From British daily The Morning Star:
Art and the revolution
(Monday 10 September 2007)
IN PROFILE: Soviet art
This autumn, it will be 90 years since the Bolshevik revolution. How did this momentous event affect art and artists?
It did so at every level. Art education, production, patronage, distribution and reception were all transformed. Fierce debates about the form and function of art in the new workers’ state raised fundamental issues. From these stemmed so rich a flowering of the visual arts that its influence is still alive.
The revolution was itself partly the work of artists. Some had worked towards social and political change since Russian artists had taken the role of social critic in the 19th century. In the 1870s, the Wanderers‘ paintings had exposed social injustice in daily life.
By the early 20th century, a well-informed Russian avant garde was in touch with Paris and Munich, the epicentres of innovatory art. Embracing modernism, it debated how to transform and modernise tsarist Russia. Some, such as Natalia Goncharova, adopted the vivid colour and formal simplifications of “primitive” Russian peasant art, rather than those of African art favoured by the French and Germans.
October 1917 brought radical cultural change. No longer for bourgeois and aristocrat, art would now be for the people. The art market was abolished and museums nationalised – the worker’s state became art’s patron.
Initially, most avant-garde artists welcomed the revolution because Lenin’s idea of a political avant-garde as an agent for social change legitimised their own calls for radical action to combat conservative attitudes to art and society.
For Marxists such as Vladimir Tatlin, here was an opportunity to make real and meaningful change. He recalled: “To accept or not accept the October Revolution. There was no such question for me. I organically merged into active creative, social and pedagogical life.”
Others, such as Wassily Kandinsky, were not sympathetic to Bolshevik politics, but welcomed the artistic freedom which it brought, while aesthetically and politically conservative artists feared a loss of private patronage and critical status.
Contrary to Western propaganda, no artist was sent to the salt mines. Lenin and Lunacharsky, who was commissar of enlightenment from 1917-1929, pursued a pluralist arts policy. Nevertheless, for the first time in the world, avant-garde figures were appointed to positions of power. Despite the material hardships and shortages of war communism (1917-1922) it launched into a dynamic transformation of art and its institutions.
Tatlin headed IZO, the visual arts section of Lunacharsky’s commissariat. Recognising Kandinsky’s international status as an innovator, IZO gave him the important role of reorganising art education and museums.
Lenin and Kautsky: here.
Between 1918 and 1920, the fledgling workers’ state in Soviet Russia was engaged in a life and death struggle against a series of counter-revolutionary “White” armies backed by expeditionary forces marshalled by fourteen states that had fought as part of the British-French-US-led “Allies” in the First World War and which landed forces in Baku, Murmansk, Archangel and Vladivostok. Among the belligerents was Canada: here.