A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde
MoMA | December 3, 2016 – March 12, 2017
For those still wandering around in shock wondering what the next four years will bring, this survey from the museum’s collection of early 20th-century Russian art packs in so much energy, verve, and optimism that it may come as a welcome massage to furrowed brows. If there is one image from this show that sums up A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde, it might be Aleksandr Rodchenko’s startling photograph, Dive (1934). Defying gravity, a diver with his legs tightly tucked appears to be flying out from the top right corner of the frame, soaring above the clouds. Dynamic yet balanced, muscular yet nuanced, abstract yet visceral, it encapsulates those heady days when the Revolution belonged to the intelligentsiya and everything seemed possible. With 260 works, A Revolutionary Impulse makes a convincing case for the spread of the Russian avant-garde from the plastic arts during the pre-Revolutionary period, with its mystical underpinnings, to photography, film, graphics, and industrial design of the 1920s, when the avant-garde morphed into a progressive aesthetic for the masses. Everything came hurtling back down to earth with Stalin’s monstrous regime, but that in no way mitigates the achievements of these artists who dedicated themselves to utopian ambitions—especially the post-Revolutionary figures. Their attempts to remake society from the ground up through a considered fusion of culture, science, and technology remain a beacon—and a warning.
The first four galleries feature works dominated by pre- and post-Revolutionary painting and works on paper. Lyubov Popova’s Six Prints (ca. 1917 – 19), a series of linoleum cut prints enhanced with gouache and watercolor, merit particular attention. Here, she fuses Cubist collage and Suprematist form with the strong colors of Russian folk art. The forms seem to both float and push against each other, often with powerful chromatic variations. El Lissitzky’s Proun body of work (1919 – 27), an acronym from the Russian words for “Project for the Affirmation of the New,” takes up an entire gallery. A disciple of Malevich—who has his own wall in this show—Lissitzky surpasses the master through the sheer range of his output: lithographs, diagrams for room installations, sculpture, “painterly” photography, and collage. One collage in particular, Proun 19D (1920 or 1921), combines an array of textures, from sandpaper to metallic paint to crayon, in order to suggest a synthetic space made from light and machine parts—an effect at once ethereal and rigorous.
For the paintings, prints, and drawings alone, A Revolutionary Impulse would be well worth the visit, but the exhibition truly shines in the galleries devoted to film, photography, and graphics—media that were the heart of the Constructivist enterprise. One gallery devotes all four walls to clips from film classics of the period. The formal brilliance—jump cuts, close-ups, off-kilter camera angles—of the infamous “Odessa Steps” sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), not to mention the narrative, never fails to make a startling, and deeply moving, impact. Also on view is Alexander Dovzhenko’s lesser-known Zemlya, or Earth (1930), a controversial movie, for its time, about the trials of Ukrainian farmers under Stalin’s deeply unpopular program of agricultural collectivization. In contrast to Potemkin, the beautifully shot sequence in Zemlya captures rural lives with disarming naturalism.
However, the capstone to A Revolutionary Impulse is the parade of iconic photographs by Rodchenko and others, clustered largely in the penultimate gallery. This is not to slight the graphics curators who have assembled works of the highest caliber, especially numerous examples of Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg’s groundbreaking lithographic posters, including that for Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Camera (1929) that has dancing legs coming out from beneath a camera tripod. Still, the power of Rodchenko’s images, in particular, makes a lasting impression; his portraits especially leave no doubt as to his formal mastery. In Pioneer Girl (1930), the face of a young woman fills the frame, the camera angle peering from bottom left to upper right—an apotheosis. In spite of the hair in her face and neckerchief tied just off-center, nothing looks out of place: dynamism and balance all at once. Photographs by other artists are equally stunning, such as El Lissitzky’s gorgeous multiple-exposure print of a racing hurdler set against neon signs, titled Record (1926). The uncritical belief in technology and progress behind many of the showcased works may seem from a bygone era, but their hope, energy, and sheer delight in invention make a powerful case for clear-eyed engagement over cynical retreat in the teeth of an uncertain future.
HOVEY BROCK is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.