In our April issue, Vera Koshkina wrote a searching essay about the different ways in which Western museums commemorated the recent centennial of the October Revolution. To contextualize her piece, we digitized a wide-ranging article by Peter Schjeldahl from our April 1981 issue, in which he reviewed “The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives,” a massive 1980 exhibition on the subject at the Los Angeles County Museum. Here we look back in A.i.A.’s archives to our May 1993 issue, in which John E. Bowlt—a specialist on the Russian avant-garde who today directs the University of Southern California’s Institute of Modern Russian Culture—wrote about “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932,” a major survey at the Guggenheim. Bowlt focuses on the relationship between avant-garde art and Bolshevik state ideology, which he felt the show’s curators oversimplified. “Many artists of the Russian avant-garde simply acquiesced to, rather than welcomed, the October Revolution,” he writes. More to the point, “artists understood political revolution in a wide variety of ways, and, after the event, their adjustment of Marxist ideas and rhetoric to suit their own utopian artistic projects was often idiosyncratic to say the very least.” We present his essay in full below. —Eds.
Since the publication in 1962 of Camilla Gray’s pioneering study of the Russian avant-garde, The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922, over 130 books and catalogues on the subject have appeared in English, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. And since the comprehensive exhibition, “Paris-Moscow, 1900-1930,” organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1979, and then hosted by the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow two years later as “Moscow-Paris, 1900-1930,” there have been over 100 exhibitions devoted to the Russian avant-garde in public and private venues throughout the U.S., Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan.
These statistics alone indicate that the Russian avant-garde—the mosaic of personalities and events that transformed the face of Russian art, literature, and music in the 1910s and ‘20s—has already received wide coverage. True, a decade or so ago, the subject was still fraught with the difficulties of territorial access and political bias, but the early and mid ’80s witnessed the general recognition in the Soviet Union of the avant-garde as a valuable component of the Russian cultural heritage, and the result was a series of major exhibitions in Europe and Japan that drew substantially on Soviet holdings. Among the latest and most successful of these was “Art into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914-1932,” shown at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle and then at the Walker Art Center in 1990. This promotion of the Russian avant-garde as an entity was paralleled by important examinations of individual artists, including Malevich, Popova, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Klucis, and Filonov.1
The most recent in this astonishing series, the Guggenheim Museum’s “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde 1915-1932”—the first of the major surveys to be shown in New York—was born with all earthly blessings. It had the social imprimatur of three prestigious museums (before coming to the Guggenheim, it showed at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam); it had curatorial support from an international team of scholars, some of whom know the subject; the organizers were able to draw upon almost any relevant collection in the world, public or private—and the exhibition had generous sponsorship from Lufthansa and other patrons.
On a practical level, “The Great Utopia” fulfilled the admirable goal of reintegrating a disbanded and fragmented artistic heritage by bringing together related works from numerous collections, metropolitan and regional, Eastern and Western. Throughout the last 75 years not only have many works of the avant-garde left Russia for European, American, and now Japanese destinations, but also, in the late 1920s and ’30s, many works were dispatched from Moscow and Leningrad to provincial centers, so that today important works are to be found in the most distant and unexpected museums—in Ekaterinburg, Samara, Saratov. Beginning with “Art and Revolution” in Tokyo in 1982, some of these works were recalled for major exhibitions in Russia and the West, and “The Great Utopia” maintained this momentum, showing more works from far-flung collections, such as Alexandra Exter’s Color Construction (1922) from the Dagestan Museum in Makhachkala, Valentin Iustitsky’s early 1920s painterly constructions from the Radishchev Museum in Saratov, Pavel Mansurov’s Non-Objective Composition (1918) from the Art Museum, Omsk, and Olga Rozanova’s 1916 nonobjective compositions from the Museum of Visual Arts in Ekaterinburg. How exciting it is to see side by side the two versions of Alexander Drevin’s 1921 Painterly Composition (one from Yale, the other from the Tretiakov). The full account of this pictorial diaspora has yet to be written, but is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Russian art, whose narrative continues to unfold.
