PRINT February 2011


Nikolai Suetin, design for a Unovis podium, 1921, gouache and whitening on black paper, 14 x 10 1/2".

BY THE LAST DECADE of the Soviet Union’s existence, collectives were everywhere. As Oleg Kharkhordin tells us in his extraordinary study of the dialectic of collective and individual in Russia, the term kollektiv had come to designate the basic unit of Soviet society, “the most familiar and mundane reality of Soviet life.” Such groups, whether in factory, farm, or office, numbered some two and a half million in 1984. But it had not always been so. Far from an ordinary or universal feature of everyday life, the Soviet collective started out on the extreme fringe: Both before and after the October Revolution of 1917, it had a highly specific meaning as a “group linked to the proletarian revolutionary cause.”¹ And it is this revolutionary mode—rather than the ubiquitous collective of the Brezhnev stagnation—that has become a vital precedent for contemporary manifestations of collaborative authorship in the arts, including, perhaps most intriguingly of all, post-Soviet collectives eager to rescue a radical past repressed by the Terror of the late 1930s and later Soviet history. How can we understand the collective’s pendulum-like historical swings, and their significance for the persistence of collaboration now?

It was certainly the earlier, revolutionary meaning that was at stake in the polemical use of kollektiv in 1921 by Osip Brik, a central theorist of both Russian formalism and Soviet Productivism, and a party member who held numerous positions within the administrative machinery of the new Bolshevik state. In his early contribution to the formulation of Productivism—which called for artists to enter the realm of industrial production—Brik asserted that, contrary to the mistaken thinking of bourgeois aesthetics, “the creative force of a collective is incalculably greater than that of single individuals.”² In this instance, the collective to which Brik referred was that of workers on the factory floor, who were to be newly liberated by communism from the exploitation and alienation of their labor under capitalist relations of production. But the new state promoted collective execution in many other realms as well: in household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry, for example, as a mode of liberating women from domestic drudgery and isolation. Widely held in the early ’20s, such convictions helped to shore up the status of the collective as a way forward for art, an impulse that—however quixotic—lingers to this day.

Given the privileged position of the revolutionary collective in the histories of collaborative artistic practices, it is worth remembering that if collective authorship was an oft-stated goal of avant-garde artists in the early ’20s, it was one only rarely realized in practice. Perhaps the most complex and certainly the best-known example of such an endeavor was the Utverditeli novogo iskusstva (Affirmers of the New Art). Known as Unovis, this collective coalesced around the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich at the School of Art in Vitebsk, a regional town about three hundred miles west of Moscow, in the former Pale of Settlement (an area to which Jews had historically been confined during the imperial period). Malevich had arrived in Vitebsk in fall 1919 as an established artist, and his presence electrified several of the school’s young professors—including El Lissitzky, who was then running the print and architecture workshops—and several dozen of its students, all of whom quickly took up the cause of the “new art” of Suprematism.

Much of the printed matter produced by Unovis was either collaboratively authored or unsigned altogether. While the painting studios did not operate this way, even there “collective creation” remained the ultimate goal of aesthetic production. Announcing her pedagogical objectives in the first issue of the journal Unovis Miscellany (1920), for example, Vera Ermolaeva, a professor of painting, explained that her purpose was “to free human pictorial creativity and to set this creativity on the path to the discovery of a system unified with the collective [emphasis added]. By following such a system, the individual personality will . . . reach a degree of materialization unattainable by any single individual personality; this is because such an individual, building its foundation alone, is necessarily undermined by others, acting in the same way.”³ Ermolaeva construed the relationship of individual and collective as a dialectic, rather than as the erasure of the one for the sake of the many. In this sense, her formulation fully accorded with both classical Marxism and its interpretation by early Bolshevik thinkers, neither of which resembles the subsequent cold-war caricatures still common today.

