For Russian Artists in 1917, Art Was the Thing, Not Revolution

The range is extraordinary: The exhibition opens with Mikhail Nesterov’s giant painting of religious Russians, “The Heart of the People,” and continues through the idealized peasants of Zinaida Serebryakova and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, and the decidedly non-idealized peasants of Boris Grigoriev; the sumptuous aristocratic sitting rooms of Stanislav Zhukovsky; the brilliant scenes of Jewish life by Marc Chagall; and on through cityscapes, portraits, self-portraits and still lifes until we get to the avant-garde works of Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova.

Yet even these latter artists, the standard-bearers of revolution in art, seem more concerned with what is happening in their movement than on the streets. Why?

They knew the world was crashing down about them, and this was their way of making sense of it, argues Zelfira Tregulova, the director of the Tretyakov Gallery.

The events of the moment were less important to artists than the desire to express their sense of it.

“For some it was the myth of the ‘narod,’ the people,” Ms. Tregulova said in one interview; “for others it was the utopia of the avant-garde; others sought to escape from reality by creating sensitive aesthetical works. Some recorded the reality of the city, setting it against the idyllic images of the countryside.”

But none of them were oblivious to the breakup of their world, and none would escape the revolution for long. A few would embrace the new order (Kustodiev went on to paint children’s books on Lenin); most would be co-opted, silenced or exiled.

Yet to understand what happened to them, and to Russia, it is first necessary to clear the past of myths and lies, to start from the beginning.

In a nation in which rulers have long written history to meet their needs, cleaning the art of 1917 of a century’s worth of ideological claptrap has proved to be a most appropriate way to commemorate a revolution.

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