In response to the Royal Academy of Arts current exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, this article will address the versatility and imagination of Russian art. The Tsarist rule ended in February 1917, and until Stalin brutally suppressed his people and their creative freedom in 1932, Russian art gained a surge of creativity and energy. In this fifteen year period, the forms that Russian art could take on were limitless.
Kasimir Malevich is paramount to the discussion of Russian revolutionary art. Born in 1879, his career was shrouded in war, politics, and revolution. Early experimentation led him to the development of suprematism, characterised by abstract geometric shapes and stark colours. Black Square can be seen as the epitome of one of these works, and is often considered the first work that wasn’t actually of something. The painting was first shown in The Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10, the exhibition that inaugurated the Suprematist movement, in 1915, after months being hidden in secrecy. The work itself, consisting of a 79.5 by 79.5 centimetre black square surrounded by a white border, was placed high up in the Petrograd room, stretched across a corner of the wall. This placement was similar to the sacred location of a Russian Orthodox icon of a saint in a traditional Russian home. In this way, Malevich elevates the status of Black Square to be the overriding symbol of the new style, and the star of the exhibition.
Its form can be seen in a 1913 theatre curtain for an opera, Victory Over The Sun, where the characters aimed to overturn reason by capturing the sun and destroying time. The opera is significant as it was the brainchild of Malevich and two friends — musician Mikhail Matyushin and poet Aleksei Kruchenykh — who were jointly creating a manifesto calling for the rejection of rational thought. This response to the time was important to Malevich, who was attempting to create a work that didn’t represent a real thing, but instead was a sign of the dawn of a new age. It was a step away from both the artistic side — cubism, futurism, etc., and the political side.
Peter Schjeldahl reported that ‘Malevich, like other members of the Revolutionary-era Russian avant-garde, was thrown into oblivion under Stalin. The axe fell on him in 1930. Accused of "formalism", he was interrogated and jailed for two months.’ The work was seized in 1935, and degraded considerably due to negligence and contempt on the part of the Soviet government for half a century. As the public could not view the work, the idea of it remained an almost mythical presence, continuing to inspire artists and designers of the time. However, Stalin’s grip on society introduced the style of Socialist Realism into Russia.
Wassily Kandinsky, born in 1866, should be mentioned at this stage, though we can separate his heritage from the work he produced. He moved from Moscow after completing a degree in law and economics, and produced some of his most important paintings, including 1903’s The Blue Rider. These were to illuminate the rest of his career, when he chose to focus on what would encourage discourse between viewers about the subject and aim of his paintings. He then began to focus on music more thoroughly, as it was also an abstract medium (didn’t represent the outside world and instead the feelings of the inner soul), and named his works after this inspiration, including his series on ‘Improvisation’ and that on ‘Composition’. Kandinsky only returned to Moscow once, during WWI, between 1914 and 1920. Well known at that point for producing the first abstract painting, a watercolour from 1910, he was unreceptive to the theories taught on art in Communist Russia, devoting his own time to artistic teaching on form and colour analysis. After helping to organise the Institute of Artistic Culture, he was ultimately rejected from it for being too individualistic and bourgeoise. He then attended the Bauhaus in Weimar, and his style became even more focused on geometrical elements and freedom. He painted Yellow – red – blue in 1925, which focused on a vertical yellow rectangle, an inclined red cross and a large dark blue circle. Kandinsky focused on the relationships between the shapes, their positioning, and their harmony. A checkerboard effect was intertwined with them, giving gentle complexity to the work. In his final works, he intended his forms (which he subtly harmonized and placed) to resonate with the observer's soul. Composition IX and X exemplify this, with the viewer only coming to terms with the numerous forms and colours by closer observation and a deeper understanding.
First Year Art Historian at Cambridge University and Intern at Private Art Education.