Posted: July 7, 2014
A review of The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives, edited by Stephanie Barron and Maurice Tuchman
he radical concepts formed by Russian artists during the Bolshevik Revolution are among the most important but least recognized sources of American contemporary culture. The skyscraper and advertising, respectively the emblem of postwar American culture and the most ubiquitous facet of American life, reflect the formal and intellectual influence of the Russian avant-garde. The first large scale exhibition of Russian avant-garde art by an American museum, without loans of art from Soviet Russia, was presented from July, 1980 to February, 1981. It was jointly sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum and the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The purpose of the exhibition and its catalogue is to present to the American public an unrecognized but significant source of modern art.
In its early stages the Russian avant-garde was guided by the principle of art for art's sake. This was expressed in a number of styles, including Neo-Primitivism, Rayonism, Cubo-Futurism, and Suprematism. The Russian avant-garde shared a concern for the formal elements of art (color, line, plane, and texture) with the Western avant-garde movements of Cubism (1906) and Futurism (1907). In search of a new system of aesthetics, artists of both the Russian and the Western avant-garde abandoned such traditional elements of art as subject matter, representation, and illusionistic perspective. Within the Russian avant-garde this search led quickly, although not uniformly, to nonobjective art styles. Kandinsky's expressionistic abstractions of 1910-11, and Larinov's Rayonist paintings of 1912, are good examples. Suprematism and Constructivism culminated this development.
The common ground of the Russian avant-garde styles was their revolutionary artistic and political character. Each style was understood to be a deliberate renunciation of traditional Western art. The desire for a total break with the artistic past was joined with the desire for political revolution. The rejection of traditional art was thought to be necessary to modern man's new understanding of reality, and was merely one part of a total repudiation of traditional Western Civilization.
Initially concerned with new aesthetic formulations of art for art's sake, the movement turned in 1920 to a utilitarian concept of art. Pavel Mansurov, painter and head of the theoretical section of The Institute of Artistic Culture in Petrograd, is representative of the Russian avant-garde movement. In the sixth point of his 1923 "Declaration," he states the following: "Down with religion, the family, aesthetics, and philosophy" (p. 206 [All citations, unless otherwise noted, refer to the catalog.—Editor]). The Revolutionary government gave official sanction to the passionate belief of the avant-garde artists, that new aesthetic theories were a vital part of the foundation of "modern Soviet society." Leading avant-garde artists embraced Bolshevik social doctrine and were in turn empowered to establish museums, theatres, schools of art, mass entertainments, and propaganda instruments on the basis of their new theories. When the Soviet government began to censure the avant-garde in the late 1920's, many of the artists left Russia for Western Europe and America. They brought with them the radical ideas which had been formed in the atmosphere of the Russian Revolution.
With their Neo-Primitive paintings (1908-1912), the Russians Larinov, Goncharova, and Malevich rejected classical Western art. In rediscovering the flat forms of native Russian folk art and icons, they took the first step toward nonobjective art. While Neo-Primitive painting retained some narrative and figural elements, emphasis was on clearly defined, flat shapes and strong, unmodulated color. In the nonnaturalistic conventions of Russian folk art and religious icons, Neo-Primitive artists found encouragement to explore conventions of anti-illusionistic, two-dimensional composition. Through increasing emphasis on texture—on the physical surface of the canvas as the main carrier of expression—Larinov had by 1913 introduced Rayonism, a genuinely abstract style. An offshoot of Cubism, Rayonism conveys emotions through visual equivalents of the new scientific concepts of time and space. Larinov explained it as the creation of "spatial forms through the crossing of reflected light rays from various objects" (p. 14). Cubo-Futurism, like Rayonism, was also a Russian avant-garde response to Cubism. Cubo-Futurist painters, including Larinov, Goncharova, and Malevich, attempted to convey spatial dimensions through differences in the colors and surface textures of the planes into which the objects depicted had been reduced. With Cubo-Futurism emerged the close relationship between literature and painting that was characteristic of Russian avant-garde styles.
