Malevich and the Bolsheviks
Was the Russian avant-garde a victim or a vanguard of Stalinism? Their relationship to the Bolshevists has remained the subject of controversial discussion to this day. Christian Semler on Malevich's cosmic yearnings and the connections between the artistic and social revolutions.
Government troops shooting at demonstrators in Petrograd on the corner
of Nevsky Prospect/Sadovay Street. July 4, 1917.
Photo: Ayn Rand
history of the relationship of the Russian avant-garde to the Bolsheviks
has always been the subject of controversial discussion; interpretations,
however, have tended to align themselves along shifts in the political
climate. For a long time, the avant-garde, at least among western historians,
was regarded as a victim of Soviet state power. Throughout the civil war,
when the isolated Bolsheviks
were glad for any support that came their way, the avant-garde were initially
exploited for propagandist purposes; later, following the consolidation
of communist rule, they were brushed aside, and finally, under the aegis
of "Socialist Realism," they were defamed as decadent and formalist.
the past several years, the trend has turned against the avant-garde, particularly
in Russia. They are no longer regarded as victims, but as perpetrators.
Now, their desire to break with the traditional idea of the autonomous
artist and to place artistic production at the service of society is being
damned as a vanguard project that led to totalitarianism. As the art historian
and philosopher Boris
Groys expressed in his book Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (Hanser Publishers
1988): "The Stalinist time did indeed realize the avant-garde's dream of
organizing the entirety of social life according to an overall artistic
plan, although it was obviously not the one the avant-garde had in mind."
According to Groys, the sheer fact that they were persecuted proves that
they were operating on the same territory as the party – the territory
of power (you can find an essay on "Groys and Marx' Ghosts" by Dragan Kujundzic
Lenin on Red Square during a demonstration by workers on the second anniversary
of the October Revolution. To his right is Leo Trotsky. November 1917.
Photo: L. Ya. Leonidov
Amazingly, Kasimir Malevich has also been included in this process
of reevaluation, although he always refused to regard his art as a means
of agitation for political purposes. His rejection of "production art"
and his opposition to the constructivist school that had begun forming
around the early twenties has been well documented. He was repelled by
the idea of using the suprematist
movement he'd founded to create political agitation art.
his student, El Lissitzky, created the famous poster Beat
the Whites with the Red Wedge, in which he aimed for a political
effect using the basic forms of Suprematism, Malevich could find nothing
good to say about it; it reintroduced the world of visible things, of "meaning,"
of imitating reality, albeit in the form of geometric signs. In contrast,
Malevich's entire energy was directed towards breaking through this world
of things in order to attain to a higher, purer form of reality.
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919
revolution of representational painting, his Black Square on a white
background (more here),
occurred in 1915, if one doesn't count the prelude, the square on the curtain
of the futurist opera Victory
Over the Sun, which he designed the set for in 1913. But what was
the relationship between this revolution in art of 1915 and the October
Revolution of 1917? Was it a precursor related to the October upheaval,
as Lissitzky implied when he wrote: "Into this chaos came Suprematism and
glorified the square as the true source of artistic expression. And then
came communism and glorified work as the true source of the human heartbeat"?
And if this were the case, what did the bond between the artistic and social
Sketches by Kasimir Malevich of costumes for the opera Victory Over The Sun, 1913
If one doesn't take the avant-garde's own self-definition
and the criticism of art connected to it as a basis, but rather the perception
of the "outside world," then the avant-garde were summarily regarded as
in Russia during the First World War. Here, a proximity to Italian Futurism
is implied that did not exist, particularly not in regards to their respective
philosophical and political backgrounds. For Italian Futurism
manifesto), the machine cult and the celebration of technology were
characteristic, including the express affirmation of the mechanically induced
mass slaughter of modern war. Behind it was often a boast of power that
liked to pose as a surmounting of bourgeois decadence. In the libretto
of Victory Over the Sun, there were "power-people," as well, who
locked up the sun wearing futurist costumes Malevich had created for them.
The choir sings: "We are free. The sun has been beaten. Long live darkness
and the black gods of their favorite – the swine." (You can find more on
the current discussion over "machine people" or artificial intelligence
and at Ray
Kurzweil; at MIT,
an initial prototype is trying out being human.)
