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Russian Avant-Garde

Russian Avant-Garde

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Russian Avant-Garde

3.5/5 (4 évaluations)
257 pages
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May 10, 2014


The Russian Avant-garde was born at the turn of the 20th century in pre-revolutionary Russia. The intellectual and cultural turmoil had then reached a peak and provided fertile soil for the formation of the movement. For many artists influenced by European art, the movement represented a way of liberating themselves from the social and aesthetic constraints of the past. It was these Avant-garde artists who, through their immense creativity, gave birth to abstract art, thereby elevating Russian culture to a modern level.
Such painters as Kandinsky, Malevich, Goncharova, Larionov, and Tatlin, to name but a few, had a definitive impact on 20th-century art.
May 10, 2014

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Russian Avant-Garde - Evgueny Kovtun

St Petersburg.

I. Art in the First Years of the Revolution

‘Picasso, this is not the new art.’

At the beginning of the twentieth century Russian art found itself at the cutting edge of the world’s artistic process. The decades dedicated to the renewal of pictorial art in France were condensed into approximately fifteen years in Russia. The 1910s were marked by the growing influence of Cubism, which in turn modified the ‘profile’ of figurative art itself. But around 1913, the break up could already be felt, with new visual issues emerging and the scales tipping toward the Russian Avant-Garde. In March 1914, Pavel Filonov declared that ‘the centre of gravity of art’ has been transferred to Russia[1]. In 1912, Filonov criticised Picasso and Cubo-futurism, saying that it ‘leads to an impasse by its principles.’[2] This statement came at a time when this movement was triumphing in Russian exhibitions. The most sensitive Russian thinkers and painters saw in Cubism and in the creations of Picasso not so much the beginning of a new art but the outcome of the ancient line of which Ingres was the origin.

Nicholas Berdiaev: ‘Picasso, this is not the new art. It is the conclusion of a bygone art.’ [3] Mikhail Matiushin: ‘Thus, Picasso, decomposing reality through the new method of Futurist fragmentation, follows the old photographic process of drawing from nature, only indicating the scheme of the movement of planes.’[4] Mikhail Le Dantyu: ‘It is profoundly incorrect to consider Picasso as a beginning. He is perhaps more of a conclusion, one would be wrong to follow this path.’ [5] Nikolai Punin: ‘One cannot see in Picasso that it is the dawning of a new era.’ [6] The French Cubists have stopped at the threshold of non-figuration. Their theorists wrote in 1912: ‘Nevertheless, let’s confess that the reminiscence of natural forms cannot be absolutely disowned, at least not for the moment.’ [7] This Rubicon was then resolutely transgressed by Russian art in the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Mikhail Larionov, Pavel Filonov and Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and Mikhail Matiushin. The consequences of this approach have been visible for a long time in Russian art, particularly in the 1920s, although non-figurative painting only interested artists for a short period of time. Malevich presented, for the first time, forty-nine Suprematist paintings at the exhibition that opened 15 December 1915 at the gallery of Nadeshda Dobytshina on the Field of Mars (Petrograd). ‘The keys to Suprematism’, he wrote, ‘lead me to a discovery that I am not yet aware of. My new painting does not belong exclusively to the earth. Earth is abandoned like a house eaten from within by woodworm. And there is actually in man, in his conscience, an aspiration for space, a desire to detach himself from Earth.’ [8]

