November 2017 marked the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution. To commemorate the occasion, several museums in the West revisited the art of the Russian avant-garde, presenting it, Vera Koshkina contends in our April issue, from a “Cold War perspective,” focusing on “the suppression of bold new artistic movements.” But two innovative shows in Chicago broke this mold, placing “much greater emphasis on the aspirational aspects of avant-garde visual culture.” Here we look back in A.i.A.’s archives to our April 1981 issue, in which art critic Peter Schjeldahl addressed this “central, still unresolved dynamic” between the period’s revolutionary aesthetics and later reactionary politics in considering “The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives,” a massive travelling exhibition that opened in 1980 at the Los Angeles County Museum.
Schjeldahl begins his ambitious, sympathetic essay by admitting “an original, basic ignorance” of the Russian experience during these revolutionary decades, but by its conclusion he has provided us a comprehensive sense of the governing formal principles of the various avant-garde movements, as well as a clear sense of the sociopolitical context in which they emerged. His central contention is that “the art of the Russian avant-garde is among the most anti-sensual art there ever was. It’s almost all in the head.” He forwards the argument through close readings of several works, particularly examples by Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich, and Alexander Rodchenko, as well as a comparative analysis centered on Piet Mondrian. We present an abridged version of his essay below. —Eds.
Starting out to think about the Russian avant-garde—meanwhile visiting the great 465-item Los Angeles exhibition several times, attending seminars and plowing into the literature—I noticed something peculiar happening. As details of the subject became clear and familiar, the subject itself, the gigantic concatenation of artistic and political forces in Russia between 1910 and 1930, came to seem less conceivable, more troubling and above all stranger. Undoubtedly an original, basic ignorance on my part contributes to this effect, which sufficient study and persistence would eventually begin to reverse. But then, ignorance of the Russian experience is an all but universal condition in the West, such that even naive and fumbling public attempts to grapple with it may have some utility.
Indeed, part of what made the Los Angeles show so exhilarating was the decisiveness and clarity brought to these murky region by whole generations of Russian artists. Forty artists were represented, and scarcely a half-dozen seemed at all marginal. Most were new to me, yet a fourth of the artists in the show have died in just the last fifteen years or are still alive. We know so little of what they suffered and produced, as if it all happened hundreds of years ago. The very great artist Vladimir Tatlin, who died obscurely in Moscow in 1953, today is a kind of ghost to our understanding. Only a pathetic remnant of his work survives, and unlike many others in the movement this reclusive ex-sailor left little writing. One knows him by his powerful effect on others. In a way, one really knows the whole great, truncated movement, a thoroughfare ending at the brink of a cliff, only by its uncompleted reverberations—its effect on oneself.
Much of what now seems strange to us about the Russian avant-garde is the result of a familiar circumstance of modern intellectual experience: the contradiction between internationalist ideologies, like modernism or socialism, and national character—the conscious and unconscious forces in history. For instance, how much of modernist orthodoxy reduces to velleities of “French” taste? And how much of the “triumph” of Abstract Expressionism is national self-regard? From Western viewpoints, Russian national character has always seemed bewilderingly odd, literally outlandish. This can nowhere be more the case than in a moment when the combined material, political and artistic innovations of modern Europe were seized on by Russian imaginations and taken to undreamed-of extremes. As extravagant as Western bouts of revolutionary and technological romance have been, they have been nothing compared to the explosion of modernism in “backward” Russia. At times in their writings the avant-gardists are downright frightening, intoxicated to a point of seeming near-madness. When one mentally tones down their screeds, as in reducing the speed of a record from 78 to 33 rpm, the message emerges as the familiar one of modernist optimism. Yet there is still that improbable velocity—and the way the phenomena of the period still hang together, amazingly not flying to pieces—to account for, and to try to do this is to enter an alien space.
The Russian avant-garde emerged and took momentum from the explosive growth of a cosmopolitan bourgeoisie in the first decade of this century. Salon exhibitions (where young Russians hung beside European masters), literary and art magazines, plays, ballets and collaborative ventures of many kinds—all served to turn St. Petersburg and Moscow into accelerating vortices of energy, knowledge and experiment (nearly all of which the incredible Sergei Diaghilev seems to have had something to do with). The first dominant artists of the avant-garde, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, first came to prominence in 1906, when they exhibited in a Paris salon. Three years later another salon consisted almost entirely of their work, heralding their stylistic invention, “Neo-Primitivism,” and properly launching the movement. It was characteristic of this style as of the next major one, “Cubo-Futurism,” that it assimilated in one gulp more than one European esthetic, in its case Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Expressionism with a pungent admixture of Russian folk art. The name CuboFuturism speaks for itself (a little too loudly, perhaps, of Futurism, never quite the direct influence in Russia that Cubism was); its native admixture was a precociously advanced drive toward abstraction. When the curtain of war fell between Russia and Europe on 1914, the pattern of piggyback stylistic assimilation reversed, spawning a variety of abstract invention unparalleled in the West for many years.
