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An Introduction to the Russian Avant-Garde
The Russian Avant-garde artistic movement is typically thought of as existing primarily between the years 1890 and 1930 and was a time of artistic freedom, experimentalism, and abstract expression. Rayonnism, Suprematism, and Constructivism are the three main artistic movements that fall under the greater avant-garde label. Rayonnism is related to cubism and expressed a new take on light, time, and space that was not dependent on a particular subject. Mikhail Larionov is one of the most prominent Rayonnism painters. Suprematism similarly sought to do away with the subject and did so in order to create and present art in its purest form. Kasmir Malevich is one of the most prominent Suprematism painters. Finally, constructivism sculpture, influenced by cubism, leaned toward utilitarian abstraction. Vladimir Tatlin is one of the most prominent of the constructivists. The intentions of artists in the Russian avant-garde movement reflected the desires of the revolution. As part of a greater abstract movement, the Russian avant-garde broke away from traditional subjective art just as the revolution broke away from traditional society in Tsarist Russia. These abstract artists attempted to find the purest forms of art. The goal of the revolution, with its Marxist ideology, strove to create an ideal society. Both looked for greater freedoms such as freedom of expression and freedom from the control of previous doctrines. Three movements within Russian avant-garde art- Rayonnism, Suprematism, and Constructivism- exemplify three different artistic methods to obtain these goals.
Avant-Garde Artists and the Russian Revolution
Many of the avant-garde artists were enthusiastic about the revolution as it promised to open up new freedoms within the art world and legitimize their new abstract forms of art. Shortly after the revolution, avant-garde artists became the new generation of artistic intellectuals teaching art in circles and universities. However, this was not to last very long. Once the civil war ended, and along with the New Economic Policy, the structuring of society also restructured the art world. Soviet Realism emerged out of censorship and the desire for utilitarian art such as architecture and product design.
The ideas behind the avant-garde movement as a whole reflected the ideas of the revolutionaries. In Marxist ideology, socialism is the final phase of civilization. Marxists believe that there is a natural historical progression from a feudal agricultural society to a capitalistic industrializing society and finally to a socialist society of shared wealth. Marxism strives for a utopian society just as the avant-garde movement strove for the purest art. The revolution also gave the artists an outlet for their own revolutionary ideas, and “there was no question in their minds of not identifying their revolutionary discoveries in the artistic field with this economic and political revolution.” Although many of the avant-garde artists were not party members, they were considered “fellow travelers” because of their similar ideologies. It was believed that as both groups were “revolutionaries in life” they belonged together. These abstract artists hoped to create a new reality through their new ideas about art, just like the Bolsheviks hoped to create a new reality for Russians.
The artists supporting the revolution came to be called the ‘leftist’ artists and “leapt to the cause of the Bolshevik Revolution.” Recognizing the similar revolutionary ideology of these artists and because of their support of the revolution, the Bolsheviks allowed the avant-garde artists to set up abstract galleries and museums in Russia and allowed them, for a brief time, to reorganize the art schools around “their recent discoveries in abstract painting.” These artists also helped to fill the void created by the other intellectuals who had left to avoid the turmoil of the revolution. Larionov was one of the first abstract artists to have led art schools in Russia. His work influenced both Malevich and Tatlin. Later, Malevich succeeded Larionov as the leading figure of the abstract schools. During the early period of the revolution, “the ‘leftist’ artists came to be called the official artists of the new society.”
The earliest of the three sub-movements, Rayonnism, was created in 1912 by Larionov. The first Rayonnist works appeared after his exhibition at the Society of Free Aesthetics in December 1911 in Moscow. Rayonnism is primarily concerned with “spatial forms that can arise from the intersection of the reflected rays of different objects” and color. Rayonnism was revolutionary because of its goal to paint what we see yet remain abstract in nature. Larionov’s explanation of this phenomenon follows:
If we wish to paint literally what we see, then we must paint the sum of rays reflected from the object. But in order to receive that total sum of rays from the desired object, we must select them deliberately-because together with the rays of the object being perceived, there also fall into our range of vision reflected reflex rays belonging to other nearby objects. Now, if we wish to depict an object exactly as we see it, then we must depict also these reflex rays belonging to other objects-and then we will depict literally what we see. I painted my first works of a purely realistic kind in this way.
Rayonnism, while painting what one literally sees, is non-objective art. Larionov stated that “the objects that we see in life play no role here” referring to Rayonnism.  Rayonnism is also concerned with the combination of colors, texture, depth, and saturation to create art. This focus on colors shows that art itself had become important rather than the objects projected. Through this, new forms are also created, and the artist “attains the pinnacle of painting for painting’s sake,” a revolutionary idea for art.
