RA Magazine Winter 2007
Issue Number: 97
Changing of the avant-garde
The visual world we live in owes itself in large part to a short burst of extraordinary creative energy among Russian artists, designers, film makers and architects inspired by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Modern art and left-wing politics were seldom as close, before or after. Why then? Why Russia? How strong was the link? To explore these puzzles we asked an eminent historian of the modern world, Eric Hobsbawm, to describe a time of ferment when avant-garde art and utopian politics came together
Ilya Repin, Manifesto of October 17th, 1905. 1911. Oil on canvas, 184 x 323 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg. Photo © State Russian Museum, St Petersburg
There is no intrinsic connection between Europe’s artistic avant-gardes – the term came into use around 1880 – and the nineteenth and twentieth-century political left, though both regarded themselves as representatives of progress and modernity and both were transnational in their range and ambitions.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the Social Democrats, who were generally Marxist, and other left-wing radicals were sympathetic to avant-garde art movements: Symbolism, Arts and Crafts, even Post-Impressionism. In return, these artists were drawn into social and political statements and associations by their sympathy for movements devoted to the poor and oppressed. Russian examples included the turn-of-the-century World of Art movement led by Diaghilev, Ilya Repin’s painting of cheering demonstrators during the revolution of 1905 (above) and the resignation from the St Petersburg Academy, in that same year, of the eminent portraitist Valentin Serov in protest at the shooting down of striking workers.
However, there were limits to that political engagement. In the decade before 1914, new and radically subversive avant-gardes in Paris, Munich, the Habsburg capitals and, a little later – with a uniquely large component of women artists – in Russia, represented a distinctly artistic branch of modernity and revolution.
Under varying and overlapping labels – Cubist, Futurist, Cubo-Futurist, Suprematist and so forth – these radical innovators, subversive in their views on art, or cosmic and (in Russia) mystical in their aspirations, took little or no interest in the politics of the left and had few contacts with them. After 1910, even the young Bolshevik poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky dropped out of politics for a while. If avant-garde artists before 1914 read any thinker, it was not Marx but the philosopher Nietzsche, whose political implications favoured elites and ‘supermen’ rather than the masses. Only one of the artists appointed to responsible posts by the new Soviet government in 1917 seems to have been a member of any socialist party – the painter and graphic artist David Shterenberg, who belonged to the Bund, the Jewish workers’ league.
In their turn, Socialists could not understand and mistrusted the innovations of the new
artistic avant-gardes, committed as they were to bringing the arts – by which they generally meant the high culture of the educated bourgeoisie – to the labouring masses. At most the radical left contained one or two leading figures, such as the Bolshevik journalist Anatoly Lunacharsky, who, though unconvinced themselves, were sensitive enough to the intellectual and artistic currents of the time to recognize that even apolitical or antipolitical artistic revolutionaries might have some bearing on the future.
In 1917-22, following the upheaval of the First World War, the central and east European avant-gardes, which were to form a close cross-border web, converted in great number to the revolutionary left. Perhaps this was more surprising in Germany than it was in Russia,
a Titanic on which people were conscious of waiting for the iceberg of revolution. Unlike in Germany and the Habsburg lands, revulsion against the Great War does not seem to have been a major element in this change in Russia.
Two icons of the avant-garde, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the painter Kasimir Malevich, had actually produced popular patriotic broadsheets in 1914. It was the revolution itself that inspired and politicised them. It also gave them an international visibility that, until the 1930s, made Russia the post-war centre of Modernism.
The revolution also put the new Russian avant-gardes in a unique position of power and influence under the benevolent supervision of Lunacharsky, who became the new Commissar of Enlightenment. It was limited only by the regime’s insistence on maintaining the heritage and institutions of high culture that most of the avant-gardes, notably the Russian Futurists, had wanted to raze. Indeed, in 1921, the Bolshoi only just escaped closure. Few older artists were committed to the Soviets. (‘Are there no reliable Anti-Futurists?’ asked Lenin). Marc Chagall became director of the art school in his native Vitebsk and invited Malevich and El Lissitzky to teach there. The architect Vladimir Tatlin and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold headed ministerial arts departments.
Everything now seemed possible. The past was dead. Both art and society could be made anew. The dream of life and art, creator and public, as no longer separate but unified by revolutionising both, might now be realised every day on the street, in city squares, by men and women who were themselves creators. The avant-garde writer and critic Osip Brik summed up those ideals when he said: ‘Every man should be an artist. Everything can become fine art.’
