Kazimir Malevich’s abstract geometric shapes – squares, circles, rectangles, trapezoids, triangles – were painted before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and they signalled an end to what had gone before as art; simultaneously, they were the beginning of a new creative era.
Such shapes, most famously black squares, allowed the form of colour to take precedence in a new pictorial language Malevich called Suprematism. Launched in 1915, Suprematism was a game-changing moment in twentieth-century art and it spearheaded other new movements that followed in its wake.
The primacy that Malevich accorded to art was not shared by the likes of Mayakovsky who espoused the service of art in the interests of the Bolshevik revolution.
Aleksandr Rodchenko explored geometric forms not just in the two-dimensional surface of paintings but in real space, constructing geometric models cut from solid materials. Vladimir Tatlin went further and began introducing non-art elements into his constructions: newspaper, sheet metal, leather, wire, glass, trash.
The emphasis by Rodchenko and Tatlin on material and functionality, what became known as Constructivism, created an artistic discourse that had a huge influence in the West. It prepared the way for Bauhaus artists, shook up the artistic community in Berlin like never before and spread to Paris where surrealism had ruled unchallenged.
Torres-Garcia, who had been in Paris for decades, returned to Montevideo and one of his students there, Tomás Maldonado, became a leading light in the Concrete Art movement in Argentina. Maldonado’s allegiance to communism and Concrete Art’s emphasis on colour and geometric shapes as forms in their own right aligned Argentina’s avant-garde with Russian Constructivism from a quarter of a century earlier.
All of the above is the concern of the first half of “The revolution is dead | Long live the revolution!”
The book’s second half is devoted to the artists of Socialist Realism, an opposing art historical tradition but one with shared roots in the Russian revolutionary scene. Mayakovsky’s call for communist art was answered by a dizzying array of artists’ groups until they were steadily constrained by Stalin’s authoritarian rule. Under Stalin, realism became the aesthetic benchmark by which to judge art; optimism became obligatory given that a communist utopia was within reach. In the West it was dismissed as cheesy and ostracised from Western art history.
This was as short-sighted as the official dictates about art issuing from Stalin’s Russia. The conviction of Bolshevik propaganda posters and the sensual beauty of Socialist Realism’s paintings, so well-illustrated in this book, show how myopic Western judgements were.
In the 1980s, a fashionable postmodernism could play with what was once regarded as kitsch: witness “The origins of socialist realism” by Komar and Melamid in New York.
The work of contemporary Russian artists, like Dubossarsky and Vinogradov, shows the continuing legacy of Socialist Realism.
This cleverly designed and generously illustrated book is a wonder to behold and it is worth owning a copy just to have, ready-to-hand, so many reproductions of the art that owe its origins to the political and Cultural Revolution in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century.
“The revolution is dead | Long live the revolution!” is published by Prestel.