After the revolution in Russia, artists embraced a new social and political agenda, says CHRISTINE LINDEY
ALTHOUGH pre-revolutionary Russia’s avant garde debated the social role of art, it had only an ineffectual presence on the fringes of a tsarist state with rigid arts policies. The Bolshevik revolution changed this.
In 1917 Anatoly Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, immediately introduced pluralist state policies so that avant-garde artists now joined more traditional ones in positions of power in education and patronage.
Now, not only were aesthetic issues publicly aired, they were no longer pie in the sky.
This resulted in a heady brew of conflicting ideas. As artists redefined the social role of art to serve the fledgling Soviet state, so they sought a new aesthetic.
A key issue was how art should relate to the past. Before 1917 the Suprematists, led by Kasimir Malevich, virulently rejected it, partly on aesthetic grounds. They would liberate art and creativity from the past shackles of subject and styles to create a totally pure art and Malevich’s now famous Black Square of 1913 still remains one of art’s most radical statements.
After the revolution some artists rejected past academic art, partly on political grounds, to disassociate their art from that of the oppressive tsarist regime. Members of the proletarian culture movement Proletkult, including Natan Altman and Vladimir Mayakovsky, held that the function of art was to agitate and propagate socialism.
Rather than creating individualist and permanent collectible works, their works and actions would be collectivist, ephemeral and topical.
From 1919 their ROSTA posters were hand-made overnight, often hurriedly, to cover shop windows with work on a single topical theme, giving the public up-to-date information, explaining government policies or ridiculing its enemies.
“We are breaking with the past because we cannot accept its hypotheses,” constructivist Liubov Popova explained. “We ourselves are creating our own hypotheses anew and only upon them, as in our inventions, can we build our new life and new world view.”
By taking art into production, the Constructivists would become self-effacing constructors helping to build the new egalitarian society alongside other workers.
Refuting the tsarist concept of the artist as a male individualist “genius” creator of unique statues and paintings, they would design for mass production to improve daily life: “Down with ART as a bright PATCH on the mediocre life of the propertied man… Work in the midst of everyone, for everyone, and with everyone,” declared Aleksandr Rodchenko.
Building the new world equated modernity. Constructivist posters, typography, textiles, ceramics and clothing were simple and practical but they also signified a total break with the tsarist past.
Modernity meant welcoming the rapid technological change brought about by new materials, processes and technologies such as the telephone, film, flying machines and electrification.
Rather than a stone or bronze statue, Vladimir Tatlin’s unbuilt project A Monument to the Third International was to consist of abstract geometric forms made of sheet glass in a metal frame.
This modernist, electrified monument would soar over Petrograd but would also function as a communications tower. International avant gardes also embraced modernity but Soviet artists were fired by the prospect of making real socio-political change.
But the large Association of Artists for Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR) defended more traditional means and realist art on political and aesthetic grounds. Citing Lenin’s reminder that proletarian culture should learn from, rather than reject, past art they turned to socially committed art such as Gustave Courbet’s and Ilya Repin’s as prototypes.
They declared: “We will depict the present day: the life of the Red Army, the workers, the peasants, the revolutionaries and the heroes of labour.
“We will provide a true picture of events and not abstract concoctions discrediting our revolution.”
Some, such as Isaak Brodsky used precise realist styles but others, including Alexander Deineka and Boris Grigoriev, assimilated cubist and expressionist elements into moderately modernist but legible styles.
Their realist depictions of everyday life and heroic events of the revolution would inspire current and future Soviet citizens. The priority was to transform “revolutionary reality into realist forms comprehensible to the broad mass of workers.”
Soviet modernists were to influence over a century of worldwide art and design. Yet, in their day, relatively few constructivist designs went into production, due to the difficult economic situation and conservative public taste.
In prioritising subject matter over formal innovation, AKhRR artists were more responsive to the needs and tastes of the public. That the West has ignored or marginalised them until recently stems partly from its criteria of prioritising innovation and artists’ intentions over their social responsibility.
This caused it to ignore its own predominantly traditional early 20th-century art, when its avant garde was more marginalised than in the Bolshevik state.
Abridged from an article in Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies Digest, September 2017. The society promotes knowledge of the culture, language and history of Russia and the former Soviet Union, details: scrss.org.uk