The Russian Revolution inspired a generation of artists to create new forms of artistic expression. In the first of a series of illustrated articles Paul Rouhan explores the art of the revolution
This is a radical overview of the art and design of the Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde from 1915 and the decade following the Russian Revolution of 1917. It highlights the contribution of Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Lyubov Popova, Alexandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Nathan Altman, El-Lissitzky and many more. These artists mixed their revolution in art with a political commitment to build a new world following the success of the October Revolution. And the results were spectacular.
Part 1 will focus on the revolution in art and painting in Russia and the Soviet Union, from 1915 to 1921. It starts with the revolution in art by Tatlin and Malevich in 1915. And then, after the October Revolution of 1917 how Avant-Garde artists applied their art into everyday life during the tumultuous years of the revolution, during the period of civil war from 1918 to 1921.
The Revolution in art – goodbye to the old world and hello to the new
In December 1915, at the ‘0.10 – The Last Futurist Exhibition’ in Petrograd (now St Petersburg), Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich took different revolutionary leaps in art. Both would later argue that their art revolutions foreshadowed the October Revolution of 1917 and both would contribute to the new society the Revolution created.
Vladimir Tatlin introduced his series of Corner Counter-Reliefs (1914-15). Tatlin had combined the sensations of lowly materials (such as rope, metal, glass and sand) together in a calculated economy to create great innovative art. The ‘tension’ and ‘strain’ are pushed to the foreground in these ‘Constructions’, foreshadowing the tension in Russian society that would erupt in 1917. In 1915, Tatlin’s artistic constructions remained inside the confines of the art gallery. The revolution would change that - and Tatlin himself would welcome the change.
In the second room at ‘0.10’, Kazimir Malevich unveiled nearly 40 paintings, some of which were still wet.
This would be the first fully abstract style of painting, which he would name Suprematism, initially focusing on colourful geometric on a painted white background.
Malevich’s breakthrough to abstraction came at a time of personal trauma. Nearing 40 years of age, Malevich had received his army call-up papers and the front-line was the likely destination. At ‘0.10’ he hung ‘The Black Square’ (1915) in the top corner of his gallery space. In response, the liberal art critic Alexander Benois called Malevich’s action sacrilegious because ‘The Black Square’ had overthrown the place reserved for Russian Orthodox icons revered in many homes at the time. Malevich overthrew the old beliefs which seemed increasingly meaningless as all the prayers of Russia failed to stop the seemingly endless war. In January 1916, Malevich entered the army and the First World War.
After his call-up, Malevich continued to paint productively, including one new phase of Suprematism, ‘Dynamic Suprematism’, where he added movement to his paintings.
Suddenly the prevailing mood of hopelessness changed for the majority of Russians and for Malevich himself. The Tsar is overthrown in February 1917 by revolution. The Provisional Government headed by Kerensky, continued to support and fund traditional art and artists, much to the annoyance of Malevich and other Russian Avant-Garde artists. Malevich the soldier was confronted with the new government that continues the war. Caught up in the general revolutionary mood, Malevich was elected by other soldiers to the Soldier Soviet in the summer of 1917. Soviets were democratically elected bodies that reflected the will of the majority at any point in time - and time was moving fast. Malevich soon became the Chair of its Arts Committee. But in fast moving times, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in October, based on their majority support in the Soviets of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors and Peasants.
Malevich’s Suprematist painting experiments continued after the Revolution and up to 1918, culminating in his ‘White on White’ period. For Malevich, the colour white represented the infinity of possibilities, possibilities he would soon start seeking beyond easel painting and applying into everyday life.
Between 1916-21, non-objective painting spread quickly amongst Russian Avant-Garde artists. Certainly influenced by Malevich’s Suprematist style, this extremely talented generation of revolutionary artists create their own variations. Lyubov Popova painted a series of ‘Painterly Architectonics’ from 1916-18, the title of the series itself introduced earthly construction and elements such as light and shade. Aleksandr Rodchenko undertook a number of non-objective constructions, including focusing on the line in painting.
