MAKING MODERNISM SOVIET: THE RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE IN THE EARLY SOVIET ERA, 1918-1928
By Pamela Kachurin
Northwestern University Press. 145 pages. $45. ISBN 978-0-8101-2928-3
Reviewed by Jim Burns
When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 it not only brought hopes of social and political change, it also seemed to promise a new dawn in artistic experiment and achievement. As Camilla Gray put it in The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922 (Thames and Hudson, London, 1962), “To the artists this was the signal for the extermination of the hated old order and the introduction of a new one based on industrialisation.” And she quotes Malevich who said, “Let us seize (the world) from the hands of nature and build a new world belonging to (man) himself.” Artists not only produced work which claimed to reflect the way society was being transformed, they also, in Pamela Kachurin’s words, “went to work for the Bolsheviks, finding gainful employment as museum directors, art school teachers, and arts administrators.”
It has often been suggested that, in involving themselves with the expanding bureaucracy that became part of the Soviet system, artists tended to show themselves to be “idealistic innocents,” who allowed themselves to be used until a time came when they were no longer useful and were then disposed of, in one way or another. But Kachurin sets out to demonstrate that, in fact, they “actively participated in the Soviet project, directly engaging with Bolshevism to realise their own creative visions of aesthetic and social transformation under the aegis of state patronage.” In an interesting comment she asserts that the period referred to as the “New Economic Policy” (NEP), which lasted from 1921 to 1928, while being thought of as linked to a relatively liberal cultural policy, was actually “characterised instead by restrictive measures aimed at curtailing, circumscribing, and ultimately controlling all activities in the sphere of the visual arts.” What is more, the “measures that were implemented, and in some cases initiated,” came about not because of the dictates of “faceless Soviet bureaucrats,” but through the actions of “the modernist artists in the Soviet art institutions” that Kachurin looks at. Reading her account I couldn’t help thinking that Malevich, in particular, would have made a good dictator, at least when it came to art. There were times when he seemed determined, given the chance, to impose his ideas on everyone else.
The Moscow Museum of Painterly Culture was created in 1918 ostensibly to showcase the work of a wide variety of living Russian artists. However, it soon became “the de facto home to artists devoted to modernist experimentation within a socialist context.” Four directors, including Vassily Kandinsky and Alexander Rodchenko, were, at one time or another, in charge and tried to keep the Museum open in the face of “dwindling financial and ideological support.” In order to do this they had to fall in line with demands from bureaucrats and hostile critics for programmes which would cater to the tastes of a wider proletarian audience. There was always going to be a clash between the aim to develop a genuine form of Soviet modernism and the increasing demands for art that would appeal to popular tastes. In many ways this was no different from what applied in capitalist societies, where avant-garde artists had to choose between going their own way or compromising by producing what sold. Of course, avant-garde art in capitalist societies was often quickly absorbed into the mainstream and the artists prospered. And even if they stuck to their principles they could survive in various ways. The stakes were much higher in Russia and a fall from grace could lead to serious problems with earning a living and finding suitable accommodation. Working for the Bolsheviks could assure an artist of extra rations in a time of scarcity, exemptions from tax, and a separate room and studio. It was Anatoly Lunacharsky, “a Marxist philosopher and literary critic,” with his wide political connections, who ensured that the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment had sufficient status in the Soviet bureaucracy to obtain enough funds to provide for the needs of artists, or at least those of them with the right connections. Networking and patronage played an important part in how artists functioned, though there was always the possibility that if one’s patron fell out of favour then so would those who had been recipients of his patronage.
It seems evident, at least from Kachurin’s account, that once modernist artists were in positions of power they did tend to favour their friends and associates. A proposal for a Museum of Contemporary Art saw Tatlin specifying that acquisitions for the museum had to be approved by the Department of Fine Arts Collegium of which he was the President. And the Collegium, made up of artists, “then went ahead and approved the purchase of paintings from living artists, that is, from one another.” Malevich benefited in this way, so did Tatlin, Rodchenko, and others. This inevitably led to criticism, with a commentator in Pravda saying that paintings were being purchased from artists who had yet to prove themselves. It was also claimed that the Futurists, as the modernists were generally known, were deliberately attracting publicity to “glorify themselves and sell their products.” The modernists, realising that it would be a mistake to promote their own work to excess, backed away from the idea of a Museum of Contemporary Art and instead supported the establishment of a Museum of Painterly and Plastic Culture which would showcase art in variety of styles and from various periods. Emphasis was to be placed on the educational role of the museum and its “accessibility to the masses.” Arguments raged around the aims and achievements of the Museum, with some Marxist critics continuing to call for art that was more attuned to proletarian tastes and for more Communist Party members to be placed in positions of power. In Kachurin’s words: “The process of ‘sovietisation’ and centralisation had undeniably begun.”
