The Century of the Avant-Garde

Ekaterina Dyogot: Russkoe Iskusstvo XX Veka (Russia 20th-Century Art). Moscow. Trilistnik, 2000 

Let me start with a warning: This is not a textbook. Anyone who turns to this book should have at least some idea of 20th-century Russian art and its major protagonists. Also, the title is suggestive: The book purports to write the history of art, not of artists. You won’t find biographical detail here or even an overview over the output of one artist at a time.

The book is not even a history in the sense that it tells a linear story of events – rather, it paints a picture where various currents and practices are laid out spatially, stressing similarities more than developments or breaks.

What you will find is the first comprehensive overview of Russian 20th-century art as is presented itself – well, more or less comprehensive, for 200 pages with numerous illustrations do lead to exclusions and limitations.

Dyogot divides Russian 20th-century art into four “projects”: the “zaumnyi” or transmental project of the first avant-garde, the “ideological” project of the second wave following the revolution, the “synthetic” project culminating in Socialist Realism, and finally the “conceptual” project of the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.

A short introductory chapter sets the scene; an “epilogue” reviews some of the artistic trends of the 1990s. The 20th century, it therefore seems, had only eighty years, of which the twenty-five or so following the end of representational art and the birth of abstraction were the most relevant (the first three projects span about this period of time, but take up three quarters of the book).

Still, the most is made of these years, and the “spatial” layout of the book allows one to trace many features and their re-interpretations through the various projects. This may lead to irritations (for instance, the first “performances” and “installations” are ascribed to pre-revolutionary Futurists), but it is a highly productive approach, laying bare the deep structures whose various manifestations have caused much controversy.

In principle, Dyogot argues that everything has been there from the beginning. In fact, sometimes the three later projects appear as mere footnotes to the first, “zaumnyi”. From Kandinsky, Tatlin and Malevich onwards, Russian art has given up the representational easel painting in favour of autonomous textuality, manifested in, among other media, oil on canvas.

A work of art, according to Kandinsky, represents nothing more than itself. Malevich and, arriving at similar results from a literary angle, Kruchenykh made art truly “zaumyi” by disregarding any laws except those of language (in the broadest sense). The focus on language explains the comparative visual paucity of much Russian art: after the “Death of Art” it did not concern itself with the creation of attractive artifacts, but with the study of their governing laws that merely transcend the human sphere.

This also accounts for some central notions that can be traced throughout the century. Certainly one of the most recurrent motifs is that of the demiurgic author, whose truth is proven by the fact that he himself creates his audience of adepts who follow him blindly.

Be it the leaders of the countless avant-garde groups, be it Stalin, the supreme author of the Soviet Union, or even those conceptualists who apparently dismiss authorship in favour of fictitious author-personages, the will to create and dominate one’s own audience can be traced throughout the whole 20th century and may well be the defining trend of Russian art.

If in this initial project there was a discord, it was between the notion on how these laws were modelled – strictly geometrical, i.e. independent of human intervention, with Malevich, organic with Tatlin and Matyushin. For the latter, a work of art was an independent organism; for the former, a screen on which meaning was projected and which served as a medium for meaning.

The “ideological” project was concerned mainly with this meaning that should arise from the logic of form. Its high point came with post-revolutionary Constructivism, which took the analysis of art’s language a step further to construct new things out of the elements of this language. This led back from artistic autonomy into practical concerns. Still, it also served as the base for the third, “synthetic” project that attempted to reunite the achievements of the first projects with traditional painting.

Construction out of atomic elements was still visible in many of the “synthetic” works, prime examples of which are Rodchenko’s photographs, Klucis’s and Lisitzky’s photomontages, as well as many works of the AkhRR (Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia), the former constructivists’ worst enemies in the realm of cultural politics.

The greatest synthesis of all came in Socialist Realism, which purported to do away with all differences. The controversy whether or not Socialist Realism had the same roots and aims as the “innocent” avant-garde is resolved in a quite convincing way: both stemmed from and worked in much the same paradigm, so it is hardly surprising that there are so many similarities between the two antagonists.

Unfortunately, though, Dyogot fails to draw a parallel between the all-encompassing synthesis of Socialist Realism and the dadaist “double affirmation” of artists like Kruchenykh, who made the leap “beyond reason” (za um) through affirming both opposites of a dichotomy.

While all these projects operated in public, the last, “conceptual” project was relegated to being ‘unofficial’ and hence to privacy. In Dyogot’s insider’s view of Soviet unofficial art, this is one main reason for its all-questioning attitude to any system, be it political, mystic, or artistic.

Dyogot identifies four stages in this project. The first generation of conceptualists like Kabakov, Oivovarov, and Bulatov involved the development of an unofficial scene. The second, frequently minimalist, movement drew towards poetry and was spearheaded by Monastyrskyi and the Collective Actions group. A third wave reacted in two ways to this asceticism: either by returning to sensuous, colourful artifacts (Apt-Art, Mukhomory), or by completely ignoring the border between a work of art and the reflections on it (Medical Hermeneutics). Still, this analytical approach is firmly rooted in avant-garde traditions, even if they themselves become subject to analysis.

This unified picture comes about at the cost of a certain, inevitable canonization, as well as many telling exclusions. Just to name a few, Marc Chagall, one of the most successful Russian artists of the last century, is dismissed to half a page representation on the grounds that he remained a figurative Modernist (as opposed to avantgardist), not because he spent most of his life outside of Russia, or else Dyogot would have to exclude her main witness, Kandinsky.

Concerning the second half of the century, artistic life seems to have taken place in Moscow only. There is hardly a mention of Leningrad artists, or of those numerous and influential independent artists who turned to mysticism instead of Conceptualism, continuing the national tradition. This side is downplayed even with the Conceptualists, who were no strangers themselves to apophatic theology, mystical light, and so on.

If there is a major point of criticism, it is precisely the fact that this tradition is marginalized in favour of a coherent description of the art “after art’s death” (as if representational art had been the only dominant in Russia – the roots of abstract avant-garde art in the national tradition have by now been well identified and documented). A fifth, “mystical” project is still awaiting description.

Still, it is a tremendous feat to coherently identify and trace many dominant features of so diverse a phenomenon as Russian 20th-century art – even if it is at the expense of numerous others.