Thursday, July 26, 2012
Avant-Garde of the Revolution by Bruce Chatwin
George Costakis is the leading private art collector in the Soviet Union (c.1973). And his is no ordinary collection, but one of compelling interest to all who would understand the art of this century.  For twenty-six years he has conducted his private archeological excavation – and this is what it has required – to unearth the Leftist art movement which burst on Russia in the years around the Revolution. Russia’s revolution is the outstanding intellectual event of the century, and her painters, sculptors and architects rose to the occasion. During the First War the center of artistic gravity shifted from Paris to Moscow and Leningrad where it remained for a few turbulent years.
‘I will make myself black trousers of the velvet of my voice,’ sang its most conspicuous spokesman, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.  Young women shivered with pleasure at the voice of the man who called himself ‘the cloud in pants.’ Characteristically it took a Russian émigré, Serge Diaghilev, to galvanize the fading talents of Western Europe into a show of activity. But by his exile he divorced himself from the source of his inspiration. The Russian soil is a powerful mother and few of her artists survive the trauma of parting.
Those with strong will power stayed. The uniqueness of the Russian situation encouraged in them an almost Messianic belief in the power of art to transform the world. And because the most extreme apostles of modernism had opened their arms to the Bolsheviks, they were able to press their claims. Admittedly they fought each other (with fists) and divided into schismatic groups, each broadcasting its manifestos which read like the anathemas of the medieval church. They called themselves misleading names – Constructivists, Productivists, Objectivists, Suprematists – which often reflect personal vendettas rather than any real ideological split. As a whole, however, the work of the Leftists has a freshness and confidence, which towers over the smartness, the hysteria and the aridity of much European art in the Twenties.
When the full history of the Russian movement comes to be written – and to some extent we must thank Costakis that it can be written – it will probably emerge as he most significant of all. Whatever we think, later generations will look on the twentieth century as the century of abstract painting. Two Russians, Kasimir Malevich  and Vassily Kandinsky[3a], are its pioneers, and to understand the movement properly we must place it first in its original Slavic context.
For a few euphoric years the avant-garde flourished, but its anarchic philosophy appeared to contradict the crucial tenets of Soviet Marxism. It attracted official disapproval; was formally sat non; and then paintings disappeared under beds or into the vaults of museums. When Costakis began, Leftist art was quite forgotten. Outside the Soviet Union it attracted a few disparaging comments. Inside it did not arouse a flicker of interest. In 1947 an art critic could denounce Cezanne’s dishonest ‘indifference to subject matter’ and complain that his fruit and flowers ‘lack aroma and texture’. In those days the non-figurative artist was a pariah.
Costakis was the ‘mad Greek who buys hideous pictures’. He spent fifteen years in the cold and if, over the past ten, his apartment has become an object of pilgrimage, it gives him very obvious satisfaction. ‘…Kalf…Berchem…this kind of thing. Then little by little they all looked to me like one color. I had twenty paintings on the wall and it was like one painting.” He cannnot single out any one event of childhood that inclined him towards works of art, but imagines the ceremonial of the Orthodox Church may have affected him. ‘But this is not the real reason. All my life I wanted to write a book . . . or make an aeroplane . . . . or invent some industrial miracle. I had to do something. And I told myself, “If I continue to collect old paintings, I will do nothing. Even if one day I will find a Rembrandt, people will say ‘He was lucky’ and that is all.” Then, in he dark days after the war, someone offered him three brightly colored paintings of the lost avant-garde. ‘They were signals to me. I did not care what it was . . . but nobody knew what anything was in those days.’
Three paintings signaled to Costakis the existence of a world he had never suspected Whenever free from his duties at he Canadian Embassy he hunted for ‘lost’ pictures ‘thrown around all the corners of Moscow and Leningrad. The hunt led to old people who imagined that time had passed them by. Some were broken by events and delighted to have even a token of recognition. He rescued canvases that were rolled up and covered with dust. He met Tatlin before he died, ‘the great fool’ who designed the Monument to the Third International, and lived alone with some hens and a balalaika. He befriended Stepanova, the widow of the comprehensive genius Alexander Rodchenko. He tracked down the friends of the great Malevich. He bought works by the emigres Kandinsky and Chagall; by Lissitzky, the master typographer, and Gustav Klutsis, the Constructivist designer; by Liubov Popova, ‘the strongest painter of her generation’ )’When she was fighting for art, she was a man; but in bed she was a woman.’); and by Ivan Klium, whose cosmic abstractions anticipate Rothko. With persistence he traced obscure artists who had signed the early manifestos, finding in them qualities their contemporaries had overlooked. And as he accumulated, he pierced together the story of their ideologies, alliances, fantastic projects, squabbles and love affairs; for revolutionary freedom was synonymous with free love. . .