The Russian Futurists, a blanket term for artists who embraced the idea of building a new modern world, and those later called Constructivists (Tatlin, Rodchenko, Popova, Stepanova, El Lissitzky, Gabo, Pevsner), pursued that aim most consistently. It is chiefly through this group, also influential in film (Vertov and Eisenstein) and theatre (Meyerhold) and by way of Tatlin’s architectural ideas, that the Russian avant-garde made its extraordinary impact on the rest of the world. It was the leading partner in the closely intertwined Russo-German movements which were to remain the major international influences on the modern arts between 1917 and the Cold War.
Ideas forged by the Russian avant-garde still form part of the basic know-how of everyone concerned with film editing, layout, photography and design. It is almost impossible not to be excited by their imaginative daring: Tatlin’s projected Monument to the Third International, a visionary spiral 400 metres in height that was to house public spaces and the various offices of state power, El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, Alexander Rodchenko’s montages and photographs and Eisenstein’s epic Battleship Potemkin.
Little survived of their work in the first years after the revolution. There was no building. As a pragmatist Lenin recognized the propagandist potential of films but the blockade kept practically all film-stock out of Soviet-Russian territory during the Civil War, although the students at the new State Film Institute in Moscow under Lev Kuleshov, honed their skills at the new art of montage – the discovery of the expressive power of juxtaposing distinct images – by cutting and recutting the content of surviving cans.
An early decree in March 1918 ordered the dismantling of the monuments of the old regime and their replacement by statues of inspirational revolutionary and progressive figures from all parts of the world for the benefit of an illiterate people. Around 40 went up in Moscow and Petrograd but since they were built quickly and mostly in plaster, few have lasted, perhaps fortunately.
The avant-garde itself plunged with gusto into street art, painting slogans and images on walls and squares and decking river boats, railway stations and trains with eye-catching agitprop slogans. It designed revolutionary celebrations such as the dramatic re-enactment, in 1920, of the storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd. These were passing events by their very nature, though one organised in Vitebsk by Marc Chagall was deemed insufficiently political and Lenin protested against another which coloured the trees outside the Kremlin with blue paint that was difficult to remove. They have left little behind except a few photos and stunning designs for portable orators’ platforms, kiosks, ceremonial installations and the like, including a blurred picture of the original maquette for Tatlin’s tower.
During the Civil War, probably the only fully realised creative visual projects were in theatre, which continued throughout, and although stage performance is itself evanescent, many innovative stage designs survived, such as those for Meyerhold’s Theatre of the Revolution.
After the Civil War ended, the market-friendly New Economic Policy (1921-28) brought an economic breathing spell. Money circulated again, there was more scope for realising avant-garde plans, and the new artists became less utopian and more practical in their outlook, though at the cost of growing tensions.
Communist Party ultras insisted on a wholly working-class Proletkult and attacked the avant-garde, while champions of a spiritually pure and totally radical art such as Naum Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner denounced ‘productivists’ who wanted an applied art that embellished industry. In addition, there were inevitable personal and professional conflicts.
Malevich eased Chagall out of his directorship of the Vitebsk school on the ground that he was backward-looking. Links between Soviet Russia and the West renewed themselves and, for some years, several avant-garde artists moved easily to and fro across Europe’s frontiers. Some (Kandinsky, Chagall, Exter) were to remain in the West with pre-revolutionary exiles such as Diaghilev, Goncharova and Larionov.
On the whole, the major lasting creative achievements of the Russian avant-garde came about in the mid-1920s, notably the first triumphs of the new Russian montage cinema, Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Rodchenko’s portrait photographs and posters and some of the (unrealised) architectural designs. Until the late-1920s, there was no serious official attack on the avant-garde, although the Soviet Communist Party disapproved of it, partly because its appeal to ‘the masses’ was negligible.
Not only did the Russian avant-garde have the protection of the open-minded Lunacharsky, who stayed in his ministry from 1917 to 1929, and of cultured Bolshevik leaders such as Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin. It also answered the need of the young Soviet regime to woo the indispensable bourgeois specialists, the educated but largely unconverted intelligentsia, who formed the core of the public for the arts, including the avant-garde arts.
Between 1929 and 1935 Stalin, while maintaining the intelligentsia’s relatively favoured material conditions, forced them to accept total submission to power. This ruthless cultural revolution meant the end of the 1917 avant-garde. Socialist Realism became mandatory. Shterenberg and Malevich fell silent (Malevich died in 1935); Tatlin, banned from exhibiting, retreated to the theatre; El Lissitzky and Rodchenko took refuge in the photo-journal USSR in Construction; Vertov ended up as little more than a newsreel editor; Meyerhold, who was deeply opposed to Socialist Realism, was shot by Stalin’s police around 1940, though his fate was not typical. Unlike most of the Bolsheviks of 1917 who had given them their chance, a majority of avant-garde artists survived Stalin’s terror, but their work seemed forgotten.
And yet today, we all still live in a visual world largely devised by them in the ten years after the revolution.
© 2007 Eric Hobsbawm
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