Kliment Red’ko

Uprising. (1924-25). (© Pavel Otdel’nov on Flickr)

On March 14, 1935, Kliment Red’ko (1897-1956) – who at the time had been living for several years in France and was getting ready to return home – wrote in his diary: “Wrote a draft statement for the consul. Decided to get out of Paris in three months. I have given eight years to France. All these years have gone by, and yet it seems that the ninth spring of 1935 is no different from the first spring of 1927. To Moscow now! To my own! To the motherland!” In the land of the Soviets, the reality was considerably different from when the avant-gardist had headed out to the main foundry of the art of the time. And though his most famous work remained the controversial ‘Uprising’, and he thought of himself as an artist of the new system, he could in no way be considered a political artist. Who was he?

He began in the icon painting workshops of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves (although at first he had to learn to decorate porcelain) and he culminated in an art studio on the Timiryazevka, and it can be said that his life executed a full circle. Lunacharsky helped him go to Paris (perhaps to save his life), and when he returned home, he was accused of formalism, for which he was expelled from the Moscow Union of Artists in 1948, although he had only joined them three years earlier.

In the middle of his life, a year after the death of Lenin, Red’ko completed his masterwork, ‘Uprising’. Not that he was a one-hit wonder, but it is this work that consistently epitomises him. Red’ko first thought to call it ‘RCP’, then changed its name to ‘Revolution’, and finally ended up with ‘Uprising’.

Before it arrived at the Tretyakov Gallery, the painting was in the collection of George Costakis, who (according to Irina Lebedeva, the director of the Gallery) had written in 1977: ‘The picture of the century, the greatest work of revolutionary Russia. George Costakis, Moscow, April 14, 1977.’ Lebedeva said that today’s audience apparently saw the picture for the first time in 1987’s exhibition ‘Art and Revolution’, since when the work has never been removed from the permanent displays.

Like many of the avant-garde, Red’ko embraced the revolution. Like many others, he too believed that the new era expected from artists new creations in art, modelling, and explanations of life, all incorporating technological innovations. In fact, his ‘Uprising’, despite Lenin’s admiration, is thought by some to be a picture of tragedy; the painting hearkens to old iconography despite the rebellion having subjugated the old systems; there is the leader within the great red diamond, reminiscent of the icon of the Saviour in Majesty; except that on the sides we have Trotsky (who, in 1926, would call the new leader the ‘gravedigger of the revolution’), Krupskaya, Lunacharsky; Stalin is not in the front rank, but only appears in the second row. Red’ko risked much, and who knows what would have happened to him had he not moved in 1927 to Paris.

It is possible to ignore church iconography in ‘Uprising’, even allowing for the fact it was painted not as an icon; still, as an emblem of revolution, constructed to the rhythm of a march, with the geometry of perpendiculars and diagonals, with dynamic rays and vectors that cut through the red-black city, the houses that resemble prisons. Red’ko interested himself in questions of energy, and its  implementation as light, design as an expression of form, and consciously or not ‘Uprising’ came out full of contradictions. Welcoming the revolution, it reveals its dark side.

Red’ko’s art is a strange admixture, resulting from the icon studies in the Monastery of the Caves, and training under Arkady Rylov and Nicholas Roerich in the Society for the Encouragement of Art, and the studies under Alexandra Exter, and Vasily Kandinsky, between Kiev, Kharkov, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Red’ko started and eventually returned to fairly traditional realist works – pastoral landscapes of the 1910s and 1940s, or the completely pedestrian later portraits such as ‘Girl with gas mask’ in 1941 (granted, however, that her sad reverie didn’t quite satisfy the requirements of Socialist Realism) – these bracket his artistic career. His French works – Auvergne peasants as filled with languid lyricism as his melancholy landscapes. In these, his palette becomes softer, but experiments with form that occupied hi in the 1920s and remained his main preoccupation, came to naught. No wonder the artist wrote that his first French spring was like the last one.

Morning on the farm. (1933).

Morning on the farm. (1933).

