Art in the Soviet Union – Sekhem – Nov 10 (2/2)

kazimir malevich, the knife grinder, 1913

the soviet avant-garde was born from the russian futurists. these artists shared the same love of modernity, technology & movement as the italian futurists, creating intensely radical art experimenting in new forms of expression, like the application of the futurist sense of movement to the abstracted forms of cubism, & the exploration of typography & placement of text in poetry. the movement expressed sentiments of heavy iconoclasm, the early essay ‘a slap in the face of public taste’ demanding the public “Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity.”

while some international futurists had a sense of reverence for the first world war, viewing it as a sort of purifying destruction of the old order, sentiments in russian futurism were against it – the poet vladimir mayakovsky specifically saw that this destruction of the old order of life could be seen instead in the russian revolution.

vladimir baranov rossine, the village, 1916

after the bolsheviks came to power, the only vaguely political movement of russian futurism advanced to a more radically political stance. the organization KOMFUT (an acronym for communism & futurism) arose, declaring that “all forms of life, morality, philosophy & art must be re-created according to Communist principles.” the proletariat of russia had established a society with almost no precedent – & as such there had to be a radical new artistic culture to accompany this.

natalie goncharova, automobile, 1914

KOMFUT Programme Declaration posted:

It is essential to wage merciless war against all the false ideologies of the bourgeois past.
It is essential to subordinate the Soviet cultural-educational organs to the guidance of a new cultural Communist ideology – an ideology that is only now being formulated.
It is essential – in all cultural fields, as well as art – to reject emphatically all the democratic illusions that pervade the vestiges and prejudices of the bourgeoisie.
It is essential to summon the masses to democratic activity.

vladimir mayakovsky especially, among other futurists, sought major cultural roles in Soviet culture, but futurism essentially dwindled. in the new artistic movement proposed by the former futurist painter kazimir malevich, we can find its successor. suprematism was an artistic movement consisting of a simplification of art to stark, distinct geometric shapes (you should all be familiar with the malevich painting ‘black square’, along with duchamps fountain it is probably one of the defining works of the whole of the 20th century avant-garde)

kazimir malevich, black square and red square, 1915

in his essay ‘From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting’ malevich declared that “Only dull and impotent artists screen their work with sincerity. In art there is a need for truth, not sincerity.”

From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting posted:

The instrument of torture is idealism and the demands of aesthetic feeling.
The idealisation of the form of man is the mortification of much living sinew.
Aestheticism is the garbage of intuitive feeling.
You want to see pieces of living nature on the hooks of your walls.
Just as Nero admired the torn bodies of people and animals from the zoological garden.

I say to all: reject love, reject aestheticism, reject the trunks of wisdom, for in the new culture your wisdom is laughable and insignificant.

kazimir malevich, 0.10 exhibition, 1915

in the suprematism of malevich we can find an art that is totally separate from bourgeois idealism, individualism, moralism & emotionalism. malevich went on to form the UNOVIS group (an anagram for ‘the champions of the new art’, & was appointed to the staff of the vitebsk state art school, with UNOVIS organizing numerous free workshops intent on introducing suprematist ideals to russian society, working for & with the soviet government.

olga rozanova, book, 1916

colleagues of malevich, most prominently the artist el lissitzky, produced numerous works of propaganda & industrial design for the soviet government (such as his iconic ‘beat the whites with the red wedge’, a clear example of suprematist ideas applied to propaganda). lissitzky & his ideas, particularly this willingness to aid the soviet people with his art, became very influential to another budding soviet cultural movement – constructivism.

el lissitzky, beat the whites with the red wedge, 1916

constructivism was coined by the sculptor naum gabo in his ‘Realistic Manifesto’ which promoted the idea that art should accompany the masses “at the workbench, at the office, at work, at rest, and at leisure; work days and holidays, at home and on the road, so that the flame of life does not go out in man.” constructivism was based on the principles of, among other things, the connection of art to the material realities of the soviet union.

el lissitzky, lenin tribune, ??

the theory of constructivism was mainly developed in the INKhUK (soviet institute for the research of the arts) whose staff included the previously mentioned artists malevich & mayakovsky, as well as the architect vladimir tatlin. tatlin was a major figure in constructivist ideas (although he ultimately disapproved of the movement) & expounded the theory that art should be primarily concerned with “1. Research into the material as the shaping principle of culture, 2. Research into the everyday life as a certain form of material culture, & 3. The synthetic forming of material, as a result of such formation, the construction of standards for new experience” (from his paper ‘report of the section for material culture’s research work for 1924’). tatlins ideas would come to their ultimate form in his conception of a ‘monument to the third international’:

wikipedia posted:

The tower’s main form was a twin helix which spiraled up to 400 m in height, which visitors would be transported around with the aid of various mechanical devices. The main framework would contain four large suspended geometric structures. These structures would rotate at different rates of speed. At the base of the structure was a cube which was designed as a venue for lectures, conferences and legislative meetings, and this would complete a rotation in the span of one year. Above the cube would be a smaller pyramid housing executive activities and completing a rotation once a month. Further up would be a cylinder, which was to house an information centre, issuing news bulletins and manifestos via telegraph, radio and loudspeaker, and would complete a rotation once a day. At the top, there would be a hemisphere for radio equipment. There were also plans to install a gigantic open-air screen on the cylinder, and a further projector which would be able to cast messages across the clouds on any overcast day.

