Constructivism on Display, Part One

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

The Years of Lenin

The word “Constructivism” was a Russian word that came from multiple sources in Russia and spread to Western Europe very quickly, as soon as the Civil War ended in 1921. In fact, the slogan of the 1920 Dada Fair in Berlin was “Art is Dead: Long Live Tatlin’s New machine art.” That same year, the term “Constructivism” was in circulation at the Düsseldorf Congress in May, where it signified a Bauhaus approach of using new construction materials rather than using conventional means of building and the Dada interpretation of anti-art or anti-traditional art. Constructivism in Russia, however, had an institutional home the job of which was to take the word from a name and an idea and to make the construction of a new art form a Soviet reality. That goal fell to the Vkhutemas, a new art school in Moscow, which sought to apply Constructivism to the Revolution and its needs. It was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) himself who established the Vkhutemas institution in 1920 and gave it his qualified blessing by visiting the classrooms in 1921. Fairly or not, the Vkhutemas, an acronym for the Higher Art and Technical Studios, is often compared to the Bauhaus in that it combined industry and design and art under one roof. Like the Bauhaus, the school was the result of a merger between two pre-existing institutions, the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts, but unlike the Bauhaus which was a very small school, the Moscow college had 2500 students compared to the 200 annual enrollment at Dessau. Like the Bauhaus, the faculty was distinguished, with artist Aleksandra Ekser teaching “color in space,” Alexander Rodchenko was in charge of construction, while Nadezhda Udaltsova presided over “volume in space.” Most famously, it was Varvara Stepanova who was in charge of the textile department. It was Stepanova, who stated the goal of her department and of the entire school succinctly as being “devising methods for a conscious awareness of the demands imposed on us by new social conditions.” However, Lenin was disturbed by the lingering presence of Futurism and Suprematism, evidence of a past era still present among the students and faculty. Seeking to reassure Lenin about the Vkhutemas, theorist Aleksei Gan (1893-1942) wrote Constructivism in 1922 a year after Lenin’s visit, stating that “Our Constructivism has declared unconditional war on art, for the means and qualities of art are not able to systematize the feelings of a revolutionary environment.” As the leading theorist and agitator, Gan was responsible for the phrases that would be linked to the post-revolution Constructivist movement and its anti-art stance. “Art is dead!” he insisted, “There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique, and organization!”

The Revolution in politics had acted like an earthquake on Russia, transforming the nation, and for a time, the new Soviet Union was a very good place to be an artist or a designer or an architect. For a few years, one could dream; one could create a new world; one had the freedom to create new objects for new purposes. In 1928, an American, Alfred Barr (1902-1981), active in the nascent New York art world, decided to visit Moscow to witness the new movement of Constructivism, where all disciplines intersected, giving birth to new forms. Upon his return, Barr, who would become the first director of the new Museum of Modern Art, wrote, “We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.”

