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 and social issues of the time. Until the 1870s, Russian art was almost entirely under the control of the Academy, whose graduates faithfully turned out rather stale Neoclassical works on mythological and Biblical themes. The Academy exercised paternal supervision over an artist’s career even after his graduation—down to specifying a painting’s subject matter and style. In addition to being the arbiter of lucrative commissions and travel stipends to study the Old Masters in Europe, the Academy awarded prizes that came with a particular civil service rank and salary. Repin himself was born into the family of a military settler, a category of peasant just above serf. It was by winning the Small Silver Medal award in 1865 that he received the title of “free artist,” which corresponded to the lowest civil service rank and entitled him to full citizenship, freeing him from labor and military service.

Repin grew up in a provincial town in the southern Ukraine, where he was trained as an icon painter and worked restoring churches. In 1863, the year Repin arrived in St. Petersburg to begin his studies, the first major rebellion against the Academy occurred: fourteen artists left in protest over the assignment of compulsory subjects for medal competitions. By 1871 Repin had completed his course of study at the Academy, winning the Big Gold Medal with his sleek, Neoclassical Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter. At the same time he was already at work on The Volga Barge Haulers (1870–1873), which broke with the Academy not only in its subject matter, but in its bold, painterly realism, which itself seemed a criticism of the Academy’s stagnant doctrine. A large canvas (approximately 58 by 110 inches), it depicts downtrodden peasant laborers moving toward the viewer in a procession that has epic and Biblical overtones, despite the largely unsentimental, even unflattering, light in which the haulers are presented.


Liberal critics like Vladimir Stasov, an influential opponent of the Academy, had been pressing for a national art that would portray the reality of Russian life and elevate “the people” to the status of heroes—something unacceptable to the Academy, with its codified classical tradition. Stasov hailed Barge Haulers as the work of a “powerful artist and thinker,” which was high praise, as Valkenier explains, for “in the Aesopian language of the day, made necessary by censorship, ‘thinking’ was the code word used by the liberals to say: ‘critical of the existing conditions.”‘ Barge Haulers was shown to admiring viewers both in Russia (where even Dostoevsky praised the painting) and in Vienna in 1873; it transcended the banalities of the genre painting that had previously dominated Russian realism, and was widely perceived to mark a new era in Russian painting. Repin became famous overnight.

In the early 1870s, the fourteen artists who had seceded from the Academy in 1863 formed the Association of Traveling Art Exhibits (known as the Peredvizhniki, or Wanderers).1 Repin joined the group in 1878, after his Academy stipend came to an end. The first independent artists’ organization in Russia, the Association sent exhibitions of its members’ work throughout the country. Its emphasis on a didactic, emotional realism that criticized social conditions—the poverty of the countryside, the corruption of the clergy, the suffering of the peasants, etc.—soon made its exhibitions far more popular than those of the Imperial Academy. But the Peredvizhniki’s work was often attacked in the press for being weakly executed, tendentious, political illustration. Repin’s technical skill was indisputable, however, and his canvases drew the largest crowds and the most heated critical discussion. Paintings like They Did Not Expect Him (1884), which depicts a political exile returning home to his family, and Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan (1885), a melodramatic portrait of the monarch embracing the son he has just murdered, created an instant sensation at the association’s annual shows.

Throughout his career, Repin was caught between the politics and pieties of tsarist traditionalists, liberal nationalists, and Russophile conservatives. These factions all shared a deep-seated anti-individualism, rooted in Russian orthodoxy, which was often expressed in a profound ambivalence, if not outright hostility, toward the West. For the regime as well as some of its critics, fidelity to Russia was a sacred trust, and the artist was bound by moral contract to serve Russia first and foremost—though each side construed fidelity in its own way.

Almost everything a painter did was seen through this prism. Influenced by Manet and the Impressionists when he lived in Paris in the mid-1870s, Repin produced a major canvas, Paris Café, a scene of Parisian leisure devoid of Russian didacticism, which was accepted in the 1875 Salon but ignored by the French critics. On his return to Russia in 1876 he even flirted with Impressionism when he painted On the Turf Bench, a portrait of his family relaxing outdoors. Both works caused a scandal in Russia. Traditionalists saw Repin’s “French” paintings as tantamount to rejection of the motherland, since neither their style nor their subject matter was condoned by the Imperial Academy (in this equation the Academy = Tsar = Mother Russia).

