Revolution from Another Angle

  • 2016-02-02
  • The New York Review of Books

The infatuation of early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde artists with the Bolshevik regime is a well-known story. Like many romances of unequally matched partners, it ended badly. On one side, there was a fantastically talented, motley assortment of artists unattached to the upper echelons of pre-revolutionary art patronage and power; on the other was a revolutionary party that, to the surprise of many, seized power in a vast country. Concurrently, technical advances were making photography and film—relatively new mediums—ever more accessible and easier to produce. As Lenin famously noted, “cinema was the most important of the arts,” but both were of vital importance to a regime that needed to communicate with a largely illiterate population. The serendipitous confluence of technology, art, and politics in these fields is the subject of the Jewish Museum in New York’s current exhibition, “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film.”

Russia’s new political masters wanted to create a new society and a “new Soviet man.” Many of the best-known avant-garde artists embraced this task with enthusiasm: some felt as though their art was the engine driving history. Artists like El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Goncharova, Malevich, Mayakovsky, and Tatlin—to varying degrees influenced by Cubism, Futurism, and other western European movements, as well as by Russian folk traditions—had been making work that in different ways sought to redefine the very notion of art. In the cultural domain, part of the greater Bolshevik task following the Revolution was to create a new social infrastructure for producing, displaying, and distributing the visual arts. Private art collections were nationalized. Museums, exhibitions and art schools were reorganized; new art schools were formed and there was much discussion about the very concept of the museum. Artists helped create state propaganda on myriad subjects, from politics to literacy to alcoholism and women’s rights.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons