Research series: Russian Art and Artists (16): Towards Revolution

“The City Square” – Natalya Goncharova’s 1914 set design for Le Coq D’Or, the Ballets Russes, Paris [MoMA, New York]

Through the first half of 1914, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were in Paris working with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company and holding an exhibition of Goncharova’s paintings. The declaration of war, however, sent them back to Moscow. Larionov was called up. Goncharova portrayed the war as a mythic encounter, Russian soldiers accompanied by hosts of angels.

Goncharova: Mythical Images of War from a series of lithographs published late 1914

These are, remarkably, patriotic, notes Anthony Parton: “an apocalyptic view of the war in which Russia and its allies were supported by an angelic host in their battle against dark material and spiritual forces.” Other images include St George, St Michael and angels fighting with aeroplanes: see University of Notre Dame for full series). There is a sense in this apocalyptic vision of spiritual battle that Goncharova is invoking the ‘Destiny of Russia’ concept: that Russia is “divinely ordained to play a key role in shaping world events”.

Other artists were also forced to return home. Chagall returned from Paris to marry his beloved Bella:

Marc Chagall: The Birthday [1915; MoMA]

Having found a desk job with the War Office, he was nevertheless horrified at the idea of being conscripted, the talk of war all-encompassing:

Chagall: The Smolensk Newspaper [1914, Philadelphia Museum of Art]

The sole word visible in the newspaper is “war”. Walther and Metzger, write in the Taschen monograph of Chagall: “The ‘paper is on the table between the two men, whose conversation appears to deal exclusively with the carbage ahead in Europe. The olf Jew, resting his chin thoughtfully in his cupped hands, is thinking of the compulsory conscription Tsarist regimes have been imposing on his people from time immemorial. [His opposite number] whose suit and hat pronounce him to be a bourgeois, [is not] at all enthusiastic either; he is seen mopping his brow in distraction.”

Chagall wasn’t called up, indeed he remained in Russia through until the early 1920s, as did Wassily Kandinsky who, like Goncharova, saw Russia in a grand, epic and spiritual light:

Kandinsky: Moscow – Red Square [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]

Amidst the richly vibrant colours and textures, lines and patterns, we see Moscow, with all its churches and cupolas; Red Square has been painted frontally, raised on the heavenly hill. Right at the centre, Boris and Gleb, the two founding Saints of Russia gaze upwards. Above, we see the rainbow, symbol of the Archangel Michael:

the chief archangel, the Archistratig, the head
of the Lord’s heavenly warriors, the guard and protector of God’s honour.
Under his leadership the heavenly forces defeated the devil in battle. He
is therefore the patron saint of chivalry and warriors… [Museum of Russian Icons]

The artist wrote that he particularly loved the time, when the sun goes down and “melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating.” This hour of sunset is “the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out.”

Much had changed since Kandinsky had last been in Moscow, and whilst his ‘ways of seeing’ – that colour vibrates with emotion like music – were radical, others had even more far-reaching visions that would lead to Liubov Popova’s 1921 vision of the city which, with its light and air, steel and glass, stands in extraordinary contrast to Kandinsky’s Moscow:

. Popova: maquette for the City of the Future [1921, photographer unknown]

So how did we get there? Well there’s a photograph of Popova’s studio (taken by Alexander Rodchenko in 1924) that suggests the course that Russian avant garde art took in the wake of Malevich’s Suprematism.

Right: Space-Force-Construction [1921; Tretyakov]

The paintings on the wall above the City of the Future model are from Popova’s Space-Force-Construction series, which had evolved from the colour architectonic paintings we saw in our last episode. Malevich had created, in Suprematism, an entirely new artistic language that dispensed with representation and perspective, emphasising instead geometric shapes and dynamic movement. That breakdown of traditional painting – the Black Square and White on White being the most radical examples – and ways of seeing visual art, led to a period of deep, analytical experimentation of line, colour, shape, movement and recession. Olga Rozanova was painting ‘non-objective compositions’ that, by 1917, were truly brilliant examples of such experimentation:

Non-Objective Composition [1917, Ulyanovsk]; Green Stripe [1917, Rostov]; Colour Painting [1917, St Petersburg]

For Rozanova, colours and colour combinations were the primary building blocks of creative art. For other artists, other aspects came to prominence. In the photograph of Popova’s studio, for example, we see her space-force-construction paintings emphasise line as the dynamic force and – essentially – she brings material texture (faktura) to the fore: notice the paint veers from smooth to rough, and notice especially that this is not painted on traditional canvas, but unprimed plywood, large areas of which are left bare.

This recognition of the very materials used in art-making and the materiality of the art-work itself was central to the ideas of Vladimir Tatlin.

