Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Russian Avant-Garde Part 1; Suprematism

Kazimir Malevich, Black and Red Squares, 1913

In December 1913, a "Futurist" opera opened at the Luna Park Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia with costumes and back cloths designed by the Ukrainian born artist Kazimir Malevich. It was a work of science fiction titled Victory Over The Sun, about the victory by a "Man of the Future" over the decadent culture of "The Sun." Like Futurist entertainments pioneered in Italy shortly before, the performance was full of noise and dissonant music. The plot was minimal. The audience rioted and the opera closed on opening night.
Probably the most memorable part of the opera was Malevich's contribution. He brought visual modernism to the very unconventional and anti-naturalistic costumes. Most especially, he put a pioneering work of abstract art before the audience in the form of one of the back-cloths, a very minimalist design that survives only in his working drawing for the design.

Malevich's drawing for the back-cloth of Victory Over The Sun, 1913.

Surely someone somewhere has done exhaustive scholarly and critical work on the close association between early modernism and science fiction. We've already seen it in the visionary architecture of Antonio Sant'Elia that continues to inspire Sci Fi illustrators and movie directors. Science fiction and modern art of the time were about The Future, and great expectations born of rapidly evolving technology.

The Russian avant-garde was a short lived movement of great expectations at the height of its powers in the years of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. It took over from Futurism the title of most adventurous and trail-blazing modern art movement in the world. Without it, the German Bauhaus and almost all subsequent modern architecture and design would have been unthinkable. The Russian avant-garde's influence on emerging international modernism was profound.
Their influence on Russia was limited. This most forward-looking of all modern art movements began in the most backward country in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. By the time of the outbreak of the First World War, Russia was only beginning to industrialize. The medieval feudal order had been formally dissolved barely 30 years earlier. The vast majority of the population were illiterate former serfs, slaves toiling on their lords' estates for generations. The very idea that the world's first Communist state would appear out of this medieval Byzantine survival would have horrified Karl Marx who died convinced that the first such state would be Britain or his native Germany.
And yet, it would be this backward country just emerged from feudalism that would be the first to embark on manned space exploration within 50 years of its revolution. The Victory Over the Sun would prove to be prophetic despite the hostile critics and audience.

The Russian avant-garde was largely isolated in its own country, having to make do in conditions of shortages, turmoil, and civil war. Lenin famously regarded them with contemptuous indifference. "Let the artists live off their enthusiasm," he said. Stalin would bring the movement (and some of its artists) to a premature end. It has only been recently that scholarship has resurrected the memory of this movement, and collections of surviving artworks have emerged from official oblivion.

Malevich, Black Square, 1913

First Suprematist Exhibition, St. Petersburg, 1915

The Russian avant-garde was actually a number of different groups. The first important group formed around Malevich and called themselves "Suprematists." They claimed to be the "inventors"of abstract painting. Another Russian, Wassily Kandinsky would dispute that claim, saying he made the first truly non-representational painting 3 years earlier.
I've always been of the opinion that all the truly revolutionary gestures in art were made before the Second World War. Here is absolute essentialist anti-figural abstraction 50 years before Ad Reinhardt and other artists would invent "Minimalist" abstraction. The "supreme" in Suprematism referred to that absolute reduction to the most fundamental forms of painting. It is no accident that Malevich's Black Square is hanging up in the corner of the exhibition.

Icon corner of a Russian dacha.

Russian icon of the Transfiguration from the 15th century.

The corner in the main room was the place of honor for religious icons in traditional Russian homes. For centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church communicated its mysteries and teachings to its illiterate flock of indentured tenant farmers through images. The image played a very large role in bearing meaning in Russia, contrary to the English-speaking world that privileges the word over the image as a consequence of its Protestant history. The icon was a window into the Next World, and a window out of this Vale of Tears for the believer.
Malevich decided to use that profound reverence for the image, its power to bear meaning for a largely illiterate population, to propagate a new religion of modernity, of science and technology. This new religion came not to save their souls in the next life, but to free them from their toil and obedience in this life.
Of course, things didn't quite work out that way, but in 1913, no one knew that yet.

Malevich, White on White, 1913

There is nothing spiritual or transcendent intended in these most reductivist of abstract paintings by Malevich. They are what they are and nothing more. Malevich considered this a revolutionary new form language for an emerging new world shaped by technology. In a new world without precedent, the artist had to start over from scratch, to go back to the very basics of form to prepare for this new world. Malevich and his followers always believed in the privileged position of painting as a medium for thinking and making.

Malevich, Yellow and Black, 1916

His compositions were not always quite so reduced and austere. His most bare-bones abstractions belong to 1913 in the year of Victory Over the Sun. Later, his work becomes a little more elaborate, and he made drawings intended to apply this form language to architecture.

Here is one of a series of drawings for proposed house designs. In this case, a house that uses the form of a bi-plane is suitable for that most celebrated of early modern heroes, the aviator. 1924.

Liubova Popova, Painterly Architectonics, 1918

Malevich's most gifted followers in the Suprematist movement were women.

Olga Rozanova, Green Stripe, 1917

Olga Rozanova makes a painting as absolute in its reduction of form as anything by Malevich. This painting uncannily anticipates the whole career of the much later American abstract painter Barnett Newman.

Malevich teaching class, 1925

Malevich pioneered new methods of art instruction that owed less to classical figurative training, and more to methods of engineering design. His teaching methods would have far reaching influence on the Bauhaus later on, and in the United States after World War II.

In 1917, the entire Russian Army mutinied and walked off the Eastern front. They marched in reverse on St. Petersburg, killing officers who tried to stop them. The thousand year old Russian monarchy came to a violent end in the anger and disillusionment of World War I. In its place rose history's first Communist state, the Soviet Union. The artists were thrilled to be part of it, even if only a small part. It was that enthusiasm, that exceited sense of expectation, that carried them through years of shortages and hardship. They believed that their role would be to give visual form to the new world brought forth out of the revolution.

In the meantime, the Revolution needed pagentry and propaganda. Like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution believed in the politics of pagentry and spectacle, and the artists obliged.

Pageant set designs by Olga Lialina and Igor Fomin in Leningrad for the 10th anniversary of the Revolution in 1927.

An agitprop boat with theaters and musical entertainment on board.

"Then and Now," an agitprop poster from 1920

El Lissitzky, "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge!" poster, 1920

Here is the most famous application of Suprematist form to a practical application. The results are a mixed success. It's a stirring and magnificent abstract composition. But, does it work as a propaganda poster? Keep in mind, this is revolutionary Russia in the middle of civil war. I suspect that the form language was just too new to reach that broad mass of the population that the regime wanted to reach. Its message is probably much clearer to us living on the far side of modern art than it was to the illiterate people for whom it was intended in 1920.

El Lissitzky helped to form a group of artists in the early years of the Soviet Union for whom the radical reductivism of Suprematism wasn't radical enough. They were the Constructivists.


David G. said...

I see you changed the background, it compliments the art.

rick allen said...

Very beautifully done.

I hadn't realized that the new regime was so friendly to the new art. When was it that Social Realism began crowding out the modernists? Or is that still to come?

I think of Stravinsky in music. His "Rite of Spring" premiered in 1912, I think. But in Paris. (Also to a riot.)

Michael Craig - Copernicus Films said...

What an interesting article, thanks.

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