Three views on the radicalism of the Russian avant-garde—and its suppression

by Jane Morris, José da Silva  |  6 February 2017
Isaak Brodsky, VI Lenin and Manifestation (1919). Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts (Photo: courtesy State Historical Museum and ROSIZO Exhibition Center)

We asked three experts to speak on the radicalism of the revolution—and how it fell apart. For more coverage on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, see our article on the history of Constructivism and our run down of the top shows worldwide dedicated to the Russian avant-garde.

Painters and poets collaborate

The early futurist book Worldbackwards [1912] is emblematic of the shake-up that many artists were agitating for in the art world. It was conceived to completely undercut the bourgeois tradition of the deluxe livre d’artiste, luxuriously bound and typeset on fine-quality paper with tipped-in full colour images. It’s small, cheaply produced, resolutely handmade and turns the book from a conveyor of information into an art object in and of itself. It also dispensed with regularity: each of the books—and we’re lucky enough to have four copies [at the Museum of Modern Art]—has a unique, collaged cover. It also speaks to the fertile collaborations between painters and poets that will follow during this period: Goncharova, Larionov, Rogovin, and Tatlin contributed the visual elements, while the game-changing poets of the period, Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh, composed the texts.

Sarah Suzuki is a co-curator of A Revolutionary Impulse at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

A revolution of everyday life

Abstract art was already heavily criticised in the 1920s, not least by the former abstract artists themselves, who were moving of their own volition into “useful”, non-”art” things like design, cinema, photography and architecture. But avant-garde design and film survives well into Stalinism—it’s not until 1934 or thereabouts that it is really decisively finished. There is something very Victorian about Stalinism's own aesthetics—monumental decorative architecture, narrative realist painting, and a certain horror vacui—but it does contain within it all sorts of traces of the avant-garde project, something you can see very well in, say, the architecture of the Moscow Metro, which is as much a “revolution of everyday life” as anything in the 1920s, or the in the very experimental realist painting of Aleksandr Deyneka or Yuri Pimenov.

Owen Hatherley writes about architecture, politics and culture

The shadow of Stalin

From 1917 there was great diversity in Russian art. This is the subject of the exhibition [at the Royal Academy], but by 1932 an awful lot of avant-garde artists disappeared from the list of names and from the literature. Just as people like [the Socialist Realist painter] Isaak Brodsky were there at the start, but became more important, so leftist art and really lively critical debate was vanishing. Under Stalin, a different history of art was developing. Quite soon, it was risky to mention Tatlin and others. It became commonplace to speak of art as a social phenomenon, so that the hanging of museum collections and the writing of art history books became Stalinist right up to Stalin’s death.

John Milner is a co-curator of Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32 at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

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