Russian art history has been hijacked by the West

Feb 7th, 2017 | By | Category: Journal


Many Russian Art historians, in Russia, are puzzled by the slew of art exhibitions being organized in the West this year as a celebration of the 1917 Russian Revolution, an event that triggered the 70 year Communist Era that brought brutality, poverty, death and terror. Russia itself, having actually experienced the trauma of 1917, has been less sure of how to deal with the event and has avoided having an official program. Mikail Zygar, a journalist involved in a reconstruction project bringing some of the events of 1917 to life said, There is no officially approved narrative of 1917; its too difficult and complicated.”

Putin himself has implied he sees the Revolution as a tragedy and in 2016 said, “We know well the consequences that these great upheavals can bring. Unfortunately, our country went through many such upheavals and their consequences in the 20th century. Next year, 2017, will mark the 100th anniversary of the February and October revolutions. This is a good moment for looking back on the causes and nature of these revolutions in Russia … Let’s remember that we are a single people, a united people, and we have only one Russia.”

In London we have two major exhibitions, Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 32, Royal Academy (11th February – 17 April) and Red Star Over Russia, Tate Modern (8th November 2017- 18th February 2018. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York are holding A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant Garde (3rd Dec 2016 – 12th March 2017) which will show 270 works from its own collection.

Alongside these exhibitions there are numerous lectures, discussions and symposiums that included a 2-day conference in London at the Royal Academy and the Courtauld Institute entitled Art Born in the Revolution. Russian Art and the State, 1917 – 1932 (24th February Courtauld and 25th January Royal Academy). Now we have The Soviet State and the Avant Garde at the Royal Academy on the 7th April.

Somerset House's facade on the Strand. Built in 1776 by Sir William Chambers the fine Neoclassical building is home to the Courtauld Institute.

Somerset House’s facade on the Strand. Built in 1776 by Sir William Chambers the fine Neoclassical building is home to the Courtauld Institute.

The basic narrative advanced by these exhibitions and conferences is that the Avant Garde was a wonderful and talented group of artists that emerged during the Revolution, embraced it, and created art to support it. Initially accepted by the Bolsheviks they were shut down in the early 1930’s when the Bolsheviks crushed creativity and foisted the Socialist Realist Style onto artists. What followed was propaganda art for fifty years and nothing of any merit was created in Russia after this point.

This tired old story is being hammered home in countless lectures, symposiums and university courses. This is art history crudely packaged into false sound bites to satisfy a liberal western agenda; a banal package of half-truths drafted into a narrative simple enough for repetition by the most limited of students. It gains credibility through familiarity. At the centre of all this is the Courtauld Institute that has been Marxist-leaning ever since it was run by the Soviet Spy, Anthony Blunt. Blunt, the ‘Fourth Man’ in the ring of Philby, Maclean and Burgess only confessed to British Intelligence in 1964 although he had spying for the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB) since the mid 1930’s. The information was hushed up because he was Surveyor to the Queens pictures and he wasn’t publicly exposed until 1979 when he was stripped of his knighthood.

In 2011 a reunion of Blunt’s former students for a BBC documentary brought together a group that included the then British Museum Director, Neil MacGregor, author Anita Brookner and the art critic Brain Sewell. All agreed Blunt had been brilliant, and kind, and had done terrific research on Nicolas Poussin. The BBC, liberal and left leaning, while presenting the programme, said that Blunt had been the victim of ‘public vilification.’

The group of former students were distinguished which added to their credibility. Neil MacGregor was a measured and successful head of both the National Gallery and British Museum. Anita Brookner’s perceptive character analysis in her novels such as Hotel du Lac and Incidents in the Rue Laugier is nothing short of brilliant. And Brian Sewell’s waspish art criticism in the Evening Standard, and his parody of modern frauds such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, was always entertaining.