The existence of the Costakis’s collection introduces an unfamiliar aspect of life in the Soviet Union. In the Western imagination the Marxist State is the declared enemy of private property; and some might suppose that a valuable private art collection merely reveals the inconsistency of Marxism. This is not so. Nothing in the Soviet legal code prevents a man owning pictures any more than it prevents him owning a pair of boots. Nor can one suggest, by way of explanation, that Costakis uses his Greek citizenship to enjoy special rights and immunities. He does not.
There are plenty of private collections in the Soviet Union today and prices are rising. An entry in Costakis’s visitors’ book which reads, ‘An example to all of us Russian collectors of avant-garde art’, tells us he has competition. But two awkward facts remain; that abstract art was banned by 1932; that it has failed to resurface on he walls of museums. The Ministry of Culture, however, is showing signs of a more indulgent attitude. Rumors are in the air of a Soviet Museum of Modern Art. . .
The reasons for the ban are far from clear. Western opinions on the subject have long entertained a consoling fiction, that Party bureaucrats failed to understand Leftist art, therefore had it and branded it as subversive. Its disappearance is used as an excuse for pious assertions on the need for artistic freedom and for exposing ‘official’ Soviet art to ridicule. These have not been helpful. I do not mean to suggest that Leftist artists were not horribly wronged in the late Thirties. But the idea that their art was banned through ignorance is a trite explanation which belittles its significance.
In the pinion of its makers, the Bolshevik Revolution had set man free. The proletariat had won –was, in theory, dictator, and had the right to decide what was, or was not, proletarian art. Marx had hoped that once the worker had free time he would ‘among other things, paint. But for all his genius, he was not visually inclined and did not suggest what the worker should paint. Nor did his theory allow for the visual awareness of the Russians, nor for the Russian painter’s status as prophet and teacher. No government can afford to ignore him, and this is a fact not appreciated in the West, where a revolutionary art is defused by the patronage of the rich. One of Lenin’s secretaries records how people were led before Repin’s painting The Barge-haulers on the Volga in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and converted to the revolution by its message against injustice. Now all good Bolsheviks believed that art belonged to the people. But by October 1917 there are two contradictory opinions on the form the new art should take.
In one camp were the Futurists. (I use the word Futurist in the widest sense.) As the old order tottered, they conducted a war of nerves against middle-class morality and taste. They saw themselves as a wrecking party which would unhinge the future from the past. Their painters saw in French Cubism a preliminary shattering of images beloved by the bourgeois. The philosopher Berdyaev said Picasso was the last of the Stone Age men. Their poets had an ‘insurmountable hatred for the language existing before them’. They drained poetry of its meaning and insisted on the primacy of [pure sound. ‘Words are but ghosts hiding the alphabet’s strings.’ They published their manifestos – ‘Go to the Devil’ –‘The Thunder Boiling Cup’ –‘A Slap to Public Taste’ – on the cheapest paper, ‘the color of a fainted louse.’ Mayakovsky and David Burliuk, the self-appointed storm-troopers of Futurism, paraded around St. Petersburg in alogical fancy dress; crowds wondered if they were clowns or savages or fakirs or Americans. Mayakovsky once advised his audience to ‘carry their fat carcasses home.’
But the Futurists usually came from ‘good’ families, and their posturing was of the essence of middle-class revolt. The Bolsheviks were tougher, more serious and their view of art different. The populist composer Mussorgsky had once said that artists must ‘not get to know then people, but be admitted to their brotherhood.’ If serious, the artist must merge in with the masses and do nothing to affront the taste of the common man. That taste was bound to be traditional. And the pragmatic Lenin saw the need for an art which would broadcast the revolution in simple, traditional images.
