In previous articles, I have argued the case that the creative arts were uniquely important in helping create the Russian revolutions of 1917. The ‘Avant Garde’ was itself a revolutionary novelty, with inspirations from Europe but largely home grown in Russia. Seen in 1917, the two revolutions were unlikely, but the Bolshevik triumph after the October chaos was wholly improbable. Russia’s problems did not end then: WW1 continued, and was followed by ruinous civil war and war communism. Peace and prosperity were unknown until the New Economic Plan (NEP), after 1925.
Throughout all this period, the Arts continued to make the political revolution look calm and ordered. To be clear: we are picking out one strand of artistic endeavour of the epoch, not trying to cover everything.
‘Grundrisse:’ Foundations and beliefs. Understanding Russian revolutionary art requires some sense of the context. Prior to 1917, artists dreamt of largely impossible hopes. They were as amazed as anyone at the outcome of the struggle. At the time, Russia was in the middle of its industrial revolution. With acute labour shortages after the horrendous losses in the world war, citizens looked to heavy industry to free them from manual labour and meet material needs. New, shiny, Russian industry was to be the nation’s saviour. Artists joined others in seeing the new egalitarian communality and shared purpose as creating a new world. The dynamism and possibilities of machine power and mass production inspired artists and politicians alike, and can be seen in posters, ceramics, textiles and in paintings.
1917-21: Optimistic chaos. Dreams became ecstasy. It lasted until the shock of the Kronstadt mutiny of March 1921, when the revolution’s staunchest supporters, the navy, protested against starvation and were brutally suppressed by Lenin. The high point of anarchism may have been the mass gathering at Kropotkin’s funeral the previous month.
The spirit of anything is possible optimism is shown by two towers. Vladimir Tatlin, artist, sculptor, architect, was in the centre of the maelstrom. He had a long feud with Kasimir Malevich, of whom more shortly, on the purpose of art in a revolution. His model Tower was never built to full scale, but captured the spirit of the age: its Babelesque spiral shell, stairway to the heavens predates the Pompidou centre by decades. Within, huge display or living spaces enjoyed clean space, and rotated at annual, monthly and hourly rates. By contrast, Vladimir Shukov was a radically brilliant engineer. He pioneered the ‘hyperboloid’ method of construction: straight steel rods making a conical lattice, and his water towers are all over Russia. His radio tower, of 1921 uses under 1/3 of the steel per metre of height needed by Gustav Eiffel in Paris. It would have been taller, but in the civil war, steel was in desperately short supply. (Plea: help save the Tower, before it is too late). That Russian ability to achieve more with less could still be seen in the 1960s space race. Thus was born ‘Constructivism’ – all metiers in the service of the new society: simple, cost effective elegance (when at its best), using modern materials.
Meanwhile, artists were playing their part. Mayakovsky was close to Malevich at the epicentre (call it Cubo-Futurism, if you wish), as well as shouting propagandist poetry. He argued that art must not be not seen dead in museums, but alive on the streets, in factories, on the sides of trains: agitating propaganda, or ‘Agit-Prop.’ He was the master of the faux-naïve cartoon strip, simplifying complex ideas for worker’s easy comprehension. Remember that literacy levels were still barely 50% then. These reductionist ploys look positively sophisticated and subtle compared to today’s insulting three word bleats, be it build that wall, lock her up or strong and stable. How far we have sunk.
Building on the naïf, anti-elitist pictures of peasants, workers, soldiers and sailors by Larionov and Goncharova, Malevich took the idea further, and produced, at both ends of his puzzling career, semi-abstracted and idealised portraits of the proletariat. In between, Malevich was a leader of the oddly named ‘supremacist’ movement. Of all the, mostly pejorative, interpretations possible, the appellation refers to ‘the supremacy of pure artistic feeling’ …over (mere) representational painting. On that basis, monochrome square blobs don’t say much about the artist’s psyche.
Which –ism? Trying to buttonhole artistic movements is dangerous at any time, but especially so in these few years of exploding ‘–isms’. We’ll try: Malevich’s suprematism is dialectically opposed to Tatlin’s constructivism.
Celebrating workers, the downtrodden, rather than rulers and celebrities was also treated in more conventional, and plausibly more effective ways by Grigoriev, in a style both ahead of its time and enduring.
After the horrors of revolution, civil way and war communism, the NEP, Lenin’s New Economic Plan, produced some prosperity, and with it, a return to capitalism and more conventional art. A more confident Russia enjoying the fruits of work.
It was not to last. Stalin was very quick to recognise the dangers to his revolution of both anarchic art and bourgeois comfort. By 1932, and not entirely coincidentally the suicide of Mayakovsky, the master of agit-prop, Stalin was ready to quash all deviant art, and impose ‘Socialist Realism’. That is another story.