Crème de la Kremlin

PAM show drops curtain on Russian revolutionary culture

Natalia Goncharova was another great talent. Her eight works in this show are gems that alloy Eastern and Western influences in a distinctly modern celebration of Russian folk traditions.

And Rodchenko's painting Discus and Top, and Popova's Painterly Architectonics are other beautiful examples of the Russian pursuit of abstraction.

The wonder of this period was that the nascent Communist government, under Lenin, actually sponsored these works. It purchased them along with many more conventional ones and scattered them among regional museums to bring culture to the masses. Lenin, who led Bolshevik Russia until his death in the early 1920s, preferred an art of monuments that could speak to Serge Six-pack.

Non-Objective Composition, 1912, oil on canvas by Olga Rozanova, from "Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde."
courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum
Non-Objective Composition, 1912, oil on canvas by Olga Rozanova, from "Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde."

He once said he considered monuments "more important than inscriptions." What mattered, he said, was that they "be understandable to the masses, and that they catch the eye."

The state supported the new abstract art because it embodied the new ideals of the emerging proletarian culture. It supposedly represented the triumph of man over nature, mechanization over the horse-drawn, and -- ultimately -- systems and collectives over individual acts.

But Stalin and friends, who followed Lenin, saw it for what it really was: a free-thinking experiment that undermined the goals of the emerging dictatorship. So, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Stalinists began assailing art and artists with their hammers and sickles, turning it into the socialist realist propaganda that remained the accepted form until the Soviet Union collapsed a decade ago.

The effect on artists was profound. Artists like Malevich retreated from pure abstraction and resumed painting the human figure again. His Girls in a Field, from the late 1920s, was a landmark on the return road to realism, and a beautiful example of how he used abstraction as a prism on the world, refracting the human figures into trapezoids of alternating colors. His portrait of a peasant, from the early 1930s, marks the end of the line for Russian experimentation in painting. For a time, the modern light continued to flicker in the Russian graphic design (the museum has included some fascinating examples of Russian posters and publications from a local collector as an adjunct to the show). But that light left Russian art before the onset of World War II. And it still hasn't returned.

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