Lenin was the son of a provincial director of schools, and historians have often noticed the firm, pedagogic manner with which he handled his colleagues. Edmund Wilson even called him “The Great Headmaster.’ Certainly his concept of partiinost, or sacrificial party spirit, reminds one of loyalty demanded for the schoolteam. His tastes were old-fashioned and austere. He knew that Marx’s moral and historical interpretation of history was right. He knew his own interpretation of Marx was right. And he also knew that if he waited for capitalism to collapse he would wait indefinitely.
On this crucial [point there are two distinct trends in Marx’s thought. One encourages the worker to rise and batter his oppressors. The other says capitalism will evaporate in the quickness of time and in accordance with the laws of history. Marx’s open legacy crystallized into a quarrel between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Lenin, as Bolshevik leader, appointed himself the active agent of history, who was to accelerate its inevitable process by force. The Mensheviks dreaded force, preferring a gradual change to Socialism, through educating the workers.
Among the Bolsheviks themselves there was a similar split. A challenge to Lenin’s authority came from an ambitious Marxists called Alexander Malinovsky, who later changed his name to Bogdanov, which means ‘Son of God’ (God in this case being the ‘People’). He founded a rather nebulous institution called Proletcult which, he aid, was ‘a laboratory for proletarian culture’, and had set up a colony in exile on Capri which Lenin visited and loathed. Bogdanov countered Lenin’s demand for unity by calling for ‘Three Ways to Socialism – Political, Economic and Cultural’; in particular he insisted on the independence of cultural matters from the government. The Futurists preferred the independence of Bogdanov’s Proletcult to Lenin’s centralization. From the start they were in the wrong camp.
Years of committee meetings in exile had convinced Lenin that liberal intellectuals were weak-kneed and ineffectual. Unity, unity at all costs obsessed him, and he saw ‘no special basis for different directions in art’. Anything that reminded him of idealist philosophy he distrusted, and he would chide his colleagues for ‘coquetting with religion’. Maxim Gorky might exclaim, ‘Almighty, Immortal People, Thou art my God!’ but Lenin never. If he was a dreamer, he was, in H.G. Wells’s verdict, ‘a dreamer in technology’. His saying ‘Communism is Electrification plus Soviets’ expresses his faith in the machine as savior and agent of Socialism.
Marx had warned against the delusions of abstract thought and Lenin probably thought the same of abstract art. At first he thought it harmless, but tolerance gave way to irritation. He disliked the street monuments which left spectators gasping for sense. And when some artists ‘cancelled out’ the trees of the capitalist period in the Alexandrovsky Gardens  outside the Kremlin by painting them in bright colors that wouldn’t come off, Lenin and Krupskaya were very cross. In a dry memorandum of October 1920 Lenin wrote: ‘No creation of a new proletarian culture, but the development of the best models of existing culture . . .’ Marxism does not despise the achievements of the past.
Certainly the new masters of Russia preserved its treasures. Once the Winter Palace was stormed, the inventory of its contents began and looters were shot. Anatoly Lunacharsky , Lenin’s first Commissioner for Education, had once made his listeners cry as he evoked the wonders of old in the Naples Museum. In November 1917 he made himself cry at news of the destruction of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s [13&14], and resigned from the Revolutionary Committee. ‘I cannot stand it. I cannot stand the monstrous destruction of beauty and tradition.’ He reinstated himself two days later when he heard the news was false.
In contrast, a mood of iconoclastic fervor swept the Left-wingists. They couldn’t have cared less what happened to the Kremlin. Marinetti  had once called it ‘an absurd thing’; for all they were concerned it could burn. Malevich hoped all towns and villages would be destroyed every fifty years and said he’d feel more sorry about a screw breaking off than the destruction of St. Basil’s. The avant-garde hadn’t counted on the Bolshevik uprising, but they were the only group of artists in Russia to welcome it. Calling themselves Leftists, they clamored for complete monopoly in the arts.
