The Russian avant-garde covers nearly all the modernist tendencies in Russian art, including architecture, sculpture, music, dance, film, and theatre in the late 19th century and up to the mid 1930s. The visual artwork remains emblematic of the period of revolution, civil war and establishment of the USSR. Works by some of the most famous avant-garde artists, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzsky and Vladimir Mayakovsky are instantly recognisable worldwide. This article is mainly about the visual arts of the avant-garde.
The ancestors of the Russian avant-garde are spread out in time and geography. There is certainly an identifiable lineage stretching directly back through the Peredvizhniki (Russian artistically dissident painters of the 19th century), into realism, romanticism and all the way to Iconography. There are also sometimes strong references to the narrative ‘lubok’ tradition, the avant-garde employing similar ‘drop-in’ images in real or implied collage effects, lack of attention to real perspective, and working the text into the fabric of the image to fully integrate it as an indivisible part of the work.
A C20th avant-garde style propaganda poster (left) showing components of an early C19th Lubok picture (right)
From abroad came the fusion of cubism and futurism (unsurprisingly producing ‘cubo-futurism’). However, avant-garde does not define a specific style, more a period during which many sub-currents flowed. Suprematism, Constructivism, Productivism and Rayonism are the four most famous directions. Often, the same artists identified with more than one definition.
Spirit of the Age
At the beginning of the 20th Century in Europe and part of the Americas, nearly every facet of human existence was in a state of unprecedented, rapid change. Technical, economic, political and sociological progress was all-consuming, both in physical fact but also in the minds and imaginations of the people.
It was as though the quest for enlightenment and could be achieved in pre-planned ways. ‘IDEAS’ were seen to be more or less valid according to the amount of trouble people were prepared to go to in order to enforce them on one another. Ideas, theories, movements, ‘-isms’ and manifestos dominated social, political and artistic thought. The Russian psyche was highly susceptible to engagement with such ideas.
Art was as hungry for justification as other facets of life. Indeed, faced with the objectivity and insensitivity of the machine age, it can be successfully argued that it was under attack from other ‘IDEAS’ and had to defend itself by becoming an integral component of the machinery of the new world. However, many of its professional executors were keen to differentiate from those they wanted out of the way – ‘yesterday’s news’.
The development of art and human artistic consciousness lay in envisioning the future of humanity and that vista was one that would be revealed by artists. Thus they formed, lived through and dissolved numerous artistic movements, each of which both identified its adherents and provided an ‘IDEA’. That gave the troubled and unpredicatable art market at least some chance of understanding the profusion of non-objective works.
The art historian Nina Gurianova summed up the avant garde in the few words of the title of her 2012 book: ‘The Aesthetics of Anarchy’.
Many leading Russian artists were deeply sceptical of the Bolshevik revolution, but significantly the young Mayakovsky embraced it (he was only 17). Other artists followed. It appears they decided that their own visions of a better, cleaner, mechanical but humanist future could well be provided by the Bolsheviks – after all, their stated aims were more or less identical.
Cubo-futurist work was characterised by the typical cubist dis – and re – assembly of subject matter and a distinctly mechanical and ‘manufactured’ feel. The Italian futurists greatly influenced their Russian counterparts. Just like Wyndham-Lewis in London, they assimilated concepts of futurism without espousing the more nauseating aspects of its founder, Marinetti. Futurism introduced accentuated reference to motion and praised speed and risk-taking. Cubism brought strong, sharp angles and the thrill of the destruction of perspective, showing all facets of an object at the same time. It had come from the Paris of Braque and Picasso. Russian avant-garde artists mixed both styles, and created the new school.
In the 1910s avant- garde artists veered towards complete abstraction. Kazimir Maleevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Liubov Popova and their fellow artists created a confrontational visual dialogue with the establishment. In 1915 they mounted the ‘Last Futurist Exhibition, 0.10’ in Petrograd. The style was reduction of abstract images to elementary geometric forms. It challenged concepts of mysticism and belief. Maleevich had his canvas, ‘Black Square’ hung across the corner of the gallery – the position which, in a normal Russian household room, would be reserved for the family icon. Making a similar point, Gustav Klutsis later painted abstractions onto wood panels prepared for iconography. Other avant-gardists painted very obvious ‘modernist’ icons.
Constructivism was a self-contradictory continuation of non-objective art. Its home was the state practical art college and design Institute, VKhUTEMAS. The first constructivist works were 3-dimensional objects, thus questioning the concept of non-objectivity. The accent was on producing works that are full of energy – mechanically inspirational conceptions that push the new world forward. These ideas were synthesised at the OBMOKhU (Society of Young Artists) exhibition in Moscow in 1921. The artists Rodchenko, Yogansson, Medunetzky, Stepanova and the Stenberg brothers exhibited works of sculpture made from everyday materials such as wood and metal. They bore no relation to known objects. They were collections of shapes and angles, existing in the air, with no background or foreground. The works were about themselves – the relationships between the materials employed and the space they occupied.