Leftist Artists, as they now called themselves, were eager to leave the studio and move beyond the bourgeois aesthetics of the past and to meet head-on the demands of supporting the new revolutionary life.
Lunarcharsky, Narkompros & artists taking to the streets
After 1917, Leftist Artists placed their energy and enthusiasm at the service of the new world they thought would be imminent. They were welcomed by Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the powerful new Commissar of Education (Narkompros). Lunarcharsky was the right person to lead Narkompros. Back from exile in Europe, he had been exposed to the new radical trends in painting, created by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Vassily Kandinsky and Natalia Goncharova. Artists were welcomed into Narkompros. Only Leftist Artists came and got busy creating education programmes, organising exhibitions and developing collections for fourteen new museums in cities across Russia. At the same time, many artists who were traditional artists in both in their art and politics, sat back and waited for the besieged revolution to be overthrown.
By 1918, the Bolsheviks had ended Russia’s involvement in the First World War. But now the revolution was soon besieged by remnants of the old regime, which had regrouped and was supported by foreign armies and foreign funding, in the Civil War. With the courage of those that fought to defend the revolution and the organisation of Leon Trotsky’s quickly-formed Red Army, the Bolsheviks won the Civil War by 1921.
But in 1918, the victory in the Civil War was far from certain, with the borders of Revolution changing on a daily basis. The main event that marked artistic life that year was the celebration for the first anniversary of the Revolution. Leftist artists connected their art through mass street spectaculars all across Russia, backed by Narkompros. The street spectaculars created a collective oral and visual narrative to commemorate … the end of the old regime and point… to the hope for the future. These mass spectacles addressed the high level of illiteracy head-on. For example, Cubist painter Nathan Altman designed the celebration for Uritsky Square in Petrograd in 1918. Altman overthrew the neo-classical architecture of Imperial Russia with a vibrant façade of bright colour, which signified the change from Imperial Russia to the victory of the Revolution. Left Artists designed mass spectaculars from 1918-1920 across Russia, combining their designs with collaborations with directors providing some colour and collective unity during the hard times of the Civil War.
The inspiration of the unbuilt Tatlin Tower
In 1919, Tatlin was commissioned by the Narkompros to design a monument for the newly-founded Comintern. The Comintern was the international organisation co-ordinating the new Communist Parties from around the world, and its aim was to spread the revolution world-wide. For his commission for a ‘Monument for the Third International,’ Tatlin’s response was to match the Comintern’s ambition, designing a spiralling steel tower that would rise above Petrograd (now St Petersburg) with a height of 400 metres, which would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower (324m), built 30 years before.
Inside the modern steel construction of what is now popularly known as ‘The Tatlin Tower,’ was to be cased three primary volumes made from glass - cube, a cone and a cylinder. Each would rotate in permanent revolution. At the base of the structure was a cube, which would house a venue for lectures, conferences and legislative meetings. This would rotate annually. Higher-up would be a smaller pyramid housing monthly executive activities and completing a monthly rotation. Further up would be a cylinder which would rotate daily, and this reflected its function as an information hub, issuing news bulletins and manifestos, using telegraph, radio and a loudspeaker. 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. To showcase his vision, Tatlin with others at his workshop, built a wooden model 6 metres high which was displayed in an exhibition in Petrograd in 1920 and then became a part of mass parades and spectaculars.
The Tatlin Tower could not be built as the crippled economy was focused on fighting the Civil War. But if the Comintern’s vision had succeeded in spreading the Revolution to more industrially advanced nations, materials could have been made available and with some technical modifications Tatlin’s vision could have become a realistic and fitting ‘Monument to the Third International.’
Despite never being realised, the Tatlin Tower inspired a generation. Author Ilya Ehrenburg wrote in 1922, how Tatlin and his Tower inspired his generation:
‘We were absorbed in our own fantasy… (A) self-taught white eye-browed prophet (resembling an artisan) had placed on the ruins of imperial St Petersburg a clear sign. The beginning of a new architecture.’