But their lack of ability to say anything negative about Blunt and portray him as a victim was disgraceful. After all, Blunt had given British secrets to the Soviets and killed British soldiers with his actions. MacGregor said that Blunt had, “made no secret of his Marxist beliefs” as if this somehow excused him.

The Courtauld continues to teach its students through a Marxist prism that is instinctively supportive towards the artists of the Revolution. Many of those involved in curating these exhibitions or talks are Courtauld graduates who continue to peddle the official line. To get ahead in Russian art history, it is necessary to stick to this script.

Intellectual pygmies have populated Art history since the post-war generation that included  Ernst Gombrich (The Story of Art) and Kenneth Clarke (Civilisation). On the recent abandonment of the History of Art ‘A’ Level in English Schools the art historian Simon Schama tweeted that it was, “a big dull axe wielded by cultural pygmies.” The likes of Gombrich and Clarke shared their extensive cultural knowledge, in lucid prose, with millions of people through books and television. Building on the work of Friedlander and Berenson, they were outstanding scholars and thinkers who analysed the meaning of artistic styles and meaning.

The intellectual vacuum caused by the absence of cultural figures of this calibre, has resulted in art history either leaning towards obscurity and specialization, which is hard to challenge or even understand, or the banal regurgitation of half-truths as per what is happening in Russian art history seen through the Marxist lens perpetuated by the current generation of Courtauld leadership.

Talk to the Curators and Directors of the leading Russian museums, such as the Tretyakov and the Russian Museum, or the few post-war generation of Russian artists still alive, and they are not in agreement with the current line advanced by Western Art historians about 20th century Russian art. However, they are rarely invited to participate in these exhibitions and most do not have sufficient command of English to contribute. They are philosophical and believe that a more balanced view of 20th Russian century art will gradually emerge with the passage of time, which after all, is the only real art critic.

An alternative view of this period is as follows: – The Avant Garde was not a true product of the Revolution as it had its roots established well before 1917. Most of the masterpieces of the Avant Garde are earlier such as Gontcharova’s Cyclist (1913), Larionov’s The Red Rayonism (1913) and Malevich’s Black Square (1915). These works were created under the influence of European artists such as Picasso. Picasso realized the limitations of his Cubist experiments and, by 1915, had abandoned them at which stage they were adopted and furthered by Russian artists. But, just as Cubism hit a brick wall, so did the Russian Avant Garde artists who had largely abandoned easel painting by the late 1920’s in favour of graphic and theatre design, book illustration and porcelain decoration. Being employed by the Bolsheviks to manage existing, and form new, museums, a job to which they patently unsuited, further distracted Avant Garde artists.

So when Western art historians say that the Bolsheviks crushed creativity and destroyed the Avant Garde in the early 1930’s, when they created the Socialist Realist template, they are ignoring the fact that the Avant Garde had already run out steam and were no longer producing easel paintings. Leading Soviet thinkers, such as Anatoly Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky, wanted art to return to a more traditional style that would promote the new Soviet State and be more familiar to Russian people. Kenneth Clarke said that people “hate art they do not understand” and the Avant Garde artists did not want to be understood. They weren’t even sure that what they were creating was art. When Malevich first created his famous ‘Black Square’ in 1913 it was part of the scenery for a futurist opera called ‘Victory over the Sun.’ It wasn’t until 2 years later that he decided the Black Square motif had been executed ‘unconsciously’ and it was now an important work. Since his idea was to, “free art from the dead weight of reality” it necessitated a denial that all earlier art had any artistic merit.

A series of decrees in the early 1930’s laid down a new template, now referred to as Socialist Realism, where art had to be Proletarian, Partisan, Realistic and Typical.   Vera Mukhina, a leading member of the first generation of Soviet sculptors, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Western and Eastern art, having travelled widely in France and Italy said, “we adopted the realism of the peredvizhniki as the starting point in our search for a truly realistic Soviet art…theirs was the great school of Russian realism, their art was for the people, their aim was to awaken the peoples’ class consciousness.”

While it is common in the West to blame the demise of the Avant Garde entirely on the Soviet authorities, it was also an approach advocated by many Soviet artists who thought that the movement had run its course. Mukhina for example, despite being a close friend of Luibov Popova, with whom she had travelled around Italy prior to the revolution, wrote, “The analytical school does not seek reality: its adherents have reduced to absurdity an aesthetic savouring of individual elements of form…. By denying the actual qualities of things the abstract artist has made them objectless and narrowed and distorted them.”

Like all art movements the Avant Garde had its glorious moments. However, more common are the second-rate works but the movement has been elevated to such rarefied heights by Western art historians, that it is no longer viewed with any critical judgement. In the current vacuum there are few people capable of making any decisions about artistic quality other than what they are told or taught. The truth is that that the European Avant Garde movement was much stronger than the Russian version and there are few Russian artists that can survive having their works hung next to Picasso or Matisse. There was an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2008 entitled ‘From Russia’ which aimed to show how Russian art was influenced by French paintings and it drew on the holdings of the Pushkin and Tretyakov museums in Moscow and the State Russian Museum and Hermitage in St Petersburg. It was hung so that the visitor had to first walk through the rooms of French art before passing into the Russian section. The French section contained works by Renoir, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso and the Russian showed Polenov, Levitan, Somov, Repin, Grabar, Korovin, Vrubel, Bakst, Serov before arriving at Avant Garde artists such as Kontchalovsky, Kuprin, Mashkov, Gontcharova,Tatlin, Larionov, Falk, Petrov-Vodkin, Atlman, Chagall, Kandinsky, Popova, Malevich and Rodchenko.

Passing from one set of rooms to the other the quality and the atmosphere sank. Yes, there are moments in the Russian tradition, where the quality is there, but much of it is derivative of the European tradition and does not come out favourably when subjected to such a brutal side-by-side comparison.

The current glowing admiration advanced in the above-referenced Avant Garde exhibitions are devoid of any critical judgement whatsoever and place the entire Russian Avant Garde movement on a pedestal where it does not truly belong. Russian art can be as good if not better than Western Art but it does not start and end with the Avant Garde. The Avant Garde, rather than being a stand-alone movement within Russian art is in fact a stepping-stone in the development of Russian art. It fused its own original message with Russian folk art traditions and what it borrowed from the European Avant Garde.  And Socialist Realism was not purely a style plucked out of air by the Soviet elite but more a continuation of the mainstream Russian artistic tradition. Creativity did not die in Russia with the demise of the Avant Garde but remained alive and well within the Soviet period producing numerous artists and sculptors who are considered by Russian curators the equal of the leading Avant Garde and 19th century artists. Some found ways to shine within the Socialist Realist template whereas others worked largely outside it.

To ignore these artists, and pretend that nothing of value was created during the Soviet period, is a Western conceit based on the Marxist teaching of the Courtauld and a hangover from the Cold War when the Soviet Union was considered incapable of creating anything of cultural value.

Nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future and we have to endure a year of endless Avant Garde propagandists. MOMA in its promotional material, for its forthcoming exhibition, says it is, “celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution.” Perhaps when the frenzy has died down, and more Russian input is sought (from Russians in Russia), it will be possible to see the Avant Garde movement for what it really was, a brief, but flawed, flowering of a group of talented artists firmly rooted in both the Russian and European artistic traditions. And a proper examination will follow of Russian art created during the Soviet period, which has, for now, been airbrushed out of existence. That art history is dying is clear, and nothing will change with this current group of intellectual pygmies in charge, but the more serious worry is that it is already dead and the only decision remaining is whether to attend the funeral.



Tags: Anthony Blunt, art history is dead, Ernst Gombrich, Kenneth Clarke, Marxist art history, Russian art, Russian art history hijacked by the West, Russian Avant Garde, Socialist realism, The Courtauld Institute

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