky tended to remain in more or less elitist circles. The ROSTA posters were kin to the propaganda deployed during the Great War and cousins to the peasant art form , the lubok, but it is important to note that these posters were far less complex and were far more eloquent in their new stripped down easily readable language. According to Alexander Roob, writing in 2914 for the Melton Prior Institute,

The project was support with great effort by Platon Kerzhentsev, the new director of ROSTA. Kerzhentsev was one of the driving forces of the avant-garde Proletkult organization, whose aim was to establish an autonomous working-class culture leaving all traditional, bourgeois genres behind. The revolutionizing of expression, which Proletkult had hitherto sought mainly in the field of literature and theatre, could now be applied under the aegis of Mayakovsky to the area of graphic picture publishing as well. Mayakovsky selected the ROSTA news items and prepared them along with other poets and journalists for pictorial realisation.

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ROSTA posters

Robb noted that “the pictorial sign system” that was developed to reach the “mostly illiterate population” had to be “consistent.” He stated that “The grammar of pictograms established by the ROSTA collective over time is a novelty in the history of illustration. it had a decisive impact on the development of infographics.” Surprisingly, the ROSTA windows (Okna ROSTA) were filled with posters that were designed by artists educated in the most elite and avant-garde of circles and they combined the lubok with Futurism and Cubism with touches of Suprematism that laced these twentieth century comic strips with Western style. The accomplishment of these artists is that the texts engaged the reader in a dialogue that ran parallel to the attention grabbing bright colors and strong shapes. In fact the images in the posters were considered ideograms or hieroglyphs, picture writing accompanied with reinforcing texts that gave instructions on how to survive in terrible times. The posters told entertaining and sometimes horrible stories containing information with entertainment and were among the best examples of art being put into “production,’ in other words, art taken out of the artist studio, out of the galleries and out of the museums and placed in the middle of life itself, an ongoing historical situation that was changing by the hour.

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Exhibition of ROSTA posters

Mayakovsky stated, “Art must not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere–on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops and in workers’ homes.” Instead of heavy handed critique, satire from artists Victor Deni, was used to discredit the Whites and those who disagreed with Communism. The major achievement of the ROSTA posters was that of creating an efficient sign language, uniquely suited to the pouchier style of drawing and print production. Rushed from town to village by rail, the poster artists devised but a visual and verbal language which was able to communicate effectively with peasants without patronizing them. The tradition of the ROSTA posters came to an end with the Civil War and, under Stalin, this very bold and efficient mode of communication fell by the wayside to make way for a more traditionally illustrative tradition coupled with simple slogans. But in their day, the importance of the ROSTA posters and the vital role they played during the war is reflected in the warning: Anyone who tears down or covers up this poster – is committing a counter-revolutionary act

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Dmity Moor. Have You Enlisted In the Army?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Marc Chagall and the Russian Revolution

Marc Chagall and the Revolution

Vitebsk as an Art Center, Part Two

A quiet and gentle man who loved his wife and cared for his family, especially his newly arrived daughter, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was an unlikely revolutionary. In fact, his position was not unlike those of the other Russian artists, writers, academics and intellgentsia, suddenly freed from the Czarist regime. Between the February and October revolutions of 1917, little changed as the news of the ouster of the only ruler most Russians had ever known rippled slowly across the vast expanse of the former Empire. But the cultural leaders were poised between a new awareness of possibly having a new mission and lack of direction and it would be up to people like Chagall to transform the political revolution into a social revolution. Unlike the American Revolution which happened gradually over decades, the end of the Empire in Russia was abrupt, even arbitrary. The Communists, the Red faction, had, of course, been planning for an overthrow, but the final collapse is usually random in any revolution. First, the break needs to happen and then, second, a leader has to emerge and then–and this is the point where the artists emerge–lastly, a discourse, both verbal and visual needs to be constructed.

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Lenin during the October Revolution

The February Revolution, which due to the eccentric Russian calendar really took place in March, was marked by the abdication of the hapless Nicholas II and the installation of an equally hapless Provisional Government. The mere word “provisional” would freeze innately cautious intellectuals who would hope for a freer education, unshackled from the regime’s control but would not be included to venture further, even thought the police state had been (temporarily, as it turned out) suspended. As R. Service noted in Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution, the elite was interested in serving the “dark people,” or the uneducated masses.

One attempt was made by the cultural-educations section of the Moscow Soldiers’ Soviet in early 1917. An appeal was made to “partners, sculptors, artists, poets, musicians and architects,” who were called upon to respond to the enthusiastic upsurge of interest in and opportunities for cultural advance. it was hoped,that, in the special circumstances of the sin of the great war between peoples, those responding to the appeal would throw art a lift belt. Initiatives of this sort led to the formation of Proletkul’t (proletarian culture) in the days immediately preceding the October revolution. Its chief luminaries, (Alexander Malinovsky) Bogdanov and (Anatoly Vasilyevich) Lunacharskii, had been involved in cultural-educational work in a variety of ways.

Service wrote about the difficulties of merely surviving during the early years of the revolution, but Chagall, who was safely stowed in home town, does not seem to have been among the intelligentsia who were burning their furniture for firewood. True, like other artists, he witnessed his patrons fleeing with their collections to safer locations but he had a home to go to. Even though Chagall enthusiastically supported the Revolution, prudently, when the October revolution brought down the Provisional Government and ushered the Bolsheviks into power, Chagall slipped quietly out of Petrograd and retreated to the safety of Vitebsk. When his old friend from La Ruche in Paris, Lunachrskii, was appointed Commissar of Enlightenment, Chagall was unexpectedly in line for a more elevated position than that of a small town artist. During the War years, Chagall produced a remarkable body of work, half truth, half fiction, half document, half dream, which preserved a record of Vitebsk, a traditional Jewish town of the Pale that would, later on in the century, lose its distinctive culture. As a Jew, Chagall, was suddenly empowered in the new Soviet era being placed on the same legal footing as other Russian citizens. In the newly colorful language of the new age, the painter was dubbed the Commissar of Art in Vitebsk and opened the Peoples Art College, dedicated to expanding education beyond the elite.

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Narodnoy Khudozhestvennoye Uchilische

This new appointment was not exactly bestowed upon a passive Chagall. In fact, as time passed, he began to sense a shift in the winds of art, away from the European cubist-based avant-garde and towards proletarian art, or an art of native Russia. The artist was uniquely placed to take advantage of the need of the new regime to educate the lower classes–he spoke the language of the people. His Lubok style paintings were not just ethnically Jewish but also distinctively “folk” and uniquely Russian in a way that the “people” could receive. Chagall, who had previously been offered a prestigious position, realized that a real opportunity presented itself and the man rose to the moment. After returning to Petrograd, Chagall accepted the offer to run an art school in Vitebsk and returned home with a title and a position. Although the Russian avant-garde artists could not see into the future, in hindsight, the next few years would be remarkable ones. The new Bolshevik government would be preoccupied with putting down the White Army, while at the same time, extricating themselves from the ongoing war, and, during this interim period of little oversight, the artists could dedicate themselves to developing a new art for a new world and they could do so in their own terms. Once the government had settled its affairs, both with the civil war inside and the external conflict, Lenin’s successors began to examine the usefulness of cultural production to the government and the aims of Marxism. Censorship would soon follow.

For someone reluctant to work for the government in Petrograd, Chagall threw himself into his new role as the artistic leader of the city of Vitebsk. He was consumed, he said, “with the prodigal spectacle of a dynamic force which pervades the individual from top to bottom, surpassing your imagination, projecting itself into your own interior, artistic world, which seemed to be already like a revolution.” His appointment to his new post was in September of 1918, meaning that his first task was to stir the city to celebrate the first anniversary of the October Revolution. As Chagall himself reported, the city was painted in bright colors and festooned with four hundred and fifty posters (other sources cite three hundred and fifty) and flags and grandstands and arches were built to receive parades. Chagall’s posters were memorably colorful, combining whiffs of the avant-garde with imagery that the citizens of Vitebsk could grasp. At night the new Communist banners, complete with hammer and sickle, were flooded with light, stunning the citizens.

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Marc Chagall. Peace to the Shacks War on the Palaces (1918-1919)

Baffled Party officials did not understand Chagall’s folk approach to a political revolution, but the inhabitants of the city were excited by art that was everywhere, brilliant and happy and celebratory of the lower classes and rejoicing in the new freedom from tyranny. Indeed the proletariate nature of the display of art for the people, provided by the town’s most famous artist, foreshadowed the mission of the art college. The old idea of an “academy” with all its old-fashioned elitism would be obliterated to be replaced with a school that would be dedicated to communicating with a wide audience of common people. However, Chagall was not interested in continuing old folk ways and indicated that a new art needed to be simple, meaning that a direct and straightforward approach would replace the genre and narrative works of older artists, such as Yehuda Pen.

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Chagall and His Students in 1919

The People’s Art College (Narodnoy Khudozhestvennoye Uchilische) combined a non-exclusive approach to teaching and learning art with a sophisticated notion that artists should be encouraged to experiment, in an avant-garde fashion, in studios located at the school. To incorporate all points of view, Chagall invited well-known artists from Moscow, the couple, Kseniya Boguslavskaya and Ivan Puni and El Lissitzky to teach drawing, applied arts, graphic design and so on. With such distinguished teachers, the People’s Art College quickly swelled to two hundred students–mostly male. Chagall, rather bombastically, proclaimed, “..thanks to the October Revolution, it was here that revolutionary art with its colossal and multiple dimensions was set into motion.”

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Kazimir Malevich. White on White (1918)

Having made “art descend to the streets,” Chagall’s triumph was followed by tribulations with the professors, some of whom simply drifted away from the school and other, such as El Lissitsky and his associate Kazimir Malevich, directly challenged Chagall for leadership. This agon between Chagall and Malevich is clouded by history and the passage of time and obscured by Chagall’s refusal to elaborate, but it seems obvious that the leader of Suprematism and the painter of Vitebsk would have totally different ideas of what art after the Revolution should be. Malevich, as is well known, was a deeply theoretical artist, combining Theosophy and semiotics to create his endpunkt for painting, and Chagall’s naturalism and charm infused Jewish themed paintings seemed neither revolutionary nor advanced to Malevich. In response to Chagall’s regressive art, Malevich formed UNOVIS, or in other words, he gathered students around him and supplanted the authority of Chagall in an internal coup de tête.

On one level, the quarrel between Chagall and Malevich was yet another parochial and internecine joust among academics–common to colleges–on another level, the question of which kind of art would be the most suitable for a nation in revolution was one that would continue to plague, not Chagall, but the avant-garde artists, who would find themselves increasingly at odds with the government’s expectations. That said, there is ample evidence that Chagall was not a good administrator or a tactful manager of the fledgling school. He had his own student followers but he was no match for Lissitsky, an ally of Malevich, who quickly joined (0r formed) anti-Chagall factions among the students and began moving against Chagall’s leadership. The new revolutionary faction intimidated the students loyal to Chagall while the local soviet officials and the newly revived secret police prowled suspiciously around the school. Threatened everywhere and showing little taste for petty combat, Chagall chose to not stay and fight to keep the art school he had founded.

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Marc Chagall. Over the Town (1918)

In his own way, in the eyes of the new government, he was a more famous artist than Malevich and Chagall was able to leave honorably for Moscow to fulfill a commission. What he left behind, in 1920, were the beginnings of a war on the intellectuals, the next stage of leveling society, favoring the proletariat over the elite. Chagall’s in-laws, Bella’s family, left for Moscow after their home was ransacked by thugs, loosely sanctioned by the government, searching for treasures. Although Chagall was deeply embittered by the betrayals he suffered in Vitebsk, his experiences and the events that were roiling the town and the art school were also straws in the wind. Alert artists and intellectuals with foresight saw the warning signs and began to exit the newly repressive and unstable nation. However, Chagall had one last give to give his native country before his final exit–a famous and deliberately obscured expression of Jewish culture to be discussed in the next post.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]