To that end, Aleksei Gan set up the First Working Group of Constructivists, also known as “artists-engineers,” turning theory into application. In response to the need to honor Lenin, in Saint Petersburg—Petrograd–the Constructivist artist, Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) built the Monument to the Third International in 1919, a model for a structure that was never built. With his Constructivist experiments, Tatlin himself was the source of inspiration at At 1300 feet, the Monument, which was to have been the tallest structure in the world, was often on display, becoming the image of all that the Revolution aspired to. But this monument, like the unfinished project of the avant-garde in Russia, was never built and remains an unrealized requiem for unfinished dreams. In point of fact, while Western scholars toil to reconstruct the lost years of the avant-garde after the Russian Revolution, the present-day Russians themselves have a complex and ambiguous relationship with the past. The Russian schools hardly touch upon the Great War, now considered an imperial conflict best forgotten. Even in the centenary of the October Revolution of 1917, there is a gap between the sanctity Lenin and a respect for those years when he was in charge. This conceptual gap seems to be caused by the long reign of Stalin, during which he crushed the hopes and dreams of ardent believers in a social revolution during decades of terror. While evoking the memory of Lenin, Stalin wiped out evidence of his accomplishments, suppressing or killing the artists and architects he had promoted or supported along with unrelated political dissidents. Only recently have there been cautious and reluctant gestures towards what remains of avant-garde architecture still extant in Moscow and other Russian cities. These efforts, however tentative, are significant because little of the important movement of Constructivism remains today. Black and white photographs stand in for objects now lost and ideas never realized. Models of proposals exist but many plans remain on paper, preserving a poignant record of an artistic desire to change society. When one moves beyond the photographs and drawings and asks the pointed question—what has survived? Unfamiliar names emerge, standing alongside that of the leading Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin. One could argue that it was Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974), who left the most extensive record of the Constructivist and architectural avant-garde behind in a scattering of remarkable buildings still standing, and in the memory of his grand prize at the Paris Exposition of industrial design in 1925, won for the Soviet Pavilion. Like many of the Russian Constructivist movement, the architect Melnikov taught at the Vkhutemas school, but by 1925, he had separated himself from the institution. His desire to combine his dedication to the Revolution with his assertion that the individual should also assert him or herself in works of art led Melnikov to start the New Academy at the school as a separate program but he was marginalized when his department was absorbed into the Academic workshop.

In 1925, artists, Rodchenko, Tatlin, filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, and architect Konstantin Melnikov came together to display the Constructivist philosophy and practice at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1925. Now an independent artist, Melnikov became the architect for the Soviet Pavilion in Paris. It was here, at the heart of an Exposition that would later be thought of as the home of a new decorative movement, Art Deco, that Constructivism was manifested for the world in terms of a building, a workers’ club and a symbol of the Revolution. If the Constructivists had introduced themselves in the New Russia Exhibition in Berlin, their philosophy of new architecture was viewed and experienced by the thousands who attended the Fair, most of whom were seeing the Russian Revolution in action for the first time, alive and well at Melnikov’s remarkable Soviet Pavilion. The Pavilion itself was one of the first manifestations of what would be a short experiment in avant-garde radical architecture. Once Stalin was firmly established in power, those days of optimism came to an end to be quickly replaced with a very different vision of the task of architects. Writing in 1932, when Russia was in the grip of totalitarianism, Hans Schmidt explained in “The Soviet Union and Modern Architecture” what had happened after the Soviet Pavilion had won acclaim:

Unlike their Western colleagues, the Russian architects had no opportunity to acquire new skills by dealing with the problem of the working class dwelling or the middle-class house. The victory of the October Revolution brought to the forefront a number of young architects who identified with the aims of the Revolution. Taking up the cudgel in the fight with the older generation of architects, they apparently were bringing about the triumph of modern architecture. At a time when relatively very little construction could actually be realized in the Soviet Union, this young and technically inexperienced generation devoted all its energies to utopian projects, in many cases outstripping the real situation of revolutionary development by decades.

As shall be discussed in the next post, the Soviet Pavilion was a triumph of a “utopian project” build to display the designs of a new generation for their nation. But Melnikov’s was a fleeting moment and, in a very few years after the Paris Exposition, the plans for an avant-garde architecture would be halted. As Schmidt noted,

This defeat was rendered even more poignant in a situation which manifested itself by revealing an important difference between the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. In the West, the principles of free competition apply up to a certain point even in the field of the arts. In Soviet Russia, however, all ideas are expected to be subordinate to and integrated into the mainstream of the Revolution. As things stand now, modern architecture has gambled away its chance, at least for the time being. Even the broad masses and youth have joined the ranks of the general opposition. What is even worse, though, is the fact that the modern movement in architecture has presently run into a closed ideological front ranged against it.

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

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The End of the Russian Avant-Garde

Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938)

The Last of the Avant-Garde

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

Gustav Klutsis. In Memory of Fallen Leaders (1927)

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

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

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

El Lissitzky. First Russia Exhibition poster (1922)

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

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

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

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

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

El Lissitzky. Tribune for a Leninist (1927)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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The Russian Avant-Garde

RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE ART AND REVOLUTION

1896 – 1930

The story of Russian Avant-Garde art is the story of the journey by rail from Moscow to Paris and back again. Art flowed from Paris to Moscow and artists traveled from Moscow to Paris. From 1896 there were Russian exhibitions of new currents of European art–Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, and Cubism—that brought the newest art movements to Russia. There were also many Russian artists in Paris, such as Marc Chagall, Sonia Terk, and Luibov Popova. Other Russian artists were in Germany, such as Vasilly Kandinsky, who would return when the Russian Revolution ended the power of the Tsars in 1917. Russian art magazines disseminated new ideas in the pages of The Golden Fleece and The Scales and Apollon. In addition, Russian artists had invitation-only access to important collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art seen in the collections of merchant princes, Ivan Morozov, who purchased from and personally knew the avant-garde artists of Paris, and Sergei Shchukin, whose collection inspired the Russian Avant-Garde.

Sergei Shchukin began acquiring French avant-garde art by 1897 and was famous for his independence of dealers, his habit of buying art out of artists’ studios and for his open-mindedness towards even the most adventurous art. He collected Gauguin, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, until the Great War broke out in 1914. Shchukin was a private collector but opened his collection to artists once a week up to the Revolution of 1917. His famous dining room and salon contained masterpieces such as Matisse’s Harmony in Red (1909), purchased as Harmony in Blue but repainted by the artist, who also did two commissioned panels for the collector, Music and Dance (1910). Shchukin left Russia after the Russian Revolution, without his fabulous collection, which was seized by the new government. Shchukin gave up collecting art and died in Paris in 1934. Not until 1965 was this collection of French avant-garde art seen again in the Hermitage Museum.

The Avant-Garde Before the War

 

The Russian Avant-Garde before 1917 was marked by a parallel development reflecting avant-garde in Paris and Germany. These pre-war interpretations of Western European art were countered by a genuine desire to make art that was genuinely “Russian.” The first attempt to create “Russian” art was based upon the distinctive icons of the Russian Orthodox Church and upon uniquely Russian folk art. This Neo-Primitivism of 1908 was similar to the “primitivism” seen in the appropriation of tribal art among French artists. Its adherents, Kasimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larinov, were soon attracted to Cubist art. Shchukin had over fifty examples of Picasso’s work, but the Russian artists combined Cubism with the works of the Italian Futurists. The artists appropriated this Italian style and adapted it to Russian needs without accepting the antics of Futurist poet, Fillippo Marinetti. Evolving out of the “Cubist School” and combined with Cubism, Futurism in Russia had little to do with Italian concepts of modern speed and contemporary dynamism and became absorbed into the more mystical approach taken from Theosophy. Led by founder David Burliuk, the Cubo-Futurist artists believed that “futurism” would lead to a transcendental reality when a new kind of person would have a new kind of vision and create a new universal language. Followers, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larinov, would split way from these Theosophical ideas to start their own movement, Rayonism. Although he too left the original group, Kasimir Malevich would continue concepts of the transcendental into his own movement, Suprematism (1915-21).

Regardless of the cacophony of local developments, the swift assimilation of the newest “isms” seen in the Russian combination of Cubism and Futurism into Cubo-Futurism put the Russian artists in Moscow in the forefront of avant-garde art in Europe. These movements, Neo-Primitivism (1908-12), Cubo-Furturism (1912-15), Rayonism (1912-13), came and went swiftly, reflecting the power and theoretical struggles among the artists. Before the Russian Revolution, avant-garde artists were struggling to keep up with the latest artistic trends to the west, after the Revolution, the Russian Avant-Garde was utterly transformed. The artists ceased analyzing art within the context of the history of art and began reconsidering art as a form of technology in the service of the Revolution.