vladimir tatlin, model of the monument to the third international, 1920

while of course this would be ridiculously difficult to construct (& as such was never attempted) as a theoretical work it provided huge influence to the constructivist movement.

george grosz & john heartfield, text reads “art is dead – long live tatlin’s machine art!”

perhaps the greatest concentration of the constructivist movement was the state art & technical school the vkhutemas. established by a direct decree from lenin himself, the schools 100 staff members included many of the soviet unions radical avante-garde (this is one element of the greatness of soviet art of this period, imagine if the majority of the greatest, most radical artists of your nation were employed, with secure jobs, by the state) – one of which being the painter, sculptor, photographer & graphic designer alexander rodchenko. rodchenko, i feel, is one of the most compelling artists & theorists of this period. notably, in 1921, he announced “the death of painting” as he exhibited three canvases each painted a single colour. rodchenko would abandon painting to focus on graphic design for posters, books & films (this approach of directing art towards practical social roles would be taken by many soviet artists, particularly the productivist group to which rodchenko belonged, & the previously mentioned artists malevich & lissitzky).

alexander rodchenko, lilya brik, 1924

in rodchenko & the constructivist movement, i feel we can find a genuinely communist artistic culture.

Alexander Rodchenko, Slogans posted:

Construction=organization of elements.
Construction is a modern concept.
Art is a branch of mathematics, like all sciences.
Construction is the modern requirement for organization and utilitarian use of material.
Constructivist art is the life of the future.
Art which does not enter into life will be put into a No, of the archaeological museum of antiquity.
It is time art entered into life in an organized fashion.
Life organized along Constructivist lines is superior to the delirious magic art of the sorcerers.
The future will not construct monasteries for the priests, prophets and minstrels of art.
Down with art as a beautiful patch on the squalid life of the rich.
Down with art as a precious stone in the midst of the dismal and dirty life of the poor.
Down with art as a means of escaping from a life that is not worth living.
Conscious and organized life, that knows how to see and build, is contemporary art.
The man who has organized his life, his work and himself is a genuine artist.

el lissitzky, about 2 squares, 1922

Alexander Rodchenko & Varvara Stepanova, Programme of the First Working Group of Constructivists posted:

1. Our sole ideology is scientific communism based on the theory of historical materialism.
2. The theoretical interpretation and assimilation of the experience of Soviet construction must impel the group to turn away from experimental activity ‘removed from life’ towards real experimentation.

varvara stepanova, sports clothes, 1923

while the artists of the vkhutemas were dedicated to lenin & his cause, the relationships between these radical artists & the soviet leadership was strained. in a visit to the vkhutemas, he did not initially approve of the avante-garde art he observed, but after a discussion on the political nature of the works he was accepting, declaring that “tastes differ” & the he was “an old man”.

socialist realism
after the death of lenin & the new leadership of stalin, these tensions only escalated. stalin ordered the liquidation of independent artistic unions, & implemented the school of ‘socialist realism’ as the official approved art of the soviet union. this opposed the current of the soviet avant-garde, who stalin saw as too formalistic – too concerned with the specifics of the visual qualities of line, colour, shape & texture as opposed to works concerned with the proletariat. socialist realism had actually been developed as an artistic movement concurrent with the soviet avant-garde, but until stalins measures it had not received the same state attention.

a. lubimov, a young pioneer in cap, 1932

the primary artistic advocates of socialist realism were the AKhRR (association of artists of revolutionary russia) & championed their cause until their organization was liquidated, & they went on to form the core of the new ussr union of artists. they state their philosophies in their paper ‘declaration’:

AKhRR, Declaration posted:

Our civic duty before mankind is to set down, artistically and documentarily, the revolutionary impulse of this great moment of history.
We will depict the present day: the life of the Red Army, the workers, the peasants, the revolutionaries, and the heroes of labor.
We will provide a true picture of events and not abstract concoctions discrediting our Revolution in the face of the proletariat.

r. frentz, horsewomen, 1925

these philosophies are echoed in the rules that the soviet congress set down as to what socialist realism was – the works had to be:


1. Proletarian- art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
2. Typical- scenes of every day life of the people.
3. Realistic – in the representational sense.
4. Partisan – supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

a. lubimov, two young pioneers, 1932

obviously, these rules excluded much of the radical avant-garde of the earlier soviet union.

vladimir fedorovich chekalov, red army soldier with bucket, 1955

however i think the repression of art under stalin is generally completely overstated. as you can see above, what constituted ‘socialist realism’ was a fairly wide genre that encompassed many different works. also, while many artists of the previous avant-garde lost their state support, several (such as rodchenko & lissitzky, the latter in fact was quite sympathetic toward socialist realism – & i am of the opinion that these two artists were probably the strongest of the soviet avante-garde) still continued to work with state backing. in fact, vladimir mayakovsky, possibly the most prominent figure throughout all of the soviet avant-garde, was even recognized by stalin himself, who in 1935 stated “Mayakovsky is still the best and the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his cultural heritage is a crime.”

alexander rodchenko, dynamo soccer club, 1935

i personally feel that the movement of socialist realism is the true fruition of the sentiments of ‘the new objectivity’ expressed by george grosz & otto dix. in his short essay ‘the object is primary’, dix even expresses views similar to that of socialist realism. while not nearly as straight up incredible as constructivism & suprematism were, & people have every right to decry stalins cultural policies, i think it’s wrong to totally dismiss the field of socialist realism like many people do.

y. belov, a worker – innovator, 1954


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