Chagall Malevicn, Red Cavalry, 1932

In France, the emergence of modernism in art, from Impressionism to Cubism, spanned half a century. In Russia, the avant-garde emerged and disappeared in little more than a decade, from around 1910 to the early 1920s. French avant-garde movements, succeeded each other, in an orderly progress – Impressionism, Pointilism, Fauvism, Cubism. In Russia, a tumult of avant-garde movements – Neo-Realism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayonism, Suprematisism, Constructivism, Non-Objectivism, Futurism – tumbled forth almost simultaneously, their proponents often challenging each others’ perspectives. From the poetic Romanticism of Marc Chagall to the radical abstraction of Kazimir Malevich, the Russian avant-garde stretched the imagination as rarely before.

‘Neither before or after that period of time in the history of art’, observes curator Klaus Albrecht Schroeder, in the introduction to ‘Chagall to Malevich: The Russian Avant-Gardes’, an exhibition now showing at the Albertina gallery in Vienna, ‘were schools and artists’ associations founded with such breathless haste like in Russia between 1910 and 1920. Each group was a programme, each programme a declaration of war, not only on the past, but also on the rivalling present.’

The Albertina exhibition brings together 130 works by Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popopova, Olga Rozonova, Vladimir Tatlin, Nathan Altman, El Lissitzky, Pavel Filonov, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Wassily Kandinsky, and many others, to illustrate, in Schroeder’s words ‘the co-existence of irreconcilable aesthetic approaches’, and the ‘simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’, a phrase borrowed from the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. It is a stunning show, retelling the story of the Russian avant-garde and tracing in ’11 chapters’ both the dynamic developments of different styles, and the chronological parallels between figurative expressionism and pure abstractionism.

The Russian avant-garde drew upon western European developments, of course, from post-Impressionism to Cubism to Futurism, and beyond, but it also developed and transformed that raw material, often in astonishing ways. It is difficult to think of another period, certainly in the post-Renaissance world, so short in time and yet so rich in artistic innovation.

The background of the artistic avant-garde was the struggle for the social transformation of Russian society, and the desire to break the shackles of Tsarist feudalism. What linked the various movements was ‘their common idea of progress and their radical rejection of handed-down movements’.

Russian avant-garde begins in the shadow of the 1905 Revolution with the Neo-Primitivism of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. Drawing inspiration from Russian folk art, Neo-Primitivism borrowed the flat forms and the bold colours of Fauvism and German Expressionism. Larionov and Goncharova then pioneered Rayonism, with a manifesto calling for the autonomy of painting from naturalism, laying the ground for a total break with any form figurative or representational art. Kazimir Malevich, along with artists such as Alaxandra Exter and Lyubov Popova, experimented with Cubism and Futurism, before Malevich in particular moved towards total abstraction with Suprematism. Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko and El Lisstzky developed a different form of geometric abstraction in Constructivism.

It was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that, in seeming to give concrete expression to Utopian ideals, transformed the social meaning of the artistic avant-garde. The leading artists all welcomed the Revolution, and some, Malevich and Rodchenko in particular, politically embraced the Bolshevik programme. In post-revolutionary Russia, artists sought not just to bring art to the masses, but also to use it, from architecture to photography, to transform society and to create the ‘New Man’.

The relationship between revolution and art was a double edged sword. On the one hand, it gave artists – and art – a new social role, and intensified the creativity that flowed from the sense of breaking the old shackles and creating the world anew. On the other hand, that new world helped devour both art and artists. Not only was the line between art and propaganda increasingly difficult to draw, but it was the state that now began to define what was good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, art. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Commissar of Education, and responsible for art and culture, dismissed the idea that artists could be granted ‘autonomy’. ‘Everything must be harmony with the Revolution’, he insisted. And ‘harmony with the Revolution’ left increasingly little room for experimentation with form or for explorations of the abstract. What state functionaries required of artists was art that helped bind the masses to the Soviet state and its needs, not art that raised questions, or expanded the imagination.

The partnership between the Soviet state and the artistic avant-garde was officially terminated in 1932 when the Communist Party central committee demanded the dissolution of all groups and organizations not in line with Socialist Realism. But it had, in practice, died long before then, with Stalin’s seizure of power in 1924.

Malevich politically identified with the Revolution. That did not stop Stalin from closing down the State Institute of Artistic Culture (GINKHUK) of which he was director, or from denouncing his Suprematist works as ‘degenerate’. Artists were arrested (including Malevich himself), exhibitions shut down, publications banned. Many, such as Chagall and Kandinsky, went into exile. Until Stalin became supreme leader, the tensions between artistic demands and the demands of the state had been manageable. Stalin managed the tensions by crushing the avant-garde.

The most shocking and sad of all the rooms in the Albertina exhibition is the final one on Socialist Realism. Here we see the greatest tumult of twentieth century art reduced to the turgidness of the style that Stalin had decreed was fit for the proletariat. We can see the struggle of many artists, Malevich in particular, attempting to accede to Stalin’s dictates while trying also to cling on to at least a thread of artistic integrity. But in these final works, all the passion and invention and optimism and hope has disappeared. This was the Russian winter in art.

The Drama of the Russian Avant Garde by Kenan Malik[:]