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Malevich and the Bolsheviks

Was the Russian avant-garde a victim or a vanguard of Stalinism? Their relationship to the Bolshevists has remained the subject of controversial discussion to this day. Christian Semler on Malevich's cosmic yearnings and the connections between the artistic and social revolutions.

Government troops shooting at demonstrators in Petrograd on the corner
of Nevsky Prospect/Sadovay Street. July 4, 1917.
Photo: Ayn Rand

The history of the relationship of the Russian avant-garde to the Bolsheviks has always been the subject of controversial discussion; interpretations, however, have tended to align themselves along shifts in the political climate. For a long time, the avant-garde, at least among western historians, was regarded as a victim of Soviet state power. Throughout the civil war, when the isolated Bolsheviks were glad for any support that came their way, the avant-garde were initially exploited for propagandist purposes; later, following the consolidation of communist rule, they were brushed aside, and finally, under the aegis of "Socialist Realism," they were defamed as decadent and formalist. Over the past several years, the trend has turned against the avant-garde, particularly in Russia. They are no longer regarded as victims, but as perpetrators. Now, their desire to break with the traditional idea of the autonomous artist and to place artistic production at the service of society is being damned as a vanguard project that led to totalitarianism. As the art historian and philosopher Boris Groys expressed in his book Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (Hanser Publishers 1988): "The Stalinist time did indeed realize the avant-garde's dream of organizing the entirety of social life according to an overall artistic plan, although it was obviously not the one the avant-garde had in mind." According to Groys, the sheer fact that they were persecuted proves that they were operating on the same territory as the party – the territory of power (you can find an essay on "Groys and Marx' Ghosts" by Dragan Kujundzic here).

Lenin on Red Square during a demonstration by workers on the second anniversary
of the October Revolution. To his right is Leo Trotsky. November 1917.
Photo: L. Ya. Leonidov

Amazingly, Kasimir Malevich has also been included in this process of reevaluation, although he always refused to regard his art as a means of agitation for political purposes. His rejection of "production art" and his opposition to the constructivist school that had begun forming around the early twenties has been well documented. He was repelled by the idea of using the suprematist movement he'd founded to create political agitation art.

When his student, El Lissitzky, created the famous poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, in which he aimed for a political effect using the basic forms of Suprematism, Malevich could find nothing good to say about it; it reintroduced the world of visible things, of "meaning," of imitating reality, albeit in the form of geometric signs. In contrast, Malevich's entire energy was directed towards breaking through this world of things in order to attain to a higher, purer form of reality.

El Lissitzky:
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919

Malevich's revolution of representational painting, his Black Square on a white background (more here), occurred in 1915, if one doesn't count the prelude, the square on the curtain of the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, which he designed the set for in 1913. But what was the relationship between this revolution in art of 1915 and the October Revolution of 1917? Was it a precursor related to the October upheaval, as Lissitzky implied when he wrote: "Into this chaos came Suprematism and glorified the square as the true source of artistic expression. And then came communism and glorified work as the true source of the human heartbeat"? And if this were the case, what did the bond between the artistic and social revolutions consist of?

Sketches by Kasimir Malevich of costumes for the opera Victory Over The Sun, 1913

If one doesn't take the avant-garde's own self-definition and the criticism of art connected to it as a basis, but rather the perception of the "outside world," then the avant-garde were summarily regarded as futurists in Russia during the First World War. Here, a proximity to Italian Futurism is implied that did not exist, particularly not in regards to their respective philosophical and political backgrounds. For Italian Futurism (Marinetti's founding manifesto), the machine cult and the celebration of technology were characteristic, including the express affirmation of the mechanically induced mass slaughter of modern war. Behind it was often a boast of power that liked to pose as a surmounting of bourgeois decadence. In the libretto of Victory Over the Sun, there were "power-people," as well, who locked up the sun wearing futurist costumes Malevich had created for them. The choir sings: "We are free. The sun has been beaten. Long live darkness and the black gods of their favorite – the swine." (You can find more on the current discussion over "machine people" or artificial intelligence at Perlentaucher and at Ray Kurzweil; at MIT, an initial prototype is trying out being human.)

