A Brief Examination Of The Relationship Between The Russian Avant-Garde And The October Revolution
The Russian Avant Garde began in Russia in about 1915 It was the year that Malevich revealed his Suprematist compositions that reduced painting to total abstraction. and rid the pictures of any reference whatsoever to the visual world. He is credited with being the first artist to do this; that is, forsake the visual world for a world of pure feeling and sensation. This was the first movement originated by Russians and the birth of several other Avant Garde movements. Probably the most popular piece at his 1915 exhibition was “BLACK SQUARE” (real name “suprematist composition”. It’s basically a black square on a slightly larger white square that forms a border around it. It was hung in the exhibition in the way an icon would be hung in a peasant’s home; ie top corner of the room. Malevich saw Suprematism as representing a yearning for space, an impulse to break free from the globe of the earth. It a spirit, a spirituality that went beyond anything before it.
Among Malevich’s students and contemporaries were such names as El Lissitzsky, Alexsandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin who were, of course, to lead the Constructivist movement which started in the same year as Malevich’s exhibition. Tatlin had returned from studying art in Paris in 1913 where he had seen a series of relief constructions by Picasso. Tatlin became very interested in form and message rather than representation and so he himself made a series of constructions. They were in the same vein as Picasso, but they were framed within a space and jutted out of the picture plane into the space of the observer. They created a lot of interest and he coined the term Constructivism. Tatlin and Malevich, who had been friends up until this point started to be competitors over art ideology and this continued for a long time after the Bolshevik Revolution in October, 1917.
There had been a smaller Capitalist revolution in February that year but the October Revolution completely usurped it. After the October Revolution both Tatlin and Malevich opened up art schools. Malevich’s Suprematist school was similar in style but not ideology to the De Stijl movement in Holland, while the Constructivist school of Tatlin’s had links to the German Bauhaus. The October revolution had been a primarily proletariat revolution and proletarians have proven to be somewhat negative in their attitude to new, radical confronting art styles and this was no exception. Both schools realised they had to prove their worth, so to speak. The new communist government saw artists as elite. A few things transpired to change the soviet government’s ideas about these artists.
Rodchenko was proud of the fact that the leftist artists had been the first to come to work with the Bolshevik comrades. There was a Constructivist manifesto released in 1922,( when Constructivism had reached its Zenith and had started ever so slowly to decline,) stating that the movement as a whole was “trying to build the intellectual material production of Communist culture”. The general mood among the Avant Garde was one of completely embracing the Bolshevik ideal. Perhaps this is why they were given so much freedom. From all accounts, the leftist artists felt very supported by the government. According to a letter written at the time by a friend of several of the artists, all of the young artists, no matter how innovative or experimental were taken seriously. They spoke about being able to realise their dreams, and they were grateful that neither politics nor power intruded into their work. They felt it was the first time most of them had been given the opportunity to do everything they wanted in their own field. A boyish dream, perhaps, but it must have been extremely liberating. They ran with their new ideas for a while and then got down to the work of helping the revolution through art.
The Suprematist and Constructivist schools tried different approaches. Malevich’s Suprematists were trying to create a whole new vision, a new world, breaking all tradition and rejecting the old culture. Tatlin’s school, however, rejected easel painting. They said it was bourgeois and should be discounted completely. They adopted a very mathematical, utilitarian approach to art. They studied engineering and architecture. They started designing artistic, functional but also utilitarian equipment for the new society. Their approach worked. More and more they were noticed to be making art for the masses. To a new government who were wrestling with such questions as how to shape the new Soviet society and what people needed to be taught (so as to become proper soviet citizens), these artists looked like they had the ability and intelligence to fulfil the government dreams. They were looking for the official proletarian art and, although suprematism had some ideas they could use, Constructivism was looking better and better. Trotsky, Bukharin, Lunacharsky and others were against government control of the arts; so they must have been delighted to have the artists themselves so willing to help with the propaganda campaign, seen as so necessary for the education of the masses.
Trotsky felt art should be left alone but the government needed to turn the working classes into a conscious collective, both politically and technologically.
The fact that most of the population was unable to read a political pamphlet created some problems. Posters with pictorial messages became essential to the mass communication system. By the 1920s, Constructivism became the dominant art primarily because they were able to fuse poster art with fine art and make it accessible to the masses. The Suprematists did print a few abstract posters like El Lissitsky’s 1919 poster. .BEAT THE WHITES WITH THE RED WEDGE but they had nowhere near the propaganda power of Tatlin’s boys.