But the liberals were also suspicious of the West’s “corrupting influence” and they, too, demanded allegiance to Mother Russia. Their opposition to the Academy sprang, in part, from a perception of it as an artificial, foreign presence on the native soil of Russian moral genius. For a critic like Stasov, to paint scenes of idle repose in an Impressionist style was also to betray that genius. He felt that Repin had to “exorcise foreign devils,” to shake off the influence of “a milieu that was harmful…[and…] inside Russia…regain his powers—the full power of a realist, of a national artist…fully capable of creating and representing thoroughly national types and scenes.”2 Russian art was supposed to have a message. Repin himself quickly abandoned Impressionism, complaining of its empty formalism.

Repin was deeply affected by Tolstoy’s views on art (his visits to Tolstoy led to memorable portraits of the writer). But, as Valkenier takes pains to show, this impulsive, contradictory man also valued the artist’s right to aesthetic freedom, and he ultimately rejected Tolstoy’s calls for a prescriptive, moral art. Though many of Repin’s most famous pictures are dramatic expositions of social issues or historical scenes, he also painted quite a few religious subjects (particularly in his later years) and was well known for his portraits, which, whether of his family, rich society figures, or writers and artists, include some of his best work. There was more than a little distortion of historical truth in the Soviet canonization of Repin as an artist whose “faithful adherence to the teachings of Herzen, Bakunin, and Chernyshevsky…presented a perfect model for Socialist Realism.”


The question of how—and which—Russian art could best express a specifically national identity continued to arise. From Repin on, virtually every successive generation of Russian artists, whatever its stylistic affinities, however great its debt to Western art, has reacted against its predecessors by appealing to this issue. Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the cosmopolitan World of Art group, which regularly included artists like Degas, Monet, and Puvis de Chavannes in its exhibitions (and which reflected influences ranging from William Morris, Burne-Jones, and Aubrey Beardsley to Hokusai), deplored nineteenth-century Russia for having produced only derivative art: Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and the Realism of the Peredvizhniki. 3

Diaghilev, too, wanted to see a strong, original, national school—one that would take its place alongside the art of Europe’s other great nations. Even Diaghilev, though an ardent critic of the Peredvizhniki’s simplistic, storytelling art, felt that the “greatest merit of [realist painters] Surikov, Repin and, above all, Vasnetsov,…lies in the fact that they have not feared to be themselves…. They challenged the West…. They are the primitives of the renaissance of our art in the Russian, national spirit.”4 Moreover, the chief patrons of Diaghilev’s group were Savva Mamontov and the Princess Tenisheva, founders of the artists’ colonies of Abramtsevo and Talashkino, respectively. Both colonies stimulated renewed interest in icons in the late nineteenth century and fostered a revival of traditional Russian peasant art and crafts, many of whose decorative motifs were incorporated into the stylized, artnouveauish work of World of Art artists like Alexander Benois, Leon Bakst, Konstantin Somov, and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky.


As younger artists began to react against the aestheticized works of the World of Art, their interest in native Russian art only grew.5 Indeed, the search for national identity sets the modernist art in Russia apart from analogous movements in Western European modernism. Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, both leading figures in the pre-Revolutionary avant-garde, emerged in the century’s first decade from the sophisticated World of Art movement as Neoprimitivists. Their garishly colored paintings of soldiers, fishermen, and peasant life—which heavily influenced the early work of Tatlin and Malevich—traced objects and figures in bold outlines, ignored the laws of correct academic perspective, and owed a great deal to the Russian peasant woodcuts known as lubok and the folk art of sign painting.