They behaved with customary lack of caution but superhuman energy. Mayakovsky’s slogan ‘the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes’ flushed artists out into the open. They decorated the Agit-Prop trains which toured the country, staged mass spectacles, placarded old palaces with monumental posters, bundled Tsarist monuments into parcels of throbbing red cloth, played a symphony on factory sirens, evolved a new typography to broadcast the new message and said they were breaking down the divisions between art and engineering, or between painting and music: the latter is not difficult in a country where colors have equivalents in sound; reindeer bells tinkle red and for one poet the noise of the 1905 Revolution was mauve.
The ideas of the artists conflicted. At one extreme was Kandinsky, who for some years had been painting the private landscapes of his mind. He believed in painting as a healing ritual to cure mental anguish and wean men from materialism. ‘Painting’, he wrote, ‘shall free me from my fears’ But men like Tatlin and Rodchenko insisted that materialism was the only value that counted. All the artists, however, agreed to hate the image. The art of the new man must suppress all representation of man. Malevich, an eloquent if erratic propagandist, thundered against the Venus de Milo (‘not a woman but a parody’) and against the rubbish-filled pool of Academic art’ with its female hams, depraved cupids and congealed legacy from Greece. His tone is that of Isaiah on the subject of idols and I think the comparison apt. For beneath the Russians’ obvious devotion to human images lurks an impulse to smash them to bits. The ugly riches of late Tsardom, it is true, were an open invitation to wreckers, but iconoclasm in Russia has a longer history.
As ‘Third Rome’ and guardian of an orthodoxy denied by the renegade West, Russia inherited from Byzantium her peculiar attitude towards the image. The statue of an emperor or icon of a saint proved the legitimacy of a political or religious idea. The saying ‘He who delights in the Emperor’s statue delights in the Emperor’ apples as well to Justinian as to Tsar Nicholas II. Authoritarian societies love images because they reinforce the chain of command at all levels of the hierarchy. But an abstract art of pure form and color, if it is serious and not merely decorative, mocks the pretensions of secular power because it transcends the limits of this world and attempts to penetrate a hidden world of universal law.
Anarchic peoples, like desert nomads, hate and destroy images, and a similar image-breaking streak runs through Russian history. The apparent endlessness of the country encourages the search for inner freedom – with mystics of all kinds, the Brodiagi or perpetual pilgrims, flagellants, Adventists, people in search of the Seventh Dimension and the famous Molokany, or Milk Drinkers, who influenced Tolstoy.
Malevich was touched by mystical yearnings. In his hands the non-objective canvas became an icon of anarchy and inner freedom: this is what made in dangerous to Marxist materialism.. Of his painting Black Square he said he had felt ‘black nights within’ and a ‘timidity bordering on fear’, but as he decided to break with reality and abandon the image: ‘a blissful sensation of being drawn into a “desert” where nothing is real but feeling, and feeling became the substance of my life’. Now this is not the language of a good Marxist, but of Meister Eckhart -, or, for that matter, of Mohammed. Malevich’s Black Square, his ‘absolute symbol of modernity’, is the equivalent in painting of the black-draped Ka’aba at Mecca, the shrine in a valley of sterile soil where all men are equal before God. And if this seems far-fetched, I quote the judgment of Andrei Burov , an architect who left the Constructivist Movement: ‘There was a strong Muslim influence and orthodox Mohammedanism at that; by way of decoration only clocks and letters were allowed.’
With militant enthusiasm the artists of the Left set about demolishing class barrier and imposing the art of equality on people. They then asked the Government to suppress the Society of Easel Painters and abolish all traditional forms of painting. The very fact of the Revolution demanded a complete break with the Academic tradition, which was alien and Western. The cry went out to jettison the relics of the past to prevent the new man being ‘weighed down like an over-loaded camel’. In Bogdanov’s opinion, the art of the past was not a treasury but an arsenal of weapons against the former age. ‘We will smash the old world wildly,’ announced Mayakovsky, who then suggested everything from Adam to Mayakovsky be consigned to the dustbin.
A White Army Officer
When you catch him
You beat him
And what about Raphael
It’s time to make museum
Walls a target
Let the mouths of big guns
Shoot the old rags of the past!
To many officials, the Leftists were to the ‘left of common sense’.
