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.
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