Revolutionary artists: from creatives to criminals

Catherine Cibulskis reflects on the dramatic evolution of Russian art in the immediate aftermath of the revolution

El Lissitzky, 'Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge', 1919. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

Red October transfigured Russian literature, life and art, with the avant garde movement reaching its creative and popular climax between 1917 and 1932. This outflux of creativity was then superseded by the state sponsored aesthetic of Socialist Realism. Although the era undoubtedly generated some of the most powerful art of the 20th century, it equally precipitated one of the bloodiest chapters in the nation’s cultural history.

After the Bolsheviks assumed control artists, composers, and writers alike were caught up in a revolutionary current that swept the nation. Believing that art could have a purpose beyond itself, that it could in fact help restructure the entire country, a new generation of artists flourished and begun to deconstruct and reconfigure the very fundamentals of artistic endeavour in a bid to discover what form a new ‘people’s’ art should take. Mayakovsky shouted: “the streets shall be our brushes, and the squares our palettes”, proposing that art was for the people, made by those with new and electrifying ideas.

As visceral changes transpired across Russia, art was radically changed, seeing the emergence of Suprematist, Futurist, and Constructivist movements. These were led by a cluster of artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, and Lissitsky, who would revolutionise art in the same way Russia itself was being revolutionised.

Celebrated artists gave birth to artistic spheres that claimed to express a utopian vision of a revolutionary future. For Kandinsky, art became a spiritual communion with music. For constructivists, it encompassed the dynamism of modern life with its “new and disorientating qualities of space and time”. For Malevich, it emblematised “the supremacy of pure feeling”. His Black Square, the first piece to be totally devoid of any relationship to real life, was truly unnerving, taking art to a new plane of abstract, geometric discourse that could speak universally to the people.

In the wake of the October revolution, agitprop came to wave a red banner on behalf of communism. In his Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, we see Lissitsky at the forefront of propagandistic art, where stark colours and shapes assume symbolic significance. In a geometric battle, a red triangle pierces a white curve in a demonstration of Red supremacy over the White army. The colour red also points to a bloodstained campaign that cannot be ignored when we evaluate Russian works with contemporary eyes.

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From 1932, things would deteriorate in the Russian world of art. The Soviet state now decreed that art must depict man’s struggle for socialist progress. The creative artist must serve the proletariat by being realistic, hopeful, and epic. Pioneering ideals of abstract purity from the avant-garde were now confined to ‘accurate’ portrayals of the worker in all his glory. Viktor Shklovsky lamented that, “Art must move organically, like the heart in the human breast; but they want to regulate it like a train”.

The revolution that promised the avant-garde an imminent new world not only shackled their creative imagination but actually incarcerated them in gulags, seeing them as an ‘appendage’ that had had its use. Their ‘crimes’ were artistic, their work obsolete.

In the 21st century we can look at each of these movements in relation to the period in which they were born. Johnathon Jones condemns retrospective celebrators of revolutionary works for their tendency to overlook the art’s proximity to an emerging regime, patterned by brutality and violence. For him, exhibitions like that at the Royal Academy are essentially guilty of nostalgia for a proletarian utopia that never existed.

Kandinsky himself famously argued that “every work of art is the child of its age. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated”.

In his assertion we can see that revolutionary art can never be extricated from the period in which it was created. While the roots and uses of these pieces are a cause for concern, their own innovative force and haunting abstract nature cannot be denied, nor can their transformative and irreversible effect on the world of art.