Valdimir Tatlin: The Sailor (probably a self-portrait) [1912; State Russian Museum]

Tatlin, having run away from home as an eighteen year old, became a sailor, travelling the world. Even so he kept up with the avant-garde artists, friends with both Larionov and Goncharova, and painted in the ‘primitivist’ style as we see in The Sailor. Living in great poverty, Tatlin managed to visit Paris and his hero Picasso in 1913 – returning to Russia filled with radical Cubist ideas. As Camilla Gray notes, it was in the winter of 1913-14 that Tatlin took the first step towards what would become Constructivism. Now the difficulty is that many of the early works were lost or destroyed, so there is a reliance on black & white photographs. Here, however, is that first step:

Tatlin: The Bottle [1913; location unknown, photograph from Camilla Gray’s “The Russian Experiment in Art”]

With wallpaper, wood, metal and glass, The Bottle is an exploration of different materials and their properties – the “culture of materials”; Camilla Gray explains: the object, the bottle, is still recognisable as the shape that has been incised onto a strip of metal. But it is not the individual object that is Tatlin’s subject matter, rather its ‘bottleness’ is being analysed. We see the shape silhouetted against a metal strip. But of course one can see through glass, so Tatlin recognises that idea of ‘seeing through’ by using a wire mesh. Moreover, glass is shiny, so the metal behind the mesh has been polished. Each element of a glass bottle has been isolated, taken separately and re-considered. The curve of the bottle, for example, has been taken away from the bottle and transferred to the near-cylinder of metal right at the centre – the reflection of light on the metal paralleling the reflection of light on the bottle. As this metal cylinder arcs out into real space, it contrasts with the flat silhouette of the bottle and the flatness, to the left, of a square of wallpaper. However, even the wallpaper’s flatness is usurped by its trompe l’oeil decorative patterning. Gray summaries: “Thus, a typical ‘enclosed’ space [the bottle] is dissected part by part, attribute by attribute, the analysis being conducted in a series of planes which contrast the idea of ‘real’ and ‘illusory’ space.”

Left: Wood, Metal, Leather [1913-4; Tretyakov Gallery];

Right: Painting Relief: Selection of Materials (iron, stucco, glass, asphalt) [1913-4; presumed destroyed

Using a variety of raw materials – wood, tin, plaster, glass, steel and more – Tatlin explores and combines them to create contrasting textures that illuminate the material properties of each element, extending the ‘picture’ out into real space. This extension he then takes further, removing any reference to the flatness of the framed picture, by creating corner-reliefs:

Corner Relief [1915; destroyed]

Corner Relief [1916; State Russian Museum]

“These corner constructions were Tatlin’s most radical works. In them he has created a new spatial form: a continually intersecting rhythm of planes whose movements jut into, cleave, embrace, block and skewer space” – Camilla Gray.

Alongside Tatlin was fellow-constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, whose initial works on paper and canvas explored lines, which Brandon Taylor in Tate Papers perfectly emphasises are ‘non-descriptive lines’, and would lead, like Tatlin’s work, into three-dimensional ‘real’ space:

Rodchenko: Line Construction [1920; MoMA]; Spatial Construction: Circles within Circles [1921; whereabouts unknown]

You’ll have noticed that we have slipped into post-Revolutionary time, and the Constructivists were very much part of the revolutionary aesthetic those first few utopian years, their artworks tending towards the scientific and the architectural. Notice, for example, the parallel here:

On the left we have Rodchenko’s “Composition No.47” [1917; oil on wood, State Russian Museum], the principles of which the artist re-directs two years later into, on the right, a Design for a Kiosk [1919; private collection]. The avant-garde’s radically new ways of seeing and creating were – at least to them – allied with the radical transformation of society. Even Malevich’s Suprematism was deployed in the decoration of post-Revolutionary Petrograd/Leningrad:

This is Natan Altman’s design for Uritsky Square (Palace Square) in Petrograd in celebration of the first anniversary of the Revolution. An unknown photographer captured the scene: a cheering crowd behind whom large ‘Suprematist’ panels (of colour) had been constructed:

This, however, is another story for another Research Series.


Russian Art & Artists – Towards Constructivism

Thank you so much for following this series, i hope you have enjoyed and, as ever, if you are able to donate it is hugely appreciated. All best wishes for now.


This is the last regular ‘episode’ in this ongoing series as ‘live’ events return, but there will be further articles in the future – simply “follow” The Common Viewer and a notice will appear in your email inbox.

To send us on our merry way then, with all best wishes, here is Varvara Stepanova’s 1920 painting “Musicians” [Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow]:


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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