Art and the 1917 Russian revolution

This video is called Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde (Pt1 Malevich).

This video is called Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde (Pt2 Tatlins Tower).

From British daily The Morning Star:

Art and the revolution

(Monday 10 September 2007)

IN PROFILE: Soviet art

CHRISTINE LINDEY asks what happened to art after the Bolshevik revolution.

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.

Russian futurists engaged in antibourgeois activities. By 1913, Kasimir Malevich had rejected all representation as antiquated, arguing that his revolutionary abstraction equated modern times.

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.

The ongoing exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde, is a fascinating cultural event. It features works in a variety of media, including painting, printing and photography, from leading artists associated with the Russian Revolution, all from MoMA’s extensive collection: here.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones denounces the Russian Revolution and its art: here.

Arts editor David Walsh speaks on the centenary of the October Revolution. What the Russian Revolution meant for modern art and culture: here.

Lenin and Kautsky: here. 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.

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35 thoughts on “Art and the 1917 Russian revolution

  1. I think the USSR periode was an absurd situation and a perfect breeding groud for abstract art.
    The normal painters painted just what they wanted so the past and not the bright future of the politicians.
    See my articles on search anne visser or Lenin or women.
    Good info it was a terrible time.
    Kind regards, Anne Visser


  2. Hi Anne Visser, not so: abstract art started before the USSR was founded (in 1924), and even before the February and October 1917 Russian revolutions. Do you see abstract art as “abnormal”? That view has an unsavoury history.

    In the 1950s, abstract art was on the rise in the USA and other NATO countries: were they, in your view, equally “absurd”?

    By the way, the search engine on the site which you mention is not working. What is worse, that nationalist site condones ethnic cleansing of Ossetians and Armenians.


  3. You are right. abstract art started early. I just was saying the the real life was absurd and just sociialist realist painting painted this and is just a reflextion of reality. Abstract art was different.


  4. Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context
    By Lars T. Lih, Haymarket Books, Chicago 2008, 840 pages

    Review by Barry Healy

    If a spectre haunted 19th century Europe, as Marx said of the embryonic
    communist movement, then the name of Lenin was no ghost for the 20th
    century bourgeoisie, it was a terrifying reality. For the capitalists,
    with Leninism the communist phantom came howling out of the underworld,
    beginning with the 1917 Russian Revolution, sweeping whole continents
    clean of capitalist rule.

    * Read more


  5. Dear administator
    I just mean that realist painting in the ussr developed apart of international movements and abstract art was forbidden in the USSR from 1934. Both styles abstract and socialist realist painting have their own merits. If we see this art nowadays we only see the painting and the politicians have disappeared. Out of the context it shows today how prejudices and stereo tying works. See for my articles about the socialist realist painting movement. This rich and wide ouevre is always sit aside by art critcs but was and is art made for the people. We can learn historic lessons from it.
    Anne Visser


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  12. Judenitsch Planned Pogrom in Leningrad, Revel Archives Reveal

    February 15, 1928

    Riga (Feb. 14)

    (Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

    The Jewish community in Petrograd would have been the prey of pogromists and Jewish property would have been distributed among the soldiery if the plans of General Judenitsch, head of one of the White armies, had not been frustrated.

    This was revealed today when interesting documents from the archives of the Reval kehillah were made public.

    The documents revealed that in 1919 General Judenitsch when marching upon Petrograd, issued an order promising the soldiers the property of Petrograd Jews and “freedom of action,” after the city would be taken.


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  20. Tuesday 3rd January 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Arts

    CHRISTINE LINDEY explains how the 1917 Russian Revolution ignited unprecedented artistic transformations which made a real difference in people’s lives

    “IN THE land of the Soviets every kitchen maid must be able to rule the state,” said Lenin and the arts were an intrinsic part of the Bolshevik revolution’s attempt to achieve this momentous step forward.

    But it was no mean task. For a population — 80 per cent of whom were illiterate — serfdom, abolished in 1862-4, was still within living memory.

    And it was by expressing the revolution’s aims through imagination, emotion, humour and joy, that the arts opened the people’s minds and boosted their self-confidence to seize power.

    How best to do this was hotly debated. Rejecting unique works of art as self-indulgent bourgeois commodities, some artists heeded the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s dictum that “the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes.”

