Christine Lindey

Christine Lindey

Until she recently retired Christine Lindey was an Associate Lecturer in art history at the University of the Arts, London and at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is a visual arts critic for the Morning Star and her fifth book, Art for All: British Socially Committed Art c.1939 - c.1962, will be published in the near future.

Animal Spirit by Grayson Perry
Saturday, 22 July 2017 06:00

The most popular art exhibition ever!

Published in Visual Arts

Christine Lindey admires the slyly subversive, anti-establishment and egalitarian themes of Grayson Perry's latest exhibition.

Flamboyant, transvestite artist Grayson Perry, who delights in exposing middle-class and art-world pretensions, has plenty to say and provides plenty to look at in The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, the free show of his recent work at London’s Serpentine Gallery. It’s a snapshot of the muddle and contradictions of contemporary British life, imbued with humour and generosity of heart. Seeking mass appeal, Perry uses accessible styles and mediums through which to challenge his public’s social assumptions.

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 View on Exhibition                                                                                                                          Photo: Robert Glowacki

Questioning preconceptions about gender, sexuality and masculinity is a major theme. On entering the gallery Reclining Artist, a massive woodcut print measuring almost three metres by two metres, greets the public. A technical feat, it’s the epitome of cliched Western art, featuring a life-size nude lying on a sofa staring impassively and wide-eyed at the audience. It has women’s breasts, painted nails, the face of Perry’s female self and male genitals. The style is realist, the meaning is provocative.

Nearby hangs Gay Black Cats MC, a joyful applique wall hanging in the style of 17th-century Asafo flags by Africa’s Gold Coast Fante people. Co-riding a pink bicycle and grinning with infectious delight, two cats cling to each other like lovers, the fabrics’ clear bright colours reflecting their carefree glee. The title implies that they may be of the same sex, while their colour suggests black men, so challenging outdated sexual and racial prejudices sadly still prevalent.

Another major theme of the show is social inequality. Several works address the desperation left by deindustrialisation, world poverty, the wars it fuels and the mass media’s cliched concealment of these beneath celebrity glitz. We see urban desolation, soulless motorways, a defunct mining village, suburban houses, tower blocks, a forest of electricity pylons, guns, pet cats and dogs, royalty, pop stars and politicians.

Red Carpet is a tapestry based on the design of Afghan war rugs. An urban “map” of streets and squares, named by current media buzz words, is superimposed over a geometric pattern formed by tower blocks overflown by a helicopter and a war plane. A small but bright turquoise square titled Them is peppered with words such as The Liberal Elite, Creative Industries, Gastropubs, Millennials, Gated Community, Hipsters and Westminster Bubble. It is surrounded by vast gloomy red “streets” whose words include Us, Anti-depressant, Excluded, Zero Hours, Garden Centre, CCTV, The North, Affordable Homes and Obesity Epidemic.

GP4 Our Mother by Grayson Perry1

Our Mother                                                                                                                                            Photo: Stephen White

One of Perry’s most moving indictments of poverty is Our Mother, a cast-iron sculpture of a refugee woman inspired by West African art.

Cradling a skinny baby in one hand and gripping a staff headed with a Madonna with the other, she somehow trudges on her way, despite being burdened by a plethora of objects. Hung about her body are objects, including a heavy necklace of mobile phones, an ancient sewing machine, a transistor radio, wicker baskets and cooking pots.

Perry uses varied media, techniques and processes including pebbles, shells, ceramics, applique, tapestry, embroidery, brass rubbings and printmaking which have been designated as inferior hand crafts or folk art by “high art” arbiters of taste. Deemed to be extinct in Western industrial societies, these still survive among non-professional groups especially those made up of women and non-industrialised cultures.

He unashamedly draws on widely different visual formats, including medieval woodcuts, trade union banners, African, Afghan and central European folk art and thus has no “signature style.” This approach contests dominant high art criteria, which call for artistic uniqueness, while his stress on accessibility challenges its preference for obscure, “difficult” or oblique content.

