Making everything new

December 15, 2017

Annie Zirin provides the historical and political context missing from an otherwise powerful exhibition of the art of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

"DON'T CELEBRATE the Russian Revolution" blasts the headline of a recent review in the Chicago Reader.

If you're a reader of, you probably spent much of 2017 defying this advice, and instead tried to read every book and visit every exhibit that reconnects us with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Now, the Art Institute of Chicago ends this anniversary year with a powerful show containing more than 500 works of avant-garde Soviet art, primarily from the 1920s--painting, sculpture, graphic design, architecture, textiles, theater design, photography, film and household objects.

There are so many stunning objects in this show that it bears repeat trips just to take it all in--luckily, the museum is free to Illinois residents on Thursday evenings.

Two of my favorites: The artist El Lissitsky's memorial to the murdered Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg; and a chess set where the pieces represent the Reds against the Whites in the civil war that followed 1917, with the White King a terrifying image of death and the Reds icons of the workers' government.

The recreated workers' club designed by Alexander Rodchenko at the Art Institute
The recreated workers' club designed by Alexander Rodchenko at the Art Institute

The show contains stunning work by the two leading women artists of era--Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova. It touches on the role that radical Jewish artists--El Lissitsky, Marc Chagall and others--played for a few years in the city of Vitebsk. One wall text explains:

On a visit to Vitebsk, film director Sergei Eisentstein was amazed to see the "strange provincial city" transformed by its art-school inhabitants. "Like many of the border towns of Western Russia, it's built of red brick. Sooty and cheerless. But this city is especially strange. Here the red brick streets are covered with white paint and green circles are scattered across this white background. There are orange squares. Blue rectangles. This is Vitebsk in 1920. Its brick walls have met the brush of Kazimir Malevich. And from these walls you can hear: 'The streets are our palette.'"

BE WARNED however: While the curators Devin Fore and Matthew Witkovsky clearly have sympathy for the revolutionary art of this era, they fail to provide a coherent context for the works on display.

Most strikingly, the exhibit fails to explain--or even acknowledge--the social and political differences of the revolutionary era that followed 1917 and the counterrevolutionary period that involved Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power by 1928 and the crushing of all freedoms won in the revolution, including artistic freedom.

This leads to some confusing curatorial decisions. For example, when you enter the exhibit, you are faced with El Lissitsky's masterpiece from the civil war era and one of the best-known images of the revolution: "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge."

El Lissitsky uses a visual language of abstract shapes and colors, but it is an image that clearly and urgently takes the side of the revolution against the forces that would destroy it.

Therefore, it is bizarre to view this piece next to a wall filled with cultish images of Lenin, many from the Stalinist era of the 1930s, that the Bolshevik leader would have hated. Odder still, above the doorway is a quotation by Leon Trotsky--Stalin's most steadfast opponent!

The exhibition catalogue groups hundreds of posters under the theme of "propaganda," but makes little distinction between the innovative works that Bolsheviks artists created during the civil war, and the increasingly stultified propaganda of the Stalinist era, glorifying the regime and reinforcing a conservative social message about, for example, women's role in the family.

This is a shame because some context for the exhibition would make the earlier works even more powerful for viewers.

THE RUSSIAN Revolution of 1917 was a monumental event in world history. The working class, soldiers and peasantry seized power in the interest of the vast majority of the population, with the Bolshevik Party playing the leading role.

The revolution unleashed a huge cultural explosion in the Russian population and a thirst for literature, art, theater and the like that had been denied to the working masses for so long.

For this reason, the Bolsheviks made the artistic and cultural development of the population a top priority. One of the first acts of the new government in 1917 was the establishment of Narkompros, the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment, headed by the Bolshevik Anatoly Lunacharsky and charged with the task of launching mass literacy and education campaigns throughout the country.

Most of the artists featured in Art Institute's exhibit cut their teeth as part of these campaigns, finding inventive new ways to bring education, ideas, politics and arguments into everyday life.

Meanwhile, artists passionately debated one another about the role they should be playing in helping to shape the socialist society of the future. Different factions and even whole schools formed behind new ideas about what constituted a "working class" culture and art.

In 1918, Lunacharsky established the Free State Art Schools in place of the old Tsarist art academy. The new art schools were tuition-free and open to anybody. They not only taught all shades of artistic practice from academic realism to Cubism and Futurism, but students had the final say in which teachers would be hired through a vote. All kinds of debates were taken up in the studios, with an emphasis on the freedom to experiment.

In October 1918, Lunacharsky stated that his hope for the Free Art Schools was that "[a] brotherhood of artists and architects will be born and will create not only temples and monuments to human ideals but also complete artistic towns. To link art with life--this is the task of the new art."

Throughout the 1920s, the Bolshevik government continued to support freedom of artistic style and experimentation. The Bolshevik Central Committee declared in 1925 that the party refused to "connect itself to any particular school in the field of literary [or artistic] form."

This was a far cry from the rigid Stalinist orthodoxy of socialist realism that would be imposed on artists and art schools in the 1930s. As late as 1928, Lunacharsky--whose name was erased from official state histories a few years after his death in 1933, during the subsequent era of Stalinist show trials and purges--said that "the obliged to support all forms of contemporary art until the style of the new epoch becomes clear."

THE CATASTROPHIC poverty and material deprivation caused by the civil war forced the closing of the Free Art Schools in 1920.

But the following year, Lenin signed a declaration opening a new institution, Vkhutemas, the Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops, as part of a government project to train a whole new layer of designers and artists in industry. The Bolsheviks allowed deferment from active military service for artists who entered Vkhutemas.

Vkhutemas quickly became a hotbed for the new artistic movement of Constructivism. Constructivist artists were interested in promoting socialism through innovations in design and manufacturing. One of the highlights of the Art Institute show is the huge collection of these everyday objects--everything from books and ceramics to textiles.

Another strong emphasis in the show is on experimental theater design, which was an important pole of interest among Russian artists. In a country that was so materially devastated by war, theater was one of the few places that artists could bring to life experimental ideas.

The museum also built a life-size recreation of Alexander Rodchenko's model for a workers' club, designed in 1925.

Rodchenko envisioned a place where workers could come together and watch film, read everything from newspapers to books, have discussions, and play chess. He designed every aspect of the club with this sense of building a socialist community, from the shape of the chairs to the chess set.

It's a thrill to walk inside the model a century later, see people use the club for the purposes it was intended (including a game of chess) and inhabit this revolutionary world for a while.

The period of debate and experimentation lasted until the end of the decade of the 1920s, though it was under siege even before then. In 1930, Stalin shut down Vkhutemas. In 1934, he declared that Socialist Realism was the only legitimate style that could be practiced or taught in the USSR.

This exhibit is a tribute to the spirit of the artists who thrived before this counterrevolution--who were inflamed and inspired by 1917, and who sought, as the poet Alexander Blok declared in 1918, to "[r]emake everything. Organize it so as to make everything new, so that our false, dirty, boring, ugly life becomes just, clean, happy and beautiful."

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