The Museum had funds withdrawn and there were threats that it would be closed. Rodchenko complained that, “we have no money and (everything) is broken.” When a new director was appointed he had to function “within the NEP environment of increased ideological control and decreased state funding.” In effect, the Museum had to be self-funding. There was a move towards exhibitions of work in a “representational yet modernist pictorial idiom.” Paintings with a socialist inclination (“factories, workers, cities, soldiers”) aimed to “create an appropriate type of painting for the new society,” something that was a move away from the kind of abstractions that someone like Malevich favoured. The NEP period was one of “supposedly utopian experiment,” but Kachurin says that, in fact, it led to “two important trends: first, standardisation and homogenisation of the intelligentsia and the institutions in which they worked; and second, the increased role of a formidable, centralised administrative apparatus that governed all artistic enterprises well before Stalin’s infamous 1932 decree banning all independent art groups and activities.” Modernist artists did well to continue creating between 1918 and 1928, but Kachurin appears to suggest that, in their willingness to compromise when acting as arts administrators they may have “helped to formulate and apply the very language and practices that came to characterise the bureaucratic apparatus of the early Soviet state.”
The situation in Vitebsk between 1919 and 1923 when the People’s School of Art functioned had some advantages when compared to Moscow. There were attractions to being away from the major centres of artistic and political activities in that food was often easier to obtain and, in Vitebsk, at least, the effects of the Civil War were less noticeable. The purpose of the People’s School of Art was to promote socialist methods and values while at the same time developing modernist ideas. Malevich, Chagall, and El Lissitsky were all involved at one time or another, though Chagall, initially persuaded by Lunacharsky to take on an administrative role, appears to have left after bringing in various artists and helping to start a proper art school, the existing one operating from someone’s apartment. His departure left the gate open for Malevich to take control and pursue his theory of Suprematism, which meant “giving up representation and painting instead a limited range of pure geometrical forms - squares, rectangles, crosses and triangles – and using an equally limited palette.” (I’m not quoting Kachurin, by the way). Malevich wanted to involve art with science and technology and saw Suprematism as allied in spirit and practicality with the ideology of the Communist Party. Kachurin refers to a questionnaire, thirty-three pages long, which all Party members had to complete and which was in some ways similar to one that UNOVIS (Supporters of the New Art) circulated in Vitebsk. The group was keen to demonstrate that they were part of the Soviet system and not bourgeois individualists.
There was bound to be a clash of values, though, because Malevich in January, 1921, published an article in which he argued that, while the state should be concerned with economic and political matters, it should not intrude into the realm of art. This was sure to lead to arguments against groups like the one led by Malevich from Party activists who though there was something of a contradiction in financially supporting artists who still wanted to be independent of the new regime. Malevich, El Lissitsky, and students from the People’s School of Art, tried to counter this sort of criticism by involving themselves in such matters as street decorations for state holidays and events surrounding campaigns against unemployment, to cite one example. They wanted to demonstrate their usefulness to the Soviet system, as when they took part in “production propaganda,” which Kachurin says was seen as essential to “the country’s postwar economic recovery.” But Vitebsk was under attack. UNOVIS was said to be operating a monopoly, and the 1921 Party Congress heard calls for ideological and political conformity. Articles denigrating activities at the Peoples School of Art appeared in various publications, and some of El Lissitsky’s designs for public projects were dismissed as “dilettantism.” One of the most significant condemnations of extreme modernism came from Lunacharsky who spoke against “those who demand cultural break with past epochs.” Such a concept was not Marxist but anarchist. To those who knew what the fate of anarchists had been after the Bolsheviks had come out on top in the Revolution this statement was significant, especially as Lunacharsky had initially been a supporter of experimentation in art.
The People’s School of Art was renamed The Vitebsk Art-Practical Institute in 1921 and emphasis was placed on the practical use of art training. Soon major cutbacks began to affect its work. Kachurin notes that many of the cultural-educational institutions in the Vitebsk area were closed, and the remaining available funds were used to establish reading rooms used for “communist and agricultural propaganda.” Staff at the Institute attempted to keep it going by stressing how its curriculum was designed both to educate students in the history of art and prepare them for using their skills in ways that would benefit the state. But the writing was on the wall and Malevich decided to move to Petrograd. Kachurin says that, in doing so, he “avoided the fate of some of his colleagues in other Soviet colleges and institutes, that of arrest and deportation.” Quite a few of his fellow-teachers and students also left. By May, 1922, UNOVIS had ceased to function in Vitebsk.
If the experiments in Vitebsk had eventually come to an end the people involved in them were still active and Petrograd became their new centre of operations. The Petrograd Museum of Artistic Culture, soon to be known as the State Institute of Artistic Culture, became a new home for many of them, in particular Malevich who established a “laboratory” for “research work.” Budget cuts soon affected the activities of the Museum of Artistic Culture, but in 1922 it launched a major exhibition designed to display “all the artistic forces of Petrograd working in the areas of the new art, in panting, theatre, music, sculpture, and architectural design.” The aim was to give the “masses” an opportunity to be educated in the aims and achievements of contemporary artists. Kachurin says that entrance fees were far too high, and “only one hundred fifty people came over a six-day period.” I don’t think it can be suggested that a dislike of abstract art kept people away, because it would seem that a variety of work was on show, including examples of ProletKul’t painting. But perhaps the organisers had been over-optimistic in expecting a large number of working-class people to attend an art exhibition at a time when austere social and economic conditions still affected many people’s lives.