In the wake of the intense exhibiting and publishing activity of the last five years, one expected the Guggenheim’s huge exhibition to serve as a summation of the avant-garde period. In some ways, it did just that: “The Great Utopia” ranged across genres and mediums to include painting, collage, Constructivist sculpture, photography, photocollage, and architecture, as well as ceramic, fabric, dress, and theater design. For the most part, however, the ambitious display of over 800 experiments chose to support and sanction long-standing assumptions and prejudices. For example, the exhibition did not question the familiar argument that Malevich’s Suprematism and Tatlin’s reliefs—i.e., “abstract art”—were the primary idiom of avant-garde experiment; it avoided asking whether other pictorial systems (e.g., Filonov’s or Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s) could not also be regarded as equally important. It also ratified conventional chronology and explanations of the avant-garde, tracing a linear path from the later Cubo-Futurism of Ivan Kliun and Liubov Popova through Malevich’s Suprematism and Tatlin’s “culture of materials,” the esthetic constructions and constructive esthetics of Gustav Klucis, Alexander Rodchenko and the Steinberg brothers, and finally the new figuration of Alexander Deineka, Konstantin Vialov and their colleagues.
The show was divided into four basic, interlocking compartments, each oriented toward a historic exhibition. The earliest was “0.10. The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings” (Petrograd 1915-16), at which Malevich announced the birth of Suprematism and Tatlin first showed his counter-reliefs; then came “5 x 5 = 25” (Moscow, October 1921), which included painting primarily by artists associated with Constructivism; “Obmokhu” (Moscow, May 1921), which featured Constructivist sculpture; and finally, the “First Discussional Exhibition” (Moscow, 1924) in which many competing factions of Soviet art, including a modernistic figuration, were shown. These four axes serve as reference points for the examination of abundant related material, providing us with a dazzling array of works by those artists who have come to define the avant-garde in the public mind as well as introducing less familiar names such as the Cubist Lev Tsiperson and the Suprematist David Zagoskin.
The museum’s choice of the term “utopia” for its title was apt, for the aspiration to expand a formal or purely esthetic system into a philosophy of life or a total worldview, i.e., to turn art into life, was—and is—a distinguishing characteristic of Russian culture from the Orthodox icon to Socialist Realism. The desire to formulate experimental metaphors in the laboratory of art that might then be implemented in reality was, for example, an integral part of the 19th-century Realist movement: it was for this reason that Ilya Repin, the painter of Russia’s social conscience, censured French Impressionism for its lack of content and why Nikolai Chernyshevsky elaborated his theory of an alternate family—the ménage à trois—in his novel What Is To Be Done? (1864). In other words, the utopian motivation of the work of art had long been an organic component of Russian creativity, and the avant-garde was no exception.
Despite the role that utopian ideas have played in Russian history, the most problematic aspect of “The Great Utopia,” in my view, was its implication (borne out in the wall texts throughout the exhibition) that the Russian avant-garde’s visual investigations into painting, Constructivist sculpture, architecture and the applied arts were an immediate extension of the ideology of the Bolshevik state—that the artists were missionaries of that ideology. The idea that the functionalist ethic of Constructivist design, for example, was dictated by the exigencies of Lenin’s government has long been a standard argument in Soviet and Western scholarship. But it needs to be challenged—for the simple reason that much of what we call Constructivist design was being done well before 1917. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of Russian art in general has been its constant involvement with applied art. Many famous 19th-century studio painters—from Repin to Vrubel—were also active as textile, theatrical and interior designers. Viewed historically, therefore, the Constructivists’ concentration on utilitarianism was not especially new or radical.
