The Russian Avant Garde – in Monaco

Selection_110Ross Hunter

The three Russian revolutions, of 1905 and 1917, were unique in many ways. One, not commented on enough, is the role of the arts in fomenting revolution and preparing the ground for explosive change. A fine exhibition in Monaco this summer made a start at changing that: ‘From Chagall to Malevich’ in the Grimaldi Forum halls.

The Russian imperial eagle has two heads: facing both Europe and the heart of Russia, especially Siberia. Europhiles and Russophiles – a constant dichotomy. Prior to about 1890, notwithstanding the homegrown Golden Age, Russia largely imported artistic ideas and styles, such as impressionism and classical musical forms. Despite 1812, European and especially French culture was idolised. But there was huge change during the C19th, and particularly 1890 to 1930, when Russian fine art, music, dance, sculpture, architecture and engineering all leapt ahead of the world. The ‘Avant Garde’ was an incredible blossoming of artistic, cultural and political awareness, until cut off – all too literally – by Stalin’s crackdown and (logical from his point of view) narrowing to Soviet Realism.

This exhibition is beautifully done, maybe even too much so. Moscow residents will be familiar with over half, and it is great to see old friends again, next to still more assembled from all over the world. From Chagall to Malevich. Hmm. Chagall’s work is wonderful, and well represented; but surely out of place here: a lifetime of personal, mystical, consciousness-exploring and explicitly Jewish expression had little to say to the social (and atheist) revolution.

Laid out in a beautifully symmetrical octagonal shape, the Tatlin tower model grabs the eye, holding the roof up, seemingly. The first exhibit is the legendary and still gripping film Battleship Potemkin, and the closing act is, fittingly, the suicide of Malevich.

It is in approximately chronological order. You can pace briskly, or get confused slowly as you progress. Enter and turn sharp left for Classicism & Neoprimitivism, through Rayonnism and Cubofuturism, be distracted by the ethereal and dreamy tribute to Chagall, and through Abstractionism, Constructivism and Suprematism, before The Matyshin School, finishing with ‘towards a new representation’. Exit where you came in, but facing a different direction.

Confused? You should be. This is a revolution as it unfolds, and few knew where it was going. It is easier for us to explain, with hindsight, than it was at the time: revolution on this scale, of this totality, had never been done before. There is chaos, only some of it intentional. The one linking theme is the experimental thrust at demolishing the old ways of thinking, literally iconoclastic, paving the way for heretical thoughts prising Tsar away from church, questioning the right of the landowner and even the ruler, taking the pyramid of social structure apart, rock by rock, and using the stones first to hurl at the ruling classes and then use them again to construct the new future.

Representational and deferential art is first twisted (a process started by Repin in the Golden Age, depicting a church tyrannical and illogical) and then demolished. Larionov and Goncharova depicted peasants and workers in primitive style, not gentry with fine brushes. Lentulov’s iconic St Basil’s cathedral is irreverently broken up, fractured and without awe. Natalya Goncharova and Rodchenko went further and broke real forms into splintered chards of light – still plausibly landscapes to the practised modern eye; and then further and further, as ‘real’ shapes were reduced to collections of geometric shapes, bearing less and less relation to ‘reality’. But there is still room for acute observation and humour: Goncharova again combines semi abstract cubism to depict a cyclist, bouncing over unruly cobbles – motion frozen.

This all leads to the total abstraction of Kandinsky’s splattered colour canvasses, and perhaps above all to Malevich. From ‘normal’ paintings, Malevich reduced landscapes and people to simple but effective simple shapes, that idealised rural peasants, still part realistic, part idealistic. But from there, shape and then colour were abolished in favour of a nihilist blob of nothing, oddly claimed to be ‘supremacist’. The end of civilisation: feeding the brew of the revolution then fermenting. Anarchy rules! This of course is fine, if trying to undermine the status quo. After the revolution, Stalin was quicker than most to realise that while the anarchy, idealism and questioning of everything official had been useful before, it was dangerous to the new and insecure government. He strangled free expression, and those artists who could, fled. In 1930, the regime’s greatest publicist and propagandist, Mayakovsky at last woke up to what he had helped create, and shot himself. The end of the artistic revolution.

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Other arts fared better. Constructivism created real buildings, some of which survive and look sparingly elegant and functional to this day, not least Moscow’s PTT building on Tverskaya. Tatlin’s tower was only ever modelled, but had a huge effect. The edifice in the centre of the Monaco expo reaches to the ceiling, and seems to hold it up… but the building is Tatlin’s triumph: like the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the skeleton is all on the outside, leaving clear and flexible space inside. The earliest expression of ‘form serves function’, and the Modern C.20th is born. In Russia.
A fine exhibition, beautifully put together. And yet, and yet… In tidy, neat, white walled orderly representation of anarchic chaos. It feels flat. Better the organised chaos (the best descriptive phrase summing up the First Five Year Plan) of the Mayakovsky museum at Lubyanka – sloping floors, twisted chairs, incomplete and asymmetric exhibits: a better spirit of its subject. And there is a lot missing: why show Tatlin’s never built and not Shukov’s brilliant and still standing radio tower? None of Grigoriev’s suffering workers, no revolutionary ceramics, hardly any posters, little typography, and, more reasonably, no music, theatre, or dance. It is a splendid collection, well assembled, but there is more to tell of this incredible adventure, under whose shadow the modern world was built