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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.