Much as Gauguin traveled to Tahiti or Picasso was fascinated with African art, Russian artists were looking to a more “primitive” tradition to revitalize culture. But Russians didn’t have to travel to Morocco, as Matisse did, since such traditions were waiting for them in the vast expanses of provincial Russia and Central Asia. As an industrially underdeveloped country with a still largely peasant population, Russia had huge reserves of a relatively untouched non-urban culture for artists to draw on. Many of the most important Russian avant-garde artists—Larionov, Malevich, Chagall, El Lissitzky, Tatlin, and Rodchenko, among them—had grown up in the provinces and so knew rural culture from early on. Furthermore, the idea (though not necessarily the reality) of the Russian countryside and the narod, the people—with its supposed wealth of natural, Rousseauean wisdom and innate moral rectitude—held an almost mystical attraction for avant-garde artists just as it had for the Peredvizhniki and generations of the Russian intelligentsia.

Matisse and Picasso had no particular emotional investment in Morocco and Africa: these were distinctly foreign cultures, whose aesthetic achievements were unencumbered by meaning or function for them. Picasso did not feel obliged to pose the issue of allegiance to French versus African art (or Spanish v. French), nor did he consider them as opposing elements in a moral conflict. This was not the case for Russian artists. Notwithstanding the heavy influence of modern French painting (Postimpressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism) on the Russians, their own “Tahiti” evoked a living emotional, spiritual, and social reality in whose history and fate they felt deeply implicated. “I was strongly moved by icons,” Malevich wrote, “I felt some kinship and something splendid in them. I saw in them the entire Russian people with all their emotional creativeness.”6 Despite the fact that Kandinsky spent the greater part of his career outside Russia, the messianic theme of Moscow as the Third Rome followed him throughout his life, reappearing, as has been shown, even when his work was at its most abstract.7 Tatlin’s painterly reliefs first appeared after he visited Picasso’s studio in 1913, but, as Russian art historians have always been anxious to emphasize, their faktura, or texture, owes as much to the tactile characteristics of Russian icons as to Picasso’s collages.

The need to identify with specifically Russian sources could lead to what John Bowlt has called the “isolationism and self-awareness we associate with the avant-garde”—and to anti-Western, anti-individualist attitudes not unlike those evident in Repin’s heyday. In 1911, Larionov and Goncharova left the Knave of Diamonds group they had recently formed to found a competing group, the Donkey’s Tail, precisely because they felt the former was too closely linked with French art. Writing in 1913, Goncharova acknowledged her “deep gratitude to Western painters for all they have taught me” but declared emphatically that

my French contemporaries…stimulated my awareness and I realized [that]… in fact, my country has created everything that derives from the West. Now I shake the dust from my feet and leave the West, considering its vulgarizing significance trivial and insignificant…. The art of my country is incomparably more profound and important than anything that I know in the West…. I consider all those people ridiculous and backward who still imitate Western models in the hope of becoming pure painters and who fear literariness more than death…. Similarly, I find those people ridiculous who advocate individuality…. Untalented individuality is as useless as bad imitation…8

Such sentiments did not disappear after the Revolution—if anything they gained ground, reinforced by the highly politicized circumstances of war communism and the siege mentality of the beleaguered new Soviet state. In 1919, Varvara Stepanova recorded Alexander Rodchenko’s ideas on art in her diary, excerpts from which are included in Rodchenko/Stepanova, the catalog to the recent retrospective of these two major avant-garde figures at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Despite the fact that the Constructivist curriculum which they were to develop at Vkhutemas in 1921 was based largely on the formal achievements of French modernist painting, Rodchenko and Stepanova felt that

to incorporate the paintings of Russian artists into the Shchukin and Morozov museum [of modern Western art] would be the equivalent of signing one’s bankruptcy petition and burying a past which is equally as rich as that of the French…. Russian painting is not a continuation of the West, and if the West is reflected in it then this is a minus-point for the essence of Russian art…. Russian painting-culture has its origin in the icon—a decorative adornment with an intrinsic value, as opposed to applied art, which does not possess an independent life since it exists only as an adjunct to the object….

