PRINT October 2017


THE REVOLUTION IS STILL WITH US: A century ago, the Russian uprising of October 1917 defined the world order we know now, in which the struggle between individual and collective, capital and welfare, identity and authority continues to rage in new and unexpected ways. And though the Soviet state ultimately failed, it nevertheless left smoldering the embers of unrealized utopias and potentialities—visions of life and experience that challenged Western realities of oligarchy, democracy, colonialism, and war.
Art was at the center of these transformations. More so than Thermidor or Tahrir Square, the October Revolution posed the perceptual as political. Changing the way we see and sense could change the way we acted and thought. Forms, materials, making, organizing—these were, and could still be, the elements of a new society. In the essay that follow, curator Matthew Witkovsky examines major new exhibitions exploring the cataclysmic event.

Iakov Chernikhov, untitled, 1933, graphite, ink, and gouache on paper, 30 × 24". From “Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution.”

THE CIVILIAN UPRISINGS of 1917, the new world order that followed, and the seismic shifts in art that preceded, accompanied, and dialogued with those events remain subjects of fascination one hundred years later. To mark this centennial, new exhibitions on Soviet Russia abound. In particular, two shows held in London this past spring—at the Design Museum and at the Royal Academy of Arts—helped to gauge that fascination, but also reminded us of the opportunity, realized or misused, for political and cultural self-analysis that the occasion presents. Such concerns are on my own mind as an organizer of another survey of early Soviet art, shown in one version this past summer at Palazzo delle Zattere, Venice, and opening later this month in a quite different form at the Art Institute of Chicago.

At the Design Museum, “Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution,” organized by curator Eszter Steierhoffer, appeared agile and thoughtful, even witty in places. (The same verve is on display in the recently relocated institution’s permanent-collection galleries: A molded plywood leg splint by Charles and Ray Eames from 1942 hangs next to Mikhail Kalashnikov’s enduringly marketable assault rifle of 1945–47, recasting the clash of Cold War superpowers as a symbiotic interrelation.) The exhibition, laid out as a spiraling sequence of architectural case studies punctuated by pithy quotations set white-on-black in giant rectangles—such as Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1918 assertion STREETS SHALL BE OUR BRUSHES, SQUARES OUR PALETTES—spotlighted six unbuilt projects for the new Soviet capital city from 1919 through 1941, as well as Lenin’s mausoleum (1924–30), still standing on Red Square today.

“Imagine Moscow” communicated the lasting impact of Soviet innovations by staging a marriage of the concrete and the ghostly. The tight focus on a handful of projects in a single city conveyed the monumental scope of early Soviet aspirations without recourse to generalities about Russian history or “national character.” At the same time, Steierhoffer, writing in the compact exhibition catalogue, described the show’s contents as “a cast of ‘phantoms,’” and neatly redoubled the apparitional nature of the six unrealized projects with presentations of reproductions: slides, digital prints, graphics, and light-box enlargements—the last somewhat bulky—of drawings that could not be borrowed from Russian institutions. (The exhibition contained numerous original archival materials and works of art as well.)

Nikolay Ladovsky’s communal housing project of 1919–20, presented as one of the earliest attempts to project a fully collective living environment, took the shape of a spiral—the Tower of Babel reimagined as a marvelously ungainly structure of growth and striving. (Vladimir Tatlin, with less Expressionist awkwardness, would give the spiral its iconic application in his Monument to the Third International, during the same years.) Drawings of other structures by Ladovsky’s little-known contemporary Georgy Mapu—in particular one that shakily piles up makeshift floors of housing like a child’s homemade tower—suggested the feverish precariousness of visionary architecture in this earliest Soviet moment, even if its stated aims were regulation and systematization.

Regulatory desires reach an extreme, by contrast, with the quasi-robotic The Problem of Scientific Organization of Life, which appeared in the show as a wall graphic alongside Mapu’s and Ladovsky’s drawings. The astonishingly detailed schedule, proposed by a thinker named Nikolai Kuzmin (“quiet hour” will extend from exactly 3:58 until 4:58 PM), dates from 1930, midway through the USSR’s first five-year plan. “Imagine Moscow” did not paper over the effects of the momentous regime shifts that occurred between 1919 and 1928, but to its great credit, the show also resisted widespread pressure to create endgame narratives with respect to the works of the Soviet avant-garde. The advent of heavy-handed Stalinist economic planning and totalitarian political rule appeared here neither as the ironic, ineluctable end point of utopian artistic plans nor as their death knell. Early Soviet ideas were and remain starting points for discussion, and the discussion—for example, about optimizing family and social life in a modern urban environment—is as valuable today as it was a century ago.

