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The avant-garde of the Russian Revolution

Artists like Vassily Kandinsky were the vanguard of an artistic revolution peaked in the 1920s

world Updated: Nov 19, 2017 07:34 IST
Supriya Guha
Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Yellow-Red-Blue’ (1925), an oil on canvas. He was a prominent Soviet artist.
Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Yellow-Red-Blue’ (1925), an oil on canvas. He was a prominent Soviet artist. (Photo: WikiArt)

It is arguably the most famous logo of our era. To my generation of Indians, the hammer and sickle was more familiar than the double arches of McDonald’s. So simple in its elements and so easy to recognise, it labelled an unmistakable brand. In 1917, with the Bolsheviks new to power, Lenin decreed a competition be held to choose the new Soviet emblem. The winning design illustrated the union of workers and peasants, and as some saw it, also the cooperation between men and women who wielded these tools respectively.

In fact, the virtuosity of this outstanding piece of graphic art arose out of a rich seam of creativity in the visual arts. The Russian Avant-Garde, as that group of highly talented and original men and women, are loosely termed, was indeed the true vanguard of an artistic revolution that began at the turn of the century and peaked in the 1920s. Many of them were caught up in the exhilaration of a new order and were enthusiastic participants in the Agitprop or Communist propaganda movement. After the Bolsheviks seized power, an Agitprop train travelled through the Russian countryside, with artists and actors on it. Early films were screened and plays performed, while posters were printed on board to give out.

A work by Casimir Malevich. In Malevich, form rather than representation was supreme. (Wikimedia Commons)

That period of ferment saw the active participation of artists such as Vassily Kandinsky and Casimir Malevich, whose astonishing abstract designs were much admired by Marc Chagall. Malevich sought an aesthetic where form rather than representation was supreme (this was dubbed Suprematism). Chagall himself had been offered the prestigious post of Commissar for the Arts under the new regime, but he preferred to work in Vitebsk, Belarus where his influence on the modernist art movement was immense. These artists saw themselves as champions of the New Art which was integral to a New Society. There were prominent women in these circles as well, including Maria Lebedeva, whose designs incorporated “progressive” images, such as the red star, smoking factory chimneys and telegraph wires.

Posters remained an important vehicle of artistic communication. Porcelain, much of it produced for export, became another. In 1922, Malevich was among those artists who worked for the State Porcelain Factory in Leningrad. Completely unique, contemporary designs were produced at this factory, which flew in the face of industrial mass production. And that was to become a problem…

Some of the artists felt stifled by the growing pressure to conform to official diktats. Malevich, who was in Berlin in 1927, was ordered home and arrested. (Fortunately, he left much of his art behind.) His influence on the German Bauhaus and the Dutch De Stijl, and on 20th century graphic design in general, was seminal. Kandinsky had played an important role in the cultural life of the fledgling Soviet state and in the organisation of museums. Like Malevich, he was soon condemned for being “bourgeois”. He moved, first to Weimar Germany and later, having been condemned by the Nazis for the producing “degenerate art”, to Paris.

Hitler and Stalin had fairly similar views on art. Stalin’s taste ran to sentimentalised portraits of rosy-cheeked peasants. In 1932, he closed down all independent artists’ unions. Former Agitprop artists had to adapt to the new climate or risk being blacklisted. Some ended their days in labour camp, but most reconciled themselves to being cogs in the wheel of mass production in government factories, churning out disingenuous examples of socialist realism.