Imaginers of a new future

February 27, 2017

Amy Muldoon recommends an exhibition of art from the time of the 1917 revolution.

IF YOU'RE in any position to do so, run, don't walk, to the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for the exhibit A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde.

Drawn solely from MoMA's own collection--the largest in the world outside of Russia--the show covers a period between 1912 and 1935, and brings together 260 works, including drawings, paintings, photography, films, photomontage, sculptures, set and costume designs, magazines, posters, books, linocuts, lithographs, dishware and models.

The breadth of just the media is a testimony to the deep penetration of the ideals of the 1917 Russian Revolution into the art world, and of artists' reciprocal embrace of the newly emerging popular Communist culture.

Organized roughly chronologically, the exhibit opens with works that are connected art movements sweeping Europe and the Americas at the turn of the 20th century: Cubism, Futurism and a fascination with folk art, among others. Many of the artists now associated with the Russian Avant-Garde were classically trained easel painters who spent time in Western Europe and reflected the style of the times.

"Proun 19 D" (1922), by El Lissitzky
"Proun 19 D" (1922), by El Lissitzky

But with the coming of the revolutionary upsurge, new modes of art came to maturity in Russia, as all of society was turned on its head.

One movement called Suprematism, pioneered and theorized by Kazimir Malevich, sought to break with all previous forms of painting that relied on representation and instead communicate pure, abstract truths. A single wall, with 14 canvases dominated by monochromatic squares, is a fitting illustration of this style.

While Malevich himself was deeply spiritual, his attempts at creating a pure visual grammar reflect a uniquely Russian optimism about the potential for systematizing art in a newly rational world.

A contrasting movement from this same era became known as Constructivism. From its inception in 1912, it was concerned with the social uses of art.

Many of the artists associated with Constructivism--El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchecko among them--are remembered for their contributions to popular and utilitarian design, but started on the Suprematist side of the debate. After the 1917 revolution, Constructivism rapidly came to dominate as the distinction between "high art" and popular culture broke down.

FOR ANYONE familiar with the early years of the Russian workers' state, it can be a pleasant surprise to see the rich debate and amazing cultural production that took place during the period of the civil war that gripped Russia after the revolution from 1918 to 1921 and the years of scarcity that followed. Surely the years between 1912 and 1925 in Russia produced more manifestos for art movements than any other period or place.

All of the artists represented--even Malevich, who never lifted a finger to produce a piece of propaganda, much less realism of any kind--worked following the revolution in the state-funded arts education system and studios.

The Vkhutemas--an acronym for "Higher Arts and Technical Studios"--in Moscow was a massive institution with a staff of 100 faculty from across the artistic spectrum. It was created in 1920 to combine artistic talents with technical and design skills for use in consumer and industrial goods. Along with the more famous, though smaller, Bauhaus in Germany, the Vkhutemas deeply influenced Europe's artistic and design communities.

Within Russia, a number of overlapping commissariats, schools, studios and institutions employed artists not for propaganda purposes--or at least not primarily--but to discover what a new popular culture based on working class democracy could look like.

The Soviet state enthusiastically embraced filmmaking and photography as powerful cultural tools. From the films and works on display at MoMA, it is obvious that artists in the early to mid-1920s were able to experiment and innovate with these technologies.

The famous "Odessa Steps" sequence of Sergei Eisenstein's film The Battleship Potemkin is projected on one wall, showcasing Eisenstein's development of montage, quick cuts and rapid juxtaposition to create powerful reactions within viewers.

On the opposite wall, Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera uses more technical manipulations--slow and fast motion, split screens, double exposures--to heighten the sense of excitement, danger and motion in the modern city. A feature-length film, it has no characters, no plot, and no narrative.

ARTISTS AND intellectuals in Russia emerged out of the First World War in a dramatically different state than those in the rest of Europe. Constructivism and Suprematism are optimistic, ambitious movements that embraced the transformations of society--and in the case of Constructivism, sought to actively participate in the material reconstruction of society.

The works on display express a thrilling confidence about the potential of mass production and science to transform society. Elsewhere, art embraced mysticism, the subconscious and absurdism as expressions of the modern mood. Dadaism and Surrealism, while at times explicitly anti-capitalist, also express the despair and dislocation that the war caused for millions of people.

Although not mentioned explicitly in any museum materials in or around the show, MoMA makes amply evident that the Russian Avant-Garde was innovative in yet another way: the participation of women. The first works introducing the show are a stunning series of linoleum cuts by Olga Rozanov, followed by a Suprematist canvas by Popova.

While women have participated in art making in every era, the prominence of women here is not unrelated to dramatic gains that began to unfold in Russia after the revolution. And while a few male "big names" of the period--Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin--are better known, the Russian Avant-Garde was profoundly collaborative.

Taking into account what was accomplished with the support of a government constantly under the gun and an economy teetering on collapse, it boggles the mind to imagine what artists could achieve in a stable, sustainable economy.

Despite the wholesale enlistment of a generation of painters, designers, poets, filmmakers, sculptors and architects into the project of creating a new society, art as pure propaganda is hard to find in the exhibit. An organic and strongly felt commitment to human enrichment is evident throughout.

Because the show stops several years before the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin reached its height, the single-minded, unquestioning, monolithic tone that permeates the art of Social Realism from that later period is absent.

It's fair to say that this exhibition--and Soviet art in general at the time--largely does not depict the dramatic suffering that took place during the first 10 years after the Russian revolution.

But art was certainly not a dumb, unthinking tool in the hands of the government. In fact, the vehemence of the Stalinist bureaucracy against the styles that dominated the first period of the Russian state give some indication of their democratic, critical and dynamic impact.

It is difficult to experience in any way the elation that the revolutionaries of Russia felt in 1917 and after, nor the challenges they faced, but this exhibit gives a small taste of that profound period when human liberation was on the horizon.

Further Reading

From the archives