The Last Futurist Exhibition of Pictures: 0-10 (1915) marked the end of Russian Cubo-Futurism and introduced the Suprematist paintings of Malevich and the "counter-reliefs" of Tallin. Both artists had a dramatic influence on their contemporaries, and on later generations of Western artists. Malevich's work in particular represents an important difference from that of the Russian painter Kandinsky, the founder of abstract painting. Kandinsky's 1910-1911 abstractions did not represent physical objects of nature but referred still to a "spiritual" object, that of the "inner necessity," which prompts feelings expressed by color, line, and shape. By contrast, the Suprematist paintings of Malevich were an attempt to express "pure feeling or perception . . . independent of the context in which it has been evoked" (SeeGardener's Art Through The Ages, 7th ed, p. 826). The "supremacy of pure feeling" led Malevich to a purely "nonobjective" use of color, line, and shape, which does not represent nature but simply creates its own existence. These paintings have neither a spiritual nor a material object. This absolute nonobjectivity implies both nihilism and iconoclasm. It also led to Agitational Propaganda Art ("Agit-Prop Art") and gave way to Soviet Socialist Realism.
The 1913 Suprematist painting Black Quadrilateral (which is exactly that) can be understood as the ultimate repudiation of traditional art. For Suprematism there is no reality other than the nonobjective world. Suprematism rejects all past styles of painting and the philosophies and world views which formed them. At the same time the implications of Malevich's statements about the Black Quadrilateral, as well as its physical placement in the 0-20 exhibition, leave room for an interpretation advanced by the art historian Jean-Claude Marcade. Marcade quotes Malevich: "The form of modernity is the rectangle. In it four points triumph over three points" (p. 21). Marcade points out that for many centuries the divine had been symbolized by the triangle. He continues to quote Malevich, who called the Black Quadrilateral "the face of the new art, . . . a living, royal infant," and the "the icon of my time." Marcade notes that during the 0-20 exhibition the painting was hung "high in the corner like the central icon of the 'beautiful corner' [of an Orthodox home]. . . . There could be no better indication, in an exoteric fashion, than this of the profoundly iconic character of 'Suprematism of Painting'" (p. 22). The Russian emigre artist Michail Grobman writes in a similar vein in his essay "About Malevich." "So the Suprematist construction of Malevich," Grobman states, "is nothing else but this same attempt at conquering time and space by a visual means which is the experience of teaching the consciousness of the superman" (p. 26). Malevich did not merely supplant one style with another, or supplant representation with non-objectivity. He replaced the spiritual and material duality of classical Western philosophy with a nihilist world view. The radical nature of this change is underscored by the blasphemy inherent in the use of an antireligious image in the traditional place occupied by the icon of Christ. Suprematism presents nihilism as a religion, a religion of nonobjectivity. In the Suprematist work of Malevich lies the nonobjective geometric formality that attracted the first generation of American abstract formalist painters, of the 1940's and 1950's, and the Minimal or Primary painters and sculptors (named for their use of Primary geometric forms) of the 1960's. Present as well is the concept that the "meaning is in the use" of a work of art, which is central to the entire tradition of American Conceptual and Minimal art of the 1960's and 1970's.
The "counter-reliefs" of Vladimir Tallin were also introduced at the 0-10 exhibition. Tallin began painting counter-reliefs after he visited Picasso's Paris studio in 1913, and saw there the collage reliefs Picasso had made using recognizable objects out of the environment. Tallin's counter-reliefs, more abstract than Picasso's collage reliefs, were nonobjective assemblages of industrial materials, based on the concept that each material generates its own set of forms. The concern of Constructivism, as this style was called, was real space (sculpture) rather than pictorial space (painting). Constructivist sculpture asserts a sculptural space, rather than presenting the traditional concept of a sculpture of mass; that is, a form created by taking away mass, chiseling, or adding mass, modeling. Along with Tallin's emphasis on a culture of materials grew the concept of the "active" process of construction (assembly) out of composite parts. The constructive process was conceived as a fusion of art and life; a rejection of the "elitist" concept of high art. This anti-elitist impulse would eventually lead to the inclusion of the environment and the spectator the work of art, and into the process of construction of the work of art.
By 1920 Tallin and Rodchenko had directed Constructivism toward an antiaesthetic utilitarian posture. Later Constructivism aspired to serve the Russian Revolution through practical applications of Constructivist art to engineering, architecture, industrial design, theatre design, and book design. "Productivists," as the militant utilitarians were called, renounced individualistic art enterprises in favor of collective engineering. The desire of the early Russian avant-garde for "modern Russian" art became the desire for an art form acceptable to a society of the masses. Art for art's sake became a dishonorable intention; effective communication to the new mass society became all important. The decade of the 1920's saw the decline of easel painting and the dominance of Agitational Propaganda Art, "Agit-Prop Art"; art in the service of the communication of Soviet doctrine to the masses. Mass spectacles (such as the "Storming of the Winter Palace"), billboard trains, and theatrical performances were commissioned by the Soviet Regime and executed by avant-garde artists. This enthusiastic union of the Soviet regime and the Russian avant-garde lasted only until the late 1920's. Soviet approval was then withdrawn in favor of Socialist Realism, a propagandists aesthetic theory more easily understood by the masses. Soviet Socialist Realism was codified as the only acceptable style in 1934 under Stalin, although the denunciation of the avant-garde had begun almost ten years earlier during the Stalinist-Trotskyite power struggle. As the more individualistic artists were suppressed, purged, or fled Russia, the exceptional variety of approaches that distinguished the earlier avant-garde dwindled.
