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Issue 40, July/Aug 1999

New art for a new era

THE SOCIALIST REVOLUTION leaves no stone unturned. As control shifts from a few millionaires to millions of working-class people, all relationships in society are fundamentally altered - turned upside down. The Russian revolution of 1917 did exactly that. Its effects on art and culture reveal the power of revolution to penetrate all levels of society. And the recent New Art for a New Era exhibition (Malevich's Vision of the Russian Avant-Garde) at the Barbican, London, gave a glimpse of that dynamic process.

After the revolution and the establishment of a workers' state, education was completely reorganised by Narkompros (the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment). New museums, studios and research institutes were set up, existing ones nationalised. This exhibition owes its existence to the revolution, the paintings being taken from the Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd (now St Petersburg), which was set up by Narkompros in 1919. The contribution made by Kazimir Malevich, its director in 1923, is highlighted.

The aim of the Museum's contributors, which included some of the leaders of the Russian avant-garde like Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Vasily Kandinsky and Pavel Filonov, was to take control away from the art establishment and put it into the hands of the artists. It gathered a collection of over 500 works spanning the early 1900s to the 1920s.

The museum exhibited modern European art alongside Russian works, adding religious icons and folk art to reflect the diverse influences on Russian art. In 1922 it requested Buddhist paintings and oriental prints to complete the project. Malevich's vision was of an experimental museum, for 'the enlightenment of the broad mass of the people'.

Russia had already been breaking new artistic ground by the beginning of the century, with European trends quickly assimilated through travel and exhibitions. In 1911 an experimental art group, Jack of Diamonds, split between those looking west and those influenced by traditional folk art, like Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. These were joined by Malevich, Tatlin and Marc Chagall.

Some of these early paintings are very striking, using modern techniques to portray traditional themes, examples being, Portrait of a Boy in a Painted Shirt (Ilya Mashkov, 1909) and Red House (Olga Rozanova, 1910). Jewish culture had a great impact on Russia and is represented in a series of paintings, including Chagall's enigmatic Red Jew (1915). Filonov used cubism effectively in The German War (1915) to accentuate the horror, the twisted and contorted bodies and limbs.

Boris Grigoriev's Land of the People (1917-18) is a picture of the peasantry. The three figures in the foreground betray a resoluteness and stubborness, and a life of struggle. In contrast, Kuzma Petrov-Vodlin's Midday (1917) presents a prettified, rural utopia.

  Russian experimentation with Cubism led to Cubo-Futurism and Goncharova's Cyclist (1913) typified this trend: a celebration of the fast pace of contemporary life, the sense of speed as the cycle rattles over cobblestones. In Reply (1918) Malevich commented on the movement: 'I accepted the dawn of Futurist arts' revolt. I opened myself and, smashing my skull, threw my reason of the past into its swift-moving fire'. Obviously not one to do things by half. By 1913 he is a leading Cubo-Futurist, both influences clear in Portrait of I V Klyun (The Builder) (1913).

The Futurists split into two opposing directions, with Malevich taking a more metaphysical, visionary approach whilst Tatlin developed the theory of Constructivism: Material + Handling = Construction.

The preoccupation with modern materials exposes the conflict between industry and semi-feudal agriculture - the extremes of Russian identity. In Rainbow (1915) by Lev Bruin, a peasant stands in a field, yellows and greens predominate. The rainbow is monochrome. Like a metal bridge it rises from the middle of a field - rationalised.

We are then plunged into the ferment of revolution and the close connection between art and propaganda: 'The streets are now our brushes, the squares our palettes', proclaimed VV Mayakovsky.

Vladimir Kozlinsky designed massive panels and street banners for the first anniversary of the October revolution. A red silhouette strides out as capitalists try grabbing the legs: 'Despite three years of effort by the enemies of the whole world, the revolution is making great steps forward'. A worker saws wood: 'It is necessary to work with a rifle at your side', is the warning - one that's heeded.

All fields of art were breaking new ground. Malevich developed Suprematism. Sergei Senlin used translucent layers of geometrical forms or glass to give depth to his work. Rozanova (who died in 1918) anticipated some of the themes of Abstract Expressionism. Unovis (Affirmers of the New Art - a student movement set up by Malevich) collaborated with the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in Petrograd in an attempt to bring good design to the workers.

Malevich wrote in Axis of Colour and Volume (1919): 'The thunder of the October cannons helped to establish the innovators and to burn out the old parasites, and to set up the new screen of modernity'.

Unfortunately, new parasites were lurking in the shadows. In 1926 the Museum of Artistic Culture was closed down, its collection moved to the State Russian Museum. The closure marked the beginning of the end of the brief but brilliant era of the Russian avant-garde. With the revolution isolated in just one, economically backward country, the elements of workers' democracy were pushed back. And as the bureaucracy, headed by Joseph Stalin, tightened its grip on power, so the invention and innovation was squeezed out of art - and society in general. In 1932 the Communist Party Central Committee abolished many artistic organisations. The regime outlined an officially approved art - Socialist Realism - in Moscow in 1934. And after Malevich's death on 15 May 1935, his work was not exhibited in the Soviet Union again until the 1960s.

  Although the Barbican exhibition is now over, many of the artists mentioned here feature in other museums. They are worth checking out - the good stuff's good.

Despite the rise of the Stalinist counter-revolution, the fact remains that in Russia a revolutionary movement of the working class unleashed a phenomenal amount of creative energy. If that was possible in an economically impoverished country with mass illiteracy, ravaged by the first world war, in the midst of a civil war and invaded by imperialist forces, imagine what we'd be capable of today - in all areas of life.

Manny Thain

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