Suprematists did also insist on imbuing their work with a deep spirituality that flew in the face of new soviet atheistic ideals. This was another reason for its unpopularity.
The government saw Constructivism as a tool and all other art as Art. Lenin said he did not know whether all these art forms were the highest manifestation of artistic genius or not; simply because he was unable to understand them. He also said that he received no joy or pleasure from them either. Further, that although complete freedom was the right of every artist this did not mean free reign was to be the order of the day either. Stalin was later to take this to mean extreme and total control of the arts which led to the bloody purges of those who had not died.
This is not to say that the Constructivists weren’t astract, they were, but also very functional. They succeeded in eliminating personal taste completely from the objects they produced. They employed a rational approach to industrial designs.
By 1920 Tatlin had caught the eye of the government with his new industrial designs. He had, for instance, designed a new stove that used minimal fuel and radiated maximum heat. He also designed new functional clothing for the masses. In 1919 the Department for Artistic Work of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment commissioned Tatlin to produce a monument for the Third International. This was the work Tatlin is probably best known for, even though it was never built. It was more massive than the Eiffel Tower and was far too expensive to build anyway. A double concentric spiral form thrust into the sky at a 70degree angle to symbolise the new society reaching for the utopian goal. It was to be one third of a mile high and house a gigantic sphere, cube and prism. There were quite a few constructivist buildings erected but virtually no Suprematist designs ever saw the light of day.
By 1921 Constructivism had reached its Zenith and had slowly started a decline that would last another nine years or so until the Stalinist purge of artists began. Their popularity didn’t diminish very much but the punchiness of their art which was vital at the start of the revolution was no longer needed as much. The fist world war was over, the revolutionary government were now the official state line and the emphasis changed from War propaganda and monuments to posters promoting the new economic policy and the bourgeoning soviet cinema industry. Constructivist art turned its attention to the people as humans, not as units for the revolution. They started making functional art for the civil sector. George and Vladimir Sternberg were Constructivists who became widely recognised during this period. They designed economic policy posters similar to Rodchenko and Lissitzky but their real fame came through film poster designs. The Russian film industry was becoming very experimental and radical through such people as Eisenstein and Vertov and the Sternerg brothers naturally followed suite. They were also responsible for a world changing tecnique in graphic art and photography; The extreme close-up.
The slow decline of the Avant Garde art movement kept going until the early thirties. Artists were still creating remarkable Constructivist and Suprematist art, among other styles, But the heady days of revolution and innovation were behind them. The treasury was empty, there was no more money for gigantic monumental public art and architecture and glorious examples of people’s art. A lot of art was still produced but it had reverted somewhat. Considering what had just happened in art in Russia in the preceeding 15 years or so, this newly emerging art was almost safe by comparison. Oil on canvas came back. People were framing paintings again. In a lot of ways art, or the political edge of art, had lost its sharpness.
Stalin was in power. A peasant from the backwoods who’s idea of art was kittens in a basket crossed with a big titted wench frolicking on the new people’s farm. In 1932 Stalin got hold of the Union of Artists and put a man called Isaak Brodsky in charge. Brodsky had been trained in academic painting of the pre-revolutionary schools and was revolted by any art from Impressionism onwards. This spelt disaster for the Avant Garde artists. Stalin started making very scary public statements about art and artists. He said abstract art could no longer be tolerated. Art should be figurative as well as have a propaganda message. He said the demand of Soviet culture is that all coarseness and wildness should be eradicated from every corner of Soviet life. The Avant Garde was just an old Capitalist art in it’s death throes tearing itself apart, and it must be liquidated. IT WAS. In 1932 Georgii Sternberg was killed in a motorcycle accident. In 1935, before he could be pu!
rged, Malevich, the man who was responsible for giving the Avant Garde movement life, died in Moskow.
The Avant garde no longer had a base. A few caved in and became correct thinkers. A few escaped to other countries in Europe. Some stayed in Europe and some ended up in America. They have developed and grown. Along with Gabo and Rothko and Kandinsky and numerous others, they are still having a profound influence on art. There were many parallels between the Russian Avant Garde and the two revolutions in 1915. The big difference between them in 2001, is that the art survives and grows stronger; while the other is seen for what it is, a pathetic pseudo despotism run, for a lot of years by a sociopathic mortophile.
Russian Constructivism. Christina Lodder.1983. Yale University Press.
Art Spoke. Robert Atkins.1993. Abbeville Press.
Art and Revolution. John Berger. 1969. Pantheon Books
The Struggle for Utopia. Victor Margolin. 1997. University of Chicago Press.