February 24, 2017

Looking at "A Revolutionary Impulse" @ MoMA

As the centennial of the Russian Revolution approaches, the curators of the Prints and Drawings and the Photography Departments at New York's Museum of Modern Art have combined forces to present an exhibition of avant-garde works created before, during and after this period of intense turmoil.  "A Revolutionary Impulse:  The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde" looks at how Russian artists bucked tradition by promoting an entire new style of art, one more in keeping with the social and political realities of the period.

With World War I raging in Europe and the centuries old Tsarist regime starting to crack, the time was ripe for a fresh approach to the visual and performing arts.  Artists like Natalia Goncharova...

"Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest", 1913

Vasily Kandinsky...

"Improvisation", c. 1914

and Kazimir Malevich...

...rejected classical form and replaced it with a new language - the language of Suprematism.  Art was no longer simply a re-creation of people, places or things, but a completely abstract expression of poetic form that freed the creators and viewers from the confines of reality.

With the overthrow of the Tsar and the installation of Bolshevism, avant-garde artists embraced an even more radical form of expression - Constructivism.  A reflection of the socialist agenda, this contemporary movement was no longer about the individual artist but society as a unit and with that a uniform language of abstraction.  Decorative painting was rejected in favor of more practical objects like posters and dishes that were produced mechanically rather than by hand.

Motion pictures, photography and dance, still relatively new forms of performance art, brought powerful messages of post-revolutionary ideals to a vast public.

Dziga Vertov "The Man with the Movie Camera", 1929

By the 1930s, when the "democratic" society was not quite as wonderful as people had hoped, Stalin turned to artists to promote the socialist agenda.  Graphic designers like Gustav Klutsis and Sergei Sen'kin were among many who were enlisted to create propaganda posters and pamphlets that glorified the new regime.

Some of these printed materials are remarkable in their design elements but ultimately the message was one of control.  Artists were no longer expressing their views but advertising for the Soviet power and experimentation was not allowed.   The age of "Socialist Realism" effectively ended the great avant-garde breakthroughs of the early part of the century and Russian artists were reduced to being civil servants rather than arbiters of change.  The rest, as they say, is history.  "A Revolutionary Impulse" can be seen at MoMA until March 12.

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