A revolutionary impulse: Russian avant-garde at the MoMA

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

Bloom Correo
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.

2 thoughts on “A revolutionary impulse: Russian avant-garde at the MoMA

  1. This is all well-known stuff. The R.A. in London covered a wider spectrum – Deneika, Pimenon, ceramics, textiles. Much of it never seen in the West before. Moma seems to be stuck in its early reading of Modernism. Ron Hunt

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