Crème de la Kremlin

PAM show drops curtain on Russian revolutionary culture

The art market has done a fairly good job in the past 30 years of neutering terms like "revolutionary" and "avant-garde." Yet the radicalism in "Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde" at Phoenix Art Museum reminds us what those words meant in art before they became sales pitches.

This is an extraordinary show.

Major American museums have some great early 20th-century Russian paintings. But this exhibition's range of painters -- 31 -- and pictures -- 85 -- is something that few American audiences have seen, and Phoenix has never encountered.

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."

The paintings come from a dozen or so Russian museum collections. Most of the works date from 1910 to 1930, when Russian artists enjoyed a heady period of freedom and experimentation.

The works reflect the powerful influence that European modernists such as Monet, Gauguin, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse and the Italian Futurists had on Russian painting. They also reveal how the Russians incubated those influences during the relative cultural isolation that came with World War I, and created some of the most inventive abstract paintings of the 20th century.

This frenzy of artistic invention coincided with the Russian political revolution of 1917. Yet the artistic revolt came first.

Before the Soviet clampdown of the 1930s, Russian artists and art collectors frequently traveled to and from Paris and other European art capitals. The travelers made the most of the various modern "isms" being produced in the West. And artists who didn't travel could see some of the best examples of avant-garde work in the private collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.

Natalia Goncharova, Vasilii Kandinsky, Marc Chagall (not in this show), Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and Liubov Popova led the way. But, as this show points out, they were hardly alone.

As early as 1912, Russian painters began to merge modernism with traditional Russian subjects. Artists were operating in a rare and, as it turned out, brief period of artistic and political alliance. Radical artists and politicians both shared the utopian vision to overturn the past. The pols and their throngs did it by tossing the tsar. The painters did it by shedding traditional expectations for paintings.

"To most people the word 'painting' tends to mean a figurative art, the art of conveying what is seen . . . ," wrote Olga Rozanova. "We propose to liberate painting from its subservience to the ready-made forms of reality and to make it first and foremost a creative, not a reproductive art."

Her conviction -- shared by an increasing number of Russian and Western artists of the day -- was that painting no longer had to represent existing objects and sights.

It could refer to its own values and its own virtual spaces made of colors and abstract shapes. Rozanova's 1912 abstract composition -- the Russians called their abstractions "non-objective" -- exemplified this new outlook. Its colorful geometric configurations, one beside and appearing to overlap another, contain little of the tonal gradations that painters traditionally used to give flat shapes the illusion of volume or mass. Except for one fan-shaped section of modulated blue, the colors are as flat as the canvas beneath them.

The exhibition's four paintings by Kandinsky show his own evolution from an outdoor painter to an indoor one who built abstractions, as composers build melodies, out of moods. You can see him moving from the small, brightly colored depiction of the church at Murnau to the abstract, oceanic world of his larger canvases. Unlike Rozanova, Rodchenko and Malevich, he relied on the organic forms of nature, setting them adrift among a moving sea of changing colors and values.

In his earlier abstractions, he used painterly conventions such as subtle gradations of color -- almost like airbrushing -- to suggest volumes, or to ease transitions between one shape or area of the canvas and another. And he would sometimes overhang and brighten hard edges to make their forms appear to float. But his later ones relied less on such visual tricks. The result wasn't so much a window on a known world as it was a lyrical force field that pushed and pulled feelings with shapes and colors.

The rhetoric that came with the level of abstraction being pursued by Kandinsky, Malevich and others was that pure shapes could better approximate pure ideas and emotions. That isn't to say the results ignored the world outside the studio.

The flat planes of color in the paintings by Rozanova, Rodchenko, Malevich, Popova and others symbolized the new means of an industrialized world -- one that was being constructed out of an increasing number and variety of mass-produced pieces and parts. And not only in Russia. Artists and architects working in Paris, Amsterdam and at the German Bauhaus, in the 1920s, advanced similar ideas.

In Russia, Malevich was the high priest of this abstract pursuit of simplicity. He made stark paintings out of rectangles, circles, bars and squares in basic colors on white. He made no effort in these "Suprematist" compositions, as he called them, to give any false volume to his shapes. He emphasized geometric interactions of color, sometimes using nothing more than white squares on white, or the black-and-white checkerboard seen in Four Squares.

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.

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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