THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Aniko Berman
This year marks the centennial of one of the 20th Century’s epic events. Print and electronic media, however, have devoted little coverage to understanding the Russian Revolution and its bloody aftermath, even unto the present. Instead, they fixated on Russia’s interference in last year’s election.
Two local art museums attempt to rectify and fill this void in our historical consciousness. "Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia!" at the Art Institute of Chicago and "Revolution Everyday" at the Smart Museum of Art, examine this milestone, though it cannot be easily summarized, particularly as its nuances shift with history’s endlessly shifting vantage point.
Such an observation about most historical events is a truism. However, the complexities of the Russian Revolution, whose breath-taking idealism and subsequent cynicism set off intensely devastating and profoundly generative forces, seem more difficult to parse than most.
An example of the revolution’s arguably positive characteristics is the radical aesthetic developments it spawned, demonstrating the revolution’s highly paradoxical nature: idealistic, “truthful” art, design and architecture, put to the service of less pure, propagandistic intentions.
The aesthetic aspect proves a worthy subject for scrutiny, and these two shows attempt to do justice through varied presentations of revolutionary and Soviet objects and artifacts from the everyday to the rarified. The result is an immersive foray into the visual culture of a people, hurtled from servitude under tsarist rule into the cauldron of freedom and warfare. A sort of melancholy nostalgia for revolutionary idealism subsequently arises, at a time when our own societal failings, as a nation and as humanity in general, feel acutely apparent.
The Art Institute’s sweeping historical presentation consists of eleven themes or “models” which themselves echo the notion that the revolution would be “modelled” in every aspect of daily life.
The sheer amount of material on view, mostly paired with lengthy and engaging explanatory labels, is an impressive feature in and of itself. This may undermine the show’s attempt to sufficiently inform viewers by dividing their attention instead.
Propaganda posters, documents, furniture, photographs, paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, books, magazines, films, even dishware fill the exhibit’s entire floor. Each object a delicious morsel, yet so many that one may gorge rather than savor.
Still, there are exceptional highlights. Two architectural recreations are particularly noteworthy: one is Alexander Rodchenko’s 1925 Workers’ Club prototype designed for the Soviet Pavilion at a decorative arts fair in Paris. Social spaces for workers at work and home were a new feature of everyday Soviet life. This room—with all parts immediately visible upon entry and all elements, from chairs to chess pieces, and unified in design—physically embodied this new notion of community.
Another is Eli Lissitsky’s amazing model for a museum exhibition space, Room for Constructivist Art. With paneled walls alternately painted in black, white and gray, the space’s visuals literally change as the viewer walks through it, with the viewer’s perceptions of the paintings (works by Piet Mondrian, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer among others) changing constantly as well. The effect is striking.
Artists, designers and architects believed that the new worldviews, proposed and then forcefully imposed by the authorities, should be exemplified by new and radical ways of seeing our environment. This awesome, idealistic belief in the power of aesthetics to literally change the world is moving, however misguided such changes may have been.
Imagining the power this new visual world might have had on someone unaffected by the relentless and numbing 21st Century image bombardment was an awe-inspiring and humbling delight.
Missing from the Art Institute’s presentation is the human toll of all this moving aspiration. The Smart Museum makes a special point of showing it, particularly as it pertained to the female experience (the Revolution’s emphasis on gender equality is another of its paradoxical positives).
At one point in the exhibition, co-curator Zachary Cahill, himself a visual artist, has assembled a touching group of drawings on paper, portraits of some of the specific protagonists whose stories come alive in the rest of the show; a clear indication that the human dimension takes precedence here.
And their voices abound. Dziga Vertov’s 1938 documentary, The Three Heroines, presents interviews with a female navigation director and a female collective farmer, their laudatory accounts of Soviet life clearly intended as aspirational models for their peers and comrades.
In contrast, Valentina Kulagina’s story, presented through diary excerpts, some of which were written on the back of her drawings (on view) shows the harsher realities Russian citizens faced under Stalin. A central figure of the Constructivist movement, along with Rodchenko and her husband, Gustav Klucis, Kulagina was severely affected by the revolution’s degeneration into Stalinist terror.
Klucis was ultimately arrested and Kulagina’s anxious accounts of her everyday struggles to survive, in the aftermath of his disappearance, are harrowing. She, and millions more over subsequent decades, were devoured by the very revolution for which they had fought.
One object in the Art Institute exhibit quietly and unintentionally demonstrates this fall from grace: Painterly Realism of a Football Player—Color Masses in the 4th Dimension (1915), one of Kazimir Malevich’s first Suprematist paintings. An example of the “Zero” in art, the work at one point modelled a radical aesthetic mode intended to overthrow all previously-known visual forms and offer a new notion of visual purity and truth.
Pre-dating the revolution itself, the composition—austere, meditative—once held the germ of revolutionary clarity, the promise of a new path forward. Today, its formerly pristine surface is riddled with swirling craquelure. Even the loftiest of ideals are subject to the inevitable laws of nature.
Aniko Berman is an art writer based in Chicago. She previously covered the art world in New York, writing reviews and artist interviews for various publications including Flash Art International. She is currently Director at Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.
Kazimir Malevich. Painterly Realism of a Football Player—Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, 1915.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Valentina Kulagina, International Working Women’s Day Is the Fighting Day of the Proletariat, 1931,
Ne boltai! Collection.