“Kudymkor, Engine of the Future”

Proun Gallery

The full title of this show, “Kudymkor, Engine of the Future: Ekaterina Degot, Curator, and Leonid Tishkov, Artist, Tell the Story of Pyotr Subbotin-Permyak,” describes an unusual collaboration. Using various media—drawing, painting, documentary photography, and film, but also diary excerpts in the form of slogans as well as artifacts borrowed from Russian folk culture—the Moscow-based curator-critic and artist-writer relate the story of Subbotin (1888–1923), an artist who lived in Moscow from 1907 through 1919, placed himself at the service of the Soviet regime, and then decided, as a passionate though not radical representative of the “New Art” movement, to return to his native village in the region of Perm in the Urals and to found the Higher State Applied Arts Studios there.

The exhibition at Proun Gallery—named for El Lissitzky’s famous Suprematist concept and series of works, and part of Winzavod, the new Moscow Contemporary Art Center—was organized by the New Collection Foundation in Perm as one of the “special projects” of the Moscow Biennial. It drew together several different narrative threads. Tishkov, who himself comes from the Ural region, has devoted an impressive series of ink drawings to paradigmatic scenes from the life of Subbotin. Subbotin’s work itself combined various influences from the early-twentieth-century European avant-gardes with elements of Russian folk art—shades of late Impressionism and Russian folk culture can be discerned in his paintings alongside elements of Futurism and Cubism. Particularly striking were Subbotin’s “Sketches for the Decoration of Moscow During the First Anniversary of the Red Army,” 1919, and his Cubist paintings. Along with works by and biographies of Subbotin’s pupils and colleagues, the exhibition included examples of Russian folk art from the region surrounding Perm. Banners with quotes from Subbotin’s diaries and essays stretched diagonally across the exhibition space: art gives vigor and joy! and so on. Subbotin’s statements also provided the curators with intertitles for a silent Soviet propaganda film made after his death. The combination of image and text suggests that the achievements of the Komi-Permyak ethnic group praised in the film came as a result of their following Subbotin’s dicta—a polemical fiction that highlights the avant-gardist utopia of melding art and life while at the same time showing the limits of such a fusion.

Taken together, the highly varied items on display gave a curatorially and artistically engaged, multifaceted, and, moreover, contradictory picture of the goals, achievements, and limitations of Subbotin, who devoted his life to the service of art, society, and the “new man.” As Degot emphasizes in her catalogue essay, the aim of the show was more than just to bring new appreciation to an unjustly forgotten artist—and while making it clear that she values Subbotin’s work highly, the curator can be quite critical of some of his pupils. Instead, this show was a sort of social history of the Russian avant-garde as seen from its margins, in a spirit of deep sympathy for an art that understood itself as a motor for the development and future of society. “Art must belong to the people,” Tishkov adds in his homage to Subbotin in the catalogue. “Forget about art as decor or something that can be bought and sold,” he continues, positioning the exhibition not merely as an alternative model for art history but also as an alternative to the commercial attitude that currently dominates the art scene in Moscow.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.