Art & architecture

Celebration or reflection?

Print edition : December 22, 2017

The model of the proposed Tatlin's Tower, the monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin, exhibited in the Studio of Materials, Volume, and Construction (the former Academy of Arts) in Petrograd, 1920. Photo: Sovfoto/UIG Via Getty Images

Anatole Kopp. He pointed out that "in the years that followed the revolution, Soviet architecture was dominated by what was called the modern style". His authoritative book "Town and Revolution: Soviet Architecture and City Planning, 1917–1935", published in 1967, explained how the burst of avant-garde creative work was let loose by the political upheavals. Photo: Getty Images

An image of Savva Ivanovich Mamontov in Abramtsevo found in the collection of the State Museum Abramtsevo Estate, near Moscow. The pre-revolutionary avant-garde painters had been encouraged, in the 1870s, by the railway tycoon, who had an estate where a handful of non-conforming artists regularly met, determined to challenge the hegemony of the Academy of Arts in Petersburg. Photo: Getty Images

A view of the Kremlin in 2014. Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Camilla Gray with her husband, Oleg Prokoviev. Her book "The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863–1922" is a deeply researched scholarly work about the avant-garde and the Russian experiment in art. In it she reveals that the avant-garde movement amongst Russian painters began long before the revolution and as early as the 1860s.

Red Square, Moscow. Photo: Marka/UIG via Getty Images

The Shukhov broadcasting tower in Moscow, an April 2014 picture. One of the symbols of Soviet Constructivist architecture, it was built in 1922. The Russian government decided to tear it down because of surface corrosion and a threat of it falling down. Photo: Pavel Golovkin/AP

Commemorating the October Revolution raises the problem of understanding the relationship between the political revolution and the creative arts.

Looking back through the century that has elapsed is not going to be easy. Should we celebrate or commemorate the October Revolution? After all, the Soviet Union no longer exists and celebrations may not be quite appropriate. On the other hand, commemoration could help us remember and reflect on events that shook the whole world and revisit the powerful ideas that ignited them. Frankly speaking, there has been no other great idea that we can push forward today to end our vicious cycle of poverty. We could always open our hearts and minds once more to history and choose vanguardism to change society, the arts and indeed all creative fields as being the right thing for our present era, which is otherwise bereft of great transformational ideas.

But before we do that, we will have to deal with the problem of which layer of history can be relied on to guide us. What did Leo Tolstoy mean when he wrote in War and Peace, “Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them”? Will history ever give us the right answers? Our reflections about the revolution are complicated by the plethora of documents about it that keep appearing in the public domain. Much of that new material keeps revealing hidden aspects about events that took place in the years preceding the revolution and those immediately following it.

I had always assumed that history was reliable. As a student of architecture, I was fed on a diet of history about the October Revolution that linked the avant-garde to the revolution. I had simply accepted it. The questions are only now beginning to arise after so many decades of trying to understand the full meaning of the revolution. In my case, the turning point came when I became familiar with the disquieting work of Kalpana Sahni, who spent many years in the Soviet Union. She showed me how much of the history taught to her in the Soviet Union had been continually falsified. My education had been in a different place. I was familiar with the good days of the revolutionary avant-garde and the bad days of Joseph Stalin. During those student days, the course dealing with Soviet history had moved like a locomotive through my life. It dealt mostly with the triumphal architectural ideas in the first two decades of the revolution. We never paused for a better understanding of the complex causalities of that history. We never questioned whether the advance guards in the world of art, its avant-gardist protagonists, were Ukranian, Georgian, Polish, Lithuanian or Armenian or whether they were Jewish or Christian. Our history course had subsumed them all into an ideal larger identity of Soviet citizenship. It was almost as if the history of social transformation had really begun in 1917. The wholeness of Soviet architectural history was ignored in favour of the first period that dealt with Soviet avant-garde architecture, a favoured period in the Western narrative of the Soviet Union and a convenient stick to beat Stalinism and Communism with. The remaining two periods, the Stalinist neoclassic period of the 1930s-50s and the concluding post-Stalinist modernism of the 1950s, were glossed over. Our prime source material for the first period came from the work of Anatole Kopp and Reyner Banham. Subsequently, I travelled to Moscow and tried with great difficulty to locate the few buildings that had been built before the onslaught of social realism. Soviet architecture had remained a dream. There was no money to build such impossible monuments like Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, designed of glass and iron, to be more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. Questions had begun to arise within me about the role of the Constructivists who had more theatrical designs to their credit than built works.

