Art and the Great Utopia

Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art

by Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier
Columbia University Press, 248 pp., $37.00

Aleksandr M. Rodchenko/ Varvara F. Stepanova: The Future Is Our Only Goal

catalog of an exhibition at the Austrian Museum for Decorative Arts, edited by Peter Noever, essays by Aleksandr N. Lavrent’yev, by Angela Völker
Prestel, 260 pp., $65.00

Popova

by Dmitri V. Sarabianov, by Natalia L. Adaskina, translated by Marian Schwartz
Abrams, 396 pp., $39.95 (paper)

The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932

catalog of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Guggenheim Museum, 732 pp., $50.00 (paper)

Street Art of the Revolution: Festivals and Celebrations in Russia 1918–33

edited by Vladimir Tolstoy, edited by Irina Bibikova, edited by Catherine Cooke
The Vendome Press, 240 pp., $50.00

An atmosphere of mystery and romance, with a tragic overcast, has always attended discussions of that constellation of artists and movements we call the Russian avant garde. Despite the flood of information over the last five years—dozens of survey and monographic exhibitions, and many times that number of books and articles—the air is still heavy with myth. The fascination with the period leading up to and following the Russian Revolution lies not only and perhaps not primarily in the objects the artists produced, but in the aura of great events—war, revolution, famine, terror—that surrounds them. To a degree unprecedented in modern history, artists after the Revolution became agents of the state and sought to merge ideology and artistic discourse. The same artists and their art were soon disowned and repressed as ideological enemies by the revolutionary government they so passionately served. Some, like El Lissitzky and Klutsis, went on to create icons for the Stalinist state; others, like Tatlin and Malevich, appeared to draw back, returning to a private, figurative art that also seemed to spell defeat. Some, like Rodchenko and Stepanova, did both.

There seems to be a moral lurking here somewhere. In fact few periods in art history have been so often subjected to political mythologizing—from West and East, right and left. Assessments of the aesthetic, political, and moral legacy of the Russian avant-garde unavoidably transgress the traditional concerns of Western art history and are inevitably affected by one’s view of the Bolshevik Revolution and its relationship to the rise of Stalinism. Small wonder that there is still intense disagreement over the reasons for the avant-garde’s rise and fall. But Russian art is no stranger to politics. Their jealous liaison did not begin with the 1917 Revolution; nor, for that matter, has it ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ilya Repin (1844–1930), the subject of Elizabeth Valkenier’s Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art, is an important figure for any study of Russian visual art of the last two centuries. The career of this realist painter spanned the historical period from the emancipation of the serfs to the consolidation of Stalin’s power after Lenin’s death. During his lifetime the monopoly on the arts held by the Imperial Academy (founded in 1757) was broken, and private patronage of the arts grew and flourished; censorship was relaxed and artists were freed from obligatory involvement with the tsarist state, only to be resubjected to control by the Bolshevik state. Though Repin was ambivalent about the Revolution and spent his last years in Finland, in the Soviet Union his work eventually became the model for Socialist Realism, and a Repin cult was actively promoted by the regime. Little known in the US, in Russia he has probably been the subject of more studies than any other artist.

Elizabeth Valkenier’s superb book shows how Repin’s artistic development and Russian realism in general were dominated by the political …

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