Moreover it is characteristic of the Russians not to recognize their own native beauty but to worship the West which has already collapsed and outlived itself. I hope that these words are not taken as a nationalist appeal, since that is not my intention at all, but I simply want to explain the difference and the incompatibility of the course of Russian and of Western painting.9

Stepanova’s disclaimer of nationalism sounds rather like a disingenuous afterthought, a nod to the internationalist rhetoric of the Revolution. What comes through very clearly here and in other artists’ writings is the obligation they felt to “take sides” with Russian art, no matter how much they valued French developments. The anti-Western theme appears frequently in the couple’s articles and letters of the period. Rodchenko visited the West for the first time in 1925 to install his “Worker’s Club Project” and design the Soviet pavilion of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Apparently quite homesick, he wrote in a series of letters to Stepanova, much of it published in Novyi LEF in 1927, that:

Yesterday, looking at the foxtrotting public, I so wanted to be in the East, and not in the West…. Here, despite the fact that they filch the dances, clothes, colors, gait, types, and daily life of the East…they turn everything into such vileness and filth that there’s no East in it at all….

Why did I see it, this West, I loved it more when I hadn’t seen it. Take away its technology, and it would just be a lousy pile of manure, helpless and sickly….

What Europe has made…will come in handy, only it all needs to be washed, cleaned, and a goal set.10

By the time Rodchenko visited Paris, of course, the October Revolution had set a goal for artists and fundamentally revised the circumstances in which the avant-garde created works of art. Many of the major “left” artists—including Malevich, Tatlin, Chagall, Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, and Stepanova—immediately offered their services to the state and directed their energies toward the ambitious project of creating cultural institutions for the new government: setting up museums, acquiring (mostly avant-garde) works, and thoroughly reconceiving the practice of art education. Many saw retrospectively in their own artistic revolution a premonition of the social apocalypse that had engulfed the country. “What happened from the social aspect in 1917,” Tatlin wrote in 1920, “was realized in our work as pictorial artists in 1914, when materials, volume and construction were accepted as our foundations.”

Liubov Popova was among these artists. Rather dryly written, Popova by Dmitri Sarabianov and Natalia Adaskina is the first serious and thorough study of the short but extremely prolific career of this passionate, talented, and quintessentially avant-garde artist, who died of scarlet fever in 1924 at the age of thirty-five. Its publication coincided with the Museum of Modern Art’s Popova retrospective, the first such exhibition since the artist’s death, and one which revealed the full range of her originality.11

The daughter of a well-to-do manufacturer, Popova traveled widely in Western Europe and Russia before World War I, studied in Paris with Le Fauconnier and the Cubist Jean Metzinger in 1912, and later in Russia worked with both Tatlin and Malevich. In the first half of this book Sarabianov gives a painstaking scholarly analysis of all of Popova’s painting. Her earliest works, painted between 1908 and 1912, were still lifes, landscapes, and figures rendered in an idiom influenced by the Impressionists, Cezanne, and the Neoprimitivism of Goncharova and Larionov. After studying in Paris, Popova began experimenting with Cubist and Cubo-Futurist treatments of form and space, and her paintings of 1913–1915 incorporate typically Cubist elements—letters (Russian and Latin) and numbers, guitars and violins.

The fractured planes characteristic of this period—semi-geometric painterly patches modulated to create the illusion of volume—evolved into a series of remarkable painted reliefs in 1915. Pictorial elements gradually disappeared from Popova’s work and by 1916, propelled by the internal logic of her own development and the influence of Malevich’s newly announced Suprematism, she was deeply engaged in the nonobjective “painterly architectonics” which were to occupy her until about 1920.12 These were flat, irregular geometric planes overlapping on neutral, often black or white, grounds. As the series developed in 1917 and 1918, the ground disappeared and the planes began to intersect as if they were permeable sheets of densely colored light, shards from a kaleidoscope that created the paradoxical but powerful illusion of endless, volumeless space. A corresponding shift took place in Popova’s palette: the muted, earthy tones of classic Cubism were gradually overpowered by brilliant blues, oranges, greens, yellows, whites, and reds. By the time of the Revolution, Popova was a mature painter with an original, distinctive visual vocabulary of her own.

In the second part of Popova Natalia Adaskina treats, with great sensitivity, the theoretical and design work that increasingly engaged the artist after the Revolution. Like many of her colleagues, Popova saw contemporary art’s development as a linear progression, beginning with the disintegration of the object/image in the Impressionists and Postimpressionists through the deconstructed space of the Cubists and on to the nonobjective abstraction of Malevich’s Black Square (1915). Nonobjective form was the “logical culmination of the process of freeing artistic (form-building) principles from representation,” as Adaskina writes.

