Four months back, the Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibit entitled A Revolutionary Impulse: Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde. The show received mostly favorable write-ups in liberal outlets like New York Times and New Yorker as well as art/culture mags like Studio International, Seca Art, and Hedonist. Marxist and leftish publications such as World Socialist Website (organ of the Socialist Equality Party) and Brooklyn Rail also ran appreciative reviews of the exhibition.
Perhaps my favorite critical reflection on the show came from Caesura, an offshoot from the Platypus Affiliated Society exclusively focused on art, music, and literature. It featured a fairly characteristic but nevertheless poignant observation:
Of the staggering number of objects on display, most striking was filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 collaboration with Rodchenko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a propaganda film (the title translates to cinema-truth) tracking the failing health, death and funeral of Lenin. Black and white graphics contributed by Rodchenko depicting, without comment, the medical statistics of the ailing revolutionary leader created a palpable sense of worry as they edge, at an excruciatingly slow pace, towards the result we all know already: Lenin’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced procession of mourners at his funeral, dedicating portrait shots and name plates to party leaders: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin steadfastly looking ahead. The latter was utterly chilling — a glimpse of a future yet unknown to the filmmakers but known all too well today. Standing, in 2017, in the American Museum of Modern Art in a moment of utter political confusion, the tragedy of this moment was cutting. Could the mourners have possibly known that they had witnessed both the beginning and the end of a moment of tremendous historical potential? Did Vertov and Rodchenko realize that in their montage of party leaders it would be Stalin who would take power? Did they know that, after the crippling defeat of the German Left the year prior, 1924 would mark a closing and not an opening of history?
Caesura’s reviewer further speculates that “if the art of the Russian avant-garde has a timeless quality, it is because of its unique historical origin. Never before or since have artists operated under the thrall of three societies — crumbling czarist Russia, the dynamic bourgeois west, and the advancing specter of socialism — so different. It expresses all three but belongs to none.” A similar sentiment is captured by a line in the New Yorker: “History is not a constant march forward; it can stand still for decades and then, as it did in Russia a hundred years ago, explode in a flash.” This line itself merely paraphrases a quip attributed to Lenin, to the effect that “there are decades where nothing happens, but then there are weeks where decades happen.”
I myself attended the exhibit, and was impressed by what I saw. Some of the same pieces had appeared in special galleries across the city over the last few years, but the sheer wealth of material concentrated in one space was breathtaking. Furthermore, the way this material was organized and formally arranged was skillful. You can see a picture of me standing next to Lissitzky’s “new man of communism,” taken from his series for Victory over the Sun. Below you can read a fine meditation on the show written by Bloom Correo, a young ultraleft author who visited NYC just to see it.
Collective social knowledge
April 18, 2017
In timely conjunction with the centennial of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York hosted an exhibit titled A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde. The exhibit assembled an impressive collection of dynamic and multifaceted works created during the Russian avant-garde period in its zenith (1912-1935). Originally brought together by Alfred H. Barr, first president of the MoMA, the collection incorporates not one art form but many. Sculpture, photography, cinema, painting, and graphic design are all included in the exhibit. Filmmakers such as the legendary Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, painters like Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky, and the photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko are among the many brilliant artists whose works could be seen at the event.
The exhibit itself is prefaced by a short film, a three-minute reel showing a funeral for fallen revolutionaries as well as scenes of Russian workers tearing down tsarist iconography. The viewer is thus thrust into the historical moment that these artists were creating under. The juxtaposition of the solemn procession and the gleeful desecration demonstrates the contradictory impulses optimism and excitement geared towards the Revolution itself. Though this moment was groundbreaking, it destabilized the entire globe and required the sacrifice of many. Yet out of the rubble the yearning for a revolutionary future emerged.
It is from here that the exhibit starts with Popova and Malevich’s early, cubist-influenced works. Both were trendsetters in the Russian avant-garde, notable for pioneering cubofuturism. The style, as the name suggests, is a cross of Italian futurism and Parisian cubism, two movements at the forefront of European art. Malevich and Popova were not exclusively influenced by contemporary movements outside of Russia, however; they also drew heavily upon Russian medieval art and folk culture.
Most members of the avant-garde in Russia were thus inextricably linked to the international futurist movement. Yet their art displayed a distinctly national character. The exhibit uses the cubofuturism of the early Malevich and Popova to where the Russian avant-garde stemmed from in its evolution. At this early point (1912-1915), the Russian avant-garde was still relatively apolitical in its convictions, unlike some other art movements at the time. In 1916, just as Popova was distancing herself from cubofuturism and representational art, Malevich founded the group Supremus.
As cubofuturism faded, artistic endeavors amongst the Russian avant-garde grew increasingly geometric. Under the influence of futurism suprematism would emerge as new current in art created by Kazimir Malevich. With this transition, the exhibit takes the viewer into a section focused on this movement. Nevertheless, suprematism didn’t appear out of nowhere. It wasn’t a spontaneous creation spun from the mind of a few artists. Traces of suprematism can be found through Malevich’s earlier pieces, most notably Study for Décor of Victory Over the Sun. The painting was made for a futurist opera (Victory Over the Sun), for which Malevich designed the sets.
Suprematism’s roots can be traced throughout early Russian modernism, but its subsequent development can be seen as an experiment to test Malevich’s theory of non-objective art. Malevich found that feeling has superseded art’s duty to represent some sort of objective reality. In his book, The Non-Objective World, Malevich famously stated:
By suprematism I mean the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling.
in the philosophy expounded in The Non-Objective World, Malevich was anti-materialist and anti-utilitarian. Reading this text, it’s little wonder why Marxists such as Adam Turl regard these artists as mere mystics. It makes perfect sense. Looking at suprematist works such as Black Square or White Square on White through this lens, the ideal of a “transformation of the zero of form” should seem less tantalizing. But it doesn’t.
Malevich may not have been a political economist, but he and — to an even greater extent — others involved with the Supremus group would overturn the world of the avant-garde and bourgeois art, some of them evolving toward the much more popular constructivism.
El Lissitzky saw a great deal in Malevich’s suprematism. Born to a Jewish family in Pochinok in 1890, Lissitzky studied at the Polytechnic School of Darmstadt in Germany as well as the Riga Polytechnic Institute. After this he moved to Moscow, where he swiftly made a name for himself within the fledgling Russian avant-garde. Lissitzky helped found the constructivist school of art, along with Tatlin and Rodchenko, and together they took the Russian avant-garde beyond the suprematism of Malevich. The town of Vitebsk itself would become somewhat of an experimenting ground for many of these artists. Constructivist and suprematist art could be found all throughout the town. In the words of Mayakovsky, “the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes”.
It was in this setting that Lissitzky became a leading avant-garde figure in the USSR. He designed the first flag for the Central Executive Committee of Russia and painted the famous propaganda work Beat the White with the Red Wedge. Lissitzky is then the only artist in the exhibit the get an entire gallery dedicated to him. His Proun (Project For The Affirmation of the New) series is exhibited not only through his paintings and lithographs, but also through the “manifesto” he wrote as well as a children’s book he designed, About Two Squares.
The exhibit also goes over other artists between these points, thus avoiding the mistake of a linear presentation from point A to point B to point C (cubofuturism → suprematism → constructivism, more or less). It’s much more elegantly pieced together than that. A wide array of artists is included along the overarching path of development, which the show otherwise tries to convey.
By showcasing the movement’s impact across every major medium, the gallery offers a picture of what it sought to accomplish in the realm of aesthetics alongside the Bolshevik party’s ambitions in the realm of politics. While avant-garde movements existed throughout Europe before, during, and after, and during World War I, the Soviet avant-garde alone was placed at the helm of cultural institutions (if only briefly). Artists of all sorts took it upon themselves to create a “collective social knowledge” that could guide revolutionary workers as they embarked on an unprecedented world-historical journey of social transformation.
To illustrate this, the exhibit takes viewers’ eyes away from the paintings lining the halls with a single sculpture. An iconic proposal by Vladimir Tatlin for a massive monument to house the Third International could be seen as an architectural fantasy jutting skyward over Petrograd. Many of the boldest projects of the Russian avant-garde were practically unattainable. Yet the unbuilt aspirations of the early RSFSR retain their grip over their popular imagination, even if often overshadowed by the built legacy left by “actually-existing socialism.” Sputnik and the Berlin Wall both come to mind whenever one thinks of the USSR, along with a long list of proxy wars waged against NATO and the US. It’s no surprise.
Regardless, the culmination of the Russian avant-garde’s effort to innovate a “collective social knowledge” can be seen near the end of the exhibit. Advertisements, books, and political posters decorate the walls of this final section. It’s almost as if the curators want to suggest that the movement merely resulted in banal agitprop. Whether this was the culmination or simply the last hurrah of the movement is debatable, however. Perhaps the movement was puttering out anyways. But as ephemeral as the movement was, much of its output made a mark on the world.
The great experiments and theories created by Russian avant-garde filmmakers are essential to any understanding of modern cinema. “Soviet montage” is often the first thing that’s taught in 101 film classes. Every film scholar worth his or her salt knows of Eisenstein and Vertov. Suprematism and constructivism are also commonly taught in modern art history classes. If anything, this exhibit succeeded in showing both the progression of the movements direction as well as the vast amount of art forms encompassed. On these grounds as well as many others, A Revolutionary Impulse is worthy of admiration and commendation.