The artist says that he chose the exhibition’s title to challenge these outlooks and because “it chimed with one of my ongoing ambitions — to widen the audience for art without dumbing it down.” The title taunts the middle-class dominated art world’s conflicted attitude to popularity. Its institutions seek high footfall to attract public funding — and corporate sponsors — while its aesthetic criteria revile art with mass appeal and privileges exclusivity, to signify its own “superior” social status.

Some of Perry’s work is over-detailed and the lack of selection gives it a frantic fussiness, so that the best works such as Gay Cats and Our Mother are those whose techniques impose visual clarity. But its multi-layered, knowing and sometimes contradictory content belies Perry’s cheery, media-friendly public persona. The sickly twee style of works such as Marriage Shrine echo the taste of Middle England, yet their subjects slyly confound its assumptions.

Perry’s popularity and status as a national treasure does not mean his work is no good. His opposition to bigotry opens up possibilities of being different and his exposure of inequality seeks to transform social attitudes. Yet his art is a sincere and effective call for tolerance of difference and eccentricity rather than a call to the barricades.

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Grayson Perry, Death of a Working Hero, 2016, Tapestry                                                Photo: Stephen White

The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! runs at the Serpentine Gallery until September 10, opening times: This article was published by the Morning Star on 15 July.

Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927
Thursday, 16 March 2017 09:39

Great art, shame about the curating

Published in Visual Arts

Christine Lindey reviews the current Royal Academy exhibition, and recommends the art - but not the didactic, vindictive and reactionary curation.

In January 1918 the Russian Soviet Republic was the first state in the world to officially support the avant-garde. Fired by the revolution’s socialist ideology, artists rejected the tsarist regime’s fussy forms and fusty techniques, to embrace the latest technology. They incorporated industrial forms into art, design, architecture and film which epitomised and promoted modernity. The avant-garde’s dynamic axes, rapid juxtapositions, startling close-ups and pared-down geometric forms expressed revolutionary dynamism. From Lyubov Popova’s designs to Dziga Vertov’s films, the cogs and wheels of mechanisation, the magic of flying machines and electrification’s bright rays embodied and promised social progress.

RA Popova Space Time Construction

Liubov Popova, Space-Force Construction, 1921

It is always a joy to see these works and the Royal Academy’s exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is no exception. But they are familiar, due to their depoliticisation and incorporation into the Western modernist canon in the early cold war which, by the same token, denigrated socialist realism and ignored Bolshevik pluralist cultural policies. So, to this day, Soviet representational art of the 1920s and 1930s has remained little known in the West and, by displaying the multifaceted Soviet art and design of the interwar years, the exhibition redresses a serious distortion of art history.

We encounter history paintings such as Alexander Deineka’s Defence of Petrograd, in which a stoic militia crunches determinedly through the snow, against a deadly, snow-laden sky. Liberated Bolshevik women soldiers take centre place, in a geometric composition formed by repeated upright bodies, diagonal rifles and the stark industrial bridge overhead. As in his other paintings and posters, Deineka modified modernist simplifications of form and space into a legible but contemporary style.

 RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

Alexander Deineka, The Defence of Petrograd, 1928

Many others sought such compromises, albeit in different ways. Aristarkh Lentulov’s Tverskoy Boulevard depicts its people and buildings in kaleidoscopic shapes which marry Parisian cubism with the riotous colours of Russian folk art, conveying the speed of modern Moscow life. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s measured compositions combine discrete multiple viewpoints and intense primary colour to convey immersive and layered states of mind. In contrast, the academic realism of Issak Brodsky’s Lenin at Smolny has an almost hyperrealist presence, due it’s meticulously uniform rendering of all surfaces, be it an electric socket or the folds on Lenin’s jacket.

Unfortunately, instead of explaining these artists’ intentions, their works are framed as the last gasp of artistic freedom by focusing on the contents of a major 1932 exhibition. The Association of Artists for Revolutionary Russia, formed in 1922 to call for a progressive but accessible art, is not mentioned, nor is its influential manifesto. Yet its many members included Deineka, Brodsky, Lentulov, Petrov-Vodkin and Boris Grigoriev.

RA Pedrov Vodkin Self portrait

Pedrov-Vodkin, Self-Portrait, 1918

The exhibition’s stunning array of art and design is marred by vindictive, anti-Soviet curating. Wall texts and captions constantly point to the Revolution’s cruelties, failures and hardships, with not one word of praise for its achievements. Nor do they explain its difficult conditions, exacerbated by attacks from White Russians and international armies. More worryingly, the works are manipulated to score such curatorial points.

