ArtWeekend

Art of the Russian Revolution, Through Contemporary Eyes

The Russian Revolution was an unparalleled disaster, but its artistic tradition remains of enormous interest.

“Victory over the Sun, Russian Avant-Garde and Beyond” at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, installation view (all images courtesy the Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM — Revolutionary art, it is often said, can sometimes be suggestively linked to contemporary political revolutions. That is why Jacques-Louis David’s activism during the French Revolution inspires passionate discussion. And it is why the political implications of Gustave Courbet’s 1840s paintings are much analyzed. How, then, should we understand the relationship between Russian modernist art and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution?

Victory over the Sun, Russian Avant-Garde and Beyond, an exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, takes its title from the opera Victory Over the Sun (1913) by composer Mikhail Matyushin. Aleksei Kruchenykh was the author of the libretto, and Kazimir Malevich designed the costumes and the abstract scenery. This celebration of the triumph of a new aesthetic inspired Malevich’s most famous work, “Black Square” (1915). And Malevich, as the excellent catalogue essay by Lola Kantor-Kazovsky notes, developed “quite a hermetic and authoritarian [aesthetic] system, demanding the unquestioning following of its principles […].” He thus was as dogmatic as the Bolsheviks.

The show starts with Mikhail Karasik’s To the Affirmer of the New Art (2010), a four-minute, 55-second video ironically inserting images of Malevich and the poet Daniil Kharms into the story of Russian political life of the 1920s and ’30s, the period when their revolutionary art was suppressed. And then the exhibition sections off into three parts: modernist revolutionary images by artistic revolutionaries; works by these artistic revolutionaries once Stalin came to power; and, finally, art made after Stalin’s death in the brief thaw created in the 1960s by Nikita Khruschev accompanied by a good selection of more recent Russian and post-Soviet works which respond to the revolutionary tradition.

Kazimir Malevich, Russian, “Composition” (1915) oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm, Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts, Ekaterinburg (photo © Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts)

We are thereby presented with the opportunity to compare the art of the revolution with its more recent interpretations by Soviet-era figures as well as contemporary Russian artists. The exhibition includes various paintings and costume designs by Malevich, and documentation of the version of Victory proposed by El Lissitzky in 1920, who was his rival, as well as Lissitzky’s drawings and lithographs (1918–19) devoted to the Passover song Had Gadya.

There is a roomful of books by various artist-revolutionaries, and there are 21st-century installations such as Vadim Zakharov’s walk through The History of Russian Art from the Russian Avant-Garde to the Moscow Conceptual School (2003) and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Toilet in the Corner (2004), along with some paintings, including Double Self-Portrait (1972) by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid and Erik Bulatov’s Glory to the CPSU (2003–5). All of these more recent artists are skeptical, or even cynical about the value of the revolutionary tradition; none of them are doing Suprematist paintings. Indeed many of them have emigrated to the West.

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, “Double Self-Portrait, from the ‘Sots Art’ series” (1972), oil on canvas laid on board, diameter: 92 cm, collection of David and Kathryn Birnbaum (© Komar & Melamid, photo by Naomi van der Lande)

Soviet Suprematism was one of the most important modernist styles, worthy of being set alongside French Cubism, Italian Futurism and German Expressionism. The Russian Revolution, now almost everyone will agree, was an unparalleled disaster, a historical dead-end. But the artistic tradition presented in this show remains of enormous interest. What’s at stake, as the brilliant organization of the show signals, is the correct understanding of the relationship between artistic and political revolution.

The recent Russian artists on show all take a sardonic view of Suprematism because they know too well, from personal experience, the conditions of life in Russia, and the fate of the USSR. But how might an outsider understand their history?

Any claim to identify the political implications of the artistically revolutionary Cubism of Pablo Picasso or the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock has to be highly speculative, for these artists did not claim to be activists. But the Soviet artists of 1917 really aspired to be political revolutionaries.

Kazimir Malevich, “‘Bully,’ costume design for the opera ‘Victory over the Sun’ by M. Matyushin and A. Kruchenykh, 1st Futurist Theater, St. Petersburg” (1913), graphite and watercolor on paper, 26.7 x 21 cm, St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music (photo © The St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music)

A revolution, by definition, involves radical change in the way of doing things. Malevich (and his Russian peers) in 1915 made revolutionary paintings, unlike any earlier art by anyone; and in 1917 Lenin (and his comrades) created a radically new system of governing, in a revolutionary break with Czarism. But what then is the relationship, if any, between these two very different revolutions — Malevich’s in his studio and Lenin’s in the Kremlin? What, that is, are the connections between making highly novel visual artifacts and creating a revolutionary new political order?

If we seek empirically to link Malevich and Lenin, convincing connections between art and politics are very hard if not impossible to establish. None of the artists imagined the October revolution in advance, though they welcomed it when it came; and neither Lenin nor Stalin ever took any sympathetic interest whatsoever in aesthetically revolutionary abstract art.

Artistically revolutionary French Cubism circa 1907–14 was not accompanied by any related political changes; nor did the radically original American Abstract Expressionist art of the late 1940s bring about any dramatic political developments. But Russia is a special case, for Malevich’s 1915 art was followed two years later by a political revolution.

Erik Bulatov, “Red Horizon” (1971–72) oil on canvas, 140 x 180 cm, Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery (MAGMA), Erik Bulatov( © ADAGP, Paris, 2018, photo courtesy Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery)

These may seem essentially separate developments. If, however, following Hegel (and Marx) we assume that any culture has an ultimate unity, then what we expect (and will find) is that revolutionary art is inevitably linked to revolutionary politics. The Marxist doesn’t need to seek empirical connections between art and political developments because he believes that they are necessarily connected.

As we all know, in the political world such Hegelian-Marxist ways of thinking no longer appear convincing. But in art history they retain great prestige. T. J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999) — with its political account of David, Soviet revolutionary art, and Abstract Expressionism — and the scholars associated with October continue to develop this way of thinking. And that’s why this magnificent exhibition, which won’t travel, is of more than specialist interest. There is a lot to see and understand here. Anyone concerned with understanding aesthetic modernism, and the complex relationship of art and politics, will find much of interest. Because many of the artists were Jewish, and, also, because some Russian avant-garde art ended up in Israel, the Jerusalem museum is a natural home for this show, which contains numerous loans from France and Russia, and is accompanied by a full catalogue.

Victory over the Sun, Russian Avant-Garde and Beyond continues at the Israel Museum (Derech Ruppin 11, Jerusalem) through June 10.

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