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How Soviet artists broke with the past

How Soviet artists broke with the past

Alongside the political revolution in Russia there was an aesthetic transformation

Alongside the political revolution in Russia there was an aesthetic transformation

Francis Vermeylen | December 7th 2017

“Beauty will be abolished and forgotten in the mighty wave of urgent practical needs…In constructing the new life, artists must contribute to the common cause”. These words appeared in a Russian manifesto entitled “The Voice of Artists”, published in 1905. It was a year of strikes and mutinies in Russia, and the beginning of the period covered by Tate Modern’s exhibition, “Red Star Over Russia”, which explores the transformations in visual culture between 1905 and the death of Stalin in 1953.

Just as the Bolsheviks broke with the politics of the past, Russia’s avant garde broke with its art. Among the most famous expressions of this rejection of traditional forms – naturalism, portraits of the rich and famous – is Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square”, a patch of nothingness which marked the beginning of a new creative period, characterised by sharp lines, simple shapes, blocks of abstract colour. Others were more explicitly political, holding, in the words of Sergei Tretyakov, a writer, that “propaganda about forging the new human being is essentially the only content”. They aimed to create a new visual style that reflected the societal and technological achievements of socialism, and glorified Russia’s industrialisation. 

But under Stalin, artists were strangled by the doctrine of socialist realism. Independent artistic unions and publications were replaced by state-controlled institutions, and the naturalism rejected by the avant-garde was brought back as official policy. The consequences of going beyond it were extreme. Writers, composers and visual artists worked in fear of arrest, exile or execution. Osip Mandelstam, a poet, was among those who died in detention. Others, such as Kandinsky, chose to live and work abroad. The show features several group photos in which the faces of artists who have fallen from favour have been violently daubed over with India ink. 

“Ukrainians and Russians Have a Common War Cry: Pan Will Not Be the Master of the Worker!” by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1920)

ROSTA windows” were posters produced by the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) and displayed across the country during the civil war between the bolshevik Red Army and the monarchist White Army. This example was designed by Vladimir Mayakovsky, and encourages Ukrainian support for the Red Army. The enemy is mocked in a cartoonish parody, while the two heroic silhouettes demonstrate the power of comradeship. The one on the left is dressed as a Cossack, and represents the Ukrainians at whom the poster is aimed. The images illustrate the words, to ensure that the poster would be understood even by the illiterate. The crudeness of such images made it possible to reproduce them cheaply with stencils, allowing them to be distributed widely as propaganda.

 

“Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” by El Lissitzky (1920)

El Lissitzky’s poster is another example of civil war agitprop. It shows the Red Army breaking through the ranks of the opposition White Army, but rejects realism in favour of abstraction. El Lissitzky was an architect as well as a painter and designer, and believed that the function of all these art forms was to construct a world fit for the new communist society. Though some of the visual motifs of constructivism – geometric shapes, block colours and scattered text – were inspired by Malevich, El Lissitzky’s political intentions set him apart from Malevich’s less practical, more philosophical approach. 

 

USSR in Construction, no.8, by Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova (1936)

As Stalin tightened his grip on the arts in the early 1930s, many artists found themselves having to renounce their earlier work. Rodchenko had previously been criticised for displaying “foreign” influences in his work. He returned to favour with his photographs of industrial projects for USSR in Construction, a journal produced from 1930 to 1941 to celebrate Soviet achievements in industry, published in several European languages, for which Rodchenko and his wife, Varvara, designed several covers. Here, a steeply angled shot mirrored across the binding transforms a modest pile of planks into a striking, in-your-face image. The viewer is forced backwards – a metaphor, perhaps, for the effect that these glossy albums were supposed to have on their foreign audience.

 

“Under the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin” by Gustav Klutsis (1935)

Gustav Klutsis often used photomontage, combining dynamic images of groups of people with text and blocks of colour. This poster celebrates the lineage of the USSR, from its philosophical forefathers, Marx and Engels, through Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution to Stalin’s regime. The images running along the bottom of the poster tell the approved story of progress, from violent class struggle to peace and prosperity under Stalin. Marx, Engels and Lenin all look to their left, as though gazing into the future. Stalin, though, looks directly at the viewer. In 1938, during the Great Terror, Klutsis was arrested and executed. 

 

“Stakhanovites” by Aleksandr Deineka (1937)

This is a sketch for a mural, since lost, that featured in the USSR pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. The celebrity miner Aleksei Stakhanovite leads a pride of “Stakhanovites” (workers lionised for exceeding productivity targets) with a radiant smile and a purposeful stride. We see the approaching figures from just above ground level, as if we were a young child. It feels as if we are about to be swept up and, like the boy on the right of the painting, carried on matronly shoulders into the new world. The patriotic theme, political purpose and naturalism of the piece are all characteristic of socialist realism. 

Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55 Tate Modern until 18 February 2018

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