Furthermore, the degree and nature of avant-garde artists’ political commitment was very inconsistent. Even though some writers and artists such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Rodchenko were eager to offer their art in the service of politics and made this clear in vociferous statements in the 1920s, many other artists did not. There is no real evidence to assume that such important artists as Exter, Gabo, Kandinsky, Matiushin, and even Popova and Nadezhda Udaltsova regarded the political events as anything more than a strategic opportunity for disseminating their own ideas. Many of the artists involved in Lenin’s Plan of Monumental Propaganda, decreed in 1918 at a time of mass starvation, galloping inflation and general economic collapse, accepted commissions for material rather than ideological reasons. The avant-garde did, indeed, involve different utopian impulses, but ones guided not uniformly by the urgent demands of Lenin’s Party, but also, in my view, by private artistic visions that often had little in common with the reality of 1917.
In this regard it is especially useful to take a close look at Malevich, Tatlin, and Filonov, the three artists whom the influential critic Nikolai Punin called “the central figures of the new Russian art” in 1923. For Punin, these artists represented the three major trends or “spaces” within the Russian avant-garde: Malevich’s spiritualized spaces were the heavens, the earth was possessed by Tatlin’s material constructions, and the body was represented by the interiority of Filonov’s vascular landscapes. “The Great Utopia” reinforced the stature of the former two artists by beginning the show with a dramatically stark installation in the museum’s High Gallery just off the bottom ramp that juxtaposed Malevich’s Red Square (Painterly Realism: Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions), 1915, and Tatlin’s reconstituted relief of 1914-15. The symbolism of the confrontation between the two artists was certainly justified, but the relationship of this auspicious commencement to the rest of the show remained oblique. Filonov, who was not an abstract artist, was unfortunately represented in the show by only a few works and was relegated to the category of “Post-Suprematist”—a total misnomer, since his visceral paintings have nothing in common with Malevich’s geometric system, nor were they chronologically later.
There can be no doubt, of course, that Filonov, Malevich, and Tatlin were all deeply involved in the social and political transformation of their environment. Until his death in 1941, Filonov frequently reiterated his faith in the Party, Communism, Lenin, and Stalin, and he stressed the need to “proletarianize” art. Malevich and his students designed propaganda posters and books. Tatlin moved into utilitarian projects for the new state—clothes and furniture that might actually have been manufactured had the industrial base been more resilient. Yet these indications of enthusiasm for the proletarian cause can be misleading; all three artists had also manifested their attachment to the Imperial order before the Revolution. Filonov accepted aristocratic and ecclesiastic commissions; Malevich designed patriotic posters glorifying the Imperial Army during the First World War; and Tatlin performed on his bandora for Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914.
My point is simply that “The Great Utopia” did not grapple with the diversity and ambiguity of artists’ responses to the political metamorphosis around them, implying instead that all the artists involved—from Malevich and Alexei Morgunov to Konstantin Redko and the Stenberg brothers—were unanimous and alike in their support for and perception of the Revolution. Many artists of the Russian avant-garde simply acquiesced to, rather than welcomed, the October Revolution. Furthermore, artists understood political revolution in a wide variety of ways, and, after the event, their adjustment of Marxist ideas and rhetoric to suit their own utopian artistic projects was often idiosyncratic to say the very least. Filonov saw the Revolution as embodying an inexorable, vital force that did not distinguish between beauty and ugliness, life and death. Malevich’s interpretation was tinged with a mysticism inherited from the fin de siècle Russian Symbolists. For Tatlin, the Revolution heralded the victory of technology in one of the most backward agricultural nations of the civilized world. Matiushin’s system of Zor-Ved (See-Know), embodied in the rainbowlike color studies, was meant to activate latent optical reflexes on the back of the neck and the soles of the feet! Most of these ideas had little to do with the hard political facts of October 1917, or with the political theories and aims of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.
