first museum of
A "museum" never seen outside Russia before featured at London's Barbican Centrel. Paintings and applied art by Kandinsky, Malevich, Tatlin, Popova, Rosanova, Rodchenko, Punin, Matiushin, Filonov and Mansurov and others remained hidden within the State Russian Museum for over 50 years.
In a short space of time, between 1919 and 1926, contemporary artists gathered the evidence of a powerful experimental moment in 20th century art, by amassing some 500 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures.
The rich variety of talent which flowered in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia was unique, not only due to the individual artistic personalities who took part in it. Their enthusiasm to develop art itself and to transform art and society was matched and encouraged by the Bolshevik leaders.
In the years immediately preceding the October socialist revolution, Russian art and design experienced a tumultuous upheaval. After the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 outstanding artists were given an unprecedented chance to transform not only art schools and museums, but also to direct a transformation of culture and education.
In the year of the revolution, that great pioneer of abstract painting, Kasimir Malevich, creator of the "Black Square", began work for the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment.
In August 1917 he was elected chairman of the Arts Department of the Soviet of Soldier Delegates in Moscow.
The concept of a Museum of Artistic Culture was inspired by Malevich and the other leading artists of the Russian avant-garde, notably Kandinsky, Tatlin, Punin, Filonov and Rodchenko.
The idea was officially approved by the Soviet authorities in February 1919, and the Museum opened to the public two years later on April 3, 1921 in Petrograd.
The artists who gathered together to create the Petrograd museum set out to turn the traditional idea of a "museum" upside down. They wanted to give living artists, not curators of the past, the opportunity, in Malevich's own words, to "oversee the acquisition of contemporary art and be in charge of the country's artistic education".
Irina Karasik of the State Russian Museum argues that for the artists involved, setting up the world's first museum of contemporary art was "truly an act of social and creative self-determination. It was the logical step, she says, "for an art that sought, through theories and manifestos, to analyse its own creative tools".*
Together they made up a "choir of many voices", united in their belief in what Malevich termed "active art". There was a broad sweep of artistic tendencies, which was not limited to the latest trends such as abstract art or Constructivism. The artists saw themselves as part of a movement that embraced the French painter Cezanne as well as Russian folk-art.
Artists such as Petrov-Vodkin were also held in great respect, even though they did not conform to the "modernist" tendencies such as Tatlin's Constructivism and Malevitch's Suprematism.
The artists felt they were creators of a new movement that needed to document its own activity, "so that its history need not be dug out of the ruins of posterity".
The survival of the collection as a unified body of work is due to a strange irony of history. It was preserved by the very institution which it sought to challenge – the State Russian Museum. The works became known to the general public only during the Gorbachev years of perestroika and glasnost and a major exhibition was held at the museum last year. Dr V.A.Gusev, director of the State Russian Museum, pays tribute to the pioneers of this "brief but brilliant era of the Russian avant-garde", who were forged out of the crucible of social revolution.
Unfortunately, however, he blames the artists who created the Museum for the downfall of this outstanding pioneering project. "There were too many brilliant individuals involved for the group to work effectively as a team," he writes in the catalogue introduction.
With today's knowledge of how Stalinist repression arose and what it did – outlined in the excellent chronology in the first pages of the catalogue – this is being somewhat economical with the truth.
New Art for a New Era: Malevich's Vision of the Russian Avant-Garde at the Barbican Art Gallery, 30 April -27 June. Information: 0171 382 7105. Admission £6/£4. (Includes admission to David Bailey – Birth of the Cool). St Petersburg: Romance & Revolution festival also includes visits from the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirov Opera and Maly Drama Theatre, a film season, special projects and literary events.
* Catalogue by D.A.V.Gusev with essays by Evgenia Petrova and Irina Karasik. £19.95. But as B92 foreign editor Aleksandar Vasovic explained: "The real reason they had to shut us down is because we were informing people about what is going on."
This review first appeared in Socialist Future