Sacha Ismail reviews the Tate Modern’s exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Liubov Popova and Aleksandr Rodchenko.
“We must be consciously proud that we live in this great new epoch, the epoch of grand undertaking... We must break from the past because we do not believe in it any more, because its premises are not acceptable, and we will create the new ones.” Liubov Popova
The Russian revolution did not just tranform political and economic relations. It penetrated all levels of society, including art and culture, producing a tremendous blossoming of visual art in particular. This exhibition gave a glimpse of that transformation.
After the Bolshevik-led workers’ councils took power in October 1917, education and culture became the responsibility of the “Narkompros”, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, under Anatoly Lunacharsky. One aspect of this was a huge expansion of popular education, so that by the tenth anniversary of the revolution illiteracy had almost disappeared.
Another was a flourishing of what we might call high culture. Museums, studios and so on were taken over by the government and new ones set up. And as many leading Russian artists rallied to the revolution, there was an explosition of the avant-garde.
This is how the the programme for the exhibition describes it:
“The Russian Revolution was accompanied by a remarkable period of artistic experiment known as Constructivism, which questioned the fundamental properties of art and asked what its place should be in a new society. The Constructivists challenged the idea of the work of art as a unique commodity, explored more collective ways of working, and looked at how they could contribute to everyday life through design, architecture, industrial production, theatre and film.
“[Popova and Rodchenko] were pivotal figures in the debates and discussions that defined Constructivism. Rodchenko, whose wife Varvara Stepanova was a major artist in her own right, energetically embraced almost all of its manifestations, from advertising to photography and film. Popova’s achievements in painting, theatre, and graphic and textile design took place in spite of ill health and tragedy: her husband died of typhoid in 1919, and she spent a year recuperating from the illness herself. In 1924 she and her son both died of scarlet fever.
“The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object. This was, in theory, an art that transcended gender differences. The equality of the sexes was an important Communist principle, and this was one of the first periods in history when female artists were valued as highly as their male counterparts.”
In the first years of revolutionary excitment, art and revolution were intertwined, with politically conscious artists who saw themselves producing for a mass audience and who were supported by a revolutionary government.
“The streets are now our brushes, the squares our palettes,” proclaimed the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, summing up the spirit of that period. And the painter Kazimir Malevich wrote: “The thunder of the October cannons helped to establish the innovators and to burn out the old parasites, and to set up the new screen of modernity”. The quotation from Liubova is obviously in the same spirit.
As well as abstract painting and sculptures, the Tate exhibition included a plan for a Moscow street event that was supposed to take place to honour the Third Congress of the Communist International; footage from the “Kino-Pravda” newsreel series which showed footage of Lenin as well as Bolsheviks convincing women in Central Asia to remove their veils; and a mock up of Rodchenko’s plans for a model “Workers’ Club”. It also featured posters, stage sets and book covers (including one for Trotsky’s Problems of Everyday Life, which is about the social and cultural as well as political aspects of creating a new society).
I saw another exhibition of art from the same period, ‘New Art for a New Era’ in 1999, and visited the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow the same year. I was glad to be able to repeat the experience. It was doubly interesting because I went to the Tate exhibition with three young(ish) workers — one an AWL supporter, one in another group and one an unaffiliated socialist — with very different views on abstract art. Two of them were dismissive of pieces such as Rodchenko’s Black on Black (pictured) as pretentious rubbish, which led to a lot of discussion.
As is well known, the story of Russian revolutionary art does not have a happy ending. The period of brilliant artistic experimentation inaugurated by the revolution was crushed by the Stalinists’ bureaucratic counter-revolution, which was a cultural counter-revolution as well. By 1934, movements like Constructivism had been outlawed in favour of the sole officially approved style of “Socialist Realism” — the grim expression of bureaucratism in art.
All the more reason to see exhibitions like this one, as a reminder of the human freedom and creativity which the self-liberating working class is capable of generating, and inspiration for our struggles now.