Constructivism went on to cover a vast range of creations including posters, book covers, street furniture, film, theatre design and became the defining ‘look’ of the post-revolutionary world. It was the application of art as a leading force in the struggle for the new. Vladimir Tatlin’s tower, although never built, is as emblematic of the period as the Eiffel tower is of the Belle Epoque. Constructivism’s longest lasting influence was in architecture, where Ginsburg, Melnikov (something of a ‘dissident’ constructivist), the Vesnin brothers, Leonidov, Ladovsky and others set about constructing the future – literally.
Having returned to Russia in 1917 aboard the German–sponsored sealed train that also carried Lenin to Petrograd, Anatoly Lunacharsky became one of the most important (and often neglected) players in the Soviet period of avant-garde art forms. He was appointed minister of enlightenment with a brief covering education and the arts in general. During his exile he had been exposed to many of the new artistic movements in the west and even if he did not personally like the new ways of expression, his enquiring mind always tried to appreciate them. Lunacharsky was a defender of the new. He had famously publically disagreed with the Marxist theorist Plekhanov when the latter attacked Cubism in Paris in 1912. During his career he would often speak out to protect the avant-garde, but always had one eye firmly on his superiors and their dictates.
In exile, Lunacharsky and his brother-in-law, Bogdanov established a framework for a future organisation that would bring artistic creativity into the service of the people. Bogdanov had been an opponent of Lenin within the Bolshevik party, challenging him for the leadership. However, Proletkult was established in 1917 as an autonomous organisation, financed by the state but free of ministry and party control. Its aim was the transformation of the structure of artistic endeavour from the bourgeois producer – client relationship where the client gained pleasure from the work to one of a partnership between the artists and one particular ‘class’ – the proletariat, with the consumers receiving education and socio-political inspiration rather than mere ‘pleasure’. This new ‘culture’ would be ‘proletarian’ in nature – every cultural experience would be immediately explicable in terms of the urban working class and its struggle for supremacy. Whatever one has to say about the obvious mistakes of Marx and Marxists, Bogdanov and Lunacharsky both neglected to understand that art dedicated to the transfer of information and influencing of behaviour is in fact advertising and propaganda. Both are strong political tools and thus could not be independent from state or party control, during the Civil War and beyond.
When Lunacharsky was made Minister for Enlightenment in 1918, Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, was appointed one of his deputies, responsible for education. Perhaps this appointment was made because of Lenin’s mistrust of the Lunacharsky-Bogdanov Proletkult that both continued to head.
Proletkult was a non-vocational Soviet adult education system. It was available to some factory workers. It is impossible to say how many workers took part – some sources claim 80,000 workers learning at over 100 branches, others up to half a million with 300 branches. The Moscow Proletkult covered theatre, fine and applied art, literature, with lectures, classes and workshops where the students could put their learning into practice. As it continued to push for its independence whilst also relying completely on state funding, Proletkult attracted attention as a potentially powerful institution that had to be brought into line. The organisation became so confident that it began pronouncing on areas of government outside its brief. Proletkult also opened its own university in Moscow (1919). Lenin was convinced that allowing independence could only add to the many and great problems faced by the Bolsheviks as they tenuously hung onto power. Sergei Eisenstein, the future world-famous film director, worked at the Moscow Proletkult Theatre as a scenery painter, then rose to the position of co-director. It is significant for his future work that Eisenstein’s experience was in set decoration and not in script.
In late 1920 the patience of the Party had worn out. Proletkult was assimilated by the Ministry of Enlightenment.
The difference between art and advertising, painting and propaganda was being worked out – Proletkult was controlled by a sub-section of the Ministry – the Chief Committee for Political Education. It continued to exist in various subordinate manifestations until 1932.
Branding the Revolution
‘I am building a reality that does not yet exist’ – Gustav Klutsis, 1921
Since the revolution was still young and finding its own means of expression and its own ‘look’, there was an opportunity for new art forms to be adopted and associated with the social change taking place throughout the country. The ‘branding’ of the Bolshevik Revolution had started and that would mean new, exciting artists portraying the new, exciting future. However, during the first years of the Revolution, there were more pressing questions than approving artistic styles. Lenin was not a lover of the visual or plastic arts and only valued the cinema as a potential propaganda tool. Thus art developed from the ground to the top, with the artists suggesting and using new styles and methods, under the ultimate supervision of Lunacharsky. A striking example of the image of the revolution was the USSR pavilion designed by the avant-garde architect, Konstantin Melnikov for the 1925 Paris international exhibition. It was the most progressive and engaging building in the whole exhibition. It announced the USSR as being not only a developing society and economy but also a creative and artistic power.
At the same exhibition, the presentation of the USSR as a progressive society with education and enlightenment at its core was embodied in an installation by Aleksandr Rodchenko. It portrayed a ‘Red Corner’, an area in a factory or public building where people could study communist literature, attend lectures and seminars and engage in mind-improving games such as chess. A modern reconstruction of this extraordinary exhibit resides in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
The Ministry of Enlightenment, ‘Narkompros’, pursued a policy of hiring close relatives of the very top Bolsheviks to staff its departments. They included Nadezhda Krupskaya (as we have seen above), Olga Kameneva, wife of Lev Kamenev and sister of Trotsky and Fyodor Kalinin, son of the country’s head of state (from 1919-49), M. I. Kalinin.
