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.