The Spiritual Universe

For most painters, despite the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus and Giordano Bruno, the Universe remained geocentric (from an emotional and practical point of view, that is to say, in their creativity). The imagination and structures in their paintings remain pledged to a terrestrial attraction. Perspective and horizon, notions of top and bottom were for them undeniably obvious. Suprematism would disrupt all of this. In some way, Malevich was looking at Earth from space or, in another way, his ‘spiritual universe’ suggested to him this cosmic vision. Numerous Russian philosophers, poets and painters at the beginning of the century returned to the Gnostic idea of primitive Christianity, which saw a typological identity between the spiritual world of man and the Universe. ‘The human skull,’ wrote Malevich, ‘offers to the movement representations of the same infinity, it equals the Universe, because all that man sees in the Universe is there.’ [9] Man had begun to feel that he was not only the son of Earth but also an integral part of the Universe. The spiritual movement of man’s inner world generates subjective forms of space and time. The contact of these forms with reality transforms this reality in the work of an artist into art, therefore a material object whose essence is, in fact, spiritual. In this way the comprehension of the spiritual world as a microscopic universe brings about a new ‘cosmic’ understanding of the world. In the 20th century this new comprehension lead to the creation of radical changes in art. In the non-objective paintings of Malevich, whose rejection of terrestrial ‘criteria of orientation,’ notions of top and bottom, right and left, no longer exist, because all orientations are independent, like the Universe. This implies such a level of ‘autonomy’ in the organisation and structure of the work that the links between the orientations, dictated by gravity, are broken. An independent world appears, an enclosed world, possessing its own ‘field’ of attraction-gravitation, a ‘small planet’ with its own place in the harmony of the universe. The non-representative canvases of Malevich did not break with the natural principle. Moreover, the painter goes on to qualify it himself as a ‘new pictorial realism.’ [10] But its ‘natural character’ expresses itself at another level, both cosmic and planetary. The great merit of non-objective art was not only to give painters a new vision of the world but also to lay bare to them the first elements of the pictorial form, while going on to enrich the language of painting. Shklovsky expressed this well in talking about Malevich and his champions: ‘The Suprematists have done in art what a chemist does in medicine. They have cleared away the active part of the media[11].’

At the beginning of 1917 Russian art offered a true range of contradictory movements and artistic trends. There were the declining Itinerants, the World of Art, which had lost its guiding role, while the Jack of Diamonds group (also known as the Knave of Diamonds), was quickly beginning to establish itself in the wake of Cezannism, Suprematism, Constructivism and Analytical Art. To characterise the post-revolutionary Avant-Garde, we will only address the essential phenomena of art and the principle events in the world of painting, focusing less on the work of painters than on the processes taking place in art at that time and on the issues raised by the great masters, who represent art’s summit at the time.

Ivan Puni, Still Life with Letters.

The Spectrum of the Refugees, 1919.

Oil on canvas, 124 x 127 cm.

Private collection.

Olga Rozanova, Non-Objective Composition

 (Suprematism), 1916.

Oil on canvas, 102 x 94 cm.

Museum of Visual Arts, Yekaterinburg.

Soon after the October Revolution, a group of young painters gathered at the Institute of Artistic Culture (IZO), the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment (Narkompros), directed by Anatoly Lunatcharsky. For them the Revolution signified the total and complete renewal of all life’s establishments, a liberation from all that was antiquated, outdated and unjust. Art, they thought, must play an essential role in this process of purification. ‘The thunder of the October canons helped us become innovative,’ wrote Malevich during these days. ‘We have come to clean the personality from academic accessories, to cauterise in the brain the mildew of the past and to re-establish time, space, cadence, rhythm and movement, the foundations of today.’ [12]

The young painters wanted to democratise art, make it unfold in the squares and streets, making it an efficient force in the revolutionary transformation of life. ‘Let paintings (colours) glow like sparklers in the squares and the streets, from house to house, praising, ennobling the eyes (the taste) of the passer-by.’[13] wrote Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vassily Kamensky and David Burliuk. The first attempts to ‘take art out’ into the streets were made in Moscow. On 15 March 1918, three paintings by David Burliuk were hung from the windows of a building situated at the corner of Kuznetsky Most street and the Neglinnaya alleyway. Interpreted as a new act of mischief by the Futurists, one could already see the near future in this action. In 1918, Suprematism left the artists’ studios and for the first time was brought into the streets and squares of Petrograd, translated in an original way in the decorative paintings of Ivan Puni, Xenia Bogouslavskaia, Vladimir Lebedev, Vladimir Kozlinsky, Nathan Altman and Pavel Mansurov. The panel painted by Kolinsky, destined for the Liteyny Bridge, was characterised by simple and lapidary forms, an image rich in meaning, without unintentional or secondary lines. The artist knew how to construct an image with few but pronounced mixes of colours: the deep blue of the Neva River, the dark silhouettes of war ships, the red flags of the demonstration that march along the quay. The watercolours of Kolinsky are not only decorative and joyful, but also characterised by an authentic monumentality. With a minimum use of forms and colours, the work acquires a maximum emotional charge.

The sketches of Puni, Lebedev and Bogouslavskaia reflect strong Suprematist influences. In these initial experiences, however, the painters conceived the principles of Suprematism in a somewhat ‘simplistic’ way, seeing it from a decorative and colour point of view only as a new procedure in plane organisation. They did not grasp the intimate sense of this movement and its philosophical roots.

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