Russian Avant-Garde

Russian avant-garde artists of the early Soviet period had a profound impact on Western art and aesthetics, in some surprising ways.

The ground was prepared in the late tsarist era, when Europe, America, and Asia caught “Russian fever” and fell under the spell of writers like Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. With Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Russian music entered the repertoire of the world’s symphony halls. Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes reinvigorated dance as well as costume and set design around the globe. And as the first practitioner and theoretician of fully non-representational painting, Vasily Kandinsky launched the abstract-art revolution.

Russian art was already in ferment before 1914, but World War I and the Bolshevik revolution transformed the cultural life of the nation. By late 1917 the private art market was shattered and avant-garde artists had taken charge of existing pedagogical institutions and founded new ones. The Constructivist and Suprematist movements gained a brief ascendancy. Constructivism rejected easel painting as an expression of bourgeois-dominated society. Its most famous representative, Vladimir Tatlin, announced the death of traditional art and constructed three-dimensional, machine-inspired, abstract sculptures and reliefs. Other Constructivists designed utilitarian products (chairs, clothes, dishware) with a distinctly industrial veneer to help “urbanize the psychology of the masses” and usher in the new Communist stage of civilization. Suprematism was born with Kazimir Malevich’s painting “Black Square” (1915) and other geometrical abstractions, which were supposed to point humanity away from capitalist exploitation and the horrors of the world war and toward the “crossroads of celestial paths.” A philosophical Idealist, Malevich believed that his two-dimensional shapes provided a kind of cerebral “passage into the fourth dimension,” comprehension of which was vital if mankind were to imagine a higher reality and thereby alleviate earthly suffering. Both Constructivists and Suprematists were radical utopians who yearned for the creation of a new society and the destruction of the old.

The two movements merged in the figures of El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko. Both of these artists made important contributions to the cultural life of the twentieth century--Rodchenko in the areas of furniture design and photography, Lissitzky in exhibition design and architecture. But their most far-reaching innovations were in the graphic arts: Soviet propaganda posters and advertising using geometrical shapes and bold, block lettering that combined the functionality of Constructivism with the visual elements of Suprematism. The goal was to subliminally alter the mentality of the people, infusing in them the values of both artistic movements and, relatedly, Communism. As one of their German followers put it, these designs “little by little…hammered into the mass soul.”

Germany was the main conduit for the international influence of these artists. The Russian Constructivists and Suprematists were revered at the renowned Bauhaus school of design. In 1922 Kandinsky emigrated to Germany, having been hired to teach the Bauhaus’ basic courses on color theory, drawing, and abstract form, through which he disseminated the ideas of his compatriots. The works of Lissitzky, Kandinsky, Malevich, and Rodchenko, along with other Russian avant-garde artists, were exhibited and reproduced in journals. Lissitzky himself was involved in a Soviet campaign to attract Western intellectuals to communism, which often brought him to Germany (and other parts of Europe), where he undertook advertising commissions that allowed him to apply his modernist design principles. One of his German disciples, the typographer Jan Tschichold, wrote widely distributed books and articles that urged adoption of the Constructivist and Suprematist style in lettering and the layout of books and advertisements: he argued that this would both purify the world á la Lissitzky, and give a fresh, modern look to commercial print that would attract the eye of consumers and induce them to buy more goods.

Through works like Tschichold’s, in the 1920s graphic artists in the United States became aware of what one of them called the new “visual vocabulary” coming out of the USSR and the Bauhaus. But it was not until the Great Depression that it was widely embraced. At that time corporations were desperate to figure out how to revamp their image and sell their products. One of the ways they settled on was to depict themselves as technological innovators whose products were the epitome of ultra-modern. The Russian aesthetic conveyed this message perfectly so they adopted it in their advertising: as one company put it, “modernism sells merchandise.” The graphic-design elements inspired by the early-Soviet avant-garde took off, serving the purposes of big business and divorced from their original anti-capitalist message. Over the years they became ubiquitous, appearing in print, on product packaging, and in houseware patterns.

One can imagine that the people at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas have no idea of the radical and revolutionary origins of the symbols they used in the Sam’s Club logo of the early 2000s. It probably wouldn’t bother them too much if they did. But just think how devastated Malevich and company would be if they had known that they would assist in burnishing the corporate image. A cruel irony, perhaps, but on the other hand, their creations did significantly alter the aesthetic landscape of the contemporary world.

Steven G. Marks, Clemson University (USA)

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