The excitement of the Los Angeles show, given such limitations as an exclusive reliance on Western collections, is hard to describe to someone who didn’t see it. In its majestic Frank Gehry installation it was rather like a Russian novel, with that kind of historic sweep forward coupled with the sweep from the foreground of richly individualized major characters into a social depth where one keeps getting the minor characters mixed up with each other. Sensing the force of life in them, one starts caring deeply for even the minor characters, trying out of sheer conscience to keep their names straight. Only here the genealogies are ones not of family and class but of art and ideas, forming and disintegrating and reforming like patterns in a kaleidoscope. Any attempt to make orderly chronological sense of the movement is doomed to either partiality or plodding incoherence, as I know after having struggled through several (Camilla Gray’s 1962 The Russian Experiment in Art, though much of its scholarship has been superseded, is still the best). Despairing of comprehensiveness, I am going to focus on just a few figures and themes, beginning with the first maturity of the Russian avant-garde in the work of Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich.
Malevich versus Tatlin, Suprematism versus Constructivism, “nonobjectivity” versus the “culture of materials.” Both artists came up through Neo-Primitivism and Cubo-Futurism and the incessant rounds of group exhibitions, theatrical collaborations and collaboration with poets that marked the budding avant-garde before World War I. Malevich quickly established himself as the premier advanced painter after Goncharova and Larionov whose “Rayonism,” a short-lived, forced synthesis of Cubo-Futurism with Orphism, more or less ended their centrality to the movement. (In 1915 they left Russia to join Diaghilev, exceptions to the remarkable flocking home of Russian artists, including Kandinsky and Chagall, at that time.) Tatlin was decisively influenced by frequent visits to Picasso’s studio in 1913; he begged the master to let him be an assistant but was turned down. Back in Russia, while Malevich was developing the otherworldly abstraction of Suprematism, Tatlin created the abstract assemblages of raw materials, “Counter-Reliefs,” that prefigured Constructivism. The two men hated each other. More than once they fought physically. What are we to make of this rivalry that seems, alternately, farcical and tragic?
Contentiousness and jealousy were a dark side of the artists’ energy and seriousness, heightening the stridency of an era of manifestos. The tone of their polemics is hair-raising even at this distance. Rival ideas and tendencies are verbally “smashed” and “killed” when not pronounced dead at the scene, of natural causes. These harsh tones were not specifically allied with the cause of social revolution until after the fact. Indeed, in the early war years much of their militancy took the form of a nationalist and even proto-Fascist mystique of violence, as in Malevich’s enthusiasm for war as “the living origins of man” and the macabre subject matter of Olga Rozanova’s 1916 suite of beautiful abstract collages, The Universal War. These artists were revolutionary, all right, but one feels that almost any sort of revolution would have done. They were willing to let everything go to smash for the sake of a future projected by their own energy and optimism. Apocalypse is a recurrent dream of many modern artists; like no other group of artists in history, the Russian avant-garde lived a real apocalypse in perfect confidence that it and their dream were one. What makes this attitude all the more unnerving is that unlike the operatically bellicose Italian Futurists the Russians blended their militancy with the highest esthetic and spiritual—and, later, socially humanist—aspirations.
The variety, complexity, and speed of innovation in the Russian avant-garde might seem to defy generalization, but there are some markedly consistent motifs and tones throughout the canon. What I have called the “alien space” of the movement may be confusing, but it does have describable features. This space is diagonal, anti-gravitational, and made of light, whether that light is expressed in paint, wood or steel. From late Cubo-Futurism on, almost everything slants, tilts, cantilevers, thrusts, floats, or launches upward. “Construction” in Constructivism has nothing to do, at the outset, with an architecture of structures built on the ground. Constructivism is announced by Tatlin’s “Counter-Reliefs” that leap outward or from wall to wall. The point in space referred to by Constructivist sculpture is either the fulcrum of dramatic diagonal tensions or, as in the Monument to the Third International, a high, rapturous, idealized point gestured toward. (The Monument was to be parallel to the Earth’s axis thus aimed at Polaris.) A curve in Constructivism or Suprematism usually means the Platonic perfection of the circle of the arc of an incipient motion, an upward spring. The art of the Russian avant-garde is among the most anti-sensual art there ever was. It’s almost all in the head, and both its glory and its strangeness have much to do with this, I believe.
In the Constructivists like Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, the Stenberg Brothers, Konstantin Medunetsky, as among Russian filmmakers, headiness and anti-sensuality seem to have been relatively unconscious, popping out in stray images, obsessive metaphors and ways of speaking. The word “animal” as an adjective is used repeatedly throughout the period as an epithet for everything base and vile. There is a cultish worship of engineering and the machine, especially the airplane. Nikolai Punin, a critical champion of Tatlin, wrote of the Monument to the Third International, “With its heel set against the ground, it escapes from the ground and becomes a sign of the renunciation of all animal, earthly and low ambitions.” One of Rodchenko’s photo-montage cover designs for the magazine Lef in the early ’20s shows a soaring plane firing a giant fountain pen at a gesticulating guerrilla below. One notes an oddly Victorian ring in this image of mechanized high-mindedness conquering “low” instinct. (Rodchenko pursued this theme regularly, sometimes with derisive images of African natives—images naïve but nonetheless repellant in their racism.) Tatlin’s last major work, the quixotic flying machine called Letatlin, symbolizes the Constructivists’ obsessive longings to be up and away. But the purest and still most stirring expression of Russian yearning for the high and disembodied is Malevich’s Suprematism, an esthetic the Constructivists repudiated for its mysticism but, to my mind, merely sublimated in their own art.
To appreciate the special and profound character of Malevich’s “non-objectivity,” I have found it useful to compare him with Piet Mondrian, after him the most radically abstract artist before Pollock. Why does Malevich feel so much more abstract than Mondrian, let alone Kandinsky? The comparison requires some reflection on the way Mondrian’s paintings affect the viewer, the way they engage attention and what they do with it. What they do, in effect, is fix the viewer in actual, earthly space, a space conditioned by gravity. Mondrian’s exclusive use of vertical and horizontal lines reifies the two—the only two—states of independent stability gravity allows. For him, the diagonal could only be an anecdote: something propped or rising or falling down. Like all other earthly creatures, humans are intricately though unconsciously sensitive to gravity—to the way, for instance, one enacts the horizontal and vertical while viewing a painting, by standing upright on a flat floor (except in the Guggenheim, where I think Mondrian feels a trifle surreal). One responds kinesthetically to the structural balances and tensions of Mondrian’s compositions. The harder one looks, the more the hair’s-breadth stability of a Mondrian begins to feel very important. One has begun to project into an abstract sphere an aspect of the primordial drama of being a physical, terrestrial being: the continuous autonomic effort to remain standing.
As, if you will, the pure poet of gravity, Mondrian was not deluded in wanting to found a “universal” abstract art, but his ambition fails by a technicality. The technicality is that in all but a fraction of the real universe—that is, in outer space, where perceptible gravity does not exist—Mondrian’s art would be nonsense. In this sense he never stopped being a Dutch landscapist, investing ultimate significance in trees and churches perpendicular to an intimate horizon. Malevich thought bigger. If the diagonal is a trivial genre for Mondrian, the whole condition of physical, earthly existence is the same to Malevich. One immediately grasps that his pictorial space is purely mental/metaphysical, “non-objective” to the most radical degree possible with the given materials. I daresay that in no other abstract painting is the formal dynamic of the framing edge less significant. Only in some of the “Black Squares” (originally titled “Black Quadrilaterals,” indicating Malevich’s utter lack of interest in any mystique of geometry as such) are shapes centered and aligned—and these images, for him, were icons of absolute metaphysical “zero.” Even his cruciform are made up on unruled, off-plumb contours, and rarely does any shape touch a framing edge. Nearly all of Malevich’s lines are diagonal, if not curved, and they function less to structure the space than, as phenomena, to emphasize its lack of structure, its abrogation of all earthly, mortal, physical laws. His paintings are songs of an inconceivable emptiness.
