Unveiling the Russian Avant-Garde

`PAINTING is like a thundering collision of different worlds that are destined in and through conflict to create that new world called the work. Technically, every work of art comes into being in the same way as the cosmos - by means of catastrophes, which ultimately create out of the cacophany of the various instruments that symphony we call the music of the spheres."

There can be no mistaking the revolutionary tone of these words of Wassily Kandinsky in his "Reminiscences" of 1913. This was not the language of propaganda or manifesto; it was a surprisingly accurate description of some of this Russian artist's paintings. His "Improvisation 4," painted in 1909, expresses - through the clashing and ferocious energies of its brushstrokes and the surging, elemental forms and forces that its colors seem to have forged out of themselves - the apocalyptic nature of "art" acc ording to Kandinsky.

The sense of liberation from dull conventionality epitomized by such passionately intuitive paintings produced by Kandinsky were like a gauntlet thrown down to the coming century. That the freshness of their power can still be felt today is testimony to their being much more than a pot of paint thrown in the public's face; they are the outcome of a vigorous inner life. In such paintings, Kandinsky was moving toward a kind of abstraction as complete in painting as it is in music.

"Improvisation 4" is a particularly striking version of his cataclysmic, painterly landscapes-of-the-mind, drawing the viewer into a space that seems to have been translated from the known visible world into a maelstrom of forces pushing and pulling in all directions.

What perhaps makes this painting seem even more invigorating is that since about 1917 it has been hidden away in a provincial Russian museum in Nizhny Novgorod. It was included in the catalogue raisonne of Kandinsky's oil paintings published in 1982 and '84, its whereabouts known, but reproduced only in black and white.

NOW it is once again seeing the light of day, first in Nantes, France, earlier this year and currently in an exhibition called "Russian Painting of the Avant-Garde" in Edinburgh. Glasnost, followed by the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, has meant the rediscovery - at least by the West - of works of art in private collections and in museums remote from the main centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. There are two other paintings by Kandinsky in the show, "Southern" of 1917 and "Musical Overture: th e Violet Wedge" of 1919, both of which are listed in the catalogue raisonne as "location unknown." The first, it turns out, belongs to a museum in Astrakhan; the second is in Tula.

Oddly, in a roundabout way, Kandinsky was partly responsible for the "disappearance" of these pictures. After the October Revolution in 1917 and the overthrow of the czar, Russia's most modern artists, including Kandinsky, who had returned from Germany to his native country at the outbreak of World War I, saw themselves "as the interpreters of the socialist message and the creators of the socialist environment," as art historian Christina Lodder writes in the exhibition catalog. They equated "their artis tic innovations with the political and social revolution." In particular, Kandinsky was one of the artists responsible for buying a large number of modern works for distribution to provincial museums.

By 1921, however, Kandinsky came to realize that his highly subjective and personal art was out of sympathy with a regime that preferred unexperimental, realist art. Art had to be comprehensible to the masses. Some artists, like Alexander Rodchenko, who had been a leading modernist, did their best to accommodate these demands, but Kandinsky left for a post at the German Bauhaus. By 1934, when Socialist Realism was pronounced the official art of the Soviet Union, the Russian avant-garde stopped breathing.

Kandinsky was, possibly, unusual as a Russian artist whose work flourished even though he spent most of his life as an exile from his native soil. Marc Chagall and Naum Gabo were others. The avant-garde from 1906 to 1924, as this exhibition and others have shown, was virtually defined by its close contact with modern art in other parts of Europe, particularly Paris. In Kandinsky's case, he was so much identified with the innovations of the Blaue Reiter group in Munich as to be virtually a German artist.

One of the female stars of the Russian avant-garde, Lyubov Popova - a strong and adventurous artist, alert and responding with sensitive originality to the frequently changing winds of art both at home and abroad - studied in Paris and visited other European cities. She was quite open about her allegiance to Cubism (French) and Futurism (Italian).

Before the Russian Revolution, Kazimir Malevich was affected by European modernism, not by travel, but by the works of Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and Bonnard arriving in the hands of Russian collectors.

This exhibition has been divided into various movements, from Neoprimitivism, via Rayism and Cubo-Futurism, to Suprematism and Constructivism. Since leading artists like Malevich and Popova reappear in each movement, either partly or radically changed, it is clear that these movements were not so much opposing as developing forces. In different ways, the Russian artists moved in these years from a kind of modernized folk art to an out-and-out abstraction.

EVEN Kandinsky, the same year as his "Improvisation 4," painted a picture that, for all its ferociously Expressionist color, belonged to his own special brand of medieval-fantasy subject matter. Christina Lodder, for this reason, includes him under the heading "Neoprimitivism." The label is, however, hardly able to contain the urgent conflagration of Kandinsky's art at this time. The more the folk element disappeared in his work, the more universal it became - and possibly the less "Russian."

While Kandinsky found his way to abstraction through Expressionist color and musical analogy, artists such as Malevich and Popova used the revolutionary stylistic inventions of Cubism and Futurism as stepping stones toward their own version of abstraction.

Popova's "Pictorial Architectonics" (1918), though recognizably derived from the interpenetrating planes and forces of movement and light in Italian Futurist paintings, is abstract in color and space to a degree beyond the Futurists. In a much more constructed, confidently ordered way, it is no less a dynamic landscape of the imagination than Kandinsky's instinctive "Improvisation."

Malevich, by 1915, had moved on from the kind of simplified modern folk art of his "Reaping Woman" (1912) to an abstraction of flatly painted color shapes, a geometry so reduced that it even led him in 1917-18 to make a series of "white on white" paintings. He denied interest in formal relationships for their own sake.

A fourth dimension, immaterial rather than visible, was believed to be an element brought into play as painting became a "pure art" and the old imitative realism was abandoned. At the same time, Malevich saw his abstract paintings as epitomes of "technical life," in tune with developments of the modern world like cars and aeroplanes.

Malevich declared categorically that "the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his pictures have nothing in common with nature. For art is the ability to construct, not on the interrelation of form and color, and not on an aesthetic basis of beauty in composition, but on the basis of weight, speed, and the direction of movement."

Although this language sounds similar to that of the Italian Futurists, the art it described, which Malevich was making, looked nothing like Futurist art any more. It belonged to the Russian avant-garde that had rapidly broken into modernity in its own way. For a brief number of years it became a leading, rather than a following, force in the art world.

The West has not been ignorant of this Russian contribution, of course, even if the citizens of the Soviet Union were made to be. Nevertheless, in spite of the depression and suppression with which the Soviet political system gradually smothered this originality, it is now evident that a considerable volume of works by these Russian modernists has been quietly valued and preserved in the interim, or at least not deliberately destroyed, by the provincial museums to which it was disseminated. Enlightenmen t will out.

* 'Russian Painting of the Avant-Garde' will be at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh until Sept. 5.

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