It turns out that Red’ko’s most active period was the first half of the 1920s. Although the avant-garde, under the innovations of Malevich and Kandinsky, had produced its advances earlier in the century, in the 1910s, the heated pulse of revolution had propelled it into the next decade. Red’ko, of course, didn’t completely ignore Malevich, pondering whether Suprematism would fit into his own style; yet, he created one work in that vein, the Circle of 1921-1922.

Light and shadow in symmetry. (1922).

Light and shadow in symmetry. (1922).

A circle intersected by a square and above them, two wedges bumping into each other as a static sign. Perhaps this lacked the assertiveness of Malevich’s circle and square, and their motive power of their geometry; the wedges, perhaps, were not quite like the red ones that had beaten the white in Lissitzky’s work. Red’ko himself seemed to be more interested in the spatial appearance of the image. In his Suprematist efforts, even if there were dynamic diagonal elements, they didn’t strive to fly apart as in Malevich; rather, they behave as a collective, an emblem which would later become the ‘Uprising’.

In 1921, along with Solomon Nikritin, Alexander Labas and Alexander Tyshler, he formed a group known as Electro-organism (based on a theory declared by Red’ko in 1922); in 1924, they renamed themselves as ‘Method’. Electro-organism – in keeping with the spirit of the times and not without the influence of his teacher, Kandinsky – on the one hand explores the sensitivity of art to scientific discovery, and on the other, investigates the psychological impact that the painter translates across the painting. Red’ko called energy the ‘future culture of life’: ‘the artist’, he said, ‘needs to reinforce the new concepts of realism through artistically explored facts. The first graphic element of design is the line. The second is colour, and then, gravity and image.’ He added that ‘light was the highest representation of matter.’ And to replace Electro-organism, he came up with Luminism, which again is a response to the 1910s and the Rayonism of Mikhail Larionov.

Midnight sun (Northern lights). (1925).

Midnight sun (Northern lights). (1925).

The colour of light and the brightness of colour – the artist captured the energy of both in ‘Uprising’, combining geometric construction with realistic figures. Meanwhile, he explored light in his northern landscapes, where the aurora reminded him of electric flashes (‘Northern Lights’, 1925). Alternatively, he used the same expression of energy in works such as ‘Dynamite’, in which he came close to abstraction. (Funnily enough, Natalia Goncharova pondering the concept of energy in the spirit of the times had already spoken of the language of abstraction in 1913. However, it is unclear if her ‘Void’ depicts a force of destruction or construction that transformed the uneven puddle of colour into something novel.)

Void, by Natalia Goncharova. (1913).

Void, by Natalia Goncharova. (1913).

Red’ko was dissatisfied with the discoveries of the Futurists; in ‘Factory’ (1922), the vertical pipe mixed with diagonal rails, the distant blended with the nearby. The same year, he painted ‘Husband and wife’ as though through the same geometric filter. His 1924 ‘Composition 1’ could be said to connect to the second Russian avant-garde and Vladimir Yankilevsky, in which biomorphic forms ironically inform a mechanistic interpretation. (What the devil does all this mean?!)

Kliment Red’ko’s investigations continued between the early 1920s and his departure for Paris (under the aegis of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, who included him in their list of the most serious and talented young artists). In Paris, he was able to communicate with Pablo Picasso, but it’s quite clear that the discussion had little influence on his own art. Rather, France and the Italian cities he had been through didn’t provide a new impulse to his art, but appeared to create a sort of implicit antidote to the impending Socialist Realism.

Parisienne. (1931).

Parisienne. (1931).

Motherhood. (1937).

Motherhood. (1937).

Red’ko painted realistic motifs but not in a socialist manner. For example, his strange ‘Motherhood’ of 1937 depicts a statue of a Red Army soldier on the windowsill behind a feeding mother, and is not really following the norms of the regime. However, he did a portrait of Stalin in 1938-1940 for the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition; though we should point out that Pavel Filonov, who can hardly be accused of flirting with the regime, also had painted a similar portrait, and in both cases, it is a distanced image of head of the leader appearing without any motivation.

Portrait of Stalin. (1940).

Portrait of Stalin. (1940).

[This is a really vague translation of Daria Kurdyukova’s article on Kliment Red’ko in Colta.ru, March 13, 2014.]

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