Painting a new world: what happened to the radical potential of Soviet art?

As Lenin led his overthrow of the old order, Russia’s artists engaged in one of their own

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Two years before the train carrying Lenin pulled in at the Finland Station in Petrograd and decanted the man who then precipitated the Russian Revolution, Kazimir Malevich had instigated an artistic revolution in the city. In 1915, at a show entitled “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0, 10”, he had shown a picture of a plain, black square on a white background. Hung high in the corner of the gallery, just below the ceiling – the place in Russian homes usually reserved for an icon – Malevich’s Black Square announced, he said, the end of traditional art.

But what exactly did it mean? The artist went into mystical mode. “I have destroyed the ring of the horizon,” he claimed, “and escaped from the circle of things, and things have disappeared like mist.” Gone were the old themes, those “bits of nature, madonnas and shameless nudes”. Instead, courtesy of his geometrical black void, “The free white sea, infinity, lies before you.” Just as Lenin set out to overthrow established society, Malevich’s project was utopian: he wanted nothing less than a previously undreamt-of future for art.

Black Square also announced a new artistic movement, suprematism, that was concerned with “the primacy of pure feeling in creative art” and stood in contrast to another new Russian movement, constructivism – one of a bewildering wealth of “-isms”
that flourished in the early years of the 20th century (fauvism, vorticism, futurism, neo-primitivism, cubo-futurism, synchromism, rayonism, orphism, and so on). Championed by Aleksandr Rodchenko, constructivism was utilitarian; its proponents saw art as having a distinct role in society, especially when applied to the design of industrial buildings and workers’ clubs.

Although they had contrasting ends – one numinous, the other practical – both styles developed the fractured forms of cubism, and both were futuristic, linear and geometrical, and characterised by simple shapes floating in space. Just as importantly, they were turned to the service of the new state. As the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky put it: “The streets our brushes,/the squares our palettes”.


Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915)

Among the movements’ most resonant productions were El Lissitzky’s 1919 poster Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge, whose afterlife included giving a name to the short-lived musicians’ collective, formed in 1985, which featured Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Jimmy Somerville; Rodchenko’s poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925); and Vladimir Tatlin’s proposal for a Monument to the Third International (also known as Tatlin’s Tower, 1919-20), a futuristic helix of steel and glass that would have been taller than the Eiffel Tower by one-third and the ultimate symbol of the technological future heralded by the Bolshevik revolution. Because of steel shortages, a lack of money, the priority of providing workers’ homes and its unstable design, the tower was never built. However, models and drawings ensured its symbolic power.

What such works showed, among other things, was the speed with which Russian art had caught up with that of western Europe. The work of Malevich, Rodchenko and their peers would have been unthinkable without the developments first of Cézanne and then cubism. Indeed, Malevich was one of several Russian artists – including Sonia Delaunay – who exhibited in Paris in the immediate pre-war years, and two of the greatest collectors of contemporary French art were Russian: Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. (In 1918, Lenin signed the order that appropriated their collections, stuffed with Cézannes, Monets, Picassos and Matisses.) Experimental Russian art grew rapidly. Only a few decades earlier, in 1873, an English visitor had noted that artists in St Petersburg “are as a colony planted on the utmost verge of civilisation; they are as exiles or exotics, far away from the commonwealth of art, left to pine or starve in a cold and sterile soil”.

Although its Imperial Academy of Arts was established in 1757 (the Royal Academy in London wasn’t founded for another 11 years), Russia produced no artists of international renown for a hundred and fifty years. The emergence of a cluster of native talent – Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall being among the most notable – coincided with the revolutionary years. Such was their confidence and certainty that the Russian future would do away with the Western past that Rodchenko could claim in 1921 that he had killed off painting, just as Lenin’s revolution had killed off the old tsarist and nationalist society: “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it’s all over.”

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It was not a viewpoint for which the new state had much sympathy. As early as 1918, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the head of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (NARKOMPROS), reported to the country’s artists: “I have just come from Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin]. Once again he has had one of those fortunate and profoundly exciting ideas with which he has so often shocked and delighted us. He intends to decorate Moscow’s squares with statues and monuments to revolutionaries and the great fighters for socialism.” Down were to come the time-honoured tsarist monuments; artists were to create new ones to put in their place, celebrating the 21 names on Lenin’s list of officially approved “fighters for socialism”, among them Marx, Engels, Garibaldi, Saint-Simon, Danton, Chopin and Spartacus. Because bronze and marble were scarce, the monuments were fabricated in plaster and cement, with the public having the final say about which would eventually be cast or carved.


Rodchenko’s 1925 poster for the Leningrad state publishers

This was not work for the avant-garde, but it did show that the Bolsheviks were nothing if not ecumenical in their tastes. Although PROLETKULT (a portmanteau of proletarskaya kultura, or “proletarian culture”) – a semi-independent confederation of experimental artists and cultural organisations that came to prominence in 1917 with the aim of fostering a revolutionary aesthetic – thrived for a while, it never gained authority. And just what was meant by “communist art” was a much-debated topic. Lines were quickly drawn and sides taken in the attempt to appropriate the image of the revolution and wrench it into one factional path or another.

