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Russian Avant-Garde

European + American Art
Russian Avant-Garde
19 Aug 2017 - 29 Jan 2018

After three centuries of autocratic Tsarist rule, popular uprisings in February, and then the Bolshevik seizure of power under Vladimir Lenin in October 1917 saw the collapse of the Russian Empire and the formation in 1922 of the Soviet Union. A century after the 1917 October Revolution the National Gallery has drawn on its significant collection of Russian avant-garde art to mount a display that acknowledges the importance of one the 20th century's most politically contentious and artistically ambitious historic periods.

Dating from the first three decades of the twentieth century, this collection is the only one of its type in an Australian cultural institution. Largely acquired in the 1970s, it forms part of the founding core of the Gallery's International art collections and includes works made in the years immediately preceding and during the Revolution by Russia's leading artistic figures. Representing works made in all media, it illustrates the Russian avant-garde's evolution from the western European influenced Futurist movement to Kasimir Malevich's unique declarations of Suprematism in 1915 and the ascendancy of non-objective abstraction, through to the Constructivists' extraordinary forays into industry and Socialism in the 1920s. Despite its specificity to a century old political event, the works created by the Russian avant-garde remain enormously important to the canon of 20th century International and Australian art history. Like the Revolution itself, its shockwaves and influence reached far beyond the borders of Eastern Europe.


The Russian Futurists were a pioneering group of artists and poets working in Moscow and St Petersburg (Petrograd from 1914), in the years immediately preceding the 1917 Russian Revolution, and which included Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Olga Rozanova and Kasimir Malevich, Alexsei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov. In addition to finding inspiration in international modern art movements such as Fauvism, German Expressionism, Italian Futurism and French Cubism, the Futurists looked to Russia's past to establish a multi-disciplinary project that had at its core the exploration of art, language and national culture.

Traditional Russian folk art was a primary source of inspiration. Chief among their influences was the lubok - engravings depicting scenes from folklore that were distinguished by being poorly printed and crudely hand painted in lurid colours. Drawn to both the traditions and perceived simplicity of folk art, the Futurists engaged in a cultural provocation that took the form of a 'deliberate inarticulateness' in both visual art and the written and spoken language. Placing great importance on the materiality, or texture, of things, referred to as 'factura', and devising a poetic language built from the re-positioning of complex grammatical constructions, called 'zaum' (meaning 'beyond sense'), the Futurists cultivated a highly unique and volatile intellectual environment conducive to the creation of a new Russian art. Creative differences and shifting alliances resulted in a succession of competing Futurist collectives participating in exhibitions, collaborating on theatre productions and performance pieces, delivering lectures, and publishing periodicals, manifestos, prints and illustrated books.


Suprematism was a philosophy of geometric abstract painting developed by Kasimir Malevich from around 1913-14 that made its public debut in Petrograd in 1915 at '0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition'. The guiding principle of Suprematism was Malevich's belief that rendering the visible world in realistic terms no longer served arts purpose and that instead artists should devise a visual grammar of non-objective abstraction analogous to sensation and experience. Describing this as 'the supremacy of pure artistic feeling', Malevich famously articulated his theory in the painting Black square 1915 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). Exhibited at '0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition', the painting of a black square on a white ground was provocatively hung high in the corner of a room full of Suprematist paintings - the corner position being the place assigned for the main icon in a traditional Russian Orthodox home. The National Gallery's painting House under construction, 1915 -16, is one of the rare earliest examples of Suprematism. It is not known if this work was shown at '0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition', howe'ver, stylistic similarities and evidence that Malevich considered this an important work strongly link it to the paintings that were exhibited in this important exhibition.

Following the 1917 Revolution, Malevich joined the faculty at the Vitebsk School of Art. Leading the group UNOVIS (Affirmers of the New Art), Malevich wrote and published a number of pamphlets and illustrated books designed to instruct students and disseminate his ideas on Suprematism. The hand lithographed book, Suprematism 34 Drawings, 1920, in the National Gallery's collection is one such publication. Prominent among Malevich's followers in Vitebsk, was fellow faculty member the architect and artist El Lissitzky. Lissitzky's development from late 1919 of a body of geometric abstract work he described as Prouns (Project for the Affirmation of the New) became a system through which he adapted Malevich's 'grammar' of abstraction to his own unique but widely influential creative projects in Russia and abroad.


Constructivism emerged as an organised art movement in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s. While the foundations of Constructivism lay in works created prior to the 1917 Revolution, it was in March 1921 when seven members of the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK) proclaimed themselves as the 'Working Group of Constructivists' that Constructivism was given its official status and collective agenda. A state-funded interdisciplinary research centre for the arts in Moscow, INKhUK was established in 1920 under the authority of the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros), the Bolsheviks' new administrative arm for cultural and educational matters. Given that 1921 marked the end of the Russian Civil War (1918-21) and the beginning of the New Economic Policy (1921-28), the Constructivists viewed the role of art in the formation and success of the fledgling communist state as being of the utmost importance.

Denouncing the artist as representative of bourgeois individualism, the Constructivists embarked on an inquiry into art as a mode of production rather than expression. Working in technical schools, workshops and factories, avant-garde artists such as Alexandr Rodchenko and Gustav Klucis participated in arts an unprecedented expansion into industrial design and the creation of political propaganda. Before an increasingly repressive regime brought their activities to an end in the early 1930s, the Constructivists produced architectural designs, photomontage, photography, film, graphic design and utilitarian decorative arts that are among the most influential and enduring works of Modern art.

Web Link: Russian Avant-Garde


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