Before Stalin, there was one moment in Russia when advanced art served the power of of the left, not only freely but with brilliant results. It happened between 1917 and 1925, when the promise of Communism was new and the newness of art fused with it. This hope that the revolutions in art and politics would join was a modern idea, but it was also grounded in the Russia that existed before the Revolution – unchanged, frozen, with a tiny elite of aristocrats and a cultivated middle-class sitting a top a vast pyramid of illiteracy.
One of the ways of reaching the masses of Russian people was through visual imagery. The Orthodox church had been doing this for a thousand years with icons. Without the European avant-garde, fauvism, futurism, cubism, there could have been no modern art in Russia. Before the Revolution, both Moscow and St Petersburg were truly cosmopolitan, and some of the greatest collectors in modern history, like Schukine with his Gaugins and Matisses, lived in Russia. When Russian artists reacted to Futurism and Marinetti’s gospel of absolute modernity, they were not responding as provincials. But the Russian economy was mainly rural, the lives of its people primitive, and machine technology so new there that the futurist myth seemed doubly wonderful to Russian painters and poets, like Alexander Shevshenko in 1913:
The world has been transformed into a single, monstrous, fantastic, perpetually moving machine and a sense of rhythm and mechanical harmony reflected in the whole of our life cannot but be echoed in our thought and in our spiritual life, in Art.
But it was the Revolution that gave the Russian avant-garde its real vision of dynamism. Here was process and transformation, the renewal of history sweeping everything before it. Artists and poets saw in it an image of the future, not the real future of purges and terror in which so many of them would end, but a future that never came, one of equality, of collective energy, in which the arts would act as a transformer, and this hope reached artists everywhere, including some Russians working in Paris. One of them was the sculpture Naum Gabo [who said]:
Like all the rest of the population, from the very beginning of this century, we all were convinced that only a total revolution can change the situation within which we lived, during the absolute monarchy of the Czar.
The Revolution swept away the middle class, and from now on the only patron of the arts would be the state. The new state artists were encouraged to see themselves as social engineers. They believed that art could work as directly on politics as icons had on religion. Material was short but at least they all got ration cards and were employed on propaganda jobs. They did street theatre with parades and masks. They made propaganda trucks. They even devised an agitprop train that could travel the country, distributing leaflets, screening films, and bringing pictures and drawings to the proletariat. [Naum Gabo]:
There was a man, Lunacharsky, who was, at that time, the people’s commissar, for people’s education and enlightenment. He said, ‘You must all know that what we need really, what the government needs, and think out to be is an art of five kopecks. What he meant by that, not that art should be cheap, but he means the art which every man and workman and peasant could have bought.
Of all the tendencies in Russian art, Constructivism seemed closest, at least as a metaphor for the ideals of the October revolution.
It is made of nothing and then, the structure was built up. So it is a construction. But it has also an additional sense in the word, a philosophic sense, you know: we also demand that we should not make images which would increase the destructive spirit in man. It should give the man a sense of reason to live. It should be mentally constructive, not destructive.
Vladimir Tatlin was one of the Constructivists. The collagist Raoul Hausmann made an icon of the man called Tatlin at Home, in which his head was filled with thoughts of machinery and emblems of travel and industrial design. He wanted, he said, ‘to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern classicism, comparable in their severity to the marble of antiquity.’ In 1919, two years after the Revolution, the People’s Commissariat for Education asked him to design a monument to the Third Internationale. It was going to be 1,300 feet high, about 300 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower, and unlike the one in Paris, this would actually move.
Inside it, three huge mobile units. The lowest, a cylinder, was the hall for the Soviet legislative council. It turned around once a year. Above it was a pyramid, turning once a month. And next, another chamber, was an information block that spun once a day. And finally a half dome. All encased in a great spiral, an ancient Middle Eastern form, but in steel on its heroic diagonal, a symbol of dynamism, of conversion into energy and of evolution from lower states to higher, dialectics in three dimensions. It couldn’t be built – there wasn’t enough steel in all Russia for that. So it remains one of the great hypotheses of modernism, and Tatlin a Leonardo of the Russian Revolution, and his quest for a perfect wedding of art and technology repeated some of Leonardo’s own projects from 400 years earlier, like a design for a flying machine, a glider, a sort of cheap airborne bicycle that every proletarian could own, that he named ‘Letatlin’ from ‘letat’, the Russian for ‘to fly.’
Tatlin: ‘I have selected the flying machine as an object for artistic composition, since it is the most complicated dynamic form that can become an everyday item for the Soviet masses. An ordinary item of use.‘
Which it wasn’t and could not have been. Without a highly abstract way of thinking about matter, there is no technology. Likewise, there can be no science. If this power to abstract was the least common denominator of a coming society whose modernity would depend on scientific progress, then its proper art must be abstract too. Abstraction, for the Russians, was reality. [Naum Gabo]:
The whole century, the 20th century and the end of the last century, even the science has taken and become more abstract. Abstraction in science is the main foundation of contemporary thinking, of scientific thinking, and yet in science, it has never been separated from life. And that is what art must always remember, that our abstraction, just as in science, is natural, and belonging to the development of the spirit of human beings.This is our spirit. It is abstract. But it does not mean that it should totally alienate, separate itself from life. On the contrary, it must go deeper in life, and must regard the laws of life, the laws of nature.
Gabo took part in the Constructivist International. It extended from Holland to Moscow, and as one of its members, the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy remarked ‘Constructivism is pure substance, it is the socialism of vision’.
Another artist, El Lissitzky, also tried to marry abstract art with social use. Throughout the 1920s, he produced a flow of Proun artworks, the word ‘Proun’ – pro unovis – meaning ‘for a new art’. They look like imaginary architecture and so in a sense they were, because he thought of them as way stations between once rigid categories, building blocks of a new Socialist Jerusalem, in which all the differences between the old artistic professions would be merged into one evolved creature, the artist engineer.
The artist engineer must also be able to work at anything, and here Lissitzky redesigned a maths textbook for Russian elementary schools. He made posters which were meant to communicate with the masses in a purely abstract way. How do you incite people against the White Russian army? The message is ‘beat the whites with a red wedge’.
One may doubt whether this classic poster was ever much use as propaganda, but the work of Lissitzky’s colleague, Alexander Rodchenko was more practical in its effect. Painter, sculptor, poster maker, designer, and photographer, he even designed a reinforced workers’ suit in 1925, and wore it himself. And his emblem was the camera, for it was objective, unsentimental. Instead of symbolist dreams, it gave the cheap reproducible accessible poetry of fact, of photomontage. In his poster and book covers, Rodchenko combined that with a brilliant and punchy sense of design. His montages are not so much still images as frozen cinema, like documentary film.
Constructivism demanded that every work speak plainly, and not mystify anyone. This was true of architecture, too: the building as declaration. Here is a design for the offices of the party newspaper Pravda.
The problem was Lenin wasn’t interested in the avant-garde. He wanted a mass art. After him, Stalin, the terrible simplifier, made anything that wasn’t mass art a political crime. The Constructivists were, from his point of view, bourgeois formalists, little specks of useless free imagination in the great ocean of his new Russia. Some he killed, some he starved, and all of them he degraded, and state art went back to its original job – the narcissism of power.
[From Robert Hughes (1938-2012), The Shock of the New – Episode 2 (The Powers That Be), BBC, 1979.]