An example is the room ominously titled The Fate of the Peasants, which is a lachrymose lament for imagined, pre-revolutionary bucolic idylls. It greets us with Grigoriev’s lugubrious Land of the Peasants, which blends expressionism and cubism to convey impoverished peasants’ anger, dismay and oppression — as does his portrait of a careworn, wizened dairy maid. The wall text states that the villagers’ “ancient way of life was wiped out” by collectivisation. Yet even the Times Book of Russia in 1916 described the peasants’ lives as an “existence of privation of everything except vodka. His body was roughly clad. Bare necessities, reduced to a minimum, supported life. His soul steeped in ignorance.” And since both Grigoriev paintings are dated 1917, they indicted tsarist peasant life, not collectivisation.

The wall text to the room devoted to “Eternal Russia” informs us that “many” artists “were nostalgic for the beauty and charm of old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses.” It mourns the influence of the Orthodox religion and displays landscapes and depictions of onion-domed churches as if socialism and the love for one’s native land are mutually exclusive. And it includes Mark Chagall’s Promenade, dated 1917-18, which surely cannot represent nostalgia for tsarist days. That period was not rosy for this Jewish artist, whose tsarist shtetl past was characterised by brutal pogroms and exclusion of Jews from the professions. Chagall’s rose-tinted idealisation expressed the euphoria of being in love and it is this which projected he and his wife to metaphorically soar above shtetl life.

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Marc Chagall, Promenade, 1918

In sum, this exhibition is a didactic attack on the Bolshevik revolution, permeated by the sour outlooks of descendants of dispossessed Russian emigres bemoaning their lost jewels, lands and servants. Go for the exhibition’s marvellous art and design. But arm yourself with scepticism about the curating.

This review was first published in the Morning Star, on March 11th. The exhibition runs until April 17.

El Lissitzsky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919
Wednesday, 22 February 2017 16:00

October 1917: The Spark For Great Art

Published in Visual Arts

Christine Lindey explains how the 1917 Russian Revolution inspired the transformation of the visual arts into instruments of popular liberation.

“In the land of the Soviets every kitchen maid must be able to rule the state,” said Lenin and the arts were an intrinsic part of the Bolshevik revolution’s attempt to achieve this momentous step forward. But it was no mean task. For a population — 80 per cent of whom were illiterate — serfdom, abolished in 1862-4, was still within living memory. And it was by expressing the revolution’s aims through imagination, emotion, humour and joy, that the arts opened the people’s minds and boosted their self-confidence to seize power.

How best to do this was hotly debated. Rejecting unique works of art as self-indulgent bourgeois commodities, some artists heeded the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s dictum that “the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes.” Turning to agit-prop — agitation and propaganda — they created ephemeral posters and street pageants and decorations to educate and enthuse support for the revolution. Thus in 1920 artists including Nathan Altman organised the ambitious re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace, involving decorated buildings, factory sirens and 2,000 Petrograd proletarians. Perhaps a few kitchen maids were among them.

CL Natan Altmans proletarian futurism

Nathan Altman's proletarian futurism

Trains were transformed into “moving posters,” with vivid images and slogans painted on them, and were filled with travelling theatre companies, film shows, books and literacy classes to bring socialism to the countryside. Such actions were possible because the worker state became patron of the arts. Recognising the importance of culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Minister for Enlightenment, immediately revolutionised cultural institutions.

CL Anatoly Lunacharsky 1923

Anatoly Lunacharsky

The arts would now serve the people, not the aristocracy or bourgeoisie.The art market was abolished, museums nationalised and their contents reorganised and reinterpreted from a working class perspective. Two radical artists ­— washerwoman’s son Alexander Rodchenko and bourgeois ex-lawyer Wassily Kandinsky — jointly founded 22 new museums and purchased contemporary art for the young state. Museums worldwide still envy these collections.