But following the Revolution’s coup de calendaire, the evolution of formal innovations appeared to have far-reaching political and social implications, as well. Though, as Adaskina points out, Popova’s archive contains no evidence of her views on the political events and slogans of the day.

the emotional shadings of her perception are perfectly clear. She was rocked by the immensity of the changes that had gone on in front of her…. For her it was clear: the life of every person had changed radically and irrevocably.

There could be no doubt, Popova felt, about “the superfluousness of representational art…its absolute irrelevance today, given the new social conditions.” And if you reject representation as a dead end, Popova and many other artists came to believe, you must inevitably reject all painting, no matter how “nonobjective”—and eventually the very concept of art itself.

The seemingly implacable logic of this analysis led her, along with other Constructivists, to renounce easel painting around 1921, and devote herself to theory and teaching (she was an important contributor to Constructivist debate in 1922) and to graphic, fabric, clothing, and theater design. By the time of the “5 x 5 = 25” exhibition in the fall of 1921, Popova was “embarrassed,” as Sarabianov points out, by her easel painting and treated the powerful, linear “Spatial Force Constructions” she exhibited “merely as a series of preliminary experiments.” She did, in fact, use formal elements drawn from her painting in her theater and design work. The striking stage set for Meyerhold’s Magnanimous Cuckoo recalls the Spatial Force Constructions, for instance, and her fabric and dress designs exhibit all the energy and elegance of her “painterly architectonics.”

Relinquishing painting was not easy, however, and the occasional cri de coeur can be heard amid all the rational analysis, single-minded dedication, and scientific rhetoric in Popova’s writings, a liberal assortment of which is happily included in the book:

And Now? What Next? This is the eternal question that, consciously or unconsciously, but continually and mercilessly, hovers in the artist’s consciousness…. “Revolution” is always “revolution”…is always onward, more, even if it is sad and hard to part with the immense labor of one’s achievements. But after all, once they are achieved, what else can you do with them? Of course onward.

In a particularly revealing article, “On a Precise Criterion…,” she not only sums up the absolutist Utopian aspirations of the avant-garde as exemplified in Futurism’s infatuation with science and the machine, but also alludes, with an irony that is no doubt inadvertent, to some of the great questions of nineteenth-century Russian literature, from the Grand Inquisitor and the Underground Man to The Kreutzer Sonata:

That an aesthetic criterion for evaluating an artistic object has not been established is well known to absolutely everyone and has been for quite some time; moreover, it was already brilliantly discredited long ago by Tolstoy….

Oh, why has there to this day not been a precise formula that might cut short at once the possibility of all these senseless arguments and like the best construction of a saw prune all the aesthetic garbage from life, having assigned it to preserving the monuments of antiquity and luxury. Let it be infallible, like the formula for a chemical compound, like the calculation for the pressure on the walls of a steam boiler, like the confidence of an American advertisement, like 2 * 2 = 4….

The search for the utopia of a “precise criterion” was not altogether unlike Rimbaud’s search, a half century earlier, for a poetry that would alter life: Rimbaud turned to metaphors of alchemy and the Philosopher’s Stone; Popova and other Russian avantgardists turned, initially, to scientific metaphor. But if the only resolution the isolated young poet could conceive was to fall silent, to abandon poetry itself, the Revolution offered a transcendent purpose to the “death of painting” proclaimed in 1915 by Malevich’s Black Square. This meaning carried particular force in a culture conditioned for centuries by sobornost, or a collective mentality; the project of building a new social order now endowed objects, artistic or otherwise, with that metaphysical function, or “intrinsic value,” that Stepanova wrote of in the passage quoted earlier.


The recent Guggenheim exhibition, “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932,” tried to place the avant-garde’s utopian aspirations exclusively within this confluence of radical aesthetics and political revolution. The exhibition brought together over eight hundred objects, in every imaginable medium, from museum and private collections in Russia and all over the world. Anyone interested in the period must feel grateful for having had the unique opportunity to see all this art together in one place. That said, the show unfortunately suffered from the problems endemic to museum blockbusters. There was too much art, too little information, and no clear cut statement of the exhibition’s purpose, partly, no doubt, because there was a “selection committee” of fourteen members from three countries, but no real curator.

