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Russian and Soviet views of Modern Western Art

Russian and the Soviet Views of Modern Western Art – 1890s to Mid-1930s

by Ilia Dorontchenkov
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009
368 pp. illus. 42 b/w. Trade, $65.00; paper, $29.95
ISBN: 9780520-253728; ISBN: 9780520253728.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini


From the first Modernist exhibitions in the late 1890s to the Soviet rupture with the West in the mid-1930s, Russian artists and writers came into wide contact with modern European art and ideas. Introducing little-known material, this book presents Russian and Soviet views of Western art during a critical and complex period of cultural transformation. The writings document Russian responses to these Western artworks and ideas before the Russians lost contact with them almost entirely. Many of these writings have been unavailable to foreign readers and, until recently, were not widely known even to Russian scholars. The book includes an introductory essay, shorter introductions to each individual section of original materials and a chronology which sets the major political and cultural events in Russia and the West. Thanks to the provision of documents written by Russian artists and critics - allowing them to speak their own voices - the book shows directly how the Russians responded to Western models of thinking and how they fought against isolationism. The chapters almost follow the historical chronological order first set in the main introduction. However, in a document which covers a short time-span, the author’s frequent references to dates can bring confusion in that he uses the decade e.g. 1920s rather than the exact year of an event.

From 1890 till the mid-1930s, Russian artists discovered and assimilated Western art to abandon it with the establishment of Soviet ideological control and the triumph of the state-sponsored Socialist Realism in the 1930s. Important all the way through though is the Russian urgency to define itself in contrast to the West. By 1910, the Russians had caught up with Western art and were in a position of dialogue with it. Impressionist’s ideas were acknowledged but Russians reinterpreted modern painting in the mid 1900 when Post-Impressionists Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne moved to the centre of attention – critics such as Iakov Tugendkhol’d wrote extensively about them having visited Pablo Picasso’s and Henri Matisse’s studios. Russian ideas about the new art were largely determined by the Moscow private collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, exhibiting its history with paintings by Claude Monet, Gauguin, Matisse and then Picasso. However, these collections were based on pure personal choices: Schukin collected artists and not movements giving an image of French painting as a permanent revolution and his counterpart Morozov, who limited access to his collection, offered a more gradual, harmonious historical development with a different proportion of artists represented. Picasso’s and Matisse’s dominance in the collections is rendered in the number of articles dedicated to their work. Great interest in and influence of Cubism is shown, in particular, with Mikhail Matiushin’s essay on Du Cubisme by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, Tertium Organum by Petr Ouspensky and Fourth Dimension by Charles Howard Hinton – an almost entire chapter is dedicated to this art style and its impact on painting practice, giving a fascinating Russian insight into Cubism and its related concepts to the reader. It was seen as a mean to liberate Russian artists from the traditional painting of nature, teaching them to view the picture as a self-sufficient object and opening the way to the new approaches partially based on the Cubism school.

The split between radicals and traditionalists within Russian modernism was complete by the early 1910s and the conflict was transferred between modernists, who all acknowledged the dominance of French painting. Interpreting Western art then became the central problem in that its understanding meant controlling the artistic discourse. The avant-garde analysed but rejected Western art in favour of its own style. For example, the Primitivism related to Fauvism and Expressionism was seen as domestic for the Russians and not African or Polynesian. Gauguin helped to foster a new way of seeing in painting and a call to the ‘soil’, to peasant art, to icon, to folk wood cut. The West was seen as an abstraction rather than a political or geographical identity, a ‘not Russia’. Thus, the recurring question of the ‘death of the West’ and the exhaustion of its culture was raised in order for Russia to choose a path for itself. An entire chapter is dedicated to this Russian search for a national art which was pulled between the European model of contemporary high art and the ‘low’ folk art and Russian medieval painting. The Neo-Primitivist avant-garde artists such as Mikhail Larianov and Natalia Goncharova even created the concept of ‘everythingism’ which helped justifying extreme diverse experiments or the ‘universality’ concept of the Russian soul. World War I and the 1917 Revolution cut Russian from Europe. Yet, it is during these years that the Russian avant-garde formulated its radical styles such as Suprematism, Constructivism and Production art. And Cézanne underwent a renaissance, seen as an art that violated conventions but proposing a new order into the reconstructed world.

In 1919, the International of the Arts, under the direct influence of the Comintern, was created with the aspiration to end Russia isolation and promote its leftist faith to the West. The victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War not only re-established relations with Europe but also brought a return to figuration, in particular, German Expressionism personified by George Grosz. His evolution from the nihilism of Dada to Communist propaganda made Grosz the model for Russian contemporary art, however, the aesthetic principles remained those of the ‘socially indifferent’ art of France. Soviet interest for all foreign art was alive, even though, all major exhibitions were organised by the state-controlled institutions. Russian artists’ colonies in Paris and Berlin were growing but mainly represented by traditionalists as the avant-garde leaders remained at home. By the 1930s, it all had stopped.

After the Revolution, Russian culture emphasised the social provenance of artistic phenomena to stress a clear opposition to the West and interpretations of its art became gradually uniformed. It ceased to exert any influence and was only seen as a mean to bring solutions to problems which Russian art was battling with. A conservative conception of painting gradually emerged, the Soviet art, using narrative realism to make art intelligible to the masses and satisfy political leaders’ needs. The Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russian Realism challenged both the avant-garde and the traditionalist movements and debates were devoted to the basis of Soviet art. Finally, Joseph Stalin absolute control of the USSR isolated the country from the rest of the world and relation to the Western art became again a problem. Thus, art came under the supervision of radicals who policed artistic life. In April 1932, all kind of artistic groups were dissolved, however, the five decades that modern Western art had made itself felt in Russia could not be erased and remained a participant in its artistic discourse with relations to its painterly devices and issues of national identity.

The original documents in this book show how heated debates were throughout this period, written by highly informed and educated people to whom the arts often were not their first professional career. Transpire throughout these writings the directedness and the passion of Russian people – a delight. Despite an organisation of its content which could be improved, this book is extremely valuable to anyone who has an interest in the avant-garde art movement in Europe and Russia and is eager to get an outsider viewpoint of Western culture.

Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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