But in 1920, with the revolution limited to Russia and with shortages of food, it could not start to begin to such a grand architectural vision. Tatlin, like other Leftist artists in those tumultuous days, were not de-motivated by the vision not being realised. These artists seemed to be mightily resilient, bouncing back and soon adjusting to what was possible to support the besieged Revolution in the dark days of the Civil War.
Tatlin himself entered a factory as an engineer to learn more about how he, as an artist-engineer, could combine his skills in production for general need of the new society. Other Left Artists would soon follow the practical lead of this ‘white eye-browed prophet.’
UNOVIS and art into everyday civil war life
UNOVIS in Vitebsk provides a shining example of the practical ways that a collective of artist-teachers and students could apply their art to everyday life to support the Revolution during the Civil War.
In November 1919, Malevich was invited by a young teacher and qualified architect, Lazar Lissitzky (who would shortly become known as El-Lissitzky) to teach at Vitebsk. Lissitzky was in Moscow to requisition supplies for the Vitebsk Art School. Malevich was tired of debates on art in Moscow. He himself favoured the continuing role of pure art to inspire design and seized the opportunity to move and teach in Vitebsk.
Through Malevich’s artistic skill, organizing ability and charisma, he quickly became the lead teacher at the school. Art schools after 1917, had become very democratic and so pupils had the power to decide who lead them. The facility at Vitebsk quickly became much more than an Art School, with Malevich and his followers setting up UNOVIS, which is an acronym that can be translated as ‘the Champions of the New Life.’ UNOVIS became the self-styled ‘party in art.’ This was an unofficial title, as Lunarcharsky and Narkompros were not going to favour one style or school of art over another. But Malevich and UNOVIS would not let details like this get in the way of taking a full part in the life of Vitebsk and far beyond.
Sergei Eisenstein, then a designer in a Red Army touring theatre group and later film director of ‘Battleship Potemkin,’ later recalled what he witnessed:
‘Here the red bricks streets are covered with white paint and green circles are scattered across the white background. There are orange squares. Blue rectangles. This is Vitebsk in 1920. Its brick walls have met the brush of Kazimir Malevich. And from these walls you can hear: “the streets are our palette.”’
These were not just shapes and colours simply added to walls of Vitebsk by UNOVIS. They were sketched and planned beforehand, as demonstrated by the design of teacher and UNOVIS activist, Vera Ermolayeva.
But the interventions of UNOVIS were not limited to adding vibrant paint and constructions to the streets of Vitebsk. The reality of the Civil War meant addressing real scarcity, such as the design for a Suprematist food coupon.
El-Lissitzky addressed the Civil War directly in his propaganda poster with added text: ‘Beat the Whites with Red Wedge!’ (1919). The poster combined the Suprematist visual language, with the ‘Red Wedge’ piecing the ‘White’s’ circle. El-Lissitzky had created a poster that anyone could understand about the need to beat the hated Whites, concretely serving the revolution. The poster allowed the viewer to focus their hated on the Whites for a variety of reasons because the victory of the White Army meant the return of lands from small peasant holdings to large landowners, the return of factory owners, the restoration of a monarchy and the return of murderous antisemitic gangs.
UNOVIS had a design for every event and occasion, in Vitebsk and far beyond, see, for example, El-Lissitzky’s preliminary drawing for a ‘Monument to Rosa Luxemburg’ (1919). In 1919, the Russian Revolution was struggling to hold on and it waited the spreading of the revolution to an advanced economy. Leading Communist Party member Rosa Luxembourg, opposed an uprising in Berlin which she believed to be premature. But she lost to impatient young German revolutionaries in the newly-formed Communist Party. The uprising was defeated and Rosa and others were murdered. El-Lissitzky places a red circle, with a black square inside and add the words ‘Rosa Luxembourg’ to them. This circle sits in white representing infinity of possibilities (as opposed to the ‘heavenly blue’ popularised in painting since the renaissance) and it is connected to other Black Squares, providing regeneration for further struggles abroad.
