Olga Rozanova, Non-objective Composition, 1916, oil on canvas, 28 × 26". From “The Museum of Pictorial Culture: To the 100th Anniversary of the First Museum of Contemporary Art.”

Olga Rozanova, Non-objective Composition, 1916, oil on canvas, 28 × 26". From “The Museum of Pictorial Culture: To the 100th Anniversary of the First Museum of Contemporary Art.”

“The Museum of Pictorial Culture”

In Moscow in 1918, the people’s commissar of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, approved a list of 143 artists who sought to elevate the aesthetic sensibility of the working class. This new art was hailed as symbolic of the young country. Its creators—cutting-edge artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, David Shterenberg, and Vladimir Tatlin—received carte blanche to shape culture by establishing a museum for contemporary art in Moscow, a full decade before Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But the pioneering Soviet institution would close without explanation in 1929, thus transformed from a legendary aesthetic gambit into a ghost.

With its carefully collected and meticulously designed historical reconstruction of this institution’s trajectory, the stunning survey “The Museum of Pictorial Culture: To the 100th Anniversary of the First Museum of Contemporary Art” recovered this nearly forgotten episode of the history of the Russian avant-garde. After the museum was dissolved, its collection of paintings and graphics was handed to the Tretyakov Gallery, while the rest of the holdings were dispatched to regional museums. This exhibition brought together more than three hundred paintings, sculptures, and works on paper borrowed from more than twenty collections, including classics by Kandinsky, Malevich, Lyubov Popova, and Shterenberg alongside rare gems, including works by Aleksandr Drevin, the first head of the Museum of Pictorial Culture, and Ivan Kliun’s studies on color and shape from the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece, where part of the Soviet-art collection amassed by George Costakis is located. The exhibition was replete with curatorial texts, explanations, the artists’ own comments on their works, chronologies, documents, inventories, and catalogues, but the selection of artworks was so sharp that they were never overwhelmed by the abundance of archival material.

The most fascinating parts of the display, however, might have been the reconstruction of the Analytical Office of the Museum of Pictorial Culture, a department initiated by young artists of the Method Group, who called themselves “projectionists.” Under the leadership of Solomon Nikritin, a Ukrainian artist and philosopher known as the “alchemist of the science of art,” who had studied at Vkhutemas (the legendary Soviet Higher Art and Technical Studios, whose centenary takes place this year), in Moscow, these artists venerated technological progress and believed that the time had come for a scientific art criticism. On the basis of his own research into “tectonic studies of painting,” Nikritin compiled a program of experimental and analytical exercises applying scientific methods to aesthetic judgment. (The exhibition includes reconstructions of Nikritin’s sounding models to test the “tonality” of color, as well as analytical drawings by his associates.) The museum as a whole was designed not only to collect and exhibit contemporary art, but, in the spirit of the times, to operate as a scientific laboratory; this idea long preceded the contemporary fascination with interdisciplinary approaches, research, and experimentation, most vividly embodied in Barbara Vanderlinden and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s acclaimed 1999 exhibition “Laboratorium” in Antwerp.

The show in Moscow offered an epitaph by way of a quotation from a letter Shterenberg wrote to Lunacharsky one year before the closure of the museum: “The noticeable fact that some evil will seek to erase in all sorts of ways everything valuable and cultural that we have done in the field of art over the years.” Located literally on the other side of the wall from the gallery concurrently housing the widely criticized and scandal-plagued main project of the Eighth Moscow Biennale—an institution whose promise has likewise dissipated more than a decade after its founding—this extraordinary exhibition also testified to the country’s inability to learn from the experiences of its past.