As a student I had therefore assumed that 1917 was the watershed year between the classical era and the modern era in Soviet art and architecture. Kopp had been brought up in an upper-class Jewish family in Russia which fled to France when the Bolsheviks came to power. Yet he joined the French Communist Party and began writing about the need to introduce modernism in contemporary French architecture. For him, France had to learn from the avant-garde architecture of the Soviets. He pointed out that “in the years that followed the revolution, Soviet architecture was dominated by what was called the modern style”. His authoritative book Town and Revolution: Soviet Architecture and City Planning, 1917-1935, published in 1967, explained how the burst of avant-garde creative work was let loose by these political upheavals. He focussed on the year 1917 as the starting point of his proposition. Kopp’s work was undoubtedly unique. Very little information had been available in the West on the impact of the early years of the revolution on the fine arts and architecture. His book was profusely illustrated and highlighted the theoretical and built work that emerged in the decade before the 1930s. It was, in every sense, the first window that Western scholars of architecture got to look through into the Soviet Union. However, Kopp’s book was more propagandist than scholarly. It was not until I had already left the West and returned to India that Vivan Sundaram introduced me to the work of Camilla Gray. In contrast to Kopp’s work, this was a deeply researched scholarly work about the avant-garde and the Russian experiment in art. In it she revealed that the avant-garde movement amongst Russian painters had begun long before the revolution and as early as the 1860s. I began peeling away the history of my student days.

After reading her book The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922, my earlier understanding about the origins of the avant-garde movement in the history of European and Russian art changed completely. Indeed, one began to question any links between pushing the borders of what is acceptable in art and the radical political world view of the Left. Is it possible that art and history stand on opposite ends? The strong links that I had assumed between them had, in reality, always remained extremely tenuous. The parties of the Left have great affinity towards an avant-garde art that is seen to be an agent of change and an instrument of propaganda. If, however, such art is unorthodox and experimental, daring or radical and relatively devoid of political content and engages with internal expressions of experience, that same Left regards it with suspicion and distrust. The unorthodox expressions and methods of the modern movement of art in Russia preceded the revolution by almost half a century. It was neither a product of the revolution nor its baby. During the early years of the October Revolution, the Soviet state had allowed the pre-revolutionary avant-garde practitioners freedom and patronage. For a short while, the revolution had allowed them a unique freedom to undertake formal and social experiments. They were lucky that this freedom was guarded and managed by Anatoly Lunacharsky as long as he was in his official position as The Peoples’ Commissariat of Culture and Education. But their luck ran out when he resigned in 1921 and all that freedom of expression that he had defended as the Commissariat came to an end. He, too, was vilified later during the purge of 1936-38 when his name was erased from the Communist Party’s history and his memoirs were banned.

The pre-revolutionary avant-garde painters had been encouraged, in the 1870s, by the railway tycoon Savva Mamontov, who had an estate where a handful of non-conforming artists regularly met, determined to challenge the hegemony of the Academy of Arts in Petersburg. Predictably, during these formative years of the modern movement, four decades prior to the revolution, the official Petersburg Academy favoured patronising works that demonstrated clear links between Russian art and European traditions to ensure continuity with the direction that Peter the Great (1672–1725) had already charted for Russia. The artists who met at the estate of Mamontov and challenged such notions of acceptable art formed themselves into a collective and called themselves “The Wanderers”. Subsequent followers of avant-garde movements in the visual arts, music, poetry and architecture formed groups and forged collective identities before and after the revolution around manifestos and named themselves with varying identities: Arts of the World, Futurists, Suprematists, Constructivists and Productivists.

Engagement with the revolution

Their engagement with the revolution remains unexplored. Commemorating the revolution raises the problem of understanding the relationship between political revolution and the creative arts. The historical question of whether the revolution did anything positive for the avant-garde remains unanswered and under-discussed. The Russian avant-garde movement was stopped very early in its tracks by the hegemony of Soviet state patronage, which preferred Stalin’s neoclassical Social Realism style in the visual arts and architecture. The pioneers of the avant-garde movement were vilified and left to live in penury, sent into exile or incarcerated in prison camps. Some were simply executed. Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested and killed; Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide; Kazimir Malevich was hounded, arrested and died soon after; Wassily Kandinsky, Naum Gabo and Pevsner migrated to the West.