The result was a cluster of acronyms: the suprematist UNOVIS group (Affirmers of the New Art) was founded by Malevich and Lissitzky in Vitebsk in 1920; a matching constructivist group was founded in 1921 by Aleksandr Rodchenko and his wife, the textile designer Varvara Stepanova, at INKHUK (the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow); Petrograd had GINKHUK (the State Institute of Artistic Culture), overseen by Nikolay Punin and later Malevich; OBMOKHU (the Society for Young Artists) in Moscow had no director – the members worked without supervision in order “to combat the artists in authority who exploit young talents”, and they concentrated on producing agitprop posters.

More conventional painters fought for their style of art, too. The AKhRR (Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia), founded in 1922, was an organisation of about 300 artists dedicated to the continuance of representational painting. Their aim was to capture and preserve the “revolutionary impulse of this great moment of history” in realist paintings that the masses (massovost), familiar with 19th-century narrative pictures, could understand. They determined to produce works that would “not insult the revolution in the eyes of the international proletariat”, even if their bland images of workers’ collectives, militia gatherings and sun-kissed farmworkers were an insult to taste instead.

Most of the prominent painters fared better under the new dispensation than their writer peers, in that they survived. Kandinsky involved himself in teaching and museum reform, before leaving Russia in 1921 to teach at the Bauhaus in Germany; Chagall was offered the role of national cultural commissar but chose to become an influential art teacher in Vitebsk and a stage designer in Moscow before, after a period of severe deprivation, returning to France in 1923; Malevich became an art teacher, too, and the director of the Petrograd State Institute of Artistic Culture, which was forced to close in 1926 when it was accused of being riddled with “counter-revolutionary sermonising and artistic debauchery”. When the tide turned against abstraction, Mal­evich was nevertheless tolerated (though he was briefly jailed for “espionage”); his international fame helped.


Kandinsky’s Improvisation XXXI (1913)

Of the leading figures, it was Rodchenko who most dutifully kept the faith. He and his helpmate Liubov Popova turned from painting to photography and the graphic arts: their posters, for the Society for the Struggle Against Illiteracy, for the Centrifuge Co-operative and for the trade unions in their role as “defender of female labour”, used typography and collage with a boldness potent enough to be aped by such magazines as The Face six decades later.

Rodchenko was no innocent, however. Popova died in 1924 but he remained committed to Stalin’s regime. In 1933, he took a series of propagandist photographs documenting the digging of the White Sea Canal. It was the first of Stalin’s large projects to use forced labour: 126,000 convicts were corralled for its construction and official records show that 12,000 of them died (the real number was much higher). Here were the straight lines of constructivist painting taking fatal form. Rodchenko never commented on what he had witnessed.

Lenin’s death in 1924 marked the beginning of the end for state tolerance of avant-garde art. Under Stalin, abstraction quickly came to be seen as a bourgeois affectation (because it had grown from pre-existing European movements), and socialist realism – representational art extolling Soviet ideals (the AKhRR line, allying traditional forms with propaganda) – received official sanction and became the state style.

In 1932, the central committee of the Communist Party disbanded the USSR’s myriad artistic organisations and replaced them with unified approved associations, the most important of which was the Moscow and Leningrad Union of Artists. Art, like every other aspect of Soviet life, had come fully under party control.

Two years later, Maxim Gorky gave a celebrated speech that prescribed socialist realism (the term was attributed to Stalin) in literature as the ideal form, though his words applied to painting, too: “As the principal hero of our books, we must choose ­labour; ie, a man, organised by the processes of labour, who in our country is armed with all the might of modern technology, a man who, in turn, is making labour easier, more productive, raising it to the level of art. We must learn to understand labour as creativity.”

In practice, however, socialist realism lumpenly and doggedly extolled the ideal of Soviet heroism: that of the Red Army and of factory and agricultural workers and Politburo members tirelessly striving for the good of the people. It offered not true reality, but an imagined reality that reflected the communist dream.

Lunacharsky, the NARKOMPROS boss, believed that the sight of a “healthy body, intelligent face or friendly smile was essentially life-enhancing”. So the ideal body – belonging to Lenin’s “new Soviet man”, not the ravaged and broken forms bequeathed by the famines of 1921-23 or 1932-33 – was the centre of innumerable bombastic paintings that also extolled partiinost (“party-mindedness”), klassovost (“class consciousness”), ideinost (“ideological content”) and the infinitely malleable trait of pravdivost (“truthfulness”). The present was glorified, Stalin’s personality cult was buttressed, a rosy, technologically driven future was predicted, optimism prevailed and artistic experimentation was stifled (though not killed off) for the best part of four decades.

Who now remembers the likes of highly competent but straitjacketed painters such as Isaak Brodsky, Aleksandr Gerasimov and Petr Shukhmin? Socialist realism was the antithesis of the idea of the individual artistic genius and so, appropriately, while the ersatz look that its practitioners churned out is familiar, the artists are not. Socialist realism was also a style exported, like Stalin’s communism, to the Soviet Union’s satellite states. In this, Soviet art mirrored the narrative of wider Soviet ideology. Just as the internationalism envisaged by Lenin promised – at least in his mind – to attain global dominance but was superseded by Stalin’s totalitarianism, so the new art spearheaded by Malevich and Rodchenko also promised much, flickered briefly and then failed.

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution