The Old New Wave

Kandinsky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings Vol. 1, 1900–1915

by Hans K. Roethel and Jean K. Benjamin
Cornell University Press, 558 pp., $135.00

Russian Constructivism

by Christina Lodder
Yale University Press, 328 pp., $40.00

Vasilii Kandinsky
Vasilii Kandinsky; drawing by David Levine

In March 1915 the poet and painter Vasilii Kamensky asked the jury of a Petrograd exhibition to allow him to contribute a live mouse in a mousetrap, but the jury rejected his proposal, arguing that it would lower the standard of artistic taste.1 Kamensky was a member of what is now known as the Russian avant-garde and his attitude expressed the very essence of these “hooligans of the palette”2 who wished to “throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoi et al., overboard from the Ship of Modernity.”3 The term “Russian avant-garde” is now almost a household word thanks to numerous recent publications, exhibitions, and allied events culminating in the production of the Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun (original libretto by Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, music by Mikhail Matiushin, and designs by Kazimir Malevich) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last November. This was first staged in St. Petersburg in 1913.4

By and large, however, our rediscovery of the art and writings of those Russian pioneers such as Vasilii Kandinsky, Mikhail Larionov, Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin has been almost too earnest, too philosophical, and we have tended to forget about their comic antics and shocking behavior. Of course, the seriousness with which historians—including the authors under review—tend to approach the Russian avant-garde suggests the depth and permanence of its effect on modern artistic thinking; but their deadpan scrutiny is exactly the kind of scholarship that the Cubo-Futurists, Suprematists, and Constructivists tried to “throw overboard.”

Just before and after World War I, “Die ‘Wilden’ Russlands,”5 as David Burliuk, the “Father of Russian Futurism,”6 called his colleagues, undertook unprecedented experiments in literature and art and created wholly new concepts of poetry, painting, architecture, and design. In 1913 the poet Vasilisk Gnedov, who called himself an “Ego-Futurist,” wrote what he called “The Poem of the End”—a blank page; in 1917 Malevich began his series of “white on white” paintings; also in 1913 Kruchenykh introduced a “transrational” language—expressed in his poem called “Heights”—consisting only of vowel sounds; in 1918 Alexander Rodchenko painted his three minimalist canvases of pure red, yellow, and black; and in 1920 the Russian Dadaists, who actually called themselves “Nothingists” (since the Russian “da, da” was too affirmative), paraphrased Tristan Tzara’s manifesto by declaring “Read nothing, write nothing, publish nothing.”7

These extreme actions remind us of concurrent showmanship in Paris, Milan, Zürich, but while the Russians were fully aware of Western trends and borrowed freely from them, they pursued them ferociously, with creative exaggeration, often arriving at conclusions unthinkable in the birthplaces of Cubism and Futurism. The vibrant stage designs for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris by Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov; the dramatic entry into abstract painting by Kandinsky, Larionov, and Malevich; Tatlin’s nonobjective reliefs of mixed media and his soaring spiralic tower of 1919–1920; the visionary architecture and design of the 1920s by Gustav Klutsis,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.