The Russian artists spread the basic tenets of Russian avant-garde culture across Western Europe and America. Productivism encouraged creative approaches to mundane design requirements of life. Many innovations introduced during this period, into theatre set and costume design, cinema, photography, and typography, are still visible in Western culture long after their suppression in Russia. The principles of 3-dimensional construction formulated between 1915 and 1923 by Malevich, and influential then among the Constructivists, passed via his students (most notably Lissitzky) through the Bauhaus to the International Style of architecture. In turn, this style dominated architecture in Western Europe and America from World War I until after World War II. Pale reflections of the radical transformation of book design and typography, also effected by Lissitzky, as well as other avant-garde designers, are still visible in advertising and in the pages of popular magazines in America. El Lissitzky is the Russian avant-garde artist principally responsible for the transmission of Soviet culture to Europe. In brief, the influence of Russian avant-garde art has not been limited to Western painting and sculpture; it has been important to the general development of the Arts in the West.
The two dominant lines of 20th century abstraction were pioneered by Russians; abstract expressionism by Kandinsky and geometric abstraction by Malevich. Abstract expressionism dominated American art of the 1940's and 1950's and, for the first time, American art led the art of Western Europe. Geometric abstraction dominated the 1960's and 1970's. Ad Reinhardt, himself a source of inspiration for younger American artists of the 1960's, admits that his work clearly embodies the spirit of Malevich. The American formalist abstract painters, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella, were also influenced by Malevich. In the exhibition's catalogue, Maurice Tuchman (Senior Curator, Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) discusses the relationship of the Russian avant-garde with contemporary American artists. Tuchman emphasizes Frank Stella's importance to American art of the 1960's, and Stella's admiration for Malevich and other Russian avant-garde artists. Stella himself points to the influence of the Russians on the Minimal artists Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Carl Andre. Other heirs of Russian Constructivist theories include the American sculptors David Hare, George Rickey, and Richard Serra. "In the 1960's," Patrick Ireland observed, "we talked Paris but looked at Moscow" (p. 119). Some groups of American Constructivist artists looked to Moscow to discern "how and where" the Russians displayed their work. Others looked to discern "why." The sculpture collective of the Park Place group (Mark Di Suvero, Frosty Myers, Ed Ruda, Peter Forakis, Robert Grosvenor) was drawn to the social intentions of the Russian avant-garde. The Park Place group saw themselves as "pioneers, breaking down the capitalist system; we were antigallery" (p. 120). Tuchman presents a strong claim for the influence of the Russian avant-garde on contemporary American art: from Minimalism to Conceptualism, from artists as activists to artists' collectives, the historical precedent was to be found in the Russian avant-garde movement. Some Americans found formal, others intellectual, precedents for the inclinations in their own work. "In Minimalism, the Russians' socially conscious endeavor is startlingly inverted: in place of the revolutionary artists' desire to change the world, the Americans of the 1960's appeared to want to 'torture the middle class,' as one artist put it, with art that was 'hostile; aggressive, resistant, and boring" (Barbara Rose on Minimalism, p. 119). While the Russian's ideas were often transformed or inverted in the process of assimilation, an understanding of American art of the last three decades is incomplete without an understanding of the Russian avant-garde movement and its legacy.
Nevertheless, the Russian avant-garde movement has been comparatively neglected by scholars and the public because of a number of factors. Of all the important modern art movements—Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism—the art of the Russian avant-garde is unique in its physical inaccessibility to both scholars and the public. At its height from 1914 until immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, avant-garde culture was initially embraced and then repudiated by the Revolutionary government. Avant-garde works in Russia that were not destroyed in the political struggles preceding and following the Revolution have been suppressed by official Soviet policy, which considers them an aberrant prelude to Socialist Realism. Any attempt to secure loans of Soviet-owned avant-garde art falls victim to aesthetic and political controls imposed by the Soviet government—as recent attempts in London (1971), New York (1977), and Paris (1979) demonstrate. Within the Soviet Union, the official stance regarding the avant-garde is sufficiently hostile to hinder any inclination by Soviet scholars to do objective research on the subject. Neither does the study of Russian avant-garde art benefit from the normal inquisitiveness of scholars about their own country's past, which often motivates such men to inquire diligently into even trivial matters. With Russian holdings of avant-garde art inaccessible to Western art historians, and Soviet historians reluctant to risk official displeasure, serious study of the Russian avant-garde relies heavily on the rather surprising amount of this art that has found its way to the West.