These Rayonnist elements are present in the works of both Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. I have selected four paintings that emphasize these elements: Red Rayonnism (1913), The Cockerel: A Rayonist Study (1914), Rayonist Landscape (1913), and Cats (1913). All four paintings create new forms through their use of lines and color attempting to mimic the rays of light one actually sees. Both Cats (1913) and The Cockerel: a Rayonist Study (1914) are objective and yet are abstracted by the Rayonnist use of lines and color. These two paintings show the shift towards abstraction and non-objective art. Rayonist Landscape (1913) is also objective but is even more abstract than the previous paintings. Here again, the Rayonnist lines of color create new forms. A landscape is created by the intersections of rays. Finally, Red Rayonnism (1913) is completely non-objective, representing the final evolution of Rayonnism towards abstraction.
The Rayonnists saw themselves as revolutionaries. They believed that “a new style is always first created in art, since all previous styles and life are refracted through it.” They were also on the side of the Bolsheviks against western oppression. Just like the Bolsheviks wished to free the people from oppression, Rayonnists wanted to free art by bringing it into a fourth dimension.
The second sub-movement of the avant-garde was Suprematism. Suprematism was founded by Malevich in 1913. Malevich was known for his passion for the cause of art. Influenced by the Rayonnists, he aimed to revolutionize art. Suprematism emerged from Malevich’s own ideology about art. He believed that the “aspiration to transmit what is seen” was a “false conception of art,” stating that this false conception was created by the savage. This means that in advanced civilized society, art needed to become more than just the reproduction of something already existing. Malevich believed that “between the art of creating and the art of repeating there is a great difference. To create means to live, forever creating newer and newer things,” and that “the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature.” Suprematist art focuses on the interrelation of form and color rather than the representation of beautiful images. Malevich wanted to free art from the constraints of objectivity claiming that “forms must be given life and the right to individual existence.” To further illustrate this idea, Malevich wrote, “Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion, it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without ‘things’.” In suprematism, art is created from color and texture themselves rather than the portrayal of a subject. Suprematism continued the move of art towards abstraction while developing and revolutionizing the status-quo concept of art. One of the terms most often associated with suprematism is the concept of art for art’s sake.
Suprematist elements are present in the works of both Malevich and El Lissitzky. I have selected three paintings that emphasize these elements: Suprematism (Supremus No. 58) (1916), Black Square (1915), and Proun 99 (1924). All three of these paintings emphasize the creation of art that is not dependent on a set subject. Malevich’s simple use of the black square on the larger white square in Black Square (1915) shows how simple suprematist art could be created. It shows that art can be nothing more than art. Both Suprematism (Supremus No. 58) (1916) and El Lissitzky’s Proun 99 (1924) experiment with the more complex organizations of shape, color, and form that non-objective art can take. Each makes use of geometric shapes to create non-objective art.
Suprematism, like the revolution, became a beacon for those looking for a new order in the world. El Lissitzky, another leading suprematism artist, later responded to what Malevich’s revolutionary ideas meant to other artists:
For us Suprematism did not signify the recognition of an absolute form which was part of an already-completed universal system. On the contrary here stood revealed for the first time in all its purity the clear sign and plan for a definite new world never before experienced—a world which issues forth from our inner being and which is only now in the first stages of its formation. For this reason the square of suprematism became a beacon.
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Art and artist were freed from the oppressive standards of art through the suprematism movement. Suprematists compared their liberation of art to the communist liberation of the working class. They believed that both were moving forward together towards perfection, artistically and socially.
Suprematism’s founder Malevich was also actively involved in the Revolution, returning during the outbreak of the December Revolution. Malevich, like many other artists, took part through activities such as distributing illegal literature. The culmination of suprematist painting itself even coincided with the Revolution. Suprematists came to be the dominant artistic movement in Russian between 1914 and 1917, creating new schools based on their abstract principles. The rise of Malevich to the leading figure of the art world shows this brief love affair between Malevich and the revolutionaries as their ideas aligned towards freedom from oppression and breaking the bounds of old world constraints.
The later avant-garde movement of Constructivism, founded in 1919, was greatly influenced by suprematism. Constructivism’s founder Tatlin had a complicated relationship with Malevich. Although they differed on some points and their disagreements even led to physical altercations, Malevich was one of the few contemporary artists that Tatlin respected. Tatlin closely followed all of Malevich’s work. While maintaining that art should be non-objective, Tatlin believed art needed to be utilitarian. Tatlin was against the idea of art for art’s sake and was in favor of art for social purposes. He envisioned art making use of raw materials and showing people how to use them. This idea was appropriate for the movement towards industrialization with the Marxist revolution in Russia. Constructivism also tried to change the focus of art from the composition of a piece to the construction of the piece, hence the name constructivism.
