Out of the old

From Kandinsky to Kabakov and from Neo-Primitivism to Installation, Beatrice Colin investigates two new exhibitions of Russian Art.

When Lenin proclaimed, ‘Take what has been taken from you‘, at a rally in St Petersburg in 1916, visual art in Russia was going through one of its most experimental and exciting periods ever. Soon after the revolution, however. the new Soviet state quashed any form of self—expression and artists became interpreters of the socialist message. Art was harnessed by the state and the ‘official’ style from 1934 until Glasnost in the former Soviet Union was Socialist Realism.

Yet with the collapse of the Iron Curtain. the West has been able to discover a wealth of artists and art works from before, during and after the October Revolution. In Russian Painting ofthe Avant Garde at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and Illustrations ofa Way to Survive at the CCA. the work displays a profound and invigorating response to the circumstances of the time.

The exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art uses 1906 as a symbolic starting point. It was the year when the young painter Mikhail Larinov travelled to Paris with the choreographer. Diaghilev, and where he was greatly impressed by the work of the Post Impressionists and the Fauves. Diaghilev's Russian Ballet Company brought together artists, poets. writers, composers and dancers of both sexes. While the country was in a state of massive flux, the next two decades saw a vibrant and productive period of cross-fertilisation in the arts.

Divided into sections, the exhibition plots the movement of painting from Neo-Primitivism, through Cubo-Futurism and Superatism towards Constructivism. Early work, like Gonchorova's ‘Rabbi with Cat' (1912), shows artists fusing inspiration from the West and artists like Cezanne, with Russian folk art, icon painting and the lubok, an 18th century woodcut, to create a distinctly Russian style, often with political subtexts.

It was a time ofexplosive experimentation and many artists went on to embrace Cubism or as Kandinsky did with his treatise ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art‘ (l9l2), attempted to find their own painterly language. ‘Life at the Grand Hotel' (1913—14) by Klyun, shows how some attempted to portray the speed and exciting experience of living in a large industrial city. Klyun emphasised the geometric form while conveying a frantic sense of movement.

Then. with ‘The Black Square’ (1915) Malevich

claimed he was searching for transcendental truth. He

hung the picture in the corner, the traditional space for the icon in religious families and called it, ‘the

icon of my time’. This had an immediate influence and many artists became ‘non-objective’ and used configurations of brightly coloured geometric shapes. 1

This move to abstraction was unprecedented. While

civil war raged a few years later, other artists rejected ;

this movement as too bourgeois and created works.

5 like Streminski's ‘The Meter' (1919), which is made

of fragments of materials associated with industry

such as ceramic insulators.

Art was eventually rejected by many artists in

. favour of intellectual production to help create a new Z socialist environment. They used the experimentation i of the previous decade and designed posters, fabric

and household objects. One of Popova's textile

I them all over the new Soviet Union to be hung in new contemporary art galleries. Many works were

designs of 1922 can be seen at the National Gallery. It uses simple geometric forms in three striking colours.

Most of the 86 paintings on show at the National Gallery have never been seen in the West. The state bought hundreds of pieces of work by avant-garde artists shortly after the revolution and distributed

then rolled up and stored when Stalin came to power. Now work of Malevich and Kandinsky can be seen beside 46 lesser known, but equally impressive artists like Shevchenko, Popova and Rozanova.

By the l960s. the communist state in the Soviet Union required the artist to be anonymous. Any style apart from Socialist realism was considered .dangerous and to earn a living artists had to produce


approved work. llya Kabakov and Ulo Sooster turned to children‘s book illustration as a means of income. While they continued to develop their own styles in

secret, they had to learn to produce work quickly and

efficiently which would be approved by the

3 authorities. This was harder than it sounds as all

work was closely scrutinised by artistic editors and the illustrations had to be devoid of any individuality. In a huge installation, Kabakov. Russia's representative at the recent Venice Biennale, has created a makeshift museum which houses the work of ‘the average Soviet artist‘. It contains children's illustrations, sketches and painting by himselfand Sooster. The pieces hang in a specially constructed

1 building of wood. To give it Russian authenticity, ; Kabakov suggested giving a bottle of wine to the = technicians who would build it, to make sure it had

that slightly haphazard, uneven finish, which is typical of unmotivated Soviet work. Putting the work in a museum context he aims to show the effect state control had over creativity.

From the vivid. expressive and exciting work

carried out in the heady pre-revolutionary years to

the politically correct illustrations for children from

recent times, both exhibitions explore the role ofthe artist in Russian history. Moreover, they also serve as

a reminder of the essential importance of artistic freedom in any culture.

Russian Painting of the Avant Garde at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Edinburgh until

5 Sept. Illustrations as a Way to Survive at the (TC/l. Glasgow Sat 24 Jul—4 Sept.

The List l6—29 July 1993 47

"Io Reaping Vic-an (1912) by Malevich

i J