    Turning to agit-prop — agitation and propaganda — they created ephemeral posters and street pageants and decorations to educate and enthuse support for the revolution.

    Thus in 1920 artists including Nathan Altman organised the ambitious re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace, involving decorated buildings, factory sirens and 2,000 Petrograd proletarians. Perhaps a few kitchen maids were among them.

    Trains were transformed into “moving posters,” with vivid images and slogans painted on them, and were filled with travelling theatre companies, film shows, books and literacy classes to bring socialism to the countryside.

    Such actions were possible because the worker state became patron of the arts. Recognising the importance of culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Minister for Enlightenment, immediately revolutionised cultural institutions.

    The arts would now serve the people, not the aristocracy or bourgeoisie.The art market was abolished, museums nationalised and their contents reorganised and reinterpreted from a working class perspective.

    Two radical artists ­— washerwoman’s son Alexander Rodchenko and bourgeois ex-lawyer Wassily Kandinsky — jointly founded 22 new museums and purchased contemporary art for the young state. Museums worldwide still envy these collections.

    The 19th-century progressive intelligentsia had already challenged tsarist Russia’s near mediaeval socio-political conditions and their expression through equally polarised aesthetics.

    The aristocracy favoured Western academic art as a mark of their superior sophistication, while denigrating their serfs’ woodcut prints (luboks), icons, carvings and embroideries as “crude” and “primitive.”

    But the early avant garde upturned these aesthetic criteria. Arguing that photography liberated them from academic art’s fussy illusionism, they were inspired by the flat shapes, bold colours and outlines through which folk art succinctly expressed visible and inner worlds.

    So, after 1917, lubok-inspired revolutionary posters, illustrations and textiles, energising peasants and workers by affirming their own, hitherto denigrated, cultural traditions.

    But artists also embraced the social progress promised by industrialisation and the surge in the recent technological inventions — film, recorded sound, telephones, flying machines and motor cars.

    Their forms and functions symbolised the speed, dynamism and energy of modernity and of the revolution.

    As art education was reorganised, the Marxist Vladimir Tatlin headed the innovatory VKhUTEMAS, the technical workshops in a Moscow art school which influenced the globally influential German craft and fine art Bauhaus movement from 1919 to 1931 and beyond.

    Inspired by the machine age, VKhUTEMAS dispensed with traditional art to investigate forms, spatial organisation, materials and processes as a basis for producing cheap mass-produced goods, accessible to all.

    Rejecting the bourgeois concept of the artist as individual male genius, they defined themselves as classless, self-effacing “constructivists,” collectively constructing the revolution alongside other workers, regardless of gender.

    Lyubov Popova’s transportable theatre, Rodchenko’s posters and Varvara Stepanova’s textiles shared the abstracted forms of modernity — the circles of factory cogs and wheels, electricity’s lightning zig-zags or the soaring grace of flying machines.

    At Vitebsk Art Academy Kazimir Malevich founded UNOVIS, a group in which students and teachers collaborated in explorations of the essence of form and volume to create futuristic architectural models as prototypes to inspire designers, engineers and architects. And they did.

    Marc Chagall, painter of poetic evocations of Jewish village life and art commissar of his native province, founded the Vitebsk academy during the revolution and Lunacharsky’s pluralist aesthetic policies enabled Malevich, pioneer of geometric abstraction, to teach in the same academy.

    Similarly Alexander Deineka, who argued for realist paintings to represent the revolution and workers’ lives, taught in the same Moscow institution as Tatlin, renowned for his soaring design for a monument to the Third International (1919-20).

    During the hardships of war communism (1917-22) artists concentrated on speculative research but some of these reached fruition afterwards.

    Kitchen maids sported dresses printed with modernist motifs celebrating technology and socialism. Buildings such as Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House of 1930, incorporated communal facilities such as laundries, dining halls, kitchens and reading rooms.

    Inspired by UNOVIS, its horizontal banded windows sweep across the facade, providing maximum light and air, behind wide, heated corridors in which tenants could interact.

    Together with parallel developments in the other arts, the visual arts made real differences to people’s lives. In the coming centenary year of the 1917 revolution, numerous exhibitions will repeat the neoliberal mantra “great art, shame about the politics,” perpetuated since the 1920s.

    In fact, it was great politics which generated such a blossoming of the arts.


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