The constructivist ideas are present in the works of both Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. I have selected two constructions that emphasize these elements: Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) and Hanging Construction (1920). Both pieces move beyond the medium of painting to create three-dimensional forms. Hanging Construction uses intersecting circles to create movement. It is also constructed out of wood in an attempt to show how it could be manipulated. While Tatlin’s monument was never actually constructed, models of his building were constructed out of several raw materials. Tatlin’s monument later became “a symbol of the Utopian world which these artists had hoped to build.”
Tatlin’s shift of art towards industry use and utilitarian ideas mirrored the shift of ideas among the revolutionaries. His ideas continued to revolutionize art and continued the love affair between the avant-garde artists and the Bolsheviks. Tatlin believed that the social revolution followed the lead of the revolution of the art world stating, “The events of 1917 in the social field were already brought about in our art in 1914.” Tatlin shifted Constructivism to support the revolution in practical ways.
The Avant-garde movement is important to study in the context of the Russian Revolution because it can shed light on some of the hopes for the revolution as well as some of the reasons for the change in some of the Russians’ psyches which made the revolution possible. It could also show in a broader sense how popular sentiments are reflected in the art of the particular time period. The Avant-garde movement also emerged within the window leading up to and immediately following the 1917 revolutions and was phased out around the time of the New Economic Policy. This could indicate a unique moment of unprecedented freedom in Russia that was ended with this restructuring. A moment that is so unique needs to be studied and understood for what it was.
Section 1: Avant-Garde Artists
 Camilla Gray. The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922. London: Thames and Hudson Lt., 1986. 219
 Bernard Myers Art Treasures in Russia. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. 157
 Camilla Gray. The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922. London: Thames and Hudson Lt., 1986. 219.
 Ibid. 221
 History of Modern Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984. 240
 Camilla Gray. The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922. London: Thames and Hudson Lt., 1986. 185
 Ibid. 228
Section 2: Rayonnism
 Mikhail Larionov “Rayonist Painting, 1913,” The Documents of 20th-Century Art: Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism 1902-1934. Ed. John E. Bowlt. New York: The Viking Press, 1976. 92
 Ibid. 93
 Ibid. 98
 Ibid. 99
 Ibid. 99
 Mikhail Larionov “Pictorial Rayonism, 1914” The Documents of 20th-Century Art: Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism 1902-1934. Ed. John E. Bowlt. New York: The Viking Press, 1976. 101
 Mikhail Larionov “Rayonist Painting, 1913,” The Documents of 20th-Century Art: Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism 1902-1934. Ed. John E. Bowlt. New York: The Viking Press, 1976. 95.
 Camilla Gray. The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922. London: Thames and Hudson Lt., 1986. 138
 Ibid. 141
Section 3: Suprematism
 Ibid. 145.
 Kazimir Malevich, “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism, 1915” The Documents of 20th-Century Art: Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism 1902-1934. Ed. John E. Bowlt. New York: The Viking Press, 1976. 121-122
 Ibid. 122
 Ibid. 122
 Ibid. 123
 Kazmir Malevich, “Suprematism: Part II of the Non-Objective World”
 Kazimir Malevich, “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism, 1915” The Documents of 20th-Century Art: Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism 1902-1934. Ed. John E. Bowlt. New York: The Viking Press, 1976. 123
 El Lissitzky, “Suprematism in world Reconstruction, 1920” The Documents of 20th-Century Art: Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism 1902-1934. Ed. John E. Bowlt. New York: The Viking Press, 1976. 153
 Ibid. 155, 158
 Camilla Gray. The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922. London: Thames and Hudson Lt., 1986. 145
 Ibid. 167
 Ibid. 185
Section 4: Constructivism
 Ibid. 172
 Vladimir Tatlin, “The Work Ahead of Us, 1920” The Documents of 20th-Century Art: Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism 1902-1934. Ed. John E. Bowlt. New York: The Viking Press, 1976. 206
 Camilla Gray. The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922. London: Thames and Hudson Lt., 1986. 226
 Ibid. 219
 History of Modern Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984. 240
Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on June 28, 2015:
Although a layman to this subject I found your presentation and content first class and easy to understand. Well done. Voted up and all.
Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on June 28, 2015:
Fascinating read. I know a little about Malevich and his break away mindset when it came to the actual application of paint to canvas - a non trust of nature for example, which I can never fully agree with - but an intrigue nonetheless - to consciously paint from the imagination and to ignore the outer environment - if that's at all possible - allowing only the abstract. Necessary some might say, as was the revolution. Art is dead, long live art.
Voted up and shared.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 28, 2015:
This was another interesting hub from you on Russian art. Congrats on your second HOTD here at HP! Voted up!
CHRIS57 from Northern Germany on September 29, 2013:
Thank you, i never thought of finding something about my favorite "engineers and architects" Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky on Hubpages.
At the end, the Avant-Garde didn´t make it. It was phased out by Lunacharsky, commissar for culture and education in the 20ties. Initially after the revolution he was quite liberal. But that changed in the early 20ties, when he strongly opposed Suprematism.