El Lissitzsky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919
Tuesday, 17 October 2017 18:50

October 1917: The Spark For Great Art

Published in Visual Arts

Christine Lindey explains how the 1917 Russian Revolution inspired the transformation of the visual arts into instruments of popular liberation.

“In the land of the Soviets every kitchen maid must be able to rule the state,” said Lenin and the arts were an intrinsic part of the Bolshevik revolution’s attempt to achieve this momentous step forward. But it was no mean task. For a population — 80 per cent of whom were illiterate — serfdom, abolished in 1862-4, was still within living memory. And it was by expressing the revolution’s aims through imagination, emotion, humour and joy, that the arts opened the people’s minds and boosted their self-confidence to seize power.

How best to do this was hotly debated. Rejecting unique works of art as self-indulgent bourgeois commodities, some artists heeded the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s dictum that “the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes.” Turning to agit-prop — agitation and propaganda — they created ephemeral posters and street pageants and decorations to educate and enthuse support for the revolution. Thus in 1920 artists including Nathan Altman organised the ambitious re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace, involving decorated buildings, factory sirens and 2,000 Petrograd proletarians. Perhaps a few kitchen maids were among them.

CL Natan Altmans proletarian futurism

Nathan Altman's proletarian futurism

Trains were transformed into “moving posters,” with vivid images and slogans painted on them, and were filled with travelling theatre companies, film shows, books and literacy classes to bring socialism to the countryside. Such actions were possible because the worker state became patron of the arts. Recognising the importance of culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Minister for Enlightenment, immediately revolutionised cultural institutions.

CL Anatoly Lunacharsky 1923

Anatoly Lunacharsky

The arts would now serve the people, not the aristocracy or bourgeoisie.The art market was abolished, museums nationalised and their contents reorganised and reinterpreted from a working class perspective. Two radical artists ­— washerwoman’s son Alexander Rodchenko and bourgeois ex-lawyer Wassily Kandinsky — jointly founded 22 new museums and purchased contemporary art for the young state. Museums worldwide still envy these collections.

The 19th-century progressive intelligentsia had already challenged tsarist Russia’s near mediaeval socio-political conditions and their expression through equally polarised aesthetics. The aristocracy favoured Western academic art as a mark of their superior sophistication, while denigrating their serfs’ woodcut prints (luboks), icons, carvings and embroideries as “crude” and “primitive.” But the early avant garde upturned these aesthetic criteria. Arguing that photography liberated them from academic art’s fussy illusionism, they were inspired by the flat shapes, bold colours and outlines through which folk art succinctly expressed visible and inner worlds.

CL Apsit

The Resolute Brothers, by Alexander Apsit, showing the gigantic proletarian clubbing Czar Nicholas II and his allies

So lubok-inspired revolutionary posters, illustrations and textiles appeared after 1917, energising peasants and workers by affirming their own, hitherto denigrated, cultural traditions. But artists also embraced the social progress promised by industrialisation and the surge in the recent technological inventions — film, recorded sound, telephones, flying machines and motor cars. Their forms and functions symbolised the speed, dynamism and energy of modernity and of the revolution.

As art education was reorganised, the Marxist Vladimir Tatlin headed the innovatory VKhUTEMAS, the technical workshops in a Moscow art school which influenced the globally influential German craft and fine art Bauhaus movement from 1919 to 1931 and beyond. Inspired by the machine age, VKhUTEMAS dispensed with traditional art to investigate forms, spatial organisation, materials and processes as a basis for producing cheap mass-produced goods, accessible to all. Rejecting the bourgeois concept of the artist as individual male genius, they defined themselves as classless, self-effacing “constructivists,” collectively constructing the revolution alongside other workers, regardless of gender.

CL stepanova textile designs

Varvara Stepanova’s textile designs

Lyubov Popova’s transportable theatre, Rodchenko’s posters and Varvara Stepanova’s textiles shared the abstracted forms of modernity — the circles of factory cogs and wheels, electricity’s lightning zig-zags or the soaring grace of flying machines. At Vitebsk Art Academy Kazimir Malevich founded UNOVIS, a group in which students and teachers collaborated in explorations of the essence of form and volume to create futuristic architectural models as prototypes to inspire designers, engineers and architects. And they did.

Marc Chagall, painter of poetic evocations of Jewish village life and art commissar of his native province, founded the Vitebsk academy during the revolution and Lunacharsky’s pluralist aesthetic policies enabled Malevich, pioneer of geometric abstraction, to teach in the same academy. Similarly Alexander Deineka, who argued for realist paintings to represent the revolution and workers’ lives, taught in the same Moscow institution as Tatlin, renowned for his soaring design for a monument to the Third International (1919-20).

CL Tatlins Tower 1919

Tatlin's Tower, 1919

During the hardships of war communism (1917-22) artists concentrated on speculative research but some of these reached fruition afterwards. Kitchen maids sported dresses printed with modernist motifs celebrating technology and socialism. Buildings such as Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House of 1930, incorporated communal facilities such as laundries, dining halls, kitchens and reading rooms.

Inspired by UNOVIS, its horizontal banded windows sweep across the facade, providing maximum light and air, behind wide, heated corridors in which tenants could interact. Together with parallel developments in the other arts, the visual arts made real differences to people’s lives. In the coming centenary year of the 1917 revolution, numerous exhibitions will repeat the neoliberal mantra “great art, shame about the politics,” perpetuated since the 1920s.

In fact, it was great politics which generated such a blossoming of the arts.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 31 December 2016.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017 18:50

Art and the Bolshevik Revolution

Published in Visual Arts

How did the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 affect art and artists? It did so at every level: art education, production, patronage, distribution and reception were all transformed. Fierce debates about the form and function of art in the new worker state raised fundamental issues; from these stemmed so rich a flowering of the visual arts that its influence is still alive.

The revolution was itself partly the work of artists. Some had worked towards social and/or political change since Russian artists had taken the role of social critic in the nineteenth century. In the 1870s the Wanderers’ paintings had exposed social injustice in daily life. By the early twentieth century a well-informed Russian avant-garde was in touch with Paris and Munich, the epicentres of innovatory art. Embracing modernism, it debated how to transform and modernise Tsarist Russia. Some, like Goncharova, adopted the vivid colour and formal simplifications of ‘primitive’ Russian peasant art, rather than those of African art favoured by the French and Germans.

By 1913 Malevich had rejected all representation as antiquated, arguing that his revolutionary abstraction equated better to modern times. October 1917 brought radical cultural change. No longer for bourgeois and aristocrat, art would now be for the people. The art market was abolished and museums nationalised; the worker state became art’s patron.

Initially, most avant-garde artists welcomed the revolution because Lenin’s idea of a political avant-garde as an agent for social change legitimised their own calls for radical action to combat conservative attitudes to art and society. For Marxists like Tatlin, here was an opportunity to make real and meaningful change. He recalled: 'To Accept (sic) or not accept the October Revolution. There was no such question for me. I organically merged into active creative, social and pedagogical life’.

Others, like Kandinsky, were not sympathetic to Bolshevik politics, but welcomed the artistic freedom which it brought, while aesthetically or/and politically conservative artists feared a loss of private patronage and critical status. Contrary to western propaganda, no artist was sent to the salt mines: Lenin and Lunacharsky, (Commissar of Enlightenment 1917-1929) pursued a pluralist arts policy.

Nevertheless, for the first time in the world, the avant-garde was appointed to positions of power. Despite the material hardships and shortages of War Communism (1917-1922) it launched into a dynamic transformation of art and its institutions. Tatlin headed IZO, the visual arts section of Lunacharsky’s commissariat. Recognising Kandinsky’s international status as an innovator, IZO gave him the important role of reorganising art education and museums. Together with the younger Rodchenko he founded 22 provincial museums and acquired the important collections of Russian avant-garde art which now grace museums in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics.

Tatlin, Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Popova, Stepanova , Rodchenko, Lissitzky and others taught at the newly created art schools where they pioneered innovatory teaching methods, which were later to influence the Bauhaus.

The debates about the role of art and artists raged on. Malevich and his group argued that the researches of innovatory artists would act as prototypes for practical application in architecture and design. Others took a less social view: Chagall continued his poetic depictions of his personal response to life, while Kandinsky pursued his investigations into the communication of heightened spiritual states of mind via colour, line and form.

Viewing such work as bourgeois self-indulgence, the politically engaged left heeded Mayakovsky’s dictum: 'the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes'. They created 'agit-prop' (agitation and propaganda) using their talents to decorate propaganda trains and boats, make Rosta street posters and organise public pageants and events. For example, in 1920 Altman and other artists involved 2,000 members of the Petrograd proletariat in the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace which included decorating buildings with gigantic abstract banners, and using factory sirens and arc lights.

Some Marxists, led by Tatlin and Rodchenko, called for the abolition of the art object which they saw as an exchangeable commodity belonging to the bourgeois past. Artists must leave their ivory towers and construct the new Socialist state alongside other workers by putting art at the service of the revolution. They became known as the Constructivists, and put the experiments conducted in the new art schools to practical use by designing posters, books, ceramics, theatre sets, etc. for the masses.

Under the slogan ‘Art into Production’ artists were to go into the factories to create modernist, mass produced designs because the new social order demanded new materials and new forms. For example, Popova and Stepanova designed textiles printed with the abstracted motifs of modernity: the zigzag of electricity, the whirl of aeroplane propellors, the cogs and wheels of trains and tractors.

Popova, who had begun her life as a painter is reputed to have said: ‘No artistic success has given me such satisfaction as the sight of a peasant or a worker buying a length of material designed by me.’ Meanwhile, artists such as Deineka argued that modernism was inaccessible to the masses. This was indeed often true. Abstract street decorations were said to frighten the horses. No less committed to the revolution, they argued for a representational art which would carry revolutionary messages. Seen as reactionary by the Constructivists, they were the forerunners of Socialist Realism.

The dilemma of creating innovatory art which is also accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved.

This is a version of an article published in the Digest of the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies. The society's library and archive includes a comprehensive collection of books and pictures about Soviet art and design.