The success of UNOVIS spread beyond Vitebsk to a number of other cities across Russia. Ivan Kudryasov went to teach art and lead the local Orenburg UNOVIS branch in the South Urals from 1919 to 1920 and get involved in local life. Kudryasov entered an open competition to redesign the interior of the local Orenburg theatre and won the competition.
But in the hurly burly days of the Civil War even the winning design did not get executed, perhaps because the mesmering visual colours and geometrical design for the theatre might have overwhelmed any action on the stage. UNOVIS in Orenberg ended in 1921. Kudryasov left Orenburg in 1921 to accompany children orphaned in the Civil War.
The end of painting!’
By 1921, the revolution wins the Civil War. Politically-engaged artists using radical form in art understood the need to contribute to the new society, which they had done so throughout the Civil War, but they differed how as artists they could best contribute to the new society, through art and painting itself or directly through applied art and design.
Easel painting had become less important each year since 1917, with Leftist Artists applying their art wherever they could. This could mean either designing book covers, like Popova, or practical constructions for use in everyday life, like Rodchenko and his kiosk designs. El-Lissitzky, a trained architect, could develop ideas for future architectural projects, in his series of PROUN sketches at UNOVIS from 1919.
In 1920 in Vitebsk, UNOVIS and Malevich had published in a manifesto that easel painting had been an outdated prejudice of the artist for some time. Meanwhile, at Inkhut, the Institute of Artistic Culture) in Moscow, there was to be a split after a series of debates amongst students and teachers. Lunarcharsky had commissioned artist and theorist Vassily Kandinsky, to develop a programme which was published in 1920. The programme highlighted the separate branches of the new art, including Suprematism, Tatlin’s ‘Culture of Materials’ and Kandinsky’s own ideas.
Kandinsky’s ‘pure painting’ ideas now seem dated to the majority of the students and teachers at Inkhut. They were out of kilter with the growth of Constructivism, which flowed from Tatlin’s constructions. The main current was the ‘artistic engineers’ of Constructivism, who argued the need to produce work which was of value to society, objective and focused on the science of art. Kandinsky’s art theory was viewed as too subjective and intuitive, with ‘pure painting’ rejected by all. In Autumn 1921, Karl Radek, Secretary of the Cominterm, summoned the then dejected Kandinsky to his Moscow office for a meeting.
Radek informed Kandinsky of a teaching offer from Walter Groupius at the radical Bauhaus Art School in Germany. Kandinsky isolated in Russia, accepted the offer from Gropius. The Bauhaus would be a perfect fit for Kandinsky, enabling his artistic vision to be implemented in the radical teaching facility, which arose in the high point of the class struggle in Germany and closed its doors when the Nazis took power in 1933.
In 1921, came the ‘5X5’ exhibition in Moscow, which followed the victory of utilitarian art at Inkhut. The exhibition featured five artists, Lyubov Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Vesnin and Alexandra Exter, each displaying five pictures and proclaiming the end of easel painting.
Lyubov Popova summed up their ambitions when she wrote in her catalogue:
‘All the experiments shown here are pictorial and must only be considered as a series of preparatory experiments for concrete material constructions.’
Popova and her fellow artist-engineers would seek to use these preparatory experiments to take-up real jobs in factories creating objects, in an artistic current which was known as Productivism. They reached this conclusion as the Civil War ended in victory in 1921. However, seven years of a war economy took its toll and the victory was immediately met by ‘famine’, ‘crop failure’ and ‘epidemic.’ Shortage is not a fertile climate for moving ahead with either Socialism or a new utilitarian art form in collaboration with factories. The newly created Soviet Union would introduce the capitalist reforms of the New Economic Plan, just to create a functioning economy to be able to feed the new workers and reignite the empty closed factories. State subsidy for art abruptly ended. This was not the opportune climate for ‘artist-engineers’ to apply large-scale applied art.
Despite the limitations and set-backs that would face, these artists, some now self-titled as artist-engineers, would do everything that was possible to be of use to the new society. In doing so, they would unleash a golden era of graphic design, theatre-design, household design, textile design, architecture and photography in the 1920s.
That is for part 2.