The Unovis collective thus offered one model of collaborative authorship, with its utopian aspirations for the national and international diffusion of Suprematism as collectively practiced and self-organized (rather than centrally dictated) world revolution. Another model was provided by the later, but arguably no less utopian, brigades of artists, writers, and photographers that proliferated under the class-warfare conditions of the Cultural Revolution and during the early years of the drive for rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization, the First Five-Year Plan (1928–32). Adopting the nomenclature of the work brigade—a basic division of personnel once borrowed from the military and found in factory and on farm alike—the artists’ brigade sought to reinvent authorship along the lines of collective economic organization. Sometimes a brigade was a temporary arrangement, taken up only for the purposes of a specific project. In 1931, for example, the Weimar photomonteur John Heartfield embarked, along with the journalist V. Kinelovsky and the photographers Max Alpert and Arkady Shaikhet, on a tour of the oil fields of Baku, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere as part of an “expedition brigade” organized by the editorial board of the photo-illustrated monthly USSR in Construction; the group’s task was the documentation of the accelerated pace of the Soviet petroleum industry. In other instances, the brigade was a semipermanent arrangement that lasted several years. This was the case of Brigade KGK, a graphic-design team composed of Viktor Koretsky, Vera Gitsevich, and Boris Knoblok, who collectively produced political posters for the State Publishing House under the first plan. (Star couples are a related but distinct case: Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, Lissitzky and Sophie Küppers, and Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina also regularly functioned as collaborative teams in their graphic-design work for various state organs in the ’30s, though they did not represent themselves as brigades per se.) These brigades produced much of the most significant work of the Cultural Revolution.

Members of Unovis at the Vitebsk train station, June 5, 1920, black-and-white photograph. First row, from left: Ivan Gavris (with Iosif Baitin leaning on his shoulders), Yakov Abarbanel, Lazar Khidekel, Moisei (Mikhail) Kunin, Moisei (Mikhail) Veksler (with Unovis patch on right collar). Second row, from left: Nina Kogan (wearing straw hat), L. L. Zuperman, El Lissitzky (with Unovis patch on shirt cuff), Ilya Chashnik (wearing white coat and cap), Efim Royak. Above Chashnik is Efroim (Arkady) Volkhonsky. Directly above Volkhonsky is Vera Ermolaeva (smiling); to the right of Ermolaeva is Evgenia Magaril. Center: Kazimir Malevich. Above and to the left of Malevich is Natalya Ivanova (with hand on Malevich’s arm); to the right of Ivanova is Lev Yudin (with his hand on her shoulder). Above Yudin is Chaim Zeldin (with Unovis emblem on lapel). Above Malevich’s shoulder to the right is Fanya Belostotskaya (wearing white hat). Second from right in upper corner is Lev Tsiperson.

It was not only practitioners in the realm of print media who formed brigades during the First Five-Year Plan. The realist painters of the Russian Association of Proletarian Artists (RAPKh), too, adopted both the method and the rhetoric of brigade production. Thus, when the Federation of Associations of Soviet Workers in the Visual Arts (FOSKh) launched its own periodical in 1931, it called it Brigada khudozhnikov (Brigade of Artists), an explicit acknowledgment of the state’s demand that artists work collectively in such formations. In the late ’30s, established socialist-realist painters also began to work in brigades for the execution of large-scale special projects, such as the Soviet Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition of 1939–41; by the late ’40s and early ’50s, the practice had become commonplace even for the production of single, albeit vast, canvases.⁴

If the rhetoric of brigade painting had once been touted under the first plan as a mode of collective authorship practiced by equals, leveling the playing field between its members, then in its renaissance at midcentury the artists’ collective was reconfigured according to a traditional hierarchy that we know well from the history of art: that of the master artist and his or her assistants. It is difficult not to see this last development, its invocation of the brigade notwithstanding, as but an instance of what Kharkhordin and others have described as the extreme individualization of Soviet labor brought on by the shock-worker and Stakhanovite movements of the mid-’30s, in which individual workers were increasingly singled out for competitive achievement and productivity. The rise of the “superworker” and the return of the studio master alike effectively brought to an end the aspirations of both revolutionary collective and production brigade—and left the “collective,” however widespread, an altogether different entity.

Maria Gough is Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of modern art at Harvard University.


1. Oleg Kharkhordin, The Collective and the Individual in Russia: A Study of Practices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 75–76.

2. Osip Brik, “V poriadke dnia,” in Iskusstvo v proizvodstvo [Art in Production] (Moscow: IZO Narkompros, 1921), 8; translated by Natasha Kurchanova as “Our Agenda,” in “Osip Brik: Selected Criticism,” October 134 (Fall 2010): 83.

3. Vera Ermolaeva, “On the Study of Cubism,” in Unovis Miscellany, no. 1 (1920); quoted in Aleksandra Shatskikh, Vitebsk: The Life of Art, trans. Katherine Foshko Tsan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 129.

4. See Matthew Cullerne Bown, Art Under Stalin (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1991), 83, 182, 184–5.