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At MoMA, Revolutionary Russian Art Provides a Roadmap for Artistic Dissent

MoMA is tracing the history of artistic movements in Russia from 1912 to 1930.
Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891-1956). Pro eto. Ei i mne (About This. To Her and to Me).1923. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

As revolutionary political ideas were surfacing in early 20th-century Russia, an equally rebellious atmosphere was infiltrating the country’s artistic corridors. This period gets explored in the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde, in which just over two decades of experimental, groundbreaking art is cataloged, from Cubism and Russian Futurism to offshoots like Zaum, Suprematism, and Constructivism.


Kazimir Malevich (Russian, born Ukraine. 1878-1935). Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying. 1915.

The MoMA exhibition features works from their extensive collection, including paintings, drawings, graphic design work, photography, sculpture and other media. Roxana Marcoci, one of the exhibition’s curators, tells The Creators Project that the Russian avant-garde was about rejecting academic artistic traditions for work that was more exciting and abstract. In the early 1900s, artists began exploring styles they dubbed Neo-Primitivism, Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, and Rayonism.

“The exhibition features pioneering works by the artist couple of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, who combined Cubo-Futurist dynamism with Russian folk motifs to develop the abstract style of Rayonism, characterized by dynamic rays of bright, unnaturalistic colors,” Marcoci says. “[And] the two models of abstraction pioneered by Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin within the groundbreaking 0-10 exhibition in Petrograd in 1915, one unveiling the advent of Suprematism, the other that of Constructivism.”

El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890-1941). Record. 1926

While Malevich’s Suprematism—which grew out of Russian Futurism—focused on geometric shapes with often vibrant, modern colors, Constructivism wasn’t just art for art’s sake. Developed by Tatlin, Constructivist works were art at the service of the public, like festival art or modernist public buildings.

Marcoci says that Malevich’s artistic ideas synced with Zaum, an avant-garde poetic language created by poets Velimir Klebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh. In Zaum, words were freed from specific meanings, while sonic and visual qualities were highlighted. MoMA’s exhibition features a selection of these Zaum books, which Marcoci says underscores “how revolution can exist in an object.”


Natalia Goncharova (Russian, 1881–1962). Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest. 1913

Another writer featured in the exhibition is Mayakovsky. When Alexander Rodchenko turned away from painting in the 1920s, Marcoci says the artist began searching for new means of building communication networks, mostly through photographs and book design. Mayakovsky was the subject of Rodchenko's first photographic projects, and the MoMA exhibition features a selection of these arresting photos of Mayakovsky looking ever the powerful proto-punk rocker.

Maykovsky and Rodchenko collaborated on a number of book projects, some of which can be in the show, including Pro eto ("About this," "To Her and to Me"), a poem expressing Mayakovsky's state of mind as he endured a separation from his lover, Lili Brik. The two also teamed up with other avant-garde artists and writers for the journal Novyi Lef (1927-28), a complete run of which is on view in the MoMA show.

Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891–1956). Cover design for Novyi LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts, no. 1. 1928

As the exhibition’s other curator Sarah Suzuki tells The Creators Project, it was Rodchenko who claimed in 1922 that he had delivered the death blow to painting. The same year, in The Conquest of Art, artist El Lissitzky declared, "The new world will not need little pictures [a reference to easel painting]. If it needs a mirror, it has the photograph and the cinema.”

Dziga Vertov, a pioneering filmmaker and primary force behind the documentary Kino-Eye collective, was a big part of this new world’s art, where the camera lens and film create new ways of seeing. He and many other artists (and bureaucrats) of the time understood how it could impact the masses. Alongside some of Rodchenko and Lissitzky’s most radical photographs are projections of film excerpts by Vertov, Esfir Shub, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudvkin, and Aleksandr Dovzhenko, who each experimented with different types of montage.


Dziga Vertov (Russian, 1895–1954). The Man with the Movie Camera. 1929

The Russian avant-garde’s theater developments are explored in the exhibition through Alexandra Exter, who created innovative set designs and costumes for plays. Examples of Exter’s work are being shown alongside prints from Lissitzky’s portfolio Victory Over the Sun, which Suzuki notes he made after seeing a 1920 staging of the Cubo-Futurist opera of the same name, in which the characters transform into “electromechanical figurines.”

Since the show is organized in roughly chronological order, the galleries move through traditional mediums like painting, sculpture, and prints before giving way to works that express and disseminate Soviet ideals, including film, photography, posters, children's books, architecture projects, advertisements for state-run companies, and all sorts of propagandistic materials. It charts the shift from Futurism and Cubism to the Socialist Realism that began surfacing during the 1920s.

El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890-1941).Proun

1 D. 1920. One from a portfolio of eleven lithographs

“The sense of revolution and utopic invention that characterized the early years of the avant-garde shifted as social and cultural conservatism enveloped the Soviet Union,” she adds. “Artists coming to age after Socialist Realism was declared the official style undoubtedly faced a drastically different set of circumstances than those who worked in the years leading up to and in the immediate wake of the Revolution.”

Suzuki and Marcoci hope that the revolutionary character of the Russian avant-garde’s work, which tried to turn political turmoil into a new utopia, comes through in the character, idealism and radical innovation of the work. They suggest it could serve as a blueprint for how artists and art can engage people in times of political uncertainty.


A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde runs through March 12, 2017 at MoMA.


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