A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde


When the czarist autocracy that had ruled Russia for over 300 years collapsed, Russian artists were departing from aesthetic tradition. The rising avant guard styles were a complement to the political revolution underway. Revolutionary in their own right, these movements–suprematism, constructivism–would shape the future of nonobjective art throughout the world. A Revolutionary Impulse  examines the creative arc from it’s onset, beginning in 1912 and continuing through the rise of the USSR in the early 1930’s, when Joseph Stalin decreed socialist realism as the official sanctioned style.

Modern European movements had a strong influence on the Russian avant-garde, particularly cubism and fauvism; A Revolutionary Impulse begins with such forays. A trio of abstract forest scenes by Natalia Goncharova (b. 1913) are her own rayonism–an attempt to showcase the movement of light along objects, rather than the objects themselves. The result is a fauvist showcase of color. Cubo-futurism Samovar (1913), Kazimir Malevich’s stillife of a traditional Russian tea urn, is a highly geometric work in muted color. Uneven, varying brushwork, and heavily outlined, the maze-like composition approaches his commitment to the geometric form.

Natalia Goncharova (Russian, 1881-1962). Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest. 1913. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 19 1/2″ (54.6 x 49.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Riklis Collection of McCrory Corporation

In the next gallery, 14 works exhibit Malevich’s arrival into suprematism. The movement was a spiritual contemplation of painting. It sought to elevate art from the traditional illusions of representation, focusing instead of painting’s language: line, color, and form. “New painterly realism,” as Malevich referred to it, allowed these subjects to reign “supreme” over image or narrative.

Installation view of A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Decemver 3, 2016-March 12, 2017. 2016 © The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Robert Gerhardt

Elementary shapes on a white background, the supremacist paintings are uncomplicated, focused. Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918) is a painting of a square. The square is painted a ghostly grey-white, and appears to float across the warmer, cream-white confines of the square canvas. The square tips to the right, points angling to separate its shape from the plane on which it’s painted. Likewise, Suprematism: Airplane Flying (1915), Suprematist Painting (1916-17) and Supremist Element: Circle (1923, drawing) objectify painting and drawing’s syntax. The geometric designs would profoundly influence Hungarian painter Maholy-Nagy.

Simple geometric forms progressed into constructivism, what a group of Russian artists declared in a 1923 manifesto as “a purely technical mastery and organization of materials.” Like suprematism, constructivism sought to elevate art beyond composition; but paintings, sculptures, and objects were created as fundamental analysis of their materials. Art making for constructivists was a form of professional expertise and labor like an other–not a spiritual calling.

In response to Malevich’s White on White, Aleksandr Rodchenko painted Non-Objective Painting no. 80 (Black on Black), (1918). A black square canvas of similar size, the monochrome work depicts a circle, flat but vaguely spherical, with highlights that break apart the shape. The texture is marred and molted in places, gritty in others, calling attention to the physicality of materials. If suprematism in white attests to painting’s spiritual nature, then Rodchenko’s Black on Black descends painting back into it’s physical elements.

Years later, Rodchenko would abandon nonobjective painting, turning his attention to bridge art with everyday life. His turn from painting into construction are on display–Spatial Construction no. 12 (1920) dangles overhead, the nesting ovals cut from plywood and hung with wire an example of his attention to everyday-elements. His photomontages and graphic designs were published widely in avant-garde periodicals, some of which are shown in other galleries.

Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891-1956). Pro eto. Ei i mne (About This. To Her and to Me). 1923.  Book with letterpress cover and illustrations. Overall (closed): 9 1/16 x 6 1/8 x 1/8″ (23 x 15.5 c 0.3 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Judith Rothschild Foundation.

“Pure painting” will not save paintings with its nonobjectivity,” artist El Lissitzky wrote in the 1920 manifesto, Proun. The series of 11 lithographs that accompany this manifesto are orderly and inventive geometric scenes. Each image includes a small code outside the frame, intended to suggest alternate views. Proun is an acronym for “Project for the Affirmation of the New,” in Russian; Lissitzky explains it is “the station on the way to the construction of a new form.”

Lissitzky’s geo-futurist style continues in Figurines: The Three-Dimensional Design of the Electo-Mechanical Show “Victory over the Sun,” (1920), a portfolio of futuristic figures composed of meticulous shapes, his response to the seminal Cubo-Futerist opera, Victory over the Sun. Everything points to promise, not necessarily of a utopian future, but one of growth and prosperity, freedom.

The young Soviet Union embraced photography and film as mediums of the future; cinema montage by Dziga Vertov and Rodchenko noisily run in a darkened gallery. But the geometric inventions and free-form constructivism radically change in the next galleries–propoganda by Lissitzky and Rodchenko, pro-Solviet posters by brothers Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg are colorful, graphic displays of a growing dictatorship. (Of course, the images here dismiss the oppression soon to come.) They’re nonetheless exciting–the lithographs and pictures are charged with a new-world ambition, full of prospect, hope.

Installation view of A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 3-March 12, 2017. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Robert Gerhardt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s