The Arts as a Revolutionary Force in Russia, 1880-1916

arts revolutionary force russia


by Ross Hunter & Pu Wei-hsuan, Shirley, Graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and Art Historian.

A major exhibition of Russian revolutionary art is being held by The Royal Academy in London, from the 11th of February to the 17th of April. All lovers of Russian art, and anyone fascinated by that most incredible period in Russia’s history will want to see it:

The exhibition covers the amazing chaotic, creative, catalytic period between revolutionary 1917 and the Stalinist crackdown of the early 1930s. Many of the works on show will be familiar to habitués of the glorious Tretyakov galleries in Moscow, but their presentation and organisation follow a theme which is more novel. In summary, the RA are seeking to show the links between the political and cultural upheavals in society and the explosion in artistic creativity, across all the arts; from the abdication of the Romanovs until Stalin’s repression in the early 1930s. A full account of it will be in coming editions of Moscow expat Life.

The 1917 revolutions did not merely open up artistic freedom: the arts had played a major role in making them possible, a unique historical achievement. Without the sequence of art first questioning imperial destiny, then openly defying the state, there could not have been such a groundswell of support for the several disparate revolutionary parties. A synopsis of this idea is in MeL, Winter 2015, ‘The Russian Avant-Garde in Monaco.’

Philologically: Russian additions to world language from this time include ‘Avant Garde’ – experimental, innovative, radical and having a futuristic vision; ‘iconoclasm’ – knocking established symbols off their revered pedestals, and so showing the masses a glimpse of a very different future; ‘propaganda’ and ‘agit-prop’ – posters, art, stories created not for any intrinsic artistic value, but which focuses on their socialist ideological value and ‘educational’ potential.

From about 1880, in just a couple of decades Russia leapt from being a follower of European artistic fashions to being a leader. This flowering of artistic creativity and innovation was matched by equally wrenching changes in society, agriculture and industry. This leads to the oft-asked but wholly unanswerable question of whether Russia without the revolutions would have grown faster than with them. If the February 1917 ‘liberal’ revolution had succeeded, an open and semi-democratic Russian republic might have been chasing Western Europe’s modernisation path. For another day.

For now, consider: ‘Art made the revolution possible’.  It might appear an improbable claim. Bear with me.

The 19th century had been good for Russia. Defeating Napoleon (1812), territorial expansion, a growing and prosperous upper-middle class, the arrival of the railway (1837), and a ‘Golden Age’ in literature and the arts all augured well. As late as 1913, the Romanov Tsars were confidently celebrating four centuries of rule, and looking forward to 400 more of glory, not the four of disaster that befell them. Church, state and Tsar were a trinity of absolute power, supported by the Okrana secret police and a harsh-sentencing judicial system. Many potential reformers were radicalised by time in Siberian exile. All this disguised the fundamental weaknesses of both Tsar and his un-modernised society.

In 1880, all seemed well. Russia was mostly looking westward, and importing cultural and industrial novelties from Europe. The Russian novel, poem, symphony and ballet were acclaimed. But this hubristic confidence hid the seeds of its own downfall: economic progress was not matched by political reform.

Ilya Repin, Russia’s most revered painter, is not thought of as a disruptive influence. Most of his paintings add to Russia’s glory. Protest had to be subtle, and concealed. Repin managed it, in beautiful paintings. Consider just two. In 1881, he painted the justly revered composer Mussorgsky.  Days before his death, 28 March, we see not the staged, hagiographic, sanitised regal portrait one would expect, but a stark picture of a sick alcoholic, in terminal decline. There is reverence and respect there, but no hiding of the terrible truth. All Mussorgsky’s genius does not save him from a painful end. If a national idol is mortal, how eternal might be the rulers?

Two years later, Repin’s brush gave birth to an even more troubling work: ‘Religious Procession in the Kursk Province’ (1883). The painting was instantly highly controversial. Some, including Tolstoy, no less, see in it all Russia’s classes walking in unity, and celebrating provincial life. But most see a darker, sacrilegious scene. Priests and golden riches are aloof from the populace; one of the juggernaut bearers is drunk; the landscape is anything but the promised land, and more. Most tellingly, there is an air of dazed purposelessness with no sense of direction or goal. Beggars and lame children are where Jesus would have focused his attention, but here they are being pushed back, beaten if needs be. Repin has sown the seeds of doubt in the beneficence and immutability of the established order. All this in the established artistic canons and styles of the age. Closet subversion: achieved without exile or the gulag fate suffered by other reformers, from the Decembrists to Lenin via Kropotkin and many more.