What had caused the hysteria? One suspects they were overcompensating for not having fought alongside the Bolsheviks But more important, the mystique of the machine seems to have gone to their heads. As John Reed , an American Communist, wrote: ‘The devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer. . .’ That kingdom was the kingdom of the machine. The backwardness of Russian industry before the First War is, I am told, often underestimated. The machine age came late to Russia, but when it did, it came with a startling abruptness. The growth rate was phenomenal. Industrial units were few, but were the largest in the world, and Texas oilmen would visit Baku to witness the latest techniques of oil-extraction. With the Revolution, the means o production had devolved on the workers themselves and in their hands the man-made machine would transform humanity. Such was the hope. ‘We are masters of the machine,’ said Mayakovsky, ‘therefore we need not fear it.’ The machine was going to introduce true Socialism. Experts said it would take six months.
Now Lenin’s Mechanical materialism was tempered by his sense of the practical. The Leftists did not know his restraint. Most of them hated nature, or pretended to. Man had a Promethean mission to hack up the earth and fashion it to his taste. The position of mountains and other inconvenient geographic features was ‘far from final’. Malevich, whose mysticism was aroused by machinery, called for man ‘to seize the world of nature, and build a new world belonging to himself’. Other artists described themselves as ‘Saints in the Church of the Machine’. In Vsevolod Meyerhold’s ‘biomechanical’ theatre the actors suppressed any life-like emotion and behaved as though they were stage machinery. Pavlov’s dogs salivated mechanically to stimuli. The concept of the house as a ‘machine for living’ probably originates in Russia and not with Le Corbusier. There was an infatuation with an imaginary America with calls to ‘Chicago-ise the soul’ and ‘do our work like a chronometer!’ to ‘desoul’ art and reduce painting to the scientific application of color.
Once they had ‘desouled’ painting, painters could dispose with it altogether. The monochrome canvas, in effect, declared its extinction as an art form. Malevich exhibited his White On White canvases, which were his ultimate expression of non-objective bliss. Tatlin painted a plain pink board. At an exhibition at the Vkhutemas School in 1921 called “The Last Picture Has Been Painted”, Alexander Rodchenko  showed three plain canvases in the primary colors. His sketchbooks which lead up to the ‘suicide of painting’ still belong to his daughter in Moscow and reveal him as a conceptual genius on the level of Marcel Duchamp. In two years he tried out and discarded almost every experiment the New York abstract painters tried in the Fifties and Sixties before reaching the present impasse.
But in 1920 the Russian avant- garde was undismayed by the impasse. A useful art and architecture of iron, glass and concrete would, in one opinion, replace the old culture of wood, ‘itself a bourgeois counter-revolutionary material’. The man-made thing became the object of a minor cult, the factory a shrine to the dignity of labor. Tatlin designed stoves and casseroles , though one cynical observer noticed that if all the artists went into the factories they would be reduced to designing labels. Nevertheless, when today we talk of the dehumanizing effects of the machine, it’s strange to hear Malevich’s adulation of the ‘big city’s metallic culture, the culture of the new humanized nature.’
And the kingdom of the machine was not confined to earth. Air travel had also gone to their heads. In 1892 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who taught physics and mathematics at a girls’ school in Ryazan province, had said ‘This planet is the cradle of the human mind, but one cannot spend one’s life in a cradle’. So, being a genius, the Father of the Russian Space Programme invented the first wind-tunnel and outlined the principle of the reactor rocket. A less talented visionary, who had the grace to call himself Kreisky ‘the Extreme’, pioneered the concept of stellar engineering. ‘We shall arrange the stars in rows. . . We shall erect upon the canals of Mars the Palace of World Freedom.’
Tatlin’s projected iron and glass Monument to the Third International, which was to have spanned the Neva, appealed to the yearning for the infinite. Its spiral form which certainly has Islamic ancestry) combines the idea of cyclic renewal with limitless upward progression. Later ‘the great fool’ retreated up the tower of the Novodyeviche Monastery to design an articulated glider called Letatlin, but it never flew. One critic described Malevich’s White on White as a ‘rocket sent by the human spirit into non-existence’. The artist then passed from easel painting to a search for perfect architectural form, and made a series of plaster models. The fact that he called them Planetes suggest he intended his buildings to orbit.
