A Brief Lesson of Soviet Art Part I

One can’t help but notice the incredible amount of public artwork on display in Russia. The  Soviet artwork drew my attention the most. Many of these boldly delineated sculptures commemorate either the working class or soldiers defending Russia during World War II. I decided to do a little research about Russian art, more specifically Soviet art, to get a better understanding of it’s origin and meaning.

Much of the early Soviet aesthetic was born out the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century. Artists Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich, known as Russian Futurists, appreciated the deconstructed and abstract art forms of Pablo Picasso and other artists from the west. They introduced Cubo-Futurism to Russia which proposed a new visual language, better suited for the modern age, in favor of traditional methods.  Their goal was to move Russia forward from its agrarian past into a new era of modernity using science, speed, and technology as their symbols.1

With the Russian revolution afoot, Futurists embraced the political change and saw it as an opportunity to create a new world. This feeling of excitement is described in the novel, “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak. “Just think what extraordinary things are happening all around us!” Yuri said. “Such things happen only once in an eternity… Freedom has dropped on us out of the sky!”2

Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich

Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich, 1916 Credit: Russian Constructivism

Eventually, the Futurists began to fracture and the Cubo-Futurist movement ended. In it’s wake began two new movements, Suprematism (Malevich) and Constructivism (Tatlin). Suprematism focused on reducing art to its bare essentials, often depicted as squared, circles and crosses. Malevich believed pictures have a fragile connection to the objects they depict and therefore art could offer the viewer a new take on the world.3

El Lissitzky Exhibition Poster

Exhibition Poster by El Lissitzky
Credit: Leo Field

Unlike Suprematism, Constructivists focused on representing the life in the modern world. Early works emphasized the characteristics of the materials instead of representing some other reality. Constructivists rejected “art for art’s sake” because they believed it favored the bourgeoisie. Instead, they wanted to use art for the common good of the people. Their goal was to move art from the gallery into mass production where it could serve a purpose greater than personal expression. Art would no longer be created in the typical sense, but constructed from pre-designed pieces to meet the needs of growing communist society.  This fell in line with communist ideology which in turn used Constructivist art to push forward their agenda. Many of the movement’s artist moved away from painting and sculpture and focused on applied arts such as textiles, graphic design, industrial design, and architecture.4

Soviet Poster by Rodchenko

Soviet Poster by Rodchenko, Credit: Mark Woods

In the years following the Revolution, all of this began to change. The romanticism of 1917 began to fade and the regime started to tighten it’s grip. What was once a movement meant to push society towards Utopianism, was now considered un-Soviet. Abstract art was deemed too radical and potentially dangerous. The government imposed their own standards which demanded art be realistic, optimistic, and heroic. By 1932, Soviet Realism was the only acceptable form of art.5

Read more about this fascinating topic on the sites listed below. Come back when I explore Soviet Realism in this two-part article about Soviet art.

Footnotes

  1. “Russian Futurism Movement Overview and Analysis”. [Internet]. 2017. TheArtStory.org
    Content compiled, written, edited, and published by The Art Story Contributors
    [Accessed 26 Sep 2017]
    http://www.theartstory.org/movement-russian-futurism.htm
    Back to Top
  2. Martin Sixsmith, “The story of art in the Russian Revolution”. [Internet]. 20 December 2016. Royal Academy of Arts
    [Accessed 26 Sep 2017]
    https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/art-and-the-russian-revolution
    Back to Top
  3. “Suprematism Movement Overview and Analysis”. [Internet]. 2017. TheArtStory.org
    Content compiled and written by Tracee Ng
    Content edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
    [Accessed 26 Sep 2017]
    http://www.theartstory.org/movement-suprematism.htm
    Back to Top
  4. “Constructivism Movement Overview and Analysis”. [Internet]. 2017. TheArtStory.org
    Content compiled and written by Tracee Ng
    Content edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
    [Accessed 26 Sep 2017]
    http://www.theartstory.org/movement-constructivism.htm
    Back to Top
  5. Martin Sixsmith, “The story of art in the Russian Revolution”. [Internet]. 20 December 2016. Royal Academy of Arts
    [Accessed 26 Sep 2017]
    https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/art-and-the-russian-revolution
    Back to Top