MoMA Explores the Rise of the Avant-Garde in Bolshevik Russia


It’s a withering irony of the human condition that decimation often lays the foundation for progress. In the early twentieth century, as it endured the ruinous repercussions of brutal and unrelenting political and ideological struggles, Russia also witnessed electrifying cultural innovation. The spirit of the avant-garde was alive and thriving. Out with the old, in with the new. The revolution wasn’t only in the streets. It was in paint and ink, on paper and celluloid.

To mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Museum of Modern Art curators Roxana Marcoci and Sarah Suzuki, together with Hillary Reeder, organized “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” a succinct yet marvelous exhibition that makes vivid the full force and reach of the rebellious minds and hands working between 1912 and 1935. Although these artists will always stir the air in their own right, right now they pose a question and perhaps offer a model, too: In the midst of political upheaval — in the violent shaking of the social order, whether outmoded or outvoted — how might an artist be?

Friction. Destruction. Invention. Vision. Though there was a shared desire to topple tradition, there was no consensus as to how this might look. In the early 1910s, artists such as Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, and Kazimir Malevich were dabbling in cubo-futurism and neo-primitivism, lively if strained hybrids of modernist gestures borrowed in part from Western European counterparts such as Picasso and Braque. (The delight of seeing a work like Malevich’s Samovar, from 1913, is knowing what would follow from the artist, at that point painting in a cubist-manqué style.)

“We leave the old art to die and leave the ‘new’ art to do battle with it,” wrote Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov in their 1913 manifesto, “Rayonists and Futurists.” Rayonism declared itself free of debts to the past and the present, forging an aesthetic rooted in “the reflected rays of various objects, forms chosen by the artist’s will.” In other words, its canvases were dominated by strokes and colors applied in rays, vigorous attacks that produced dense, vibrant abstractions to dissolve the distance between viewer and artwork.

In 1915, while Russia was embroiled in the horrors of World War I, Malevich notoriously declared “the supremacy of pure sensation” — suprematism — as the way forward for art, embracing abstraction over representation and distilling art into its most essential components: line, color, form. Why illustrate a subject when instead an artist could capture and impart its feeling? Although Malevich appears and reappears throughout the exhibition, one wall is dedicated to these earliest experiments: cool compositions of geometries — square, circle — that were supposed to elicit great feeling.

Image wasn’t everything. The written word was central to the avant-garde movements. The manifesto, the poem, the journal, the poster, the newsletter: all communiqués, often collaborations, meant to articulate and circulate ideas, sometimes to small circles, at other times more widely. From the futurists came zaum (“ZA-oom”), loosely translated as “trans-sense” or “beyonsense,” a mode of poetry that abstracted language, messy medium that it is, plucking at words not for meaning but for sound. Here in the exhibition, we “hear” zaum via humble yet stunning handmade books by its practitioners. Of particular note: Varvara Stepanova’s 1919 poem “Gaust Chaba,” which she wrote in watercolor, gouache, and crayon on newspaper — her colorful and fluid-handed “beyonsense” floating over the regimented black type of the broadsheet — transmits at least one message clearly. News reports on the world, while zaum seeks to transcend it. (It must be noted that it is thrilling to see women artists so central to an era. The Russian avant-garde feels far more advanced than the modernists for this reason alone.)

After the revolution of 1917, Lenin encouraged artists to support the new Marxist regime by creating art in the spirit of this new vision. Having initially embraced the power of total abstraction, the constructivists — led by Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin — took on the challenge of how to bring their ideas from the margins to the masses. They embraced popular forms, ones that could transmit news of the new more widely than a painting or a sculpture ever could. Film, photography, scenic design, posters, porcelain, children’s books: These were the media that would herald the dawn of the Soviet Union.

Rodchenko’s photographs — the canted angles, the foreshortened perspectives — estrange viewer from subject just enough so that the eye looks a little longer before it sees. The exquisitely collaged film posters by the Stenberg brothers (Vladimir and Georgii) likewise announce a new way of seeing. And perhaps most important of all, though represented least well here, are the Soviet filmmakers, whose lasting contributions to cinema cannot be overstated. Here in the galleries, clips from Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), and other greats are looped and projected onto the walls, reducing them to a purely graphic experience. Although frustrating, this does keep these artists inside the arc of the story rather than quarantined in a movie theater. Filmmaker Esther Shub was a pioneer of the compilation film, which she edited together from found newsreel. Her most famous, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), is the first work in the show, and sets the tone for what’s to come. Made for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, the film weaves a pro-Bolshevik narrative by juxtaposing images from the opulent lives of the Romanovs with those of the violence and despair of the country.

The exhibition ends in 1935, when Stalin’s administration announced that socialist realism would be the only sanctioned style of Soviet art. Artists were tasked with the glorification of communism in a representational style that felt closer to life. Ideas gave way to image-making, and image-making curdled into propaganda — what we now call “alternative facts.” Such is the other irony of the human condition: We not only write our own fates, but we paint, sculpt, photograph, and film them too.

‘A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through March 12