The art, architecture, and design connected with Suprematism and Constructivism (by now fairly wellknown territory) accounted for most of the exhibition and were presented as defining the look and the ideology of utopia. The exhibition suggested, through fuzzily written wall texts and the muddled chronology of the installation, that a deep kinship—virtually a cause and effect relationship—existed between the October Revolution and avant-garde art, and that the former found its authentic expression in these works.

The proposed model for this relationship, though never clearly articulated, and inconsistently pursued, is the standard Constructivist view expounded by Popova and others. Crudely put, it is as follows: having reduced the represented object to a black square or “zero point,” avant-garde artists dispensed with it—and art as such—as a bourgeois relic no longer relevant to social conditions after the Revolution. They then moved into a phase of theoretical “experiments” in the perceptual and functional properties of color, line, volume, structure, and materials. These “laboratory findings” were eventually to be used to move “art into life,” creating radically new, functional objects—furniture, fabric, ceramics, household items, buildings, agitprop images, and so on in which form and material determined function. Such new objects were to effect an equally radical revision of humankind’s perceptions, thereby facilitating the establishment of the novel social and work relations called for by the Revolution.13

This model was adapted, ex post facto, by some of the avant-garde itself, as Popova’s career shows. But it is far too pat and does not account for the chronology of much avant-garde development. In fact the movement away from “pure art” and into design on the part of artists associated with Malevich and Tatlin evolved from an aesthetic progression that originally was not allied to political ideology, and predates the Revolution. Furthermore, the model is very one-sided: “left” artists may have believed that there was a natural, ineluctable logic binding their rejection of figuration to social revolution, but the Party’s view of the arts was far from being so neatly conceptual. There were many other groups (the realist painters of AKhRR on the right, and theorists of Proletkult on the left were the most vociferous) who made equal claims to being “true representatives” of the Revolution.

Had “The Great Utopia” stopped here, it might have been very similar to the 1990 exhibition “Art Into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914–1932.”14 The show included many aspects of the avant-garde that do not fit into this model, however—Kandinsky, Filonov, Matiushin, and late Malevich, for example—and the complexity and heterogeneity of the period seems to have defeated the organizers. Much of the work appeared strangely out of place, its relationship to Utopia and politics obscure.

The presentation of figurative and abstract painting by some of the artists involved in the “First Discussional Exhibition of Active Revolutionary Art,” which was held in Moscow in 1924, was likewise confused. The intention to illustrate some of the “ideological differences among several factions of Soviet art” was certainly a good one. But the scant information provided to the viewer made it impossible to understand what the ideological terms of the debate over art for the “new society” actually were, how they were visually expressed, or even how Alexander Deneika’s dark painting of grim workers, or Iurii Pimenov’s pastel-hued Milk Factory, differs from classic Socialist Realism.15

“The Great Utopia” tried to depart from treatments of the avant-garde that consider its aesthetic achievements divorced from its undeniably political setting. But the overall effect of the show, paradoxically, was not so much to politicize the art as to aestheticize the political history. The very brutal post-Revolutionary realities of purges, civil war, famine, collectivization, and forced labor were lost in the barrage of untranslated posters and books, unannotated photographs and modish red, white, and black design schemes. So, too, the differences between individual artists, and the moral and political questions raised by art’s service to an increasingly repressive regime, were effaced by wall texts that at times came perilously close to sounding like pre-glasnost Soviet artspeak: “Whether they negated the existing material world or strove to reorder it, these innovative men and women worked to forge an enduring and vital bond with society amid the ever-turbulent politics of the new workers state.”16 What remained with the viewer was chiefly the decorative impression of a colorful and stylish design.