The MIT robot Kismet practices laughing (photo: P. Menzel)
To detect traces
here of the "Uebermensch" and the laudation of a machine world situated
beyond bourgeois civilization, however, does violence to the universe of
ideas of the poets Aleksej Krucenych (more here
Chlebnikov, as well as their comrade-in-arms Malevich. For the locked-in
sun stands precisely for the achievements of the technological age, including
the conventions of language they were attempting to liberate themselves
from. For this reason, the "Victory Over the Sun" doesn't proclaim a new
era of steel, but ends with the assertion of the "power-people": "Beginning
good, everything good that is without end" as well as a "war song" that
pieces croaky consonants together to form a new language in dadaist manner.
For this reason, Boris Groys also doesn't consider belief in progress to
have been a fundamental impulse of the Russian avant-garde. "It accepted,"
according to Groys, "the deterioration of the old image of the world and
tried to probe it more deeply in order to secure new foothold." It reacted
to progress, but did not initiate it.
In one respect, however,
"Futurists" resembled their Italian contemporaries. They settled radically
with art history, the museum establishment erected upon it, the art collectors,
and with the canon of art criticism prevailing at the time. As far as they
were concerned, the entire traditional cosmos of beauty could go to the
devil. They called upon the world of the living to fight against the dead
world of the art establishment. This type of radicalism also characterized
the arguments between Malevich and the leading Petersburg art critic Alexandre
Benois on the occasion of the exhibition 0:10 (more here),
in which Malevich embarked upon his suprematist offensive. A short time
later, he would write: "The living should break all friendly ties with
the conservatives and be as cruel as time and as life itself."
A vy mogli by? (But Could You?)
Visual poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, illustrated by El Lissitzky.
artists, the February
Revolution opened up broad possibilities of self-administration, for
which reason many of the avant-garde, including those who stood close to
the Bolsheviks, such as Vladimir
with the Tax Collector About Poetry), mistrustfully followed the
Bolsheviks' first steps in cultural politics after the October Revolution.
The slogans were autonomy and self-administration. However, the offer of
the newly-installed People's Commissariat of Education (Narkompros)
to work together was simply too tempting. Anatoly
Lunacharsky, its director, had set up a department for fine arts (IZO-Narkompros)
in Petrograd with a branch in Moscow, engaging a staff of artists as advisors.
When the short-lived People's Commissariat for Czarist Artworks and the
Protection of Landmarks merged with Narkompros, the furnishing of new museums
as well as the reorganization of the academies also fell within the avant-garde
sphere of influence.
If one takes a broader look at Malevich's
post-October art organizational activities, what stands out most is the
fundamental constructive feature based on participation and practical implementation.
His museum conception for modern art commences with Impressionism, proceeds
through Cézanne, the Cubists, and the Futurists, and ends with the suprematist
movement he himself founded as a final reckoning with representational
painting. Here, the gaze was to be liberated for a deeper reality.
Red Square, 1915
Joseph Stalin in Siberian
museums were not only to open themselves up to simple folk, to explain
the internal laws inherent in the relationships between colors and forms,
but they were to travel to the depths of Russia's heartland to teach the
new way of seeing. The artistic revolution was meant to go hand in hand
with the social revolution. The Red
Square was supposed to become the rallying point for this.
Vladimir I. Lenin wearing
a wig and a cap before an
illegal trip to Finland,
Photo: D.I. Leshchenko
wanted photo, 1915
Malevich regard himself as the general secretary of pictorial space, comparable
to the general secretary of the Bolsheviks, an office which, following
the early death of Jakob Sverdlov (a portrait
by Lunacharsky can be found here), was filled by none other than Joseph
Stalin? Was he obsessed with artistic fantasies of omnipotence regarding
social restructuring, as Boris Groys has diagnosed for the entire avant-garde?
are indications that lend themselves to a position of this kind, above
all when his activities at the art academy in the Byelorussian city of
are taken into account. In a reckless move, Marc
Chagall had summoned him there in 1919 to teach. Malevich used a sojourn
abroad of Chagall's in order to stage a coup against the director and to
turn the Vitebsk Institute into a suprematist academy. Much as the revolutionaries
had done, he gathered a cadre of young artists around himself, proclaimed
a new and compulsory art doctrine, departed from the detached zone of artistic
production in order to embellish the streets and plazas of Vitebsk, founded
branches everywhere, and called Unowis
(project for the creation of new forms in art), the school he'd founded,
[ 1 ] [ 2 ] [ 3 ]