Seeing Red: When Russian Art and Politics Were Revolutionary

young boy's face with bugle mouthpiece on his lips
Aleksandr Rodchenko, Pioneer with a Bugle 1930, MoMA.
This dramatic close-up is a call to arms for Soviet youth, known as Pioneers.

In this unsettling time when the political world seems turned upside down, let’s recall another more tumultuous upheaval 100 years ago: the Bolshevik Revolution. In 2017 museums will acknowledge the centennial with exhibitions of innovative art that flourished in the first decades after this momentous shift, which brought the world’s first government of, by and for the working class. The Hermitage Amsterdam presents “Romanovs and Revolution: The End of Monarchy” Feb. 4-Sept. 17. In London the Royal Academy of Art’s “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932” will be on display Feb. 11-April 17, followed by The Tate Modern’s “Red Star over Russia” Nov. 8-Feb. 18, 2018.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was first off the starting block. Until March 12, “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde” showcases 260 works produced between 1912-35. The paintings, sculpture, photographs, and posters — all from MoMA’s collection — illustrate an exhilarating moment when experimental artists signed on to aid an unprecedented social experiment.

They evoke the speed and dynamism of the modern world.

The most innovative Russian art predated the revolution, taking off in the last years of imperial rule, but it set the stage for a total break with the past. Russian artists, aware of modernist trends like Picasso and Braque’s cubism starting in 1906 and Futurism in Italy in 1907, disavowed academic art and figurative portraits of the aristocracy. Instead, they combined abstractionist tendencies with the flat, bold colors of native folk art to produce Neo-Primitivism.

The first gallery at MoMA shows early experiments in works by Natalia Goncharova and her husband Mikhail Larionov. They make their mark with Rayonist paintings: all slashing, diagonal strokes in bright colors meant to evoke the speed and dynamism of the modern industrialized world.

Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation, c. 1914 / via
Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation, c. 1914 / via

A watercolor by Vasily Kandinsky (Improvisation, c. 1914) — in popsicle pigments and curvilinear, abstract shapes — is more a sad evocation of what might have been than representative of art produced after the revolution. Kandinsky had already invented abstract painting in 1911 in Germany before joining other avant-garde artists in Russia, euphoric about creating a workers’ paradise. Yet, although he co-founded and directed an art institute dedicated to serving the masses, his work was soon denigrated as decadent (too spiritual and subjective). Kandinsky left to teach at the Bauhaus in Germany after his paintings were denounced as fantasies (“a pointless game with pure colors”).

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Marc Chagall suffered a similar fate. Having honed his style in Paris, he returned to his native Vitebsk, a town then in northeast Russia and now in Belarus. Although Chagall was enthusiastic about serving as Commissar of Art, his paintings were vilified as too individualistic. Art, the Party decreed, must transmit official doctrine to the uneducated, illiterate and predominantly rural masses. Yet another original artist emigrated, an early defector.

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack - Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension, 1915 / Malevich invented Suprematism as a completely non-objective style divorced from reality.
Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension, 1915 / via

Those who remained — and whose work was seminal in the development of international modernism — were gung-ho about pioneering new art for a new age. Kazimir Malevich, who invented in 1915 the abstract geometric style known as Suprematism, enthusiastically supported the revolution. He traded in bourgeois easel painting for more socially useful art, sketching designs for textiles, mass-produced porcelain and theater sets.

Malevich had deluded himself that abstraction could bring about beneficial social change. Yet to officials, his paintings were effete, incapable of expressing the glory of the Soviet state to peasants and factory workers. His non-objective, Suprematist work — squares and rectangles on a monochromatic ground — was worthless as propaganda, unlike “realistic” images of beaming collectivized farm workers. In his later years Malevich, was ignored in the Soviet Union, his work derided as “rotting individualistic aesthetics.”