The organizers of this exhibition were judicious in their decision to limit themselves to Western collections to avoid the compromises imposed by Soviet loans. However, this decision was not maintained in the choice of essayists for the catalogue. Of the nineteen essays that form the body of the catalogue, three are written by Moscow professors and art historians and two by a Warsaw art critic. There is already considerable inherent difficulty in understanding the varied degrees of emphasis on the spiritual, philosophical, political, and formal aspects of art within the work of the Russian avant-garde. Vasilii Rakitin (identified in the catalogue only as "an art historian, Moscow"), in his essay on the avant-garde artist Gustav Klucis, concludes that "it is impossible to separate political tendentiousness from the artist's own creative value. . . ." It is likewise difficult, but important, for the reader to distinguish between the political beliefs of the artists and the tendentiousness of the essayists. Rakitin himself demonstrates this predisposition toward an acceptable understanding of the avant-garde throughout his essay. "But it is not politic to hasten with accusations," Rakitin states, "and we will not accuse those who believe that industrialization would solve all problems and that it would open the gates to the 'paradise' of a new life, the 'Soviet dream.'" Also, in a good anti-Stalinist vein, he claims that "art now aspired to a social classicism. Fervor was replaced by a stipulated program as people pretended that Utopia had become fact—an idyllic decoration concealed a complex and menacing reality" (p. 63).
Perhaps a less obvious political ambiguity is shown by the other Soviet contributors. Dimitri Sarabianov (Moscow University), in an essay on Popova, refers to Popova's death as occurring "just as the avant-garde movement was entering a state of decline. . ."(p. 42). He neglects to mention that the decline was imposed by an official Soviet policy of suppression and extermination. In his discussion of the artist El Lissitzky, Boris Brodsky (Moscow) emphasizes Lissitzky's Jewish origins. By analogy drawn on the comparison of Lissitzky's "figures"—graphic, abstract personalities such as his "Sportsman" or "Innovator"—and the monstrous Golem of the Legend of Prague, Brodsky accuses Lissitzky of viewing himself as a "Magus and demiurge." That is, he accuses Lissitzky of believing himself possessed of God-like creative power (pp. 94, 95). In his conclusion, Brodsky first praises Lissitzky's rejection of the traditional European view of a God-centered cosmos, and his acceptance of radical Soviet atheism. He then condemns Lissitzky for his belief that the function of the printed word is to "educate, to remake the human species." This condemnation implies that Lissitzky feels himself part of an intellectual elite whose role it is to educate the masses, an idea contrary to the official Soviet understanding of the press as the mirror of the "thoughts and aspirations of the millions" (pp. 96, 97). Similarly, the Warsaw art critic Szymon Bojko's predispositions are observable in his enthusiastic proclamation that "history has ennobled the mass-meeting style of Maiakovsky's poetry, the agitational range of Vertov's film truth, the tendentious impact of Meierkhold's and Tairov's staging, the agitational blatancy of the "Rosta windows" posters, as well as the many unrealized artistic ideas of the monumental propaganda plan" (p. 72).
In contrast to the Soviet essayists' political tendentiousness, there is a tendency on the part of some of the European and American essayists to overlook or de-emphasize the radical political content of Russian avant-garde ideas, ideas which have become commonly accepted in Western culture. This radical intellectual and political content is intimately bound to many of the formal concepts of the Russian avant-garde artists, and should not be ignored in light of the prevalence of these formal concepts in contemporary art. A cautious reader, aware of the different biases of contributing scholars, can find in The Avant-Garde in Russia 1910-1930: New Perspectives an illuminating and much needed addition to the literature on this subject. The essays by Stephanie Barren (Associate Curator, Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and Magdalena Dabrowski (Assistant Curator, Department of Drawings, Museum of Modern Art, New York) should be of particular interest to the general reader. Other essays convey fascinating glimpses of the mentality of revolutionary Russia's intellectual elite, as well as a disturbing realization of its eventual fate. Not the least informative part of the catalogue are the photographs (all illustrations are in black and white) of artists, students, participants in mass theatre production, and of the Revolutionary Russian people in general.