It is strange, given the emphasis of “The Great Utopia” on the social and political context of avant-garde art, that evidence of art breaking “out of walls onto the streets” was confined to artists’ sketches. The exhibition included nothing from the rich collections of documentary photographs that were compiled in the former USSR. Beginning in 1918 with Lenin’s “Plan for Monumental Propaganda,” the May Day celebrations, and, later, the first anniversary of the Revolution, committees of artists representing right, left, and center factions designed decorations for holidays, parades, and participatory theatrical presentations throughout the country.

Street Art of the Revolution: Festivals and Celebrations in Russia 1918–33 chronicles the first fifteen years of this pageantry, and through it the evolution of the Stalinist state. A collection of historical documents and memoirs, color and black-and-white reproductions of artists’ sketches and photographs, it is an abridged edition of a two-volume Soviet book, compiled and annotated by Irina Bibikova in the early 1980s and originally published in Moscow in 1984. As Cooke points out in her valuable historical commentary in the English edition, there was as much of the old as of the new in these festivals: the content, and, in the case of “futurist” contributions, the aesthetics, may have been new, but the form itself corresponded to courtsponsored celebrations of national events, Russian Orthodox dramatizations of Biblical stories, and to the traditional krestnye khody, or processions of the cross, in which icons were carried through the towns during religious celebrations.

The book gives a lively sense of the way these Soviet festivals paralleled political events of the period. The allegorical figures of war communism (evil capitalists and virtuous proletariat) gave way to the economic and industrial themes of the New Economic Program, which promoted a limited market economy in the early 1920s. Political satire, including caricatures of NEPmen and the bourgeoisie flourished, while factory floats displayed real and symbolic manufactured objects—boats, cars, pencils, telephones. After NEP, street parades and decorations were designed to encourage the revival of heavy industrial production, and encourage the goals of the first five-year plan, announced in 1928.

Though the avant-garde’s contributions met with decidedly mixed reviews, even from sympathetic observers like Lunacharsky, it was responsible for some of the most spectacular, inventive, and militant moments in the history of Soviet political festivals. Nikolai Evreinov’s legendary restaging on Uritsky Square of the storming of the Winter Palace for the third anniversary of the Revolution, for instance, involved several stages, fireworks, and a cast of 10,000. In Meyerkhold and Popova’s Earth on End (1923), images and slogans were projected on stage screens, motorcycles and bicycles rode up and down the aisles, columns of soldiers participated, and in the outdoor performances a real crane replaced the wooden model used in the theater.17

In the years immediately following the Revolution, these events had the feel of pagan-religious ritual, a kind of mass catharsis. Though randomly preserved photographs can of course be misleading, in the pictures from the early years in Street Art one senses a spontaneity and engagement in the huge, unorganized crowds passing through Red Square or milling chaotically around the motley assortment of floats and exhibitions. By the late 1920s, the crowds are more often organized in paramilitary formations and the decorations have been largely standardized. The planning of the May Day and November celebrations became increasingly bureaucratic as the 1920s progressed: city-wide decorations had to be approved by a variety of committees, artistic and political. There is a corresponding shift in design, gradual but steady, toward the monumental. This shift was also quite evident in the Constructivist and Suprematist architectural projects of the time, even before the approach of a Socialist Realist architecture could be sensed in the return of classical elements and figuration, as the Museum of Modern Art’s exquisite 1990 show and catalog “Architectural Drawings of the Russian Avant-Garde” demonstrated.

By 1931 “political editors” were routinely working with artists on street decorations. By 1932 the participation of “qualified political consultants” was required. Stalin’s April decree. “On the Restructuring [perestroika was the word] of Artistic Organizations,” of 1932 disbanded all previously existing groups and merged them into one. In that same year, a pair of brothers, the avant-garde artists Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, decorated Red Square with red banners bearing large white slogans, and full-length, multistory portraits of Lenin and Stalin. It was a much less costly and more graphically effective solution than many which preceded it—and it set the visual style that was to be associated with the Red Square extravaganzas for decades.

The festivals had lost their fluid nature and cathartic, participatory function; as Rodchenko’s photographs of symmetrical configurations of athletes and demonstrators on Red Square show, they had become highly controlled spectacles orchestrated for passive consumption by artists who, like the viewers and marchers themselves, were now little more than cogs in the collective machine of the state.

This Issue

April 22, 1993