The Russian Revolution and how it revolutionized modern art

Revolutionary historical events tend to stimulate a new art. For example, it is no coincidence that modern art was born in France, a country that had seen profound political and social change during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The next step in the break with artistic tradition would take place in the least suspected country, and it would be on November 7, 1917 (October 25 in the Julian calendar in force in those days, hence the “October Revolution”). Russia would see the birth of a hitherto unseen political-social system, and an equally revolutionary and unprecedented form of art.

“Sorry for the inconvenience, this is a revolution.”

The 20th century had started traumatically for Russia: a bloody war with Japan that ended in humiliating defeat; a mostly working- class people suffering long hours, miserable conditions, and brutal repressions by a failing state; the incompetence of Tsar Nicholas II, a most unpopular fellow who harshly repressed his people; terrorism, brutal strikes, riots in the streets, military mutinies…

It was in 1905 when the fuse of the revolution was lit. Workers in St. Petersburg marched to the Winter Palace, where they demanded better living conditions and the tsar opted, in one of the worst political decisions in history, to order the police to attack the protesters. It all ended with the death of more than a hundred workers, in what is now known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“Portrait of Nicholas II” (1915). The painter Boris Kustodiev would later become a revolutionary.

All of Russia already hated the tsar and his four aristocratic friends who ran the country like their private farm. The tension was mounting. Everything calmed down for a few years (the tsar saved his neck again with the outbreak of World War I) but there the seeds of the revolution would be sown, which would not germinate until the so-called February Revolution of 1917, initiated by women, and there was no turning back. In October the tsar would be overthrown in a few days, and a year later assassinated.

“If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”

Lenin then took charge of Russia and established a communist republic, carrying out a political and social experiment based on the philosophy of Marx, driven by the power of the people’s faith in that utopian ideal. Suddenly Russia was a new country, extraordinarily new, never seen before. It was something futuristic. Russia changed radically, and with it, her art would also change.

Photomontage of Lenin, by Gustav Klutsis (1930)

The country’s avant-garde artists saw a unique opportunity. Since Russia was something totally new, its art had to be too. They opted for an absolutely unprecedented art, which claimed to be advanced and democratic, and which was called – at least for now – non-objective art. The debate on the new role of the arts in those early days of the revolution was hot, it was exciting, and the keynote was experimentalism.

In the long term, and seen now, the artists defeated their politicians: the Russian art of the time would lead to the most delirious avant-garde movements and infect all of Europe with its fresh proposals, freely and naturally, without impositions. The artists had full freedom of action, and also, at least in those early years, they were on the side of the established power and not against it, something rare in the history of art.

The new radical and progressive society deserved an equally radical and progressive art. And the artists started working on a visual identity for communism. People like Malevich, Tatlin, Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko… And also many women: Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Liubov Popova, Stepanova…

A handful of avant-garde Russian artists.

“The revolution begins at home.”

Although we must say that it is impossible to create such a new art out of nothing. The past exists even if we deny it, even if we don’t want to see it. It is the weight of history.

And the Russian avant-garde took up the ideas of one of the most singular artists in history: Kazimir Malevich, the creator of Suprematism, who had already begun his particular revolution a few years earlier (and who would later continue as one of the protagonists of the October revolution). ).

Malevich pioneered a genuinely original style that advocated pure abstraction. He geometries that eliminated all traces of the known world in order to create “non-objectivity, the supremacy of pure sensation.” This in itself is already revolutionary by eliminating all anecdotal elements of art. Let us remember that until then art served exclusively to describe and represent. A painting without a reference is like a book without a story.

Well , Malevich blew all the referent.

“Black square on white background” (1915) by Malevich.

Taking this important figure into account, the artists of the revolution chose to create an art that was not capitalist, decadent and bourgeois. The new Russia had to create an art with a clear objective: it had to be “intelligible to millions” and that it served the needs of both the people and their regime, which was already beginning to smell the importance of art as a political tool.

Few countries devoted as much money to the fine arts, theater, literature or painting as the USSR. Even with the problem of hunger and the counter-revolution attacking from within and without, enormous sums were spent to develop art, and not even as a propaganda tool.

“The artist is the engineer of the human soul.”

Visual communism had a futuristic, fresh and modern look. It was an art with three considered characteristics: it was recognizable, it was steady, and it was psychologically powerful. An intellectual creating things just for himself and if possible for some applause from the elite had no place in the new Russia. The artist was now a simple builder and technician, but also a leader, a scientist, and a teacher. Just as important as a farmer or a miner. Just as vital to the homeland.

And something that drew attention in that first Soviet Russia was putting into practice Marx ‘s phrase “Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex.” In that new country, at least at the beginning, there was an active fight for equality between men and women in terms of salary negotiation, working hours, permits, vacations and other rights.