For decades, the former avant-garde artists in the Soviet Union were isolated under Stalin from the rest of the world; their work was suppressed and censored and hidden away. Only in the 1960s did some preliminary scholarship begin to emerge with Camilla Gray’s 1962 The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922. Because much of the post-Revolution art production was still obscured, Gray’s seminal study tended to give pride of place to the importance of the pre-war avant-garde movements. But from the perspective of the twenty-first century, these art-based movements seem much less important than the Constructivist tendencies that followed.

By the late seventies and early eighties, major exhibitions were mounted in the west, extending the knowledge of artists and the understanding of the art made after the Revolution. It is now clear that Russian artists continued to make avant-garde art under differing and difficult conditions into the 1930s. Once the Berlin Wall fell, scholarship could continue to advance and slowly the extent of the artistic explosion—from Suprematism to Constructivism to Productivism—is being revealed. Controversy surrounds the question of the artists’ involvement in the Revolution itself as scholars queasily approach to question of politics and art under a brutal Communist regime. But the connections between avant-garde art and the Russian Revolution needs to be understood within the context of a desire by a diverse group of artists to be modern…in a uniquely Russian way…within the context of a modern revolution. The real significance of the Russian Avant-Garde is the struggle over the nature of art, the role of art in society and the place of the artist in a communist society that regarded the intellectual as a parasite.

 

The Avant-Garde after the Revolution

For the years between 1917 and 1921, avant-garde art in Russia was closely allied to the political revolution that removed the Tsar from power and swept Lenin to a leadership position until his death in 1924. All that was old was removed, renounced, obliterated or killed, including academic bourgeois art. Initially the new government worked closely with the avant-garde artists, using Anatoly Lunacharsky, the newly appointed Soviet Minister for Enlightenment, as the liaison to the artists. Lunacharsky had known Russian artists, such as Marc Chagall at the artists’ studios, La Ruche, in Paris. Although Lunacharsky had not exactly appreciated the works of the Parisian avant-garde, he had understood its importance and strove to understand their endeavors. Perhaps because of his previous acquaintance with Chagall, the Minister appointed this artist head of the Vitebsk art school and twelve of his works were purchased by the new state in 1919.

Although the tastes of both men were more conservative, Lenin supported Lunacharsky’s alliance with the avant-garde. In 1919 the first Agit-Train was sent off to the countryside to educate the people through striking graphic messages. To reeducate the artists, in 1920 the Institute of Artistic Culture–Inkhuk–was established, and the younger Moscow artists banded together as Obmokhu. In order to organize the teaching of art into a less individualistically based practice, the Higher State Art-Technical Studio, or Vkhutemas, was established to train artists for the benefit of the state. In Vitebsk, ideological and doctrinaire debates quickly surfaced as Malevich took over Chagall’s school and retitled it Unovis, the “Confirmation of the new art.” Despite Malevich’s domination in Vitebsk and the importance of his pupil, El Lissitsky, his position as the head of the Russian Avant-Garde was threatened by Vladimir Tatlin, the undisputed leader of Constructivism.

The Vkhutemas became a cradle of Constructivism. With an illustrious faculty, including Alexandre Rodchenko and Kandinsky (who never really flourished in Russia), this was probably the most advanced art school in the world and its famous “Basic Course” could be considered one of the models for the Bauhaus. In Vitebsk, Malevich also stressed the “new economic principle” above individual personality. “Three cheers for the overthrow of the old world of art. Three cheers for the new world of things. Three cheers for the common all-Russian auditorium for construction,” said Malevich. Shortly after this hostile takeover Chagall subsequently managed to leave Russia for good, but other artists stayed in Russia longer, putting their faith to the Revolution. Like Chagall, Kandinsky was out of sympathy with Constructivism and resigned. His place was taken by those who were involved with Laboratory work, which stressed the analysis and practicality of art making, and the marriage between art and revolution continued, until the Soviet Union decided the avant-garde artists were more trouble than they were worth.

The next sections will discuss Suprematism and Constructivism and the Women of the Russian Avant-Garde.

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

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

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