A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Gardeby Mary Ann Caws
MoMA | December 3, 2016 – March 12, 2017
Revolution has not been, at least recently and in my view, so colorfully demonstrated as here, in this staggering exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. One is confronted with Olga Rozanova posters from 1916—spears shooting sideways, rifles, arms lifted skyward, archers on horses, bugles blasting, ladders everywhere, and men toppling—and Esfir Shub’s silent film compilation of The Fall of the Romanov (1927), before even entering the galleries brightly crammed with works from MoMA’s own holdings. Loud and luminous, Rozanova’s powerful collages illustrate her husband Aleksei Kruchenykh’s 1916 zaum poems entitled “War” and “Universal War,” the very names full of explosions and destruction in appropriate anger directed to the World War raging outside of the world of art. Equally abstract, that is, non-referential, in this revolutionary sense are the 1913 zaum poems Kruchenykh composed with Velimir Khlebnikov, those “transrational” meaningless texts, composed of letters with no discernible meaning.
I found the geometric forms of Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky irresistible—associated with Suprematism, when Malevich directed the Vitebsk Art Institute and El Lissitzky ran its lithography workshop. They are so very beautiful, with stripes and rectangles often slanted directly toward the observer; the vivid picturing includes Suprematist cross shapes and squares and dynamic planes—the dynamism is contagious. My favorite of these years is his inviting painting of a samovar. The Malevich composition of 1915 with one large black square situated above one smaller red square, delightfully titled Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, makes an amusing contrast with El Lissitsky’s children’s book About Two Squares (1922) in red and black. Here the red square is shown as superior, of course, given the propaganda associated with Soviet social realism. Then moving away from Suprematism into Constructivism, Lissitsky’s manifesto for his 1922 movement, called PROUN: Project for the Affirmation of the New, summons “the creative construction of form (consequently the mastery of space)”—a rather tall order.
To Malevich’s Suprematist White on White (1918), Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Black on Black (1918) was the response. In 1919, both were exhibited at the “Tenth State Exhibition of Nonobjective Creation” in Moscow. The dialogue between the major artists, such as Vladimir Tatlin’s counter-reliefs battling with Malevich’s Suprematism, illustrates the impulse behind MoMA’s curatorial approach. War posters outside, interior battles inside: energy against energy.
Rodchenko, certainly as innovative as any of these avant-gardists, switched from painting to creating objects, like that extraordinary thing hanging from the ceiling: his Spatial Construction of 1920. This construction—think Constructivism—is composed of plywood painted silver and cut in ovals joined by wire, and suspended so that its shadow is cast upon the wall, composing a heart.
The women creators throughout are unbelievably strong. Take Varvara Stepanova’s Figure (1921), and her collaboration in the 1921 Moscow exhibition 5 X 5 = 25 (four of five artists being women). Not only is there Rozanova outside to guide us in, but inside we see Lyubov Popova, whose Subject from a Dyer’s Shop (1914) hurls letters and gloved fingers against swerves and parts of circles in what she termed “painterly architectonics.” Adjacent, the jagged angles of Natalia Goncharova’s Rayonism: Blue-Green Forest of 1913 shimmer at her partner Mikhail Larionov’s own shooting red Rayonist Composition: Domination of Red (1912 – 13).
In the even more visually dramatic realm, the set designer Alexandra Exter’s simply-titled painting, Construction, of 1922 – 23, is a creation of enormous beauty that builds layer upon layer of crimson, black, copper, and deep blue, in shapes of shifting perspectives. Her larger Theatrical Composition of 1925 sets arches against stairs and windows in an indescribable complication that we long to see at play within.
Later, we see El Lissitzky’s “electromechanical figurines” inspired by the 1920 restaging of the 1913 Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun by Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov. With a score by Mikhail Matiushin and sets and costumes by Malevich, puppet-like figures do a Proun-esque dance in their rectangular and spherical shapes.
After the theater, films, such as those Lenin had called for, took over from painting to build the new world, according to the Soviet culture for the masses. Dziga Vertov, inspiring “cinema truth” and the “realism” of the book related to the so-called Factory of Facts, is represented by his Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and of course in close discourse with Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). All of the works here, whether of those better-known or those who so richly deserve to be known, are gorgeously emblazoned with the signs of the new media, as seductive as they are noisy.
The exhibition concludes with a series of postcards made in photomontage by Gustav Klutsis, and an entire wall of exciting lithographs by the brothers Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg. This finishes the brightly-colored spectacle on a positive note, boisterous and brilliant.
ContributorMary Ann Caws
MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.