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.

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