View of “Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932,” 2017, Royal Academy of Arts, London. From left: Isaak Brodsky, Portrait of Joseph Stalin, 1927; Isaak Brodsky, Lenin in Smolny, 1930. Photo: Marcus J. Leith.

THE ROYAL ACADEMY EXHIBITION, by contrast, killed off the avant-garde in a hurry. Titled “Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932,” the show opened with a gallery crowded with portraits of Lenin dead or alive and others of Stalin. The display suggested that what the introductory wall text described as “one of the most turbulent periods in modern history” met its end shortly after it began—as if “the end,” any end, could be known or described during a period of such massive upheaval. The first paragraph of that text averred that Stalin came quickly to power and brought wholesale repression: “Freedom of the individual was crushed in favor of a collective ideology.” This assertion dismisses communism with a finality that necessarily implicates all those, including artists, who believed in it as dupes or worse.

In such a conception, the militant avant-garde becomes tainted with a false contradiction between creative expression and communal regulation. Aleksei Gan’s insistence, for example, on the oneness of art and technology, and of technology and social relations, becomes untenable or inauthentic if one assumes that individual artistic freedom always means a struggle against collective production. Yet every single sentence of Gan’s 1922 treatise Constructivism defies that assumption: “The feet of constructivism confidently march upon the Earth, while all its ideas are found in communism.”1

The writings of Kazimir Malevich, whose works were a focal point of “Revolution”—the replication of his extensive, if originally marginalized, presentation at a major survey exhibition in Leningrad (formerly Petrograd) in 1932 was a highlight—appear equally confounding if we are to understand his artistic vision as antagonistic to revolutionary political concerns. “If the values of art attained their zenith in the bourgeois structure it is because this structure is linked with the organism,” Malevich observed in notes from 1921 titled “Methods of Artistic and Professional Education,” approvingly calling Raphael a poster propagandist. New definitions of artmaking, not only new visual forms, needed to be brought forth in Soviet times. Architecture, furniture, and applied arts, as well as painting and sculpture, could be intellectually and practically rewarding professions if they “deal materially with structure and constructively with texture.” To arrive at knowledge of such forms, Malevich argued, art must be taught as a branch of scientific research, while museums must nimbly present the always provisional results: “Only those projects which can be adapted to the skeleton of life, or which will lead to the skeleton of new forms of it, can be preserved for a time.”2

In 1923 Malevich, who had been teaching art in Vitebsk, came to Petrograd to take charge of the Museum of Artistic Culture, soon renamed with the acronym GINKhUK (State Institute of Artistic Culture). In that capacity, he led at least one dozen students at a time in “laboratories” of form or color studies, and in individual and group undertakings to explicate recent developments in painting. Exhibitions that doubled as “research reports” took place into 1926, when GINKhUK was merged into the GIII (State Institute for Art History); Malevich continued there for another year, and as late as October 1932—the last-gasp year in “Revolution”—he obtained permission to open an “experimental laboratory” at the State Russian Museum.3 The wall text, however, flatly overlooked this sequence of events, proposing a chronology that moves from “styles based on pure geometric form and colour” before 1917 to, as early as 1921, “innovations . . . constrained by an increasingly repressive state.” (Of particular interest in this context are essays from those very years in which Malevich welcomed, indeed pioneered, the pedagogical reevaluation of museum displays—an idea that “Revolution” organizers John Milner, Ann Dumas, and Natalia Murray might have taken more closely to heart.)

What survives when the formations of the avant-garde are crushed? For viewers of the show, it was not pluralism, “context,” or “the vitality and variety of art in the fifteen years after the Revolution,” as the exhibition texts claimed. Rather, audiences received the impression of a vague populist notion (however implicit) of a persistent Russian people whose ethnic “soul” speaks through the works of individual makers, no matter their “style”: Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, painter of tender still lifes; Wassily Kandinsky; the science-fiction-oriented Pavel Filonov; Moisei Nappelbaum, portrait photographer of the Tsarist and Soviet intelligentsia—all seemed leveled into a capacious jumble.