The 19th-century progressive intelligentsia had already challenged tsarist Russia’s near mediaeval socio-political conditions and their expression through equally polarised aesthetics. The aristocracy favoured Western academic art as a mark of their superior sophistication, while denigrating their serfs’ woodcut prints (luboks), icons, carvings and embroideries as “crude” and “primitive.” But the early avant garde upturned these aesthetic criteria. Arguing that photography liberated them from academic art’s fussy illusionism, they were inspired by the flat shapes, bold colours and outlines through which folk art succinctly expressed visible and inner worlds.

CL Apsit

The Resolute Brothers, by Alexander Apsit, showing the gigantic proletarian clubbing Czar Nicholas II and his allies

So lubok-inspired revolutionary posters, illustrations and textiles appeared after 1917, energising peasants and workers by affirming their own, hitherto denigrated, cultural traditions. But artists also embraced the social progress promised by industrialisation and the surge in the recent technological inventions — film, recorded sound, telephones, flying machines and motor cars. Their forms and functions symbolised the speed, dynamism and energy of modernity and of the revolution.

As art education was reorganised, the Marxist Vladimir Tatlin headed the innovatory VKhUTEMAS, the technical workshops in a Moscow art school which influenced the globally influential German craft and fine art Bauhaus movement from 1919 to 1931 and beyond. Inspired by the machine age, VKhUTEMAS dispensed with traditional art to investigate forms, spatial organisation, materials and processes as a basis for producing cheap mass-produced goods, accessible to all. Rejecting the bourgeois concept of the artist as individual male genius, they defined themselves as classless, self-effacing “constructivists,” collectively constructing the revolution alongside other workers, regardless of gender.

CL stepanova textile designs

Varvara Stepanova’s textile designs

Lyubov Popova’s transportable theatre, Rodchenko’s posters and Varvara Stepanova’s textiles shared the abstracted forms of modernity — the circles of factory cogs and wheels, electricity’s lightning zig-zags or the soaring grace of flying machines. At Vitebsk Art Academy Kazimir Malevich founded UNOVIS, a group in which students and teachers collaborated in explorations of the essence of form and volume to create futuristic architectural models as prototypes to inspire designers, engineers and architects. And they did.

Marc Chagall, painter of poetic evocations of Jewish village life and art commissar of his native province, founded the Vitebsk academy during the revolution and Lunacharsky’s pluralist aesthetic policies enabled Malevich, pioneer of geometric abstraction, to teach in the same academy. Similarly Alexander Deineka, who argued for realist paintings to represent the revolution and workers’ lives, taught in the same Moscow institution as Tatlin, renowned for his soaring design for a monument to the Third International (1919-20).

CL Tatlins Tower 1919

Tatlin's Tower, 1919

During the hardships of war communism (1917-22) artists concentrated on speculative research but some of these reached fruition afterwards. Kitchen maids sported dresses printed with modernist motifs celebrating technology and socialism. Buildings such as Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House of 1930, incorporated communal facilities such as laundries, dining halls, kitchens and reading rooms.

Inspired by UNOVIS, its horizontal banded windows sweep across the facade, providing maximum light and air, behind wide, heated corridors in which tenants could interact. Together with parallel developments in the other arts, the visual arts made real differences to people’s lives. In the coming centenary year of the 1917 revolution, numerous exhibitions will repeat the neoliberal mantra “great art, shame about the politics,” perpetuated since the 1920s.

In fact, it was great politics which generated such a blossoming of the arts.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 31 December 2016.

Roadworks 1985
Saturday, 14 May 2016 21:55

A protest against injustice: the art of Mona Hatoum

Published in Visual Arts

Christine Lindey reviews an exhibiton by Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern, London.

Mona Hatoum manages the rare feat of creating art about politics and the human condition without dry didacticism, but with barbed wit, elegance and subtlety. And has done so for over four decades. Born in Beirut in 1952 to Palestinian parents, she became marooned in London by the 1975 Lebanese war, having recently arrived there to study art. She subsequently settled in London but retained a lifelong internationalist outlook.

Her work blossomed while studying on Stuart Brisley’s radical MA course at the Slade School of Art which stressed socio-political content and expanded the artist’s means of expression to include performance, installations, video, film and print media. In resistance to the sexist cultural climate of the late 1970s, budding women artists like Hatoum were particularly receptive to these new art forms, which freed them from the oppression of centuries-old, male-dominated traditions of painting and sculpture.