Another avant-garde luminary, Vladimir Tatlin, tried a different tack. His Constructivist approach used three-dimensional materials like wood and metal in sculptures he called counter-reliefs. Considering himself an artist-engineer, Tatlin mocked art that was sensual, too individual or decorative. He sought to unite painting, sculpture and architecture for “creation of a new world.” In the early 1920s Tatlin-style Constructivism — with its, as he said, “automaton-like nature” — was king, the national aesthetic of the Soviet Union. Artists were social engineers.

Alexandra Exter, "Construction," 1922-23, MoMA. Constructivists hoped to build a technological utopia through their designs.
Alexandra Exter, Construction, 1922-23

The revolution promised equality for all, regardless of class, race or gender, and women, called “Amazons of the Russian avant-garde,” were prominent, their roles liberalized. The Cubo-Futurist and Constructivist works of Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Olga Rozanova and Lyubov Popova are standouts in the MoMA show.

Other notable innovators who ardently supported the revolution were El Lissitzky (before he, too, left for the Bauhaus) and Aleksandr Rodchenko. Rodchenko’s black-and-white photographs, with their dizzying angles, extreme foreshortening and tight closeups, are a highlight at MoMA. After the early 1930s, as the crackdown on individual expression ramped up, this brilliant artist ceased serious work.

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In the ‘20s a machine aesthetic ruled. Mass-produced photos, posters and books disseminated encouraging messages to the masses. Excerpts from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece, the film Battleship Potemkin, illustrate another form of mass-media used by artists to inspire and motivate the public.

Graphic design of advertising posters took a giant leap forward. Film posters by the brothers Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, with their radical typography and dynamic composition, still grab your eyeballs.

hands hold red flag, forming a strong diagonal
Gustav Klutsis, Memorial to Fallen Leaders, 1927.

The sports posters of Gustav Klutsis with their plunging diagonals and vivid color blocks (Screaming Red a major motif, of course) trumpeted the strength of post-revolutionary society. Klutsis was a committed Commie, writing, “A new art was needed, … an art that stood side by side with socialist industry, a new militant art, which could organize the will of the masses.” Alas, Klutsis fell afoul of the Party line and was executed in 1938.

Many artists fled. Many others were imprisoned, sent to the Gulag or purged after Joseph Stalin decreed in 1934 that only agit-prop images of Socialist Realism were permitted. Art had to be, the Party mandated, “realistic in form and Socialist in content.”

Culture’s purpose was to “inspire the working people of Soviet society to great exploits in labor,” as a Politburo official put it. Russian art became a Communist tool to educate, motivate and direct the masses. To this end, paintings had to be representational in order to be credible and comprehensible by the public, but their content was aspirational, not realistic — a vision of a fairy-tale future just over the horizon.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, New LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts, 1928.
Aleksandr Rodchenko, New LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts, 1928.

The story of Russian art and the Revolution unfolds in phases. Avant-garde artists first enlisted not to Make America Great Again make Russia great by turning back the clock to a mythical past, but to create the future. The possibilities seemed limitless for a society such as the world had never known, composed of 140 million people in a territory covering one-sixth of the earth. What transpired as a result of reforms like rapid industrialization of the first five-year plan in 1928-32 and collectivizing agriculture was appalling: widespread shortages, famine and six million deaths. The dream of utopia turned to dystopia as civil war, repression and autocratic rule ensued.

In visual art, the artists themselves (and, by extension, civilization) were victims. Official condemnation of individuality and elevation of communal concerns superseded heady, initial freedom. Artists energized by utopian ideals who’d sincerely attempted to serve the state were rejected by their government. There was no bullying boss shouting “You’re fired!” but avant-garde artists were clearly the losers.

Against the implacable wall of Bolshevik dogma, the myth of artistic freedom and inclusiveness crumbled. One of the world’s most innovative eruptions of modernism devolved into enforced conformity, mostly mediocre art and, much worse, purges, incarceration in work camps and execution.

My next post will examine whether this story of art’s flirtation with political power has any lessons for us 100 years later, as we enter another era marked by populist revolt.