The selection of objects was strong, and one could admire a range of talent that is not seen often enough outside of Russia. Along with the polished portraits of Isaak Brodsky, my favorites included Georgy Rublev’s lipstick-red Portrait of Joseph Stalin, ca. 1930—complete with armchair and sausage-shaped dog—which looks for all the world as if the dictator had sat for a session with Florine Stettheimer, and David Shterenberg’s Aniska, 1926, an equally folksy portrayal of a peasant girl before a table. The upturned table and flat but vigorously brushed bichromatic background in that painting make what would otherwise be a cliché into a picture of great impact.

Absent any clarification of arguments and animating concepts, however, Shterenberg’s painting risked being appreciated in the show only for its cultural clichés: the strong and simpleminded peasant, the cut loaf of bread on an otherwise empty table as the symbol of eternally meager means, a field of folkloric color masking a bleak existence. Visitors to the Royal Academy could be forgiven for thinking that capitalism, with a small c, deserved (morally) to win over “Communism,” rendered exotic by its majuscule. They could conclude, indeed, that rather than participate in a state-directed common enterprise, it is best to pursue ethnic and individual self-determination, honoring only the dictates of cultural heritage (narrowly defined) and the free flow of capital. Such a conclusion nicely extends the convergence of neo-liberal and nativist politics sweeping the world in recent years, not least in Brexit-era England, where the EU has at times been portrayed as a Soviet or even Stalinist authority. An exhibition on Russian art in the United States, meanwhile, has to contend with, in addition to this toxic international political wave (augmented by the increasingly bizarre pas de deux between the two countries’ leaders and their entourages), a situation in which class conflicts are omnipresent but mentions of class are nearly absent—and collective planning, indeed, the very word regulation, has become anathema.

Gustav Klutsis, design for an agitational stand, 1922, ink, graphite, and gouache on paper, 10 5/8 × 6 7/8". From “Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test.”

THE FORTHCOMING SHOW that I am organizing, “Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test,” will appear in this climate at the Art Institute of Chicago. The “test” in question will be both a trial run and a pressured debate. Inconclusiveness, precarity, disagreement, and radicalization are some watchwords for the approach I have taken in dialogue with a cohort of consulting experts and Devin Fore, my coeditor on the accompanying catalogue.The installation presents some 550 works arranged according to the locations of their original display, whether at an art school, in a home, or in a storefront window; on a battleground, as part of a street festival, or in a factory; or in the spaces of theater, exhibition, cinema, or the press. Interspersed among the original works will be facsimile reconstructions of more than twenty Soviet objects—sculpture, props, structures, furniture—and two self-contained rooms: Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, 1925, and Room for Constructive Art, a modular exhibition gallery designed the following year by El Lissitzky.

These reconstructions are models, and the project proposes the nascent Soviet Union as a country of models, too, whether they take the form of proposals for monumental undertakings, prototypes for replication, concrete demonstrations of abstract processes, or standards to emulate and debate. This could be one way to avoid the pitfalls of populist moralizing on the evils of communism (or rosy nostalgia over its hopes and dreams). At any rate, I have tried to avoid treating the events of 1917 as a closed subject, or to imply that what came after was fated. I am most interested by a pressing Soviet concern that I expect will always be timely: determining art’s forms and functions in a society of our own making.

“Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test” will be on view October 29, 2017, through January 14, 2018, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Matthew S. Witkovsky is the Richard and Ellen Sandor chair and curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.


1. Aleksei Gan, Constructivism (1922), trans. Christina Lodder (Barcelona: Tenov, 2013), 55.

2. Kazimir Malevich, “Methods of Artistic and Professional Education” (1921), trans. Xenia Hoffman, in K. S. Malevich, The Artist, Infinity, Suprematism: Unpublished Writings 1913–1933 (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1978), 88–87; Malevich, “On the Museum” (1919), trans. Xenia Glowacki-Prus and Arnold McMillin, in Avant-Garde Museology, ed. Arseny Zhilyaev (New York: e-flux Classics; Moscow: V-A-C Foundation), 270.

3. See Irina Karasik, “Our Contemporary Form in Art Is the Research Institute . . .” in In Malevich’s Circle: Confederates, Students, Followers in Russia, 1920s–1950s, ed. Yevgenia Petrova (Moscow: Palace Editions, 2000), 103–15.