Malevich Red Cavalry 1932

In France, the emergence of modernism in art, from Impressionism to Cubism, spanned half a century. In Russia, the avant-garde emerged and disappeared in little more than a decade, from around 1910 to the early 1920s. French avant-garde movements, succeeded each other, in an orderly progress – Impressionism, Pointilism, Fauvism, Cubism. In Russia, a tumult of avant-garde movements – Neo-Realism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayonism, Suprematisism, Constructivism, Non-Objectivism, Futurism –  tumbled forth almost simultaneously, their proponents often challenging each others’ perspectives. From the poetic Romanticism of Marc Chagall to the radical abstraction of Kazimir Malevich, the Russian avant-garde stretched the imagination as rarely before.

‘Neither before or after that period of time in the history of art’, observes curator Klaus Albrecht Schroeder, in the introduction to ‘Chagall to Malevich: The Russian Avant-Gardes’, an exhibition now showing at the Albertina gallery in Vienna, ‘were schools and artists’ associations founded with such breathless haste like in Russia between 1910 and 1920. Each group was a programme, each programme a declaration of war, not only on the past, but also on the rivalling present.’

The Albertina exhibition brings together 130 works by Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popopova, Olga Rozonova, Vladimir Tatlin, Nathan Altman, El Lissitzky, Pavel Filonov, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Wassily Kandinsky, and many others, to illustrate, in Schroeder’s words ‘the co-existence of irreconcilable aesthetic approaches’, and the ‘simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’, a phrase borrowed from the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. It is a stunning show, retelling the story of the Russian avant-garde and tracing in ’11 chapters’ both the dynamic developments of different styles, and the chronological parallels between figurative expressionism and pure abstractionism.

The Russian avant-garde drew upon western European developments, of course, from post-Impressionism to Cubism to Futurism, and beyond, but it also developed and transformed that raw material, often in astonishing ways. It is difficult to think of another period, certainly in the post-Renaissance world, so short in time and yet so rich in artistic innovation.

The background  of the artistic avant-garde was the struggle for the social transformation of Russian society, and the desire to break the shackles of Tsarist feudalism. What linked the various movements was ‘their common idea of progress and their radical rejection of handed-down movements’.

Russian avant-garde begins in the shadow of the 1905 Revolution with the Neo-Primitivism of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. Drawing inspiration from Russian folk art, Neo-Primitivism borrowed the flat forms and the bold colours of Fauvism and German Expressionism. Larionov and Goncharova then pioneered Rayonism, with a manifesto calling for the autonomy of painting from naturalism, laying the ground for a total break with any form figurative or representational art. Kazimir Malevich, along with  artists such as Alaxandra Exter and Lyubov Popova, experimented with Cubism and Futurism, before Malevich in particular moved towards total abstraction with Suprematism. Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko and El Lisstzky developed a different form of geometric abstraction in Constructivism.

It was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that, in seeming to give concrete expression to Utopian ideals, transformed the social meaning of the artistic avant-garde. The leading artists all welcomed the Revolution, and some, Malevich and Rodchenko in particular, politically embraced the Bolshevik programme. In post-revolutionary Russia, artists sought not just to bring art to the masses, but also to use it, from architecture to photography, to transform society and to create the ‘New Man’.

The relationship between revolution and art was a double edged sword. On the one hand, it gave artists – and art – a new social role, and intensified the creativity that flowed from the sense of  breaking the old shackles and creating the world anew. On the other hand, that new world helped devour both art and artists. Not only was the line between art and propaganda increasingly difficult to draw, but it was the state that now began to define what was good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, art. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Commissar of Education, and responsible for art and culture, dismissed the idea that artists could be granted ‘autonomy’. ‘Everything must be harmony with the Revolution’, he insisted. And ‘harmony with the Revolution’ left increasingly little room for experimentation with form or for explorations of the abstract. What state functionaries required of artists was art that helped bind the masses to the Soviet state and its needs, not art that raised questions, or expanded the imagination.

The partnership between the Soviet state and the artistic avant-garde was officially terminated in 1932 when the Communist Party central committee demanded the dissolution of all groups and organizations not in line with Socialist Realism. But it had, in practice, died long before then, with Stalin’s seizure of power in 1924.

Malevich politically identified with the Revolution. That did not stop Stalin from closing down the State Institute of Artistic Culture (GINKHUK) of which he was director, or from denouncing his Suprematist works as ‘degenerate’. Artists were arrested (including Malevich himself), exhibitions shut down, publications banned. Many, such as Chagall and Kandinsky, went into exile. Until Stalin became supreme leader, the tensions between artistic demands and the demands of the state had been manageable. Stalin managed the tensions by crushing the avant-garde.