Bad living conditions inflate the life of the fantastic. Berthold Lubetkin, the architect, who was a student at the Vkhutemas School, recalled for me the winter of 1918. He shared a room with sixteen other students behind the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. They ate hyacinths from window boxes; slept between joists wrapped in newspapers because they had burned the floorboards, had no blankets and no source of warmth other than a flat iron which they heated in the porter’s stove. A fellow student called Kalesnikov was unable to find a room and bored a hole in Lissitzky’s street monument The Red Wedge Invades the White Square, where he installed himself for the winter. The same Kalesnikov submitted to the school a project recalling conceptual art of 1794 or a story by Borges) for converting the earth into its own terrestrial globe by attaching a steel arc from pole to pole, on which the artist could hop off for a day and and night.
This brand of proletarian thought might, at a pinch, get through to the industrial worker – albeit with negative results,. But there was no room for the peasants, the wronged peasants chained to the black soil and the seasons of ice and mud and sunflowers and dust. The Leftists preferred not to think about the peasant, and hoped that his condition was transitory. There was, it was true, a strain in Russian Intellectual life which regretted the passing of old Russia and idolized the peasant, from afar, as the incarnation of Russian virtue. Bu this peasant-consciousness had become tainted with middle-class longing for the primitive. Peasant smocks had arrived in the literary salons of St. Petersburg, peasant themes and peasant colors in the Daghilev Ballet. The painter Mikhail Larionov evoked peasant lechery, yet continued to wear wing collars. There was, however, one real poet of the earth, Serge Esenin, the blonde innocent who awoke the tenderest emotions in both sexes. But he failed to master the contradiction of his roots and assumed Bohemianism 9 including a marriage to Isadora Duncan). He destroyed himself with drink, then cut his wrists.
The Leftists may have ignored the peasant. Lenin and the Party did not. Peasants accounted for eighty per cent of the population. Without their help the country would now starve. And in 1921 the government, prostrated by Civil War, granted an unknown freedom of action to the peasant in the New Economic Policy. Lenin believed that peasant solidarity was the course of true Russian Communism.. ‘We are, in a sense, pupils of the peasant.’ He once said. Now the peasant might be illiterate, but his visual acuity was exceptional. For centuries he had ‘read’ the Bible story on the iconostasis of his church; he had ‘read’ folk-takes and news on woodcuts, called lubok, which he pinned up in his cottage; and now he wanted top ‘read’ the message of Revolution and the discomfort of his old tormentors.
Today we recognize the artists and architects of the Left as great original thinkers. We marvel at early Soviet photo-montage posters by Rodchenko or Lissitzky, which pack on to a sheet of paper all the enthusiasm of the Red Revolution. But their original message did not get home to its intended audience, the whole people of Russia. They did not pass this tricky barrier of communication. By their own admission they decided what the people should want, not what it did want. And, it must be said, the people wanted to possess the monumental architecture, opulent decoration, and gilt-framed pictures with which the old rulers of Russia had encrusted their lives. Lunacharsky was correct when he said: ‘The People too have a right to colonnades.’
The Society of Easel Painters revived itself and vigorously denied that the last picture had been painted. Architects began again to load buildings with ornaments. And the dispute between the ‘formalists’ and the ‘realists’ degenerated from an acceptable dialogue to mud-slinging and worse. Tatlin, speaking for the constructivist, used to say: ‘The material is the carrier of a work’s content’; that is, an object of arresting form in steel and glass could express the vitality of the machine age. The realists’ would say, this is nonsense; it will convey messages only to people who are first primed to receive them. So why bother? The one way an artist can encourage workers in a steel factory or in the harvest field is to paint their heroic struggle realistically; and the only way to beat the camera at this game is to make the figures more heroic-looking than they really are. Such was the rationale of the Socialist Realist Style which replaced the abstraction of the Left.
In any case, ‘urban life enriched by the sense of speed’ rapidly disenchanted the Leftists. They began to see the machine as an enemy. Mayakovsky – the gentle giant with fountain-pens in his top pocket to prove his modernity – visited America, said it was fine for machines but not for men, and granted amnesty to Rembrandt before putting a bullet through his brain. With his death in 1930 it was obvious that the Leftist Movement had failed. The Party did squash it. But it also died of fatigue.
What Am I doing Here by Bruce Chatwin; Viking Press, 1989; "George Costakis: The Story of An Art Collection In The Soviet Union"