“Moscow-Paris 1900–1930”

Art which is 60 years old is assumed to bear little relationship to the current historical juncture; it is usually addressed with such formulas as “cultural heritage” and is expected to lie quietly on the walls of retrospective exhibitions. This exhibition (the first in the Soviet Union to chronicle in detail Russia’s contribution to modern art, and larger than the Paris version of two years ago by over 400 works) proved less tractable. Thirty years of storage in the vaults of Russian museums have not made compliant this art, which at its inception Kazimir Malevich announced “no longer cares to serve the state.” While Soviet organizers attempted to handle discreetly what they knew would be a sensitive event, the Kremlin was ordering last-minute “modifications,” the French organizers were charging censorship, and Western newspapers were publicizing the “scandal.” Reports of what was withheld are confused and inaccurate, but no matter how we read the signs it is obvious that Moscow was of two minds about looking at its lost avant-garde—and that the West was eager to exploit this ambivalence in order to assume the role of the liberator of Russian art.

The reception of this exhibition raises issues central to the question of art and ideology that have as much bearing on art production and suppression in the West as in the Soviet Union. Witness the handling of “The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910–1930” show held in Los Angeles and in Washington last winter. In the West, art is not suppressed—it is expropriated. Attempts at expropriation ranged from the crude, often-repeated statement that the West “owned” all the works displayed in the exhibition and did not have to ask for the cooperation of the Soviet Union, to the more subtle manner in which the works were disengaged from their real historical context and inserted in a familiar (and safe) art historical context where they could be viewed in terms of a Modernist esthetic and a Modernist version of history. Both the Western and Soviet attempts to neutralize the art are, ironically, tributes to the power of an art practice that for a brief period managed to extricate itself from the strictures of the state apparatus.

The exhibition opened with paintings from the turn of the century—Russian artists trailing far behind French on the road of Western bourgeois esthetics. In the first room, pride of place was given to Pierre Bonnard’s Mediterranean, 1911, and to the French Impressionists in general. The Russian side (usually the left) was devoted to the Symbolist painting of Mikhail Vrubel and to a number of academic-looking portrait painters. In the second room the French were even more dominant: Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, André Derain, and Albert Marquet (as well as Pablo Picasso) eclipsed the relatively sedate portraiture of Leon Bakst. An exception to this was Mikhail Larionov’s luminous orange-and-yellow Fish Lying in the Sun, 1904, which drew attention away from the large Jean Metzinger beside it.

The third room was the most balanced: Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Boy on a Red Horse, 1912, Pavel Filonov’s Feast of Kings, 1913–14, and Milkmaids, 1914, and Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition No. 6, 1913, were placed equitably among works by Paul Cézanne. Derain, and Henri Le Fauconnier. Still, the French influence was pronounced; Liubov Popova’s Philosopher, 1915, is hard to distinguish from a painting by Metzinger (with whom she studied), and her Two Figures, 1913, is heavily derivative of Léger. Malevich’s figures of this period also resemble the tubular constructions of Léger.

The formation of the “Donkey’s Tail” group by Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin marks the first concerted effort to break from European influence and to assert an independent Russian avant-garde. For a time they investigated Russian primitive art and ancient icon painting; perhaps the most successful resolutions of French and indigenous Russian art are Tatlin’s severe, stark nudes of 1913, which combine the rhythm of Matisse’s The Dance with the geometrical stylization of icon painting. These nudes were hung in the exhibition’s fourth room, where any fears that French art would continue to dominate the Russian avant-garde were eradicated: here, Malevich’s Black Square, 1913 (shown for the first time in the Soviet Union since the ’20s), was flanked by other Suprematist works by Malevich and Ivan Kliun. With Tatlin’s Counter-Relief, 1915, Olga Rozanova’s Series of Playing Cards, 1915–16, and Larionov’s yellow Venus, 1912, they delineated an independent trajectory for Russian art.

In the room containing the art of the period of the October Revolution, easel painting was replaced by three-meter-square, many-colored posters. For three years after the revolution these disseminated information and propaganda to an illiterate populace. Designed by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, D. Moor, V. Deni, Mikhail Cheremnykh, and others, they were stenciled in their hundreds by workers throughout the Soviet Union. Other agitprop art displayed or documented included puppets, parades, street theater, and so on, as well as an extremely beautiful collection of “agitchina,” painted with revolutionary emblems and designated for the homes of workers. The room’s centerpiece was Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, at once a culmination of Constructivist sculpture and a dynamic image equal to the iconoclasm of the contemporary polemics.

Next, we witnessed the metamorphosis of an essentially Modernist avant-garde into a socialist art practice. Former painters became “artists/engineers,” turning easel techniques to textiles, furniture, and typographical design. Among the more familiar works are costumes by Popova, Varvara Stepanova, and Tatlin, models of Rodchenko chairs, and architectural designs by El Lissitzky. Mayakovsky’s 1922 remark that “the new voice in art, for the first time, comes not from France, but from Russia,” is manifest. The influence now runs from East to West, though the French often seem to miss the point: Auguste Herbin’s Piano, 1925, seems awkward and unnecessary after the clean, functional furniture of Tatlin and Rodchenko; French posters of chocolates and dance-hall girls look atavistic next to those of Mayakovsky. The real inheritors of this period of Russian art are the mid-century New York painters Franz Kline, Alexander Liberman, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt; forty years later, in America, artists began producing paintings that closely resemble those of Rodchenko, but no trace of these developments appears in contemporary Russian art.

Yet the period from 1917 to 1932 does not present the simple story of suppression told in the West. There was an initial prejudice against the Russian avant-garde among the Bolsheviks, but this was offset by the avant-garde’s enthusiastic support for the October Revolution. During the years immediately following the abdication of the Tsar, state intervention in the arts virtually ceased; many avant-garde artists took an active part in the reorganization of cultural life. Malevich, Tatlin, and others were given important positions in teaching, in museums, in research institutes; Mayakovsky and Osip Brik edited IZO, Art of the Commune, the official journal of the visual arts department of the People’s Commissariat of Education, and in it they claimed to have heralded, in their antibourgeois esthetic revolution, the political and economic revolution of 1917. A. V. Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar for Education, acknowledges that Lenin was somewhat suspicious of Futurist artists, but he did not suppress their activities. What money was available during the Civil War and the famine was devoted to the restoration of museums and the preservation of the art treasures of the past—experimental art and theater could, Lenin said, “draw on its enthusiasm while these hungry times last”—but nevertheless it was not until about 1924 that the avant-garde lost its influence on the policies of Soviet art institutions.

The newly reinstated petit-bourgeoisie was largely antagonistic toward avant-garde art. Socialist Realist art dominated the Soviet side of the last room of the exhibition. A large statue by Vera Moukhina of a commanding female worker was flanked by paintings of textile workers and coal miners. Iosif Brodsky’s Lenin at Smolny, 1930, filled the center of the room. Art returns to the museums. On the French side, the same “rappel à l’ordre,” the same return to representation, took place: the heavy nudes of Picasso’s “classical period” balanced the images of Soviet workers. Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space, 1930, was the swan song.

As one left the exhibition Tatlin’s famous Letatlin glider of 1930 hung above a copy of Michelangelo’s David, where it originally hung 50 years ago. Suggesting Icarus’ artifice of freedom, Letatlin is a construction as fragile and tentative as the way Tatlin spoke of it: “Look at the bent wings. Don’t you think Letatlin gives an impression of esthetic perfection? Like a hovering seagull. Don’t you think?”

Jo-Anna Isaak