The MIT robot Kismet practices laughing (photo: P. Menzel)

To detect traces here of the "Uebermensch" and the laudation of a machine world situated beyond bourgeois civilization, however, does violence to the universe of ideas of the poets Aleksej Krucenych (more here and here) and Velimir Chlebnikov, as well as their comrade-in-arms Malevich. For the locked-in sun stands precisely for the achievements of the technological age, including the conventions of language they were attempting to liberate themselves from. For this reason, the "Victory Over the Sun" doesn't proclaim a new era of steel, but ends with the assertion of the "power-people": "Beginning good, everything good that is without end" as well as a "war song" that pieces croaky consonants together to form a new language in dadaist manner. For this reason, Boris Groys also doesn't consider belief in progress to have been a fundamental impulse of the Russian avant-garde. "It accepted," according to Groys, "the deterioration of the old image of the world and tried to probe it more deeply in order to secure new foothold." It reacted to progress, but did not initiate it.

In one respect, however, the Russian "Futurists" resembled their Italian contemporaries. They settled radically with art history, the museum establishment erected upon it, the art collectors, and with the canon of art criticism prevailing at the time. As far as they were concerned, the entire traditional cosmos of beauty could go to the devil. They called upon the world of the living to fight against the dead world of the art establishment. This type of radicalism also characterized the arguments between Malevich and the leading Petersburg art critic Alexandre Benois on the occasion of the exhibition 0:10 (more here), in which Malevich embarked upon his suprematist offensive. A short time later, he would write: "The living should break all friendly ties with the conservatives and be as cruel as time and as life itself."

A vy mogli by? (But Could You?)
Visual poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, illustrated by El Lissitzky.

For artists, the February Revolution opened up broad possibilities of self-administration, for which reason many of the avant-garde, including those who stood close to the Bolsheviks, such as Vladimir Mayakovsky (Conversation with the Tax Collector About Poetry), mistrustfully followed the Bolsheviks' first steps in cultural politics after the October Revolution. The slogans were autonomy and self-administration. However, the offer of the newly-installed People's Commissariat of Education (Narkompros) to work together was simply too tempting. Anatoly Lunacharsky, its director, had set up a department for fine arts (IZO-Narkompros) in Petrograd with a branch in Moscow, engaging a staff of artists as advisors. When the short-lived People's Commissariat for Czarist Artworks and the Protection of Landmarks merged with Narkompros, the furnishing of new museums as well as the reorganization of the academies also fell within the avant-garde sphere of influence.

If one takes a broader look at Malevich's post-October art organizational activities, what stands out most is the fundamental constructive feature based on participation and practical implementation. His museum conception for modern art commences with Impressionism, proceeds through Cézanne, the Cubists, and the Futurists, and ends with the suprematist movement he himself founded as a final reckoning with representational painting. Here, the gaze was to be liberated for a deeper reality.

Kasimir Malevich:
Red Square, 1915
(photo: catalogue)

Joseph Stalin in Siberian
exile, 1915

The museums were not only to open themselves up to simple folk, to explain the internal laws inherent in the relationships between colors and forms, but they were to travel to the depths of Russia's heartland to teach the new way of seeing. The artistic revolution was meant to go hand in hand with the social revolution. The Red Square was supposed to become the rallying point for this.

Vladimir I. Lenin wearing
a wig and a cap before an
illegal trip to Finland,
July 1917.
Photo: D.I. Leshchenko

Jakob Swerdlow


Leo Trotsky,
wanted photo, 1915

Did Malevich regard himself as the general secretary of pictorial space, comparable to the general secretary of the Bolsheviks, an office which, following the early death of Jakob Sverdlov (a portrait by Lunacharsky can be found here), was filled by none other than Joseph Stalin? Was he obsessed with artistic fantasies of omnipotence regarding social restructuring, as Boris Groys has diagnosed for the entire avant-garde?

There are indications that lend themselves to a position of this kind, above all when his activities at the art academy in the Byelorussian city of Vitebsk are taken into account. In a reckless move, Marc Chagall had summoned him there in 1919 to teach. Malevich used a sojourn abroad of Chagall's in order to stage a coup against the director and to turn the Vitebsk Institute into a suprematist academy. Much as the revolutionaries had done, he gathered a cadre of young artists around himself, proclaimed a new and compulsory art doctrine, departed from the detached zone of artistic production in order to embellish the streets and plazas of Vitebsk, founded branches everywhere, and called Unowis (project for the creation of new forms in art), the school he'd founded, a party.

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