With more and more documents appearing in Russia, commemorating the revolution today gives us yet another chance to peel the layers of history once more and discuss the contents of the diaries and innermost thoughts and hidden texts of some of these avant-garde practitioners, texts that have lain hidden but have now begun to appear in the public domain. Kazimir Malevich’s diaries, papers and essays are now in the public domain as are a number of books by emigre painters and writers. The aftermath of the revolution led to reigns of terror on many creative practitioners, and their work was either confiscated or destroyed by the state or voluntarily by the artists themselves. Fortunately, some of their families had the courage to preserve their work by hiding it. What survives is now becoming available to the public after the collapse of the Soviet Union and reveals how internal discussions amongst the practitioners of avant-garde art during the revolution were never resolved sufficiently to come to terms with the philosophical issues posed by the revolution. For instance, within the Russian avant-garde, there were two distinct groups that articulated different views on the relationship between art and revolution. Malevich, Kandinsky and Pevsner, amongst others, believed that art was essentially spiritual in its concerns and ought to be primarily concerned with reflecting on higher levels of visions about the world and human beings in general. Opposed to them were Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, who propounded the questions relating to the necessity of art in a communist society and that art ought to be productive art and not enshrined in a cocoon for its own sake. They believed that social living needed technical resolution and machines to release society to devote their time to art.

Camilla Gray went to the Soviet Union in the 1960s to learn ballet and there she married Oleg Prokoviev, son of the composer Sergei Prokoviev. This provided her with rare opportunities to access much of the hidden personal documents, photographs and records that had been secreted away from the Soviet authorities in the early days of the revolution. With her research and network of contacts with the families of the artists, she was able to piece together the events and happenings of the avant-garde movement in Russia during the 1920s, and we owe much of what we know about it to her work. The book was smuggled into the Soviet Union and came as a bombshell for a new generation of Russians who had been denied any knowledge of the avant-garde movement in the early years of the revolution. It was a period of Soviet art history that had been hidden, falsified and suppressed. Few were aware that Paris had been the nerve centre of avant-garde ideas in the first two decades of the last century. Artists, music composers, architects, sculptors and writers and poets from Russia as well as other parts of Europe naturally gravitated towards that city. It took five decades for this to become widely known when in 1979, the Pompidou Centre hosted a large exhibition titled “Paris–Moscow 1900–1930”. Two years later, this exhibition was shown in Moscow. For the first time ordinary citizens of the Soviet Union became aware of the extraordinary ideas and images that had been produced in the early years of their revolution by a generation of avant-garde artists whose names they had never heard. It was almost as if an entire layer had been peeled off their official history to reveal another truth. And yet there were still other layers of that movement that were to be peeled off later.

We should recall that challenging the hegemony over art by official academies was not unique to Russia. There were parallel challenges being taken up in Europe, particularly France, in the late 19th century. The Impressionists were one such group who demonstrated, in their work, their violations of the rules of painting set up by the Academy. Artists in Russia and France influenced each other and had been very close between the end of the 19th century and the early 1920s. In 1893, the French diplomat Charles Birle introduced the Post-Impressionists Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to the Russian avant-garde art world. French painters had been profoundly influenced by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai and the genre of Ukiyo-e, which had been exhibited in the Japanese pavilion at the 1867 Paris Exposition. The entire modern movement and its Russo-European connection still remain unexplored. For instance, all of Van Gogh’s letters and notes are now available and reveal his passion for Japanese art and Buddhism. More recently, Kalpana Sahni explained in a recent presentation in Stockholm how deeply Eastern ideas had influenced a large number of creative people amongst whom was Malevich whose work was primarily meditative, reflective and deeply influenced by Eastern, particularly Indian, philosophical ways of seeing. His “Black Square” was a “zero of form” and a reflection of the notion of “emptiness”. Kalpana Sahni has explained how the entire chapter on the impact of Eastern influences on the Russian and European avant-garde movement has remained discreetly buried under another layer of history. To take some examples from Europe: the influence of the Buddhist philosophy on Van Gogh is seldom explained, nor is the role that Helena Blavatsky’s secret teachings and theosophy played in the work and ideas of the painter Gauguin, nor how the Dutch avant-garde De Stijl movement of art and architecture and Mondrian were uniquely influenced by conceptual notions of Siva-Shakti determining the use of vertical (Shakti) and horizontal (Siva) elements in their work.

I am reminded of a Russian joke that did the rounds in Moscow during the Perestroika period: during a history exam, a boy asked his teacher: “Should I answer according to the textbook or as it happened in reality?”—a dilemma our children continue to face.

Romi Khosla is an architect and urban planner.

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