Issue 231 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
'New Art for a New Era'
In 1919 a Museum of Artistic Culture was set up in St Petersburg. Despite civil war in Russia and the desperate conditions of poverty, famine and the destruction of industry, the wave of revolution created in 1917 led to a blossoming of the arts. The museum was the first dedicated to modern art and its director was the avant garde artist Kasimir Malevich.
Russian artists had been at the forefront of experimentation even before the revolution. The impact of rapid industrial development in a backward country led to Futurism taking hold, and Malevich and his fellow artists such as Rodchencko and Tatlin were instrumental in creating art and design which is still influential today.
The St Petersburg season at the Barbican features a selection of art from this museum which traces pre and post-revolutionary artistic development, and shows what a society in crisis pre-revolutionary Russia was. It contains examples of folk art which influenced the avant-garde and a number of overtly political works, some of which were not in the original exhibition. These include posters, ceramics and linocuts. Agit-Glass: 'Workers of the World Unite!' by Sofia Dymshits-Tobtoya was an attempt to use a glass surface to create more than one dimension to a painting. Vladislav Strzeminsky`s Tools and Factory Goods and Vladimir Lebedev's Suprematism: Woman Ironing tried to find artistic expression in the supposedly ordinary. The linocuts and drawings of Vladimir Kozlinsky encompass both political demonstrations and portraits of sailors or prostitutes. The tiny number of posters give a sense of the artistic excitement of post-revolutionary Russia, as with Kozlinsky's The Dead of the Paris Commune have been Resurrected under the Red Banner of the Soviets from 1921.
Some reviews of this exhibition have tried to claim that the Bolsheviks always tried to control art for their own political ends. On the contrary, they understood that the development of society could be judged by its art. The defeat of the revolution led to the incorporation of art into the school of 'socialist realism'. The collection amassed by Malevich and his fellow artists was transferred to the State Russian Museum. But this paralleled the defeat of the revolution and of Trotsky himself, of all the Bolshevik leaders the most identified with encouraging artistic development. This exhibition gives a glimpse of how things could have been very different.
'New Art for a New Era' is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London until 27 June