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Revolution and the avant-gardes

by Niccoló Milanese

1918 witnessed a great burst of energy from the artists of Russia. One, Natan Altman, decorated Petrograd’s Palace Square in huge abstract forms for the first anniversary of the Revolution: “I wished to contrast the new beauty of a victorious revolutionary people with the old beauty of imperial Russia”. The poet Mayakovsky had written in his ‘Open Letter to the Workers’ that “No-one knows what huge suns will illuminate the life of the future. Perhaps artists will transform the gray dust of the cities into a hundred-coloured rainbow…For us one thing is clear: we have inaugurated the first country in the modern history of the arts”. This feeling for the freedom of the new was combined with a strong sense of purposefulness: soon Petrograd abounded with competing groups of artists, each claiming to be the new art of the revolution; Malevich and the Supremicists, Aleksandr Rodcenko and the Productivists, Vladmir Tatlin and the Constructivists…

In his unfinished ‘Art and Revolution’ the critic Nicolai Punin offers a description of the artist Lev Bruni’s ‘Apartment no.5’, where during these years Tatlin, Popova, Malevich, Mandalstam and Mayakovsky debated how to “seize reality”:

Everywhere there lay ‘materials’: iron, tin, glass, cable, cardboard, leather, some putty, lacquers and varnishes . . . We sawed, planed, cut, ground, stretched and glued. We almost forgot about easel-painting. We spoke only of contrasts, of links, of tension, of the angle of a cut, of ‘textures’.

Never completely a fellow traveller with the revolution, Punin nevertheless took part in constructing the model of Tatlin’s ‘Monument to the Third International’ in 1920: a huge babellian tower, with three separately rotating sections which would house the Comintern and act as a huge radio-mast for the transmission of Bolshevik propaganda worldwide. “The first monument without a beard”, as Mayakovsky called it. It was to be twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Of course, the structure was never built. Trotsky dismissed the idea as ridiculous, and both him and Lenin had their doubts about the futurists. Trotsky acknowledged the mastery of Mayakovsky, but claimed the group could not fully embody the perspective of October: they had defined themselves against all tradition, whereas the revolution came from a tradition that spread back to the Paris commune, and the French Revolution before it. Both Lenin and Trotsky claimed the people of Russia were not ready for futurism, and because they were not yet ready, they could never be. This was the constant paradox that vexed them both: how was it Russia, the least developed of European countries, had come first to communist revolution? Since the workers had never had ownership over the literary traditions of Russia, the art that would finally appear from the revolution could not be defined against them: a wholly new history would be written.

Nicolai Punin had his own theory of the new art. He claimed that central to the history of Russian art was icon painting, and this provided a distinctive artistic consciousness from that of other Europeans. Whereas Impressionism had reduced the world to the play of light, an “optical malady”, and Cubism was obsessed by the surface, Russian art could truly grasp materiality. In icon painting the wooden support always shows around the icon, and colour itself must be treated as a material.

It is tragically ironic that Punin’s historical awareness, which both marked him out from other futurists and made him sceptical of the Revolution, was what he was condemned for not exhibiting as Bolshevism morphed into Stalinism: Punin was arrested for not discussing the great Russian artists in his lectures, for “denigrating the great Russian realistic art”, for being an ‘aesthete’ – that is, for intellectual honesty. He died imprisoned in Abez, on the edge of the Artic circle, in 1953.

Punin is the subject of the first stanza of his lover Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’, which she commenced writing after the arrest of both him and her son in 1935. In death as in life, the icon bears a powerful witness:

They took you away at dawn,
I walked after you as though you were being borne out,
the children were crying in the dark room,
the candle swam by the icon-stand.
The cold of the icon on your lips...

Niccoló Milanese is a poet and painter, and Contributing Editor of The Liberal

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