When art was truly revolutionary

by María Magdalena Ziegler 


Perhaps there is no better source of political propaganda in the 20th century than the Bolshevik Revolution. The world was captivated by the epic of “a handful of workers” who had taken out of the way one of the most powerful empires on the planet, that of the immense Russia. 

Not even the Menshevik Revolution -that from February 1917 which led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II-, was able to compete with the incredible achievements of the October Revolution of that year that hoisted the flag of the Soviets.

The arts received the impact of that propaganda that seduced the world. It was repeated with relish that the Soviet Revolution stoked the artistic vanguard in a Russia imbued with religious and academic tradition in its arts. 

Art revolution before the revolution

Thus, the revolution would then have been not only political and social but also artistic. A little over one hundred years after the events of 1917, All of this can be described as inaccurate and unfair.

Understanding Russian art before and after the Revolution led by Lenin is usually done from plain colors (or perhaps, only white and red, to be more in tune with events). 

Repin Procession Russian art
Ilya Repin, “Religious Procession in Kursk Province”, 1883

By 1900, the Russian society was one with a prosperous artistic activity. The so-called folk art, full of folklorism and color was well rooted and tremendously prolific. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Brotherhood of the Wanders (Peredvízhniki or «Передви́жники») -with Ilya Repin as most known artist- had practiced a kind of realistic painting with significant social burden, which remained strong (with its ups and downs) at the time of the Bolshevik triumph.

Якунчикова М.В. обложка номеров 1899 13-24
Yelena Polenova, “Mir iskusstwa” cover, 1899

But in addition, the so-called World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) aligned with the avant-garde tendencies of the West and inspired by the homonymous magazine that would serve them as a de facto manifesto, introduced a renewing air to the Russian artistic scene in the first decade of the 20th century. 

Leon Bakst, Costume design for Vaslav Nijinsky as the Chineses Dancer (Les Orientales, 1917)

The group was formed in 1898 by some students among whom were Alexandre Benois, Konstantin Somov, Dmitry Filosofov, Léon Bakst and Eugene Lansere. His cosmopolitan vision influenced the development of artistic individualism in Russia. It also represented an aesthetic reaction against what was promoted by the Itinerant group. Art Nouveau was then the spearhead to shake the prevailing traditional aesthetics.

On the other hand, another group of Russian artistic avant-garde, one of the most active and ardent of all Europe since the first decade of the last century, had positioned itself in the innovative artistic furor. 

Larionov russian-tales-1916
Mikhail Larionov, “Russian tales”, 1916.

By 1908, for example, the “art of the future” was already being talked about in the Russian press, a year before Filippo Marinetti coined the term “Futurism” in Italy. This “art of the future” referred to the works of original artists such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné, David Burliuk and Alexandra Exter. 

Russian art all over

By 1914, several Russian artists had been in Western Europe and were well aware of avant-garde ideas. Larionov and Goncharova, for example, had already been in Paris by 1910. Additionally, the very successful tours of the Russian Ballet aroused great interest in the West for the culture of that country. 

Linen 1913 by Natalya Goncharova 1881-1962
Natalia Goncharova, “Linen”, 1913

The ideas did not flow in one direction. Those who visited Russia in the years prior to 1917, were impressed by the interest in traditional religious icons from a modern perspective and, above all, by the extraordinary passion in artistic theorization that would later lead to abstraction. 

Henri Matisse and Umberto Boccioni spent time in Russia and left behind as many ideas as they took back. In the spring of 1908, an exhibition was held in St. Petersburg entitled “Modern Trends”. Exter and Burliuk would be counted among the artists. 

Golden fleece
Cover of the “Golden Fleece” issue No. 1, 1906

On the other hand, The Golden Fleece, probably the most prestigious art magazine in all Russia back then, was a regular sponsor of the ideas of Fauvism and in 1908 and 1909. It would include works by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis in the exhibitions that it organized with great success.

The Golden Fleece contributed to the diffusion of a new understanding of art, one that emphasized a more individual and personal vision from the artist. In fact, the work of art as the equivalent of sensations, emotional and spiritual states, and the primacy of the creative process were concepts already discussed by 1908 in many artistic circles in Russia.

Artists were first

El Lissitzky, one of the most famous Russian artists, declared in 1922 that the October Revolution in artistic matters had been originated long before 1917. The Russian artistic avant-garde prior to October 1917 was widely diverse. The works of Vassily Kandinsky, Vladimir Tatlin, Antoine Pevsner, Alexander Rodchenko and Kazimir Malevich, for example, differed greatly among themselves as far as their ideas were concerned. 

Kazimir Malevich, “Composition with black and red squares”, 1915

The number of exhibition events that took place between 1905 and 1917 featuring Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Aristarkh Lentulov, Malevich, among others, attests to the very active Russian artistic life and the confrontations that were taking place through forms and ideas.

In consequence, the momentum created by the Revolution was for these avant-garde artists a kind of a heroic era in which they assumed a messianic attitude, which favored the construction of a new way of life, which would promote the progress of man.

However, later on, when the Bolshevik Revolution came to full power and control of the economy, the State abrogated the right to indicate the path that art should follow. But imposing Socialist Realism as an aesthetic dogma resulted in the suffocation of Russian artistic creativity.

That creativity that drove frantic changes in the arts since the early 20th century died inevitably. The imposed solution from the Soviet state to control the artistic scene implied the execration of a great part of the imagination and innovation any revolutionary process should always have. 


2 thoughts on “When art was truly revolutionary

  1. gomezfidel

    Un post muy oportuno sobre todo porque se acerca el 9 de noviembre, la fecha de la caída de muro de Berlín, el día que marcó el inicio de la era de la información para algunos historiadores.

    Tristemente la historia de este arte de vanguardia ruso cambió mucho con el acenso de Stalin al poder, el carácter revolucionario desde lo estético fué hecho a un lado por el propagandismo panfletario, lo que generó el gran éxodo de artistas rusos hacia Europa, algo muy parecido trataron de hacer durante la gestión de Chávez en Venezuela desde el ministerio de cultura, crear un tipo de arte oficial que expresara los “ideales revolucionarios”, muy a la cubana que es un refrito del realismo socialista soviético.


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