Tuesday, 01 April 2014 00:00

Art of the Soviet avante garde

Written by
Soviet literacy poster from 1924 Soviet literacy poster from 1924 Alexander Rodchenko
"The dilemma of creating innovatory art which is also accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved"

HOW DID the momentous Bolshevik revolution affect art and artists?  It did so at every level: art education, production, patronage, distribution and reception were all transformed. Fierce debates about the form and function of art in the new worker state raised fundamental issues; from these stemmed so rich a flowering of the visual arts that it’s influence is still alive.

The revolution was itself partly the work of artists. Some had worked towards social and/or political change since Russian artists had taken the role of social critic in the  nineteenth century. In the 1870s the Wanderers’ paintings had exposed social injustice in daily life.

By the early twentieth century a well-informed Russian avant-guard was in touch with Paris and Munich, the epicentres of innovatory art.  Embracing modernism it debated how to transform and modernise Tsarist Russia. Some, like Natalia Goncharova adopted the vivid colour and formal simplifications of ‘primitive’ Russian peasant art, rather than those of African art favoured by the French and Germans. Russian Futurists engaged in antibourgeois activities. By 1913 Malevich had rejected all representation as antiquated, arguing that his revolutionary abstraction equated modern times.

October 1917 brought radical cultural change. No longer for bourgeois and aristocrat, art would now be for the people. The art market was abolished and museums nationalised; the worker state became art’s patron. Initially, most avant-guard artists welcomed the revolution because Lenin’s idea of a political avant-guard as an agent for social change legitimised their own calls for radical action to combat conservative attitudes to art and society.

For Marxists like Vladimir Tatlin, here was an opportunity to make real and meaningful change. He recalled: “To Accept (sic) or not accept the October Revolution . There was no such question for me. I organically merged into active creative, social and pedagogical life’. Others, like Wassili Kandinsky were not sympathetic to Bolshevik politics, but welcomed the artistic freedom which it brought,  while aesthetically or/and politically conservative artists feared a loss of private patronage and critical status.

Contrary to western propaganda, no artist was sent to the salt mines: Lenin and Lunacharsky, (Commissar of Enlightenment 1917 - 1929) pursued a pluralist arts policy. Nevertheless for the first time in the world, the avant-guard was appointed to positions of power. Despite the material hardships and shortages of War Communism (1917-1922) it launched into a dynamic transformation of art and its institutions.

Tatlin headed IZO, the visual arts section of Lunacharsky’s commissariat.  Recognising Kandinsky’s international status as an innovator, IZO gave him the important role of reorganising art education and museums. Together with the younger Alexander Rodchenko he founded 22 provincial museums and acquired the important collections of Russian avant-guard art which now grace museums in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics . Tatlin, Kasimir Malevich, Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Lyubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova , Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and others taught at the newly created VkHUTEMAS, SVOMAS and other art schools where they pioneered innovatory teaching methods which were to influence the Bauhaus.

The debates about the role of art and artists raged on. Malevich and his UNOVIS group argued that the researches of innovatory artists would act as prototypes for practical application in architecture and design. Others took a less social view: Chagall continued his poetic depictions of his personal response to life, while Kandinsky pursued his investigations into the communication of heightened spiritual states of mind via colour, line and form.

Viewing such work as bourgeois self-indulgence, the politically engaged left heeded Mayakovsky’s dictum: ” the streets are our brushes the squares our palettes“. They created ‘agit-prop ’ (agitation and propaganda) using their talents to decorate propaganda trains and boats, make Rosta street posters and organise public pageants and events. For example in 1920  Natan Altman and other artists involved 2,000 members of the Petrograd proletariat in the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace which included decorating buildings with gigantic abstract banners and using factory sirens and arc lights.

Some Marxists, led by Tatlin and Rodchenko called for the abolition of the art object which they saw as an exchangeable commodity belonging to the bourgeois past. Artists must leave their ivory towers and construct the new Socialist state alongside other workers by putting art at the service of the revolution. They became known as the Constructivists and put the experiments conducted in the new art schools to practical use by  designing posters, books, ceramics, theatre sets, etc. for the masses. Under the slogan ‘Art into Production’ artists were to go into the factories to create modernist, mass produced designs because the new social order demanded new materials and new forms. For example, Popova and Stepanova designed textiles printed with the abstracted motifs of modernity : the zigzag of electricity, the whirl of aeroplane propellors, the cogs and wheels of trains and tractors. Popova, who had begun her life as a painter is reputed to have said: ’ No artistic success has given me such satisfaction as the sight of a peasant or a worker buying a length of material designed by me.’

Meanwhile, artists such as Alexander Deineka argued that modernism was inaccessible to the masses. This was indeed often true. Abstract street decorations were said to frighten the horses.  No less committed to the revolution, they  argued for a representational art which would carry revolutionary messages. Seen as reactionary by the Constructivists they were the forerunners of Socialist Realism. The dilemma of creating innovatory art which is also accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved.

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