by Allison Hewitt Ward
The Museum of Modern Art’s recent survey of Russian arts from 1912-1935, “A Revolutionary Impulse: Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” was an exhibition haunted by whispers of revolution. It is to the curators’ credit that the exhibition did not shy away from the political realities that defined this period, but they did little to enlighten the lay viewer of their logic and development, leaving the works only partially tethered to the very revolutionary impulse from which the show took its name. To be fair, such a complex pedagogical task is likely beyond the scope of an art exhibition, a form forced to cater to broad capacities of knowledge and fleeting attentions. “A Revolutionary Impulse” is owed great credit on its own terms: it is an excellently presented collection spanning painting, film, photography and design. Its incomplete character and demand for expanded consideration is not a failure, but a mark of its success.
Of the staggering number of objects on display, most striking was filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 collaboration with Rodchenko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a propaganda film (the title translates to cinema-truth) tracking the failing health, death and funeral of Lenin. Black and white graphics contributed by Rodchenko depicting, without comment, the medical statistics of the ailing revolutionary leader created a palpable sense of worry as they edge, at an excruciatingly slow pace, towards the result we all know already: Lenin’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced procession of mourners at his funeral, dedicating portrait shots and name plates to party leaders: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin steadfastly looking ahead. The latter was utterly chilling—a glimpse of a future yet unknown to the filmmakers but known all too well today. Standing, in 2017, in the American Museum of Modern Art in a moment of utter political confusion, the tragedy of this moment was cutting. Could the mourners have possibly known that they had witnessed both the beginning and the end of a moment of tremendous historical potential? Did Vertov and Rodchenko realize that in their montage of party leaders it would be Stalin who would take power? Did they know that, after the crippling defeat of the German Left the year prior, 1924 would mark a closing and not an opening of history?
These questions are utterly irrelevant in the study of history and the critique of art. What Vertov, Rodchenko and that procession of sullen revolutionaries knew is of little importance. But there have been few moments in which a work of art confronted me so forcefully, so starkly drew the contours of the boundaries between this ambivalent present and an exhausted past. In 1925 the film was melancholic but hopeful; today it is deeply tragic, a bitter reminder of an unfulfilled promise. At the centennial of 1917 the distance of a century looms nearly insurmountable.
If the art of the Russian Avant-Garde has a timeless quality, it is because of its unique historical origin. Never before or since have artists operated under the thrall of three societies—the crumbling czarist Russia, the dynamic bourgeois west, and the advancing spectre of socialism— so different. It expresses all three but belongs to none.
Nowhere is this strange confluence more apparent than in the career of Malevich, whose work featured strongly in the exhibition. A display of paintings and drawings by the artist served as a reminder of Malevich’s transcendent formal quality. Small works, some no larger than 6 inches across compelled the eye with careful and economical use of forms in space. Here we see attempts to render the mark in its most irreducible state, to discover what, in the last instance turns a plane into a work of art. Yet while these formal interrogations align Malevich’s work with the best of the European avant-gardes, his own writings betray the backwardness at work. The spiritual concepts in which he framed his output in his own writing belong more to rural and mystical Russia than industrial France.
The trouble with “Revolutionary Impulse” is that it retroactively applied the 1917 revolution to art produced before it, an application strengthened by a film documenting the abdication of the czar at the entrance to the exhibition. The problem is compounded by the fact that works spanning the mid teens to early twenties often appeared side by side. The revolutionary vigor at work in “Revolutionary Impulse” in fact preceded the Russian Revolution, and was markedly bourgeois in character: it both embraced and critiqued the bourgeois society from which it emerged. In other words, it was not the 1917 Revolution that made the Russian Avant-Garde revolutionary, it was its own internal development. In a set of analytical charts made between 1924 and 1927 for presentation in western Europe, Malevich explicitly situates his own work and that of his peers as the inheritors of the history of bourgeois art, analyzing a development of forms from renaissance sculpture through Cubism and Futurism towards Suprematism. (It should be noted that many of the leading figures of the Russian Avant-Garde had honed their skills in Paris.) Through the immanent critique of existing forms he proposed a new art that would transcend them. By laying bare and taking apart the structural underpinnings of art itself Malevich and his peers both destroyed and reproduced them, simultaneously negating and confirming the world as it was, pointing slyly to a world that might be. What we see in the show is not art produced in response to, or support of revolution, but a rare and vibrant instance in which an advanced bourgeois avant-garde was swept up in a socialist revolution, directing their practice to its service.
