Making Modernism Soviet: The Russian Avant-Garde in the Early Soviet Era, 1918-1928

Making Modernism Soviet: The Russian Avant-Garde in the Early Soviet Era, 1918-1928

by Pamela Kachurin




Making Modernism Soviet provides a new understanding of the ideological engagement of Russian modern artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, and Vera Ermolaeva with the political and social agenda of the Bolsheviks in the chaotic years immediately following the Russian Revolution. Focusing on the relationship between power brokers and cultural institutions under conditions of state patronage, Pamela Kachurin lays to rest the myth of the imposition of control from above upon a victimized artistic community. Drawing on extensive archival research, she shows that Russian modernists used their positions within the expanding Soviet arts bureaucracy to build up networks of like-minded colleagues. Their commitment to one another and to the task of creating a socially transformative visual language for the new Soviet context allowed them to produce some of their most famous works of art. But it also contributed to the "Sovietization" of the art world that eventually sealed their fate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810131309
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 10/31/2013
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Pamela Kachurin is a visiting assistant professor in the departments of art history and Slavic and Eurasian studies at Duke University.

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The Russian Avant-Garde in the Early Soviet Era, 1918â?"1928

By Pamela Kachurin

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2013 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2928-3


The Great Experiment: The Moscow Museum of Painterly Culture, 1918–1928

This chapter provides the first comprehensive, archive-based history of the Moscow Museum of Painterly Culture (Muzei zhivopisnoi kul'tury, hereafter, MZhK)—a unique Soviet institution that was created in 1918 as a repository for the work of all living Russian artists, but that quickly became the de facto home to artists devoted to modernist experimentation within a socialist context. This chapter traces the Museum of Painterly Culture's turbulent ten-year existence, from the earliest days of Bolshevik authority to the very end of the NEP period in 1928. It chronicles the efforts of four successive directors—Vassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956), Pyotr Vil'yams (1902–1947), and Lazar Vainer (1885–1933)—to keep the museum operational in the context of dwindling economic and ideological support. More controversially, it also demonstrates the high level of engagement on the part of the museum's staff with the ideals of Bolshevism—an engagement that was proactive rather than reactive, and that came to define both the contours of the Moscow Museum of Painterly Culture and the artistic production of the artists associated with it. As we will see, to remain open during the financial crises and bureaucratic reorganizations wrought by the designers of the New Economic Policy, the state-funded museum began to operate in a more commercial mode, trying to draw in paying customers by offering programs suitable for the tastes of a broader "proletarian" audience. This attempt to reshape a modernist preserve into a popular museum hinged on its directors' abilities to create an appropriately socialist context for modernist experimentation, as well as to sell that creation to their patrons within the Soviet art administration.

Narkompros's Department of Fine Arts and the Genesis of the Museum of Painterly Culture

Because the new Bolshevik leadership considered the education and ideological training of the country's population as the key to both the short-and long-term survival of Soviet authority, one of their first acts was the creation of the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narodny kommissariat prosveshcheniya; hereafter, Narkompros). This state organ was formed in November 1917 and entrusted with all matters related to the cultural and educational spheres: literature, theater, music, fine arts, publishing, primary and secondary schooling, and professional education. Thanks to the authority and political connections of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875–1933), a Marxist philosopher and literary critic who served as its first commissar, Narkompros enjoyed a special status within the nascent Soviet bureaucracy, and was funded accordingly. So was its Department of Fine Arts (Otdel izobrazitel'nogo iskusstv; hereafter, IZO), which was created in January 1918 and charged with the overwhelming task of administering the country's art schools, art museums, exhibitions, public art projects, and publications related to the fine arts. To head the Department of Fine Arts, Lunacharsky appointed David Shterenberg (1881–1948)—a modernist painter whom the future commissar of enlightenment had met in Paris in 1915, and whom he had praised for his realism and economical style. Although technically the Department of Fine Arts was responsible directly to Lunacharsky, in practice the head of Narkompros delegated much of the day-to-day responsibilities to Shterenberg and the Department of Fine Arts Collegium, the administrative board charged with dispensing funds, approving all activities and expenditures, and the operation for the entire Department of Fine Arts.

The founding of Narkompros and the Department of Fine Arts created many new opportunities for working artists, especially those who for one reason or another had been marginalized under the Old Regime. Lunacharsky encouraged Narkompros to hire professional artists, who were considered "necessary specialists for the Republic" and, hence, were offered many special benefits, including triple rations, during the extended period of economic and political dislocation that accompanied the Russian Civil War (1918–21). There were other material incentives to entice artists to work for the Bolsheviks: those employed in state art institutions were exempted from paying the "Extraordinary Tax," which was levied in 1918; and were guaranteed "suitable working conditions," including "a studio and a separate room in which to live"—something that was immensely attractive at a time of extreme housing shortages in the cities. The first artists to offer their services to the Bolsheviks were the "Board of Seven," which included, among others, the Russian art scholar and "Futurist" theorist Nikolai Punin (1888–1953). These men were soon followed by other artists, many of whom also identified themselves as "Futurists"—the umbrella term for all artists working in a modernist visual idiom. One of them was Punin's friend, the artist Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953), who would play a key role in the genesis of the Museum of Painterly Culture, and whose case provides a window into how Russia's modernists functioned within the early Soviet cultural bureaucracy. Although Tatlin's personal political views at this time are unknown, he was in the vanguard of the general artistic migration toward the Soviet arts administration. From spring 1918 to summer 1919, he worked simultaneously in three positions at, and received three separate salaries from, Narkompros. Besides serving as president of the Department of Fine Arts Collegium, Tatlin held a teaching post at the Moscow Free Art Studios, a new art school founded in 1918 from an amalgamation of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture with the Stroganov Art School, and administered by the Department of Fine Arts. He also worked as a staff member in a Department of Fine Arts subdepartment devoted to "Art Construction," which was responsible for two important and ongoing public art endeavors: decorations for the mass festivals staged by the Bolsheviks and the "Plan for Monumental Propaganda."