The most shocking and sad of all the rooms in the Albertina exhibition is the final one on Socialist Realism. Here we see the greatest tumult of twentieth century art reduced to the turgidness of the style that Stalin had decreed was fit for the proletariat. We can see the struggle of many artists, Malevich in particular, attempting to accede to Stalin’s dictates while trying also to cling on to at least a thread of artistic integrity. But in these final works, all the passion and invention and optimism and hope has disappeared. This was the Russian winter in art.


Mikhail Larionov

Mikhil Larionov Natalia Goncharova Sleeping 1908-10

Mikhail Larionov The Tree 1910

Mikhail Larionov Rayonist Landscape 1912

Natalia Gonchorova Sleeping (c 1908-10); The Tree (1910-11); Rayonist Landscape (1912)


Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova  Wrestlers 1908-9

Natalia Goncharova The Cyclist 1913

Natalia Goncharova The Forest 1914

Wrestlers (1908-9); The Cyclist (1913); Forest (1914)


Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall Delicated to my Fiancee 1911

Marc Chagall The Fiddler 1913

Marc Chagall Self Portrait With Seven Fingers 1913

Marc Chagall Vitebsk Village Scene 1935-7

To My Fiancee (1911); The Fiddler (1912); Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912-13); Vitebsk, Village Scene (1935-37)


Pavel Filonov

Pavel Filonov Feast of Kings

Pavel Filonov The German War 1914-5

The Feast of Kings (1913); The German War (1914-15)


Alexandra Exter

Alexandra Exter City at Night 1913

Alexandra Exter Non-Objectiive Composition 1917

City at Night (1913); Non-Objective Composition (1917)


Vasily Kandinsky

Vasily Kandinsky Study for a Landscape 1910

Vasily Kandinsky Blue Crest 1917

On White 1 1920

Study for a Landscape (1910); Blue Crest (1917); On white 1 (1920)


Lyubov Popova

Popova Air Man Space

Man + Air + Space (1913)


Kazimir Malevich

Kazimir Malevich Portrait of Ivan Klyun 1913

Kazimir Malevich Suprematism 1916

Kazinir Malevich To the Harvest 1928-29Malevich Red Cavalry 1932

Portrait of the Artist's Wife 1933

Portrait of Ivan Klyun (1913); Suprematism (1916); To the Harvest (1928-29); Red Cavalry (1932); Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1933)


The Horrors of Socialist Realism

Vladimir Malagis Listening to Stalin's Speech 1933

Vasily Kuptsov Maxim Gorky ANT 20 1934

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin Anxiety  1934

Vladimir Malagis, Listening to Stanin’s Speech (1933); Vasily Kuptsov, ANT-20 ‘Maxim Gorky’ (1934); Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Anxiety (1934)


  1. Jill Brown

    Thank you for this fascinating post, Kenan. I am currently writing a thesis on 3 ballerinas and have been revisiting the history of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev’s legacy is immeasurable. What an extraordinary era. And I have recently discovered the history of Soviet ballet – extraordinary also, for vastly different reasons. What drama and intensity in these earlier images, and what weirdness in the Soviet examples.

  2. A rare and interesting article about the Russian avant-garde. Such articles are few and far between so it is always good to find them. You may be interested in a series of films I have made about the Russian Avant-garde which covers some of the themes that you raise in your post.

  3. ngir

    Hi Kenan – great year – thank you! Great images – one or two I knew – most not – always such good material to illustrate your articles – one BUT though……………did you have to ‘do a Zhdanov’ with your ‘Horrors…’ caption – surely we’ll make our own minds up………………………..

  4. nannus

    It seems to me that ideological thinking is characterized by the absence of reflection. With reflection I mean the presence of a meta-level of thinking from which thoughts (including thoughts on that meta-level itself) can be critically reviewed and also changed.

    There is a close connection between reflexivity and creativity. In ideological thinking, reflection is blocked, leading to stagnation of thought. Certain ideas are turned into dogmas by disallowing reflection on them.

    In art, the absence of reflection generates kitsch. The creative process stagnates. The result is dull pseudo-art (“socialist realism” is a prime example of this). Certain forms might also acquire a status comparable to the dogmas of ideologies. Art that does not conform to these forms is then perceived as aberrant.

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