The more confused paintings by Varvara Stepsnova (Figure, 1921) and Ivan Puni (Flight of Forms, 1919) indicate that the development of the existing Avant-Garde in revolutionary Russia was quite uneven, and underscores the pre-revolutionary bourgeois maturity of Malevich. Fortunately, these two underwhelming pictures appeared to be the exception. The advanced transformation of the Avant-Garde in the wake of the revolution appears to belong to Lissitzky, who in 1921, with Malevich and others, founded one of what would be many publications bolstered by enthusiastic manifestos, UNOVOIS, which sought to merge art and life. In its wake would come Lissitzky’s PROUNS and Rodchenko’s Left Front of the Arts. In these disseminated publications we see a rare instance of an avant-garde actually acting as vanguard, that is, the leading force in aesthetic development. The spatial forms utilized by these documents (and additionally by displayed instances of theater design) followed the contributions of Suprematism and Constructivism. Subsequent developments brought these strategies to publications and propaganda of all kind. A formal strategy developed through bourgeois self-criticism was transformed into a design kit for revolutionary propaganda. It sacrificed some of its vitality in this transition from internal reflection to external communication. The architectural lines and blocks of color that floated gracefully at Lissitzky’s command are all but suspended in Gustav Klutsis’s 1927 graphic Memorial to Fallen Leaders, and finally anaesthetized on a ceramic dining set from late in the decade.
“Revolutionary Impulse” addressed its contents as broadly historical phenomena, rather than internally medium-specific developments or singular biographies. The fact that this approach is surprising in 2017, when our vocabulary for the non-medium-specific (post-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary) already greatly exceeds the field’s potential, was itself surprising, but nonetheless welcome. In addition to tracing the development of radical form into propaganda design, it adeptly included the subsequent major development of post-revolutionary art—the cinematic turn—by approaching it through time rather than form.
By situating the move into cinema and photography historically (wall text cited Lenin in support of the form) the exhibition allowed the viewer to make the formal connections between the works on paper of Malevich, Lissitzky etc., and the cinematic works himself: a welcome freedom. The captivating cut of a worker folding cigarette packets in Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera (1929) cannot help but evoke the spatial exercises of Lissitzky: a close-up of crisscrossing chords on a switchboard takes on the character of a constructivist drawing. From scenes of daily work Vertov teases out profoundly beautiful images whose spatial arrangements appear in alignment with the painterly sections of the avant-garde. Labor, the film suggests, is itself a form of aesthetic production. And conversely, aesthetic production is a form of labor, a thesis Vertov defends with regular cuts to images of the camera lens and pseudonymous man with the movie camera. The cigarette factory, switchboard and mine workers depicted are, like the man behind the camera, engaged in the productive manipulation of things.
While The Man With the Movie Camera may be the best representative of a revolutionary art, it came too late, more than a year after the expulsion of Trotsky from the Soviet Union and the beginning of the end of the grand experiment. The fact is that the revolutionary impulse in art does not hew so cleanly to revolutionary politics. It pushes ahead and pulls back. It expresses possibilities after their moment has passed or before they can be recognized. Vertov’s proposal—the collapse of aesthetic production into production as such through the elevation of production to the aesthetic—dangles in the stale air of the present. It is a question subsequent avant-gardes attempted to answer, failing to account for the fact that the proposal itself was meant to be dissolved, transformed in a society where the very fact of reified production has withered away.
Does this mean that there are no openings for a revolutionary art of the present? Quite the opposite. “A Revolutionary Impulse” clearly demonstrates that that the whispers of radical art speak to us even when the shouts of a socialist workers’ revolution are far afield.