Art under totalitarianism: chasing the Revolutionary Impulse at MoMa


On the floor below, Alexandra Bachzetsis, the expert dancer, was dancing in front of a player piano, performing a ballet titled "Massacre: Variations on a Theme." Or rather she was performing it on a large video and the player piano was performing it, live, if you could call it that. At some points, she would arrive to perform it live herself; bleachers were set up for these occasions, warnings posted of their potential for nudity. "A feverish interchange between violent physical movement and excessive mechanical repetition," the museum guide reads. The piano's clanging chords rang out like hymnals playing in that dream you have that you're falling as I entered A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde, immediately confronting an untitled collage of shapes (1916-17) by Lyubov Popova, that was either a cannon shooting into the sky or a telescope peering down into the earth. Or something else completely.

Popular interest in late Czarist and early Soviet art nominally falls into a few categories. The armchair art historian is interested in where the constructivist cut-cup collages of Popova and El Lissitzky fit into the greater narrative of abstractions within the history of western art. Kazimir Malevich's seminal Black Square (1915), for instance, is known to predate Robert Rauschenberg's very similar looking series of Black Paintings (1951-53) by a solid thirty or so years. (Black Square isn't owned by MoMa and, thus, isn't on display in Revolutionary Impulse but some of his earlier forays into cubism are: Samovar (1913) strikingly towers over much of the exhibit's first display room.) Revolutionary Impulse is more or less, arranged chronologically, for this type of visitor. The effect, early on, is that of thin impressions chalked against white wall, framing decisions give the exhibit sleek modernist shrine.

But check out Win Butler and Regine Chassagne's Soviet porcelain doll get up, circa Funerals. That stuff just looks cool. All art is elevated when we call it art, that' Duchamp 101, but the elevation of art with distinctly political overtones sticks right at the heart of what ol' Patty Buchanan once laid out as the "war going on in our country for the soul." Last week, The Guardian's Jonathan Jones played churl-in-chief on MoMa's retrospective (and a similarly themed one going on simultaneously at the Royal Academy in London). Old man Jones complained:

It struck me as intellectually lazy for this museum, so remote from everything the Russian revolution stood for, to apolitically celebrate its art, as if constructivism and suprematism were just cool aesthetic discoveries rather than utopian projects from an age of struggle and violence.

While this critique of MoMa for being, uh, a museum of modern art that will never be able to stay true, whatever that means, to anything short of a Jeff Koons retrospective, this is only the ground before which his argument sits: that the art of Soviet Russia is simply an immoral pile of wallop because of its association with the violent Soviet regimes of Lenin and, later, Stalin. He cites, for example, the veneration that Lissitzky's Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919), a pop classic that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has curiously not begrudged either MoMa or the Royal Academy with, being used for a Franz Ferdinand album, among other things. The red in that poster is blood! That isn't cool!

But he's wrong. It is very cool. To be unmoved by the sheer amount of Euro art history both distilled and absconded, adopted and then turned into something beyond any theorist's dreams requires an incredible amount of self-deceit. Natalia Goncharova, one of the artists well represented in Revolutionary Impulse, traverses in the few two or three rooms alone. Both Forest (1913) and Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest (1913) are works that would be remarkable if they were the lifelong opuses of two painters; that they come both the same hand, in the same year and are really among Goncharova's minor works, make them their appearance impressions of genius, explosions that rustle out of cubist dogma and buzz with inner life, clinging to shadows.

But this is all very pre-Revolution talk, Revolutionary Impulse gives a solid amount of space to the latter promise of its title. Playing in one room was the stair scene from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) on a five minute-loop, an apoltical, if iconic, choice from the Russian propogandist. Elsewhere, bales of hay were being gathered in similar increments, as captured by Alexander Dovzhenko in his masterpiece Earth (1930). It a piece of agit-prop about Stalin's brutal collectivization program, a genocidal move that starved millions and one that old man Jones said he would be thinking about instead of rushing to opening day. Whatever. The five minute clip looks so pretty.

But in one of the final rooms of the show, a set of late 20s-early 30s propaganda posters were collected on an otherwise bare blue wall, in front of a few perfectly designed models of buildings that were never built. But they would fit nicely in my room.

How else does one live in these dreadful times?

A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde runs until March 12th!

Follow Us On

TV Reviews

"Dirty John" Is Too Relatable

Dirty John is incredibly frustrating, but quality actresses make an unbelievable survival story seem all too realistic on screen.