These people were neither professional artists nor were they professional administrators. They vied with each other to be ‘seen’ as cultured and modern, as members of a creative elite. Thus they courted the presence of many of the leading artistic figures and ‘sponsored’ them. Moscow society of the 1920s and even the early to middle 30s, like any other, had its celebrities, stars and socialites. (E.g. – See our 1929 edition of Ogonek with an article and photograph of the Russian Foreign Minister, Checherin, on holiday on the French Riviera).
Since those at the top had no idea whatsoever about art and creativity in general, they had little choice than to defer to the truly talented. Of course, art obviously damaging to the State – ‘Counter-revolutionary’ work – was banned and those producing it were liable to arrest. It is significant that the avant-garde’s defining characteristics, which had grown out of the European schools of Cubism and Futurism, were multi-layered – in which many messages could be communicated or inferred. Hence it was relatively easy for an artist to defend a work against criticism by refuting the claims and turning them against the accuser himself for having seen those themes in the first place. There was no specific defined way forward for art in general and very little stylistic demand from the Government. The closest directive came from Lunacharsky in 1920:
‘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’
So it was expected that art should be aimed generally at the proletariat and should promote favourable characteristics. Additionally, art should, wherever possible, carry a message that the new system (i.e. the Bolsheviks) was working to produce a better country, populated by well-fed, healthy, hard-working men and women. It should also depict the triumph of the system over its enemies – the bourgeoisie, the exploiters, the war-mongers. These were themes that artists should follow, but they were not obliged to. Many artists themselves felt their work capable of pushing the revolution in a direction of futuristic wealth for everyone. They were, despite Lunacharsky’s demands, an ‘elite’. It was prudent to produce, every now and then, some work with a theme overtly supportive of the Bolsheviks. It was an insurance policy that allowed the rest of the work to be carried out more or less unmolested. Mayakovsky, by now enjoying the status of a ‘rock star’ and Rodchenko were major participants in government propaganda projects, the latter photographing political prisoners in the murderous forced-labour construction of the White Sea Canal. The former committed suicide in 1930. However, some avant-garde artists such as Aleksandr Drevin refused to address political subjects. Drevin was arrested in early 1938 and shot a month later at Butovo in Southern Moscow. Conversely, and illustrating the arbitrary nature of the 1938 Terror, the Latvian artist, Gustav Klutsis, a producer of pro-Stalinist propaganda, was shot on the same day in the same place.
Some avant-gardists came to the conclusion that ‘art is dead’, meaning it was no longer an amusement for the bourgoise. They shunned classical artforms such as easel painting and chiselled sculpture and instead took up more modern instruments of creativity, becoming photographers, collage-makers, photo-montazhists, furniture designers, documentary and film makers.
The Russian Avant-Garde in retreat
In the second half of the 1930s Stalin’s clique decided to dictate exactly what art should do, how it should be made and who should produce it. By 1930, the year Mayakovsky shot himself, Lunacharsky had been pushed out of most of his influential positions and died in 1933. He was succeeded as People’s Commissar of Enlightenment by A. Bubnov, the former head of the Political Department of the Red Army. Bubnov had also held posts in propaganda and newspapers. This appointment further emphasised the direction culture was expected to take. However, his exemplary Bolshevik CV did not save Bubnov – in fact it ensured his meeting with an executioner’s bullet in 1938, another victim of Stalin’s terror.
The content and message of pictures, films, books, plays, operas, ballets, sculptures and even architectural designs were taken out of the hands of the creator and simply dictated from above. Artists could be arrested and sent to labour camps or shot not only for criticising the State, but for not doing exactly what the State dictated they should do, even if those demands were vague and open to interpretation. Thus, from the early 1930s onwards, artists lived in constant fear. The avant-garde was mortally wounded and never recovered. Soviet art turned towards the sugary and romantic style known as ‘socialist realism’. As a semi-naturalist style it offered little opportunity for invention or interpretation. The artist had been reduced to the level of a technician, concerned only with composition and execution. An example of that style is the poster/picture ‘Lenin among the Peasants of Shushenski Village’ by V. N. Basov. Let us compare that with a work from our avant-garde collection:
The most striking feature of this comparison is that the picture at the top was painted around 25 years after the lower one, which is more ‘modern’, more daring and more striking.
Architecture was an integral part of the Avant-Garde movement and striking examples of modernist design had started to appear in Moscow and other cities throughout the country. As with painting, once the government decided to control everything and dictate style and form, the radical style was out of favour. Major buildings had to reflect a vision of a mighty empire, a new Rome, but bigger and more powerful. This meant a return to pre-revolution neo-classicism. The fat-free, functional and efficient designs of the avant-garde were ignored until after the death of the dictator.
By employing terror, Stalin’s clique temporarily succeeded in turning art history on its head.