While others may not have stretched themselves quite as thin as Tatlin, within a year of the Bolshevik takeover, artists associated with Russian modernism occupied key positions within the government arts administration, and especially at the Department of Fine Arts, which had become the primary patron and supporter of their activities and artistic production. By July 1918 many of Russia's modernists held positions within the Department of Fine Arts governing board, including such major players of Russian modernism as Pavel Kuznetsov (1878–1968); Ilya Mashkov (1881–1944), a painter who belonged to the Jack of Diamonds group of which Tatlin was a member; the painters Nadezhda Udal'tsova (1886–1961) and Sophia Dymshits-Tolstaya (1886–1963); Robert Fal'k (1886–1958), one of the founders of Jack of Diamonds; Sergei Konenkov (1874–1971), the "Soviet Rodin"; Vassily Kandinksy (1866–1944), the painter and art theorist; and Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), originator of Suprematism and Tatlin's longtime rival. It was this small group of government-employed modernist artists that came up with the idea for, and quickly proceeded to form, the collection of the Moscow Museum of Painterly Culture.

The genesis of the Moscow Museum of Painterly Culture can be traced back to a joint project formulated by two members of the Department of Fine Arts Collegium: Vladimir Tatlin and Sophia Dymshits-Tolstaya. Tatlin and Dymshits-Tolstaya proposed that the Soviet state finance the organization of what they dubbed the "Museum of Contemporary Art," a novel type of museum that would serve as a showcase for the "best works of living art," which would be displayed not only in the capital, but also in newly established provincial branches spread out across Soviet Russia. Tatlin further specified that acquisitions for this museum would be approved only by the Department of Fine Arts Collegium—of which he was the president—and that artists themselves would choose which works they would sell to the State Purchasing Commission, which they themselves administered. In other words, artists, who just a year before were in difficult financial straits, would now be in a position to sell their own works to a generous new patron: the Soviet state. The Collegium immediately approved Tatlin's suggestion, justifying this obvious conflict of interest on the basis that his plan would "enable the proletariat to understand the significance of contemporary art." The Collegium then went ahead and approved the purchase of paintings from living artists, that is, from one another. The first acquisition made by the Department of Fine Arts Purchasing Commission, in September 1918, was of five paintings by Malevich, for 20,000 rubles, the equivalent of his teaching salary for ten months. Next, Tatlin sold three paintings to the Purchasing Commission for 21,000 rubles. By October 17, 1918, a total of sixty-one works had been purchased for 215,000 rubles, all for the still nonexistent Museum of Contemporary Art. The vast majority of works were by artists associated with vanguard and nonobjective trends: Udal'tsova, Rodchenko, Kandinsky, Ol'ga Rozanova (1886–1918), and Anton Pevsner (1886–1962), all of whom worked within the Department of Fine Arts, and all of whom had the active support of Shterenberg. For example, in his budget proposal for the second half of 1918, the head of the Department of Fine Arts justified his request for an additional one million rubles by arguing that in the last ten to fifteen years "contemporary art had not been collected for either private or public collections"; this was why, in his opinion, modernist art warranted special attention and patronage. Shterenberg saw the proposed Museum of Contemporary Art as a method of redressing perceived inequities from the late imperial period, when modernist artists faced hostile critics and minimal patronage. Furthermore, he claimed that the collection of contemporary art would stimulate a younger generation of artists to study and create works of art. Lunacharsky, ever hopeful of encouraging the creation of a new type of art, responded to the latter argument, but only assigned about 300,000 rubles for purchases.

By November 1918, the plans for the museum were made public in two articles in The Life of Art (Zhizn' iskusstva), one of which listed the artists whose work had been bought for the museum and the sum paid for the works. The publication of these ambitious plans may have incited an unnamed Pravda author to object to the fact that the acquisitions were made "not from artists who deserved it" but only from "Futurists, whose future is still very controversial." Those individuals who were more attuned to the "agony of the intelligentsia," however, were even more perceptive and, sometimes, even more blunt. In a 1919 letter, the writer Count Alexei N. Tolstoy, Dymshits-Tolstaya's ex-husband, attacked "the Futurists here [in Moscow]—Mayakovsky, Tatlin, and others," for "creating a lot of fuss in art" to "glorify themselves and sell their products":

They are now buying paintings and statues for the People's Museums and the first place is given to the feverish smearings of the Futurists. Aside from that, the Bolsheviks have assigned this Tatlin a bulk sum of 500,000 rubles to be used at his own discretion.