Hatoum’s work positively fizzes with the breadth of expression this opened up. Her rigorous but imaginative choice of the most apt forms, processes and materials to suit each work’s content led to installations, posters, sculptures, film, posters and documented performance art. The most mundane objects and materials of everyday life such as soap, light bulbs, sand, hair, kitchen implements and neon tubes are transformed into visual poetry whose meanings can be teased out by the viewers’ active engagement rather than passive consumption.

Some works relate to specific topical events. The early performance Roadworks of 1985 (above) was spurred by that year’s protests against the police’s racist implementation of Thatcher’s hated stop and search laws which erupted into riots in Brixton. Wearing a boiler suit, Hatoum attached the laces of Doc Martins boots to each of her bare feet and “walked” laboriously through Brixton market, each step hampered by the bulk of the heavy boots. Commonly worn by policemen and National Front skin-heads, the Doc Martins referred to their racist harassment of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, while Hatoum’s dogged physical perseverance and moral courage in facing the banter and bafflement at her action by the market’s public testify to human resilience.

Present Tense of 1996 is a more subtle but equally specific political statement. The deceptively simple installation carpets the floor with a rectangle of small, cream blocks softly gleaming in the light. Closer examination reveals these to be 2,200 bars of handmade olive oil soap from Nablus, upon which a map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord is marked out in tiny red glass beads as delicately as embroidered beadwork. That Israel has since then further encroached on Palestinian land rather than honouring this agreement, makes the continuing relevance of this instillation all the more poignant. Typical of most of Hatoum’s work, it initially seduces with sensory beauty only to provoke with the seriousness of the issues it raises.

Over My Dead Body was a poster displayed in 1988 on adverting hoardings in cities including Glasgow, Leeds and Derry. A toy soldier, wielding a gun threateningly, is ridiculed by being placed on Hatoum’s nose as she glares angrily back at him. Using a form which demands directness, Hatoum made this powerful, anti-militarist statement through humour and dramatic changes of scale.

Other works engage with socio-political injustice and oppression in more general ways, allowing for multi-layered associations, complexities and contradictions. Light Sentence, whose title reinforces its allusion to imprisonment, is a large installation made of galvanised, wire mesh lockers stacked taller than a human being, to form a three-sided rectangle inside a smallish, rectangular space. A single, bare light bulb travels through the mesh throwing intimidating, but visually alluring, moving shadows whose cage-like forms entrap the viewer into a dizzying disorientation.

Similar vertiginously conflicting emotions are elicited by Impenetrable, a visually stunning ethereal sculpture consisting of a large rectangle formed by delicate, parallel metal rods apparently free floating from each other, hovering in space without any visible means of support. Closer inspection reveals the slim rods to be barbed wire suspended from the ceiling on transparent fishing wires. Aesthetic attraction turns to repulsion then back again, the work’s unsettling elegance nudging us to take nothing for granted.

The contemporary artist’s dilemma is how to make meaningful statements in a society saturated with images reproduced ad infinitum. The form of much of Hatoum’s work defies reproduction, so stressing the importance of primary experience. With fertile imagination and open-mindedness, Hatoum invents ever varied forms through which to express progressive ideas and responses to the world with acute moral and political judgement, passion, humour and beauty.

Tate Modern’s intelligently and deftly curated exhibition does justice to this truly important living artist. As one of the most exciting exhibitions of contemporary art staged in London in a long time it is not to be missed. You won’t be disappointed.

See Until August 21 2016.

Thursday, 10 December 2015 23:38

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

Published in Visual Arts

Although he has used a wide variety of media, Jeremy Deller is perhaps best known for orchestrating large numbers of the public to create artworks such as his collaboration with ex-miners to re-enact the Battle of Orgreave in 2001.

In his current exhibition and catalogue, 'All That Is Solid Melts Into Air', he further expands traditional artists' means of expression to encompass curating, an activity for which he claims artistic freedom to interpret his theme in a personal manner.

Acting as a social cartographer, Deller links the impact of the industrial revolution on popular culture with its legacy today. He has programmed a 1950s juke box with traditional folk and heavy metal music, creating resonances or disjunctures in our experience of the artefacts according to songs which the public selects for free.