“The Great Utopia” was several exhibitions under one roof. The result was a spectacle, but rather in the way of a department store display—big, busy, and exhausting. It was a confusing embarras de richesses, unmitigated by curatorial ideas or even much information. The Guggenheim is not an easy space for the display of works of art, and Zaha Hadid’s much discussed installation of the works both impeded and enhanced the show. At best, the installation made small and fragile works like the porcelain accessible, while at worst it tried to compete with the art as a work of art itself. The low lighting made it difficult to see certain works and to read the wall texts; on numerous visits I made to the show in late October, many labels were missing; some pieces were on display, but not in the catalogue (e.g., the maquette by Tatiana Makarova), while others were in the catalogue but not on display (e.g., some of the Ilya Chashnik works). Given the inclusion of so many posters, books, logos and slogans, one wondered at the lack of translation. The average American is not fluent in Russian.
Of course, these may seem minor blemishes given the scope and complexity of “The Great Utopia,” and they did not entirely prevent general appreciation of the show. But, unfortunately, they were symptomatic of carless orchestration, lack of compositional balance, and cloudy vision. (In contrast, the concurrent show of Chagall’s Jewish theater work at the Guggenheim SoHo was a clear, coherent, and well-organized exhibition.) Why were there paintings and constructions by, say, Vladimir Lebedev and Konstantin Medunetsky, but none by Yury Annenkov and Lev Bruni? Why was Naum Gabo’s Maquette for Constructed Torso of 1917-18 described correctly as “reassembled in 1985,” while the Tatlin counter-relief of 1914-15 was presented as an original construction, even though it, too, was reassembled at the Russian Museum (in 1991)? Why, indeed, were there so many reconstructions? The penultimate potpourri, titled “Post-Suprematism,” accommodated the very disparate geniuses of Filonov, Matiushin and Pyotr Miturich, none of whom had been a “Suprematist” to begin with. Certainly, the section devoted to OST was welcome as a timely rediscovery of figurative artists such as Deineka, Pimenov, Tyshler and Vialov, but it is not clear why this group was included rather than other contemporary groups such as Makovets, Four Arts, or the New Society of Painters.
Inevitably, needling questions are leveled at any exhibition constructed as a blockbuster, and, obviously, there were positive aspects to this undertaking that often outweighed its lacunae and inconsistencies. “The Great Utopia” did present a panorama of some of the most astounding art works of the 20th century, and its huge configuration, which included numerous satellite events, is unlikely to be repeated.2 The exhibition demonstrated the relentless invasion of the Suprematist and Constructivist artists into book, porcelain, theater, textile, and architectural design and affirmed their aspiration towards total synthesis. “The Great Utopia” also indicated, if insufficiently, that Suprematism and Constructivism were not the only esthetic ideas operating at the time: there was the Cosmism of Kliun and the Projectionism of Solomon Nikritin, as well as the “lettrisme” of Ivan Puni and the “analytical art” of Filonov. “The Great Utopia” reminded us that artists such as Klucis and Rodchenko threw off the weight of tradition by substituting new media for old (e.g., photography for painting), a deliberate and bold action that predicted so much of what was to happen later in our century. Moreover, “The Great Utopia” also suggested—by its very title and by the inclusion of many sketches, drafts and reconstructions—that we now remember the avant-garde as much for what it did not produce (e.g., Tatlin’s Tower) as for what it did.
1. These included the two part “Art and Revolution” at the Seibu Museum, Tokyo, in 1982 and 1987; “Kunst und Revolution” at the Palace of Exhibitions, Budapest, and the Museum of Decorative Art, Vienna, in1987-88; and “Arte Russa e Sovietica” at the Lingotto, Turin, in 1989. Individual retrospectives included Filonov at the Russian Museum, Leningrad, in 1988; Klucis at the Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, in 1991; Malevich at the Russian Museum, Leningrad, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, in 1988-99 (a show which subsequently traveled to Washington D.C., New York and Los Angeles); Matiushin at the Zentrum für Kunst and Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, in 1991; Popova at the Tretiakov Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and other institutions, in 1990-91; and the Rodchenko/Stepanova at the Museum of Decorative Art, Vienna, and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, in 1991.