Several women held positions of great responsibility, and in the artistic and cultural field, one can speak of parity. Artists of all sexes pitched in to push forward a new art.

“Red Army” by Varvara Stepanova.

One of the bosses was Anatol Lunacharsky, commissar of illustration, a bureaucrat quite tolerant of new artistic ideas who believed that communism was a kind of new profane rite, a new mass religion for which art must contribute its icons and its incense.

Thus, constructivism was born, which, as its name indicates, is the art of construction. Art and engineering now go hand in hand, they are almost the same. Materials and their effectiveness began to be valued, as well as “faktura”, which promoted showing without discretion the inherent properties of raw materials, whether in painting, design or architecture. A billboard and a communications tower were art.

Many artists took it to the extreme and came to paint monochrome canvases, which today would be considered conceptual art, but which then sought to reduce painting to its logical conclusion. A piece of painted material, nothing special or transcendental, but one more piece in the process of collective artistic investigation.

“The death of painting” (1921) by Rodchenko.

“Useful things” began to be made : design, typography, clothing, furniture, buildings, theater sets, electrical appliances, cars… Geometric shapes, pure colors were used, and they had no qualms about showing the metrials or structural qualities so that everything whoever saw it would benefit and learn. Photomontages also proliferate.

“Who are your enemies and friends? This is the most important question for the revolution.”

We already know the artists. Actually, more than beauty or truth, they seek applause. They are looking for a little love. And it is normal that between two children who seek the love and attention of a mother, certain frictions arise.

In the idyllic constructivist utopia , two conflicting sectors arose, who had different ways of seeing the revolution and the role of art in it. It is even told how Tatlin and Malevich came to blows in their joint exhibition more out of jealousy and rivalry than creative differences.

A few more constructivists.

There was the “idealist” sector, much more spiritual and cumbaya, such as Kandinsky or Malevich, who firmly believed that painting could change the universe and thanks to it we could all live happily ever after. Malevich even declared “my painting does not belong solely to earth” and went so far as to call himself “president of space” seriously considering a Soviet Suprematist satellite plying the cosmos to spread the revolution.

Then there were the so-called “productivists”, with their feet on the ground, who had people like Tatlin and Rodchenko and who were more supported in “the monumental propaganda plan” devised by the political authorities of the Revolution. His proposals were realistic, even within his incredible experimentation. There we have Tatlin and his famous tower, 400 meters of revolving spiral tower and a constructivist geometry of steel and glass that would make the Eiffel tower pale.

“Tower of the Third International” (1920) by Tatlin. It was never built because of the civil war.

“You can’t make a revolution with kid gloves.”

We have already said it before: nothing better than stirring up society a bit so that it produces new art. When society stops agitating, it is normal that art does not move either.

It was the case of the sad second part of the revolution. Once the regime was established, the artistic experiments of the avant-garde were viewed with suspicion, and paradoxically, the experimental and innovative began to be considered decadent and bourgeois.

The truth is that the population, mostly illiterate, did not know what the hell some artists were talking about. Neither did the political and military leadership. When the Soviet regime was established around 1932, Stalin seized power, and art suffered a setback that would last (with few exceptions) for the rest of Soviet life.

In 1932 Stalin promulgated the decree On the reconstruction of literary and artistic organizations. From the illustration curator, art went to the ideology and propaganda section. The experimental was repressed, even violently. Many intellectuals and artists emigrated. Others were purged or taken to gulags. Those who remained dedicated themselves to the only thing they were allowed to do: a realistic art that would exclusively glorify the country and its leader.

“Rosas para Stalin” (1949) by Boris Ieremeevich Vladimirski.

It was the so-called socialist realism, without fantasies, although transmitting a false utopia. It was down-to-earth art. Now art had to be a historically reliable artistic representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Propaganda in the worst sense. The writer Maximo Gorki decreed that art now had to have four characteristics:

  • Being Proletarian, that is, relevant and understandable for the worker;
  • Typical, showing scenes of the daily life of the town;
  • Realistic, in the representational, figurative and truthful sense;
  • Partisan, supporting the ideals of the State and the Party.

Repetitive to nausea, the art was losing quality. Gone were the amazing contributions of communist Russia to the world.

“Why, when speaking of the future, does Marx use the present?”

Despite everything, the impact of the constructivist legacy is still seen today. We see it above all in architecture, design and advertising. Even liberal parties use constructivist designs in their logos or in their campaign rallies.

«Long live Che!» (1968) by Jim Fitzpatrick.

«Hope» (2008) de Shepard Fairey.

We also see it in the attitude of these young people whose radical experimentalism of their proposals still amazes today.

Thanks to these people, such influential and disparate things were born later, such as the Bauhaus, or art-deco, minimalism, op-art… We would even say that they were antagonistic, like Pop-Art… And more that will continue to be born, more than a hundred years after.