A section of 19th century works shows the physical effects of industrialisation on the landscape. John Martin's massive apocalyptical painting The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah dominates, with its depiction of a society imploding due to sin and disease.

Deller repeats the frequently voiced interpretation that this painting's subject was a metaphor for Victorian anxieties about the pernicious effects of rapid industrialisation on society.

But by also displaying Martin's plan drawings as evidence of his decades-long campaign to solve London's sewage problems which caused cholera epidemics, Deller expands the social definition of this academic artist to include his self-imposed environmental contribution. This hints at the social content of Deller's own works.

Other links between past and present are less convincing. Deller argues that the noise and shuddering of machines that shook the bodies of youths of both sexes in heated proximity in 19th-century factories created an atmosphere of moral chaos and danger similar to that of 1980s raves attended by later generations. Yet that raises the question of whether the consciousness of malnourished, poorly housed and often sickly mill children, working tedious hours to survive, bears any relation to that of ecstasy-fuelled teenagers dancing at a rave in the knowledge that cosy duvets in heated bedrooms await their return home.

More convincing are Deller's juxtapositions of past and present unjust and inhumane employment conditions. An 1830s mill poster enumerates heavy fines for often minor offences such as being a few minutes late and states that employees must give one month's notice but the masters can sack them instantly.

That's counterposed with a text message to a zero-hours worker which cynically reads 'Hello, today you have day off.' An 1810 clock measuring productivity stands near a digital tracking device worn by today's zero-hours warehouse workers which admonishes them if their pace is too slow. Ben Roberts's photograph of Amazon workers dwarfed by endless repetitive shelves emphasises their regimented working environment.

William Clayton's portrait photographs of unnamed, weary Victorian iron workers in their tattered dresses bring these women to life as individuals, their expressions seething with sullen resentment. In contrast, Francis Crawshaw's untutored paintings of the named workers in the 1830s factories which he ran portrays them as meek citizens in their Sunday clothes.

Deller's choice of contemporary workers focuses on a few men who escaped factory or colliery for successful, glamorous careers. Large wall drawings trace the genealogies of pop musicians such as Shaun Ryder through generations of their working-class ancestors. Photographs lionise Adrian Street, a miner who became a model and gaudy showman wrestler, including one of him in long blond wig, make-up and glittery wrester's regalia posing at the pit head with his bemused father and workmates.

Deller interprets Street's triumphant return as part-prodigal, part-prophet 'enlightening the coal serfs' of future deliverance from industrial toil. These appraisals of working-class escapees perpetuate a capitalist definition of success based on individualism and superficial glamour. They ignore the more laudable successes of self-educated workers who also rebelled but stayed to organise collective resistance against exploitative conditions.

A print depicting the Merthyr Rising of 1831 and a single weather-beaten trade union banner are rare references to the labour movement. This banner and the broadsheets are the few genuine relics of 19th century proletarian visual culture, the majority being observations about the industrial revolution by middle-class bosses and artists.

Nevertheless, an exhibition about working-class experience is welcome. By naming the pop stars' ancestors and stating their livelihoods the genealogies validate the normally anonymous existences of these paperhangers, miners, labourers, weavers, housemaids, fitters, nurses and others, as do the named portraits and photographs of workers. Similarly the folk songs on the juke box and in the broadsheets are truly the art of the people.

Though Deller makes some telling points and his concern for social justice is heartfelt, it is rooted in a romantic fascination with working-class life both past and present which underestimates the necessity for organised working-class action if true change is to be achieved.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Morning Star.

Thursday, 26 November 2015 18:33

Art and the Bolshevik Revolution

Published in Visual Arts

How did the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 affect art and artists? It did so at every level: art education, production, patronage, distribution and reception were all transformed. Fierce debates about the form and function of art in the new worker state raised fundamental issues; from these stemmed so rich a flowering of the visual arts that its influence is still alive.

