Review of reviews: Art & Film