The arrival of Malevich and his supporters in Petrograd coincided with the “expulsion of over two hundred members of the intelligentsia from Soviet Russia: writers, professors, and scientists were imprisoned and then ordered to leave the country, having been accused of ‘anti-Soviet’ activities.” Kachurin agrees with the assertion that this action was meant to send a message to intellectuals about their place in society and the requirement for them to work only as directed “by a dictatorship of the proletariat,” in other words the Communist Party. A journalist on a publication called Late News wrote that the collection in the Museum was “utterly incomprehensible for the masses,” and another critic said that the Museum was “unnecessary.” The usual battle to justify what was being done at the Museum, both in terms of displays and the work of someone like Malevich, started, and efforts were made to incorporate “a strong Marxist element” into the different departments of the Museum. 1924, however, saw the Communist Party increasingly intervening in matters relating to the arts. Party members replaced non-Party members of decision-making bodies, and there was a swing towards proletarian writing, and the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia was to set standards in painting. Attacks against “left art” (abstractions, etc.) increased, and Kachurin quotes from a widely-read article as condemning “all experiments: Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism.” as trash. The so-called “demands of the working-masses” were to become paramount, though those demands would be defined by the Party apparatus.
Malevich and his old colleague Tatlin were at loggerheads about policy, especially after Malevich became head of the State Institute of Artistic Culture. Tatlin eventually left, but Malevich was still not in a strong position. A savage attack in the Leningrad Pravda referred to the Institute as a “State-Sponsored Monastery” inhabited by “holy crackpots” who were recklessly extravagant and wasting public money when many genuinely-talented artists were struggling to support themselves. The report also referred to the Institute’s modernists as “counter-revolutionary,” a term sure to attract attention and worry whoever it was applied to. An official enquiry was launched into the structure and activities of the Institute. In 1926 Malevich was “freed from his duties” as Director of the Institute, and a new board began to process of reforms that would undo “many of the procedures and policies” introduced by him. When Malevich had a solo exhibition at State Tretyakov Gallery in 1929 he cleverly re-wrote his artistic career so as to take note of the noticeable movement towards Stalin’s cultural policies. Few of his Suprematist works were on display, and paintings which were concerned with rural life were more evident. His “Peasant Cycle” was topical, being related to “the collectivisation and rapid industrialisation campaigns initiated by the first Five-Year Plan,” and Kachurin notes that the dates when some paintings were completed were altered so as to make it seem that Malevich had been working on a landscape and a portrait when, in fact, he had been involved with his Suprematism theories. She does note that his canvases still indicated a leaning towards the modern rather than an inclination towards the kind of socialist realism soon to become the dominant mode.
Malevich was arrested in 1930 and spent two months in prison, “being questioned about the ideological and political aspects of his art.” Like many of the other artists mentioned by Kachurin he survived the purges of the 1930s, perhaps because as she says, “most modern artists who remained in the country successfully presented a sufficiently ‘sovietised’ type of art, and whose self-presentation met the demands for a ‘sovietised’ intelligentsia.” She refers to Rodchenko, Tatlin, and several others as adapting to their new situations. Malevich was given a state funeral when he died in 1936.
Making Modernism Soviet is a massively-documented account of a particular period in the early history of the Russian Revolution, especially with regard to the activities of certain modernist artists. It shows how, despite a difficult and often hostile environment, they managed to survive and develop their ideas, even if they did have to find ways around the increasingly-bureaucratic system of art patronage and sometimes compromise to keep their museums and other institutions functioning. In some ways it’s a book that can offer insights into how artists and writers generally come to terms, if they can, with the demands the state might make on them if they want some sort of support from it. This can be as true of a capitalist country, no matter how benign it claims to be, as it is of a communist one or any other form of dictatorship, though it would be foolish to pretend that the pitfalls are likely to be anywhere near as serious. But systems of patronage, and the need to cultivate committees, apply just as much, no matter where one is.
Pamela Kachurin hasn’t written a book that is aimed at the general reader, and in fact she makes it clear that it’s “a substantially revised version” of her doctorate dissertation. She had obviously done a great deal of research into the subject and the book is packed with information. I have to say that I was sometimes overwhelmed with the details of organisations and committees and publications, not to mention all the individuals who entered the story at one point or another. I’m not suggesting that this in any way lessens the value of Making Modernism Soviet, and it will clearly be essential reading for anyone seriously interested in finding out more about the problems experienced by Russian modernist artists during the first ten or so years of the Revolution.