The revolution was itself partly the work of artists. Some had worked towards social and/or political change since Russian artists had taken the role of social critic in the nineteenth century. In the 1870s the Wanderers’ paintings had exposed social injustice in daily life. By the early twentieth century a well-informed Russian avant-garde was in touch with Paris and Munich, the epicentres of innovatory art. Embracing modernism, it debated how to transform and modernise Tsarist Russia. Some, like Goncharova, adopted the vivid colour and formal simplifications of ‘primitive’ Russian peasant art, rather than those of African art favoured by the French and Germans.

By 1913 Malevich had rejected all representation as antiquated, arguing that his revolutionary abstraction equated better to modern times. October 1917 brought radical cultural change. No longer for bourgeois and aristocrat, art would now be for the people. The art market was abolished and museums nationalised; the worker state became art’s patron.

Initially, most avant-garde artists welcomed the revolution because Lenin’s idea of a political avant-garde as an agent for social change legitimised their own calls for radical action to combat conservative attitudes to art and society. For Marxists like Tatlin, here was an opportunity to make real and meaningful change. He recalled: 'To Accept (sic) or not accept the October Revolution. There was no such question for me. I organically merged into active creative, social and pedagogical life’.

Others, like Kandinsky, were not sympathetic to Bolshevik politics, but welcomed the artistic freedom which it brought, while aesthetically or/and politically conservative artists feared a loss of private patronage and critical status. Contrary to western propaganda, no artist was sent to the salt mines: Lenin and Lunacharsky, (Commissar of Enlightenment 1917-1929) pursued a pluralist arts policy.

Nevertheless, for the first time in the world, the avant-garde was appointed to positions of power. Despite the material hardships and shortages of War Communism (1917-1922) it launched into a dynamic transformation of art and its institutions. Tatlin headed IZO, the visual arts section of Lunacharsky’s commissariat. Recognising Kandinsky’s international status as an innovator, IZO gave him the important role of reorganising art education and museums. Together with the younger Rodchenko he founded 22 provincial museums and acquired the important collections of Russian avant-garde art which now grace museums in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics.

Tatlin, Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Popova, Stepanova , Rodchenko, Lissitzky and others taught at the newly created art schools where they pioneered innovatory teaching methods, which were later to influence the Bauhaus.

The debates about the role of art and artists raged on. Malevich and his group argued that the researches of innovatory artists would act as prototypes for practical application in architecture and design. Others took a less social view: Chagall continued his poetic depictions of his personal response to life, while Kandinsky pursued his investigations into the communication of heightened spiritual states of mind via colour, line and form.

Viewing such work as bourgeois self-indulgence, the politically engaged left heeded Mayakovsky’s dictum: 'the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes'. They created 'agit-prop' (agitation and propaganda) using their talents to decorate propaganda trains and boats, make Rosta street posters and organise public pageants and events. For example, in 1920 Altman and other artists involved 2,000 members of the Petrograd proletariat in the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace which included decorating buildings with gigantic abstract banners, and using factory sirens and arc lights.

Some Marxists, led by Tatlin and Rodchenko, called for the abolition of the art object which they saw as an exchangeable commodity belonging to the bourgeois past. Artists must leave their ivory towers and construct the new Socialist state alongside other workers by putting art at the service of the revolution. They became known as the Constructivists, and put the experiments conducted in the new art schools to practical use by designing posters, books, ceramics, theatre sets, etc. for the masses.

Under the slogan ‘Art into Production’ artists were to go into the factories to create modernist, mass produced designs because the new social order demanded new materials and new forms. For example, Popova and Stepanova designed textiles printed with the abstracted motifs of modernity: the zigzag of electricity, the whirl of aeroplane propellors, the cogs and wheels of trains and tractors.

Popova, who had begun her life as a painter is reputed to have said: ‘No artistic success has given me such satisfaction as the sight of a peasant or a worker buying a length of material designed by me.’ Meanwhile, artists such as Deineka argued that modernism was inaccessible to the masses. This was indeed often true. Abstract street decorations were said to frighten the horses. No less committed to the revolution, they argued for a representational art which would carry revolutionary messages. Seen as reactionary by the Constructivists, they were the forerunners of Socialist Realism.

The dilemma of creating innovatory art which is also accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved.

This is a version of an article published in the Digest of the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies. The society's library and archive includes a comprehensive collection of books and pictures about Soviet art and design.