One of several curatorial coups of the Los Angeles exhibition was the installation of Suprematist oils, watercolors and gouaches by Malevich in a manner inspired by a photograph of his epochal contribution to the 1915 so-called “Last Futurist Exhibition, 0-10” in St. Petersburg. The works were scattered over two walls in a corner, with one painting actually bridging the corner (in a traditional way of Russian domestic icons). Though the curators, Stephanie Barron and Maurice Tuchman, had only six oils and six large works on paper to play with, the effect, for me, was of fully appreciating Malevich’s genius for the first time. Freed from the matrix of conventional isolated hanging, the pictures soared individually and generated a powerful cumulative charge. Two things struck me: first the gravity-free, “a-formal” lyricism of the paintings, and second just how painted they are—a quality completely lost in reproduction. The energetic surfaces look variously waxy or buttery or “stitched.” Other writers have remarked on a “rough,” “careless” quality in Malevich’s facture as if he had merely been in a hurry. (At the time, Tatlin primly condemned the work as “unprofessional.”) I think, to the contrary, that negligence had nothing to do with it, and that Malevich’s painterliness is the “ground” in more ways than one for the cerebral transports of his Suprematism. It declares a space in which mental phenomena can be felt as not just conceptually but also in some sense literally real.
Malevich’s Suprematist paintings, in my opinion, are the best art produced by the Russian avant-garde, though Tatlin’s vanished “Counter-Reliefs” make a ghostly claim for themselves. Only Malevich seems to me to have seen the spiritual aspirations of the Russian avant-garde—aspirations operative even in the most materialist work—through to a full reconciliation of the mental and the physical. Or, if that sounds too metaphysical, put it that only in Malevich’s Suprematist paintings—and, at a lower level of intensity, in the Suprematist work of some of his followers—do I not feel the grit of an incomplete or thwarted intention, the touch of lurching hysteria that strikes me in even the most exhilarating Constructivism.
Saying this, I am aware that the issue could be put very differently, as it was in fact put by the Constructivists. They rejected the idea of esthetic perfection and of the self-sufficient art work; for them, the artist’s intention was to be completed and ratified in social use. The imbalance I feel is thus the result of no incapacity, but of a self-effacing commitment. But I don’t see how it is possible to get around the fact that Constructivism and Productivism (the final subordination of art to applied ends) were not completed and ratified in social reality. Instead, they died there.
Here, with the schizophrenia of its esthetic and social insights, we arrive at the central, still unresolved dynamic of the Russian avant-garde. It is a debate that Stalinist repression did not settle but only abolished in Russia. It continues to simmer today, always ready to break out among us in full force. To think about it is to experience a fundamental anguish of our century, a choice between alienated sensibility and surrender to the mass that is no real choice at all—each “option” entailing a kind of moral insanity. One is not alone and yet one is alone. The failure of modern civilizations has been a failure to make the world secure for this paradoxical truth of human existence. If art like Malevich’s or Mondrian’s has a moral dimension, it is in making an abstract symbol of just such security. In the absence of its social realization, however, doesn’t such symbolization have a hollow, trivial, escapist ring? Aren’t those who sacrifice themselves to a possible future, like the Constructivists, more serious and honorable, whether they succeed or not? But what’s so dishonorable about doing the best and finest thing one can do in the given present? The questioning spirals back on itself and rushes down into darkness.
Still open is the question of the Russian avant-garde’s relations to the Soviet state—exactly how they deteriorated and how inevitable was the deterioration, completed in 1934 when Socialist Realism was made compulsory. Stalin still has his sympathizers in the West, it seems, as witness the nauseating blandness of a recent English writer on Rodchenko (italics mine):
From the beginning of the 1930s the advanced art of Rodchenko and his contemporaries did not receive official support. The climate had changed, and at a time when the Soviet Union was struggling with a series of Five Year Plans to modernize industry and agriculture to establish economic viability it was felt that the simple rhetoric of Socialist Realism provided a more easily intelligible framework for communicating the changes that were taking place.
It all sounds so perfectly reasonable and innocuous. “Changed climate.” Naturally. No hard feelings. One would never suspect that the ’30s in Russia were an era of murder and grinding repression, of midnight knocks and vengeful mediocrity, of forced cowardice and self-betrayal. The “tragedy” of the Russian avant-garde is rather small potatoes, actually, among the horrors of that period, but it’s still quite enough to fuel a lingering rage. Worse, it raises the depressing issue of complicity, the artists’ role in contributing to the political barbarism that would turn on them. When they had power—through the sheer accident of having a friend in Anatoly Lunacharsky, Commissar of Education from 1917 to 1929—what did they do with it?
The artists used their considerable power (which extended to such small, telling matters as commanding extra food rations during the famines of 1920-21) to found and develop a dizzying series of innovative artistic and educational institutions—notably Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture, dedicated to “scientific” analysis of the arts) in Moscow and the Vkhutemas (Higher-Technical Arts Schools) in Moscow and Petrograd. The artists also mounted spectacular exhibitions, along with theatrical productions, propaganda projects, and other group undertakings, and with the development of Productivist ideology were able to command at least some industrial facilities for their designs. But they also behaved repressively toward artists of other persuasions—most ominously the traditional realists (who did not forget)—and badly toward each other. Malevich, asked by Chagall to teach at his new art school in Vitebsk, ousted Chagall in a treacherous coup and transformed the school into his own power base, called Unovis. Meanwhile, Inkhuk was a kind of headquarters for the debate and enforcement of each new twist in Constructivist ideology. If the artists’ wild Utopian dreams, hatched among the ruins of their country, often seem rather touching, their political behavior, in a time sorely in need of reconciliations, is often appalling.
Rodchenko is one of the most entrancing, disturbing and instructive figures of the period. Only twenty-three years old in 1914, this phenomenally gifted and versatile artist was one of the first to be bred entirely within the Sphere of Russian avant-garde theory and practice. Tatlin’s aptest follower, he was on the cutting edge of Constructivism and Productivism. He was a leader in inventive work in typography, interior design and especially photography. He was the artist who collaborated most closely with the greatest Soviet poet, Mayakovsky, and with the most on-the-spot Soviet filmmaker, Dziga Vertov. With Stepanova he formed one of the great artists’ marriages of the time. His actual achievements may seem flimsy compared to those of Tatlin—who increasingly withdrew from the art scene into solid industrial engineering work—but his unhesitating responses to each intuited directive of the Zeitgeist make his activity, even today, a dazzling spectacle. In 1921 he painted what, to his satisfaction, was the “last painting”: Pure Color, three monochrome canvases painted red, yellow and blue. In the same year he issued, with Stepanova, the “Productivist Manifesto,” in whose concluding slogans may be heard the stupefying cant then filling the air:
1. Down with art, long live technical science.
2. Religion is a lie. Art is a lie.
3. Destroy the last remaining attachment of human thought to art.
4. Down with the conservation of artistic traditions. Long live the constructive technician.
5. Down with art which only obscures the incompetence of the human race.
6. The collective art of today is constructive life.
As a political creature, Rodchenko seems to me cold, unscrupulous and occasionally despicable. He was one of the few avant-gardists who adjusted to official demands in the ’30s, producing dutiful propaganda photography. (In 1936 he made photographs of divers, fascinating in their resemblance to the coda sequence of Leni Riefenstal’s film, Olympiad, of the same year, only not as good.) For all his talents, he epitomizes a certain shallowness in sectors of the Russian avant-garde, a blustering polemical enthusiasm that masked the lack of real vocations on the scale of Malevich’s or Tatlin’s. Again, I think of the insidious rivalry of those two giants, so fateful for the movement.
In his art, Rodchenko was anything but uninfluenced by Malevich; he only obliged himself to pretend otherwise. Often, the polemics of the period tell one story and the art tells another. (There is poignant evidence, in papers left when he died, that Tatlin throughout his life was as obsessed with Malevich’s art and ideas as with Picasso’s.)
My own favorite work of the movement’s late stage is the more or less pure Suprematism applied to industrial design and architectural fantasy by Malevich’s pupils Nikolai Suetin and Ilia Chashnik, the latter an especially gifted artist who died in 1929 at age 27. (His was one of several horribly premature deaths in the movement, the most costly being those of Olga Rozanova, at age 32 in 1918, and Popova, at age 35 in 1924. Disease took all three. A poignant stairwell installation in Los Angeles recorded the fates of all the avant-garde beneath their photographs—Mayakovsky, a suicide in 1930; Malevich, dead of disease in 1935; the theater genius Meyerkhold, shot in 1940; Vladimir Stenberg, still living in Moscow.) Though relatively slight in impact and ambition—theoretically to match, certainly, for Constructivist “production art” of the time—their decorative uses of Suprematist motifs, particularly in ceramics, have a wonderful force and grace about them. They seem, indeed, to be the everyday utensils of a new, improved humanity. Chashnik’s humble little 1923 design in watercolor for a black cup and saucer bisected by a vertical red band functions, for me, as a talisman of the movement’s human promise: life stripped to essentials and infinitely enhanced. Unlike most of the other unfulfilled dreams of our century, this one may be eminently worth redreaming.