As the century wore on, more radical challenges to the status quo arrived from Europe and found fertile soil in Russia. For example, ballet was an elite entertainment associated with the imperial court imported from Paris, and theatres often invited French dancers and ballet masters. One of them, Marius Petipa, had staged all the best known ballet classics, like The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake in the 1890s. It was the peak for Russian ballet, and in the early 20th century, Sergei Diaghilev’s ‘Ballets Russes’ returned the favour in western Europe. He worked with leading Russian composers and artists, such as Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky and Vasily Kandinsky to produce music, ballet and sets inspired by Russian folklore. Ballet and orchestral composition evolved in tandem. Composers created radical and controversial new musical forms, intensifying the sense of change. Among many, if Pyotr Tchaikovsky was the most famous, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote Scheherazade and The Flight of the Bumblebee, was one of the most original.

By 1898 even, Tolstoy himself, in ‘What is Art’ was advocating democratisation, and allowing everyone to participate in art, not just the elites. The implication of this, ‘power to the people’ is inimical to a rigid and unbending State. The turn of the century was a bubbling, fermenting period in all the arts. The explosion came in 1910.

An almost chance meeting of European and Russian artists produced a stellar if short lived revolutionary group, called ‘The Jack Of Diamonds’. An instant flowering of creative genius encompassed dozens of artists, notably Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova with Kazimir Malevich, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexander Kuprin,  Ilya Mashkov and Pyotr Konchalovsky. No space here to show the dozens of deserving works – see them in the New Tretyakov.

Three works by Goncharova give a flavour: ‘Women with Rakes’ (1907), ‘The Peacock’ (1911) and ‘Cyclist’ (1913). To modern eyes, these are agreeable, if unremarkable. But we have seen a century of modern art. Then, it was truly fresh, or shocking, according to one’s viewpoint. The first is primitivist, deliberately naïf and with a poster-like simplicity in both shape and colour. Also celebrating peasants, not nobility, a decade before the revolution that would claim this as its own. A focus on ordinary people, the masses in their daily struggles and joys, is what unifies the group and period. Drunken sailors, stooping peasants, jaded concierges: not a mounted prince in sight. The peacock is a riot of colour and energy, with no care for background, perspective or balance – we are seeing life in motion. And the cyclist is both a one frame film, with a humorous empathy for bones and teeth juddering across the cobbles. Not revolutionary in a political sense, but startlingly fresh to the eye.

By contrast, Aristarkh Lentulov’s many works are evidently iconoclastic. My favourite – on my living room wall, a perfect copy, bought for kopeks on the Arbat – is ‘St Basil’s’ (1913).  Bouncy, colourful, prismatic, cubist, kaleidoscopic even… it is an entertaining model that one may link to the Picasso style. Again, to modern eyes, this is all normal. But in the very year of the Romanov’s celebration of their immortality as God-Kings, Moscow’s iconic cathedral is broken into coloured shards – not a trace of religiosity or reverence. The lack of fear of God or His divine mercy would be felt by Russian troops brutally in the coming catastrophic war.

The gradual replacement of picturesque but static reality by ever more abstract and confusing visual shocks would reach its apogee in the works of Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. Both started with stylised, simplified representations of normal subjects, and both gradually replaced subject matter with ever more abstract colour concoctions.

Malevich got as far as the complete negation of art with ‘Black Supremacist Square’ (no need to copy it, you know what it looks like), although in later years he returned to a semi representational style. ‘Is this art?’, I hear you cry, and with reason – reason being the wrong tool! – or, ‘What’s the point?’ The nihilism is the point. By destroying logic, reason, and our command of reality, it becomes easier, necessary even, to smash the status quo and build something different from the wreckage. The art becomes the catalyst of the social change. This made 1917 possible. Writing in early 2017, and watching news/alternative news/fake news unfold, the parallels are uncomfortable, to say the least.

Russian art and artistic history, poetry, the novel, ballet and music, are gloriously rich and complex subjects. It is impossible to squeeze such variety into a single explanatory frame. Many beautiful creations do not fit any one line of thinking, being created for many reasons, with different goals. Only a minority were deliberately or subconsciously directed towards a social target. Enjoy the works of Levitan, Golovin, Serebriakova, Chagall and many more for themselves, as they are not central to this story.

By 1916, the subtleties were no longer needed. Overtly revolutionary work was possible. Russia almost invented the revolutionary poster, the propaganda cartoon and slogan and the ‘agit-prop’ call to action. Mayakovski’s poetry and cartoons brought the complexities of intellectual Marxism-Leninism to street level. The power of the commercial advertising slogan and logo were harnessed for the revolution. By the end of 1916, nothing was certain, except that the imperial government was incapable of continuing. The arts are by no means the sole cause of this – a disastrous military campaign, the havoc wrought by Rasputin, the red cells disrupting industry, increasing dissatisfaction to the autocratic rule of the court, and a viciously cold winter were the ultimate causes of the February revolt. But the arts were both catalyst and beneficiary of the mounting chaos, and played an ever increasing role from 1917 onwards, as will be shown at the RA and in the next article. It gets even more exciting from 1917.