By the time this philippic against the "Futurists" appeared in print, however, it was already obsolete. For as early as December 1918, the plans for a Museum of Contemporary Art, as it was originally envisioned, were abandoned for that of another new museum known as the "Museum of Painterly and Plastic Culture." The modernists in the Department of Fine Arts Collegium, on alert that unchecked self-promotion would be noticed, found it prudent to retreat from their original idea of creating a showcase for their own work, in favor of a museum that corresponded more closely to Narkompros's stated goals of displaying art from all trends and periods.

Between December 1918 and February 1919, the Museum of Contemporary Art slowly metamorphosed into the Museum of Painterly and Plastic Culture—a process that made no dent, however, in the operation of the Purchasing Commission, which continued to acquire works of modern art even after the Collegium formally withdrew its support for the Museum of Contemporary Art. The modernists who authored the revised plan—Rodchenko, Kandinsky, and Alexander Drevin (1889–1938), Udal'tsova's husband—still supported the idea of having a place to showcase vanguard art, but they also took into account the most recent museological discussions, as well as Narkompros's policy of neutrality in the sphere of the arts, when they proposed that the new institution should encompass art from all trends and time periods. The plans for the Museum of Painterly Culture were published in two successive issues (11 and 12) of the Department of Fine Arts journal, Iskusstvo kommuny (Art of the Commune), ahead of the upcoming Museum Conference in Petrograd. Four days before the opening of the conference, the Department of Fine Arts Collegium also passed a "Declaration of the Department of Fine Arts ... on the Question About Principles of Museums," which they planned to present at the conference. Amid the typically modernist amalgam of rhetorical slogans ("Artists! Free art of the past from deathly historical pedantism! Artists! The matter of artistic education is your business since you alone are responsible for artistic creation! Artists of the world! The language in which you speak is understandable to all people!"), the authors of the Department of Fine Arts declaration articulated two main desiderata for the new type of museum: first, that this cultural heritage institution be more "tolerant" of works of the past; and second, that collection development in the field of contemporary art be handled by the artists themselves, rather than museum employees, curators, or directors. In other words, while making a slight concession to official Narkompros policy, the modernists on the Department of Fine Arts Collegium attempted to arrogate to themselves the power to determine the fate of vanguard modernism in the Soviet art world, thereby ensuring that they alone would be entrusted with stewarding their art into the Soviet era.

The Museum Conference opened on February 11, 1919, in the Winter Palace in Petrograd. Lunacharsky's opening speech affirmed the significance of museums in Soviet culture and their primary task in establishing connections between Soviet cultural institutions and the masses. The speech was vague, however, on the basic principles of "artistic culture," that is, the ideas on which the Museum of Painterly and Plastic Culture would be based. In fact, although Nikolai Punin did read a speech declaring the need for this new type of museum, the principles of "artistic culture" were published rather than spoken: first in the journal lzobrazitel'noe iskusstva (Fine Art) and then in the Department of Fine Arts "Guide" (Spravochnik). According to these two publications, the term "artistic culture" referred to any type of artistic production that employed "experimental painterly and plastic techniques"—a definition that was almost synonymous with modernist and contemporary art. From this definition flowed the three principles on which the proposed museum would be founded:

1) The concept that artistic culture is an objective criterion of artistic value; 2) the concept of artistic culture contains ... a creative element [since] artistic culture is nothing other than the culture of artistic inventions; 3) by sustained artistic labor, contemporary art schools have been able to reveal many elements of artistic activity and thereby to establish the objective criterion of artistic value as a professional value.

Despite the opacity of this formulation, it is clear that the authors of the two programmatic articles sought to legitimize vanguard art: first, by casting it as having "objective professional value," and, therefore, as something that was worthy of study, display, and acquisition; and second, by asserting that, at its core, vanguard art was about "invention," that is, precisely the kind of novelty and innovation that was found in the modernist works recently purchased by the artists on the Department of Fine Arts Collegium. This lobbying, both in person and in the press, seemed to pay off : when the discussion finally turned to the creation of a Museum of Painterly and Plastic Culture, the conferees agreed that artists themselves should be in charge of purchasing and choosing works of art for the new type of museum. Even Lunacharsky endorsed this idea on the grounds that it objectively showed the "evolution of labor in the area of art." To work out all the logistical details, the conference-goers appointed a six-man "contact group" composed of representatives from both the Museum and Fine Arts departments—the two units within Narkompros that would be most involved in overseeing and carrying out the proposed plan.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

List of Tables xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Abbreviations xv

Introduction xvii

Chapter 1 The Great Experiment: The Moscow Museum of Painterly Culture, 1918-1928 3

Chapter 2 The Center of Artistic Life: The People's School of Art in Vitebsk, 1919-1923 37

Chapter 3 The Last Citadel: The Petrograd Museum of Artistic Culture and GINKhUK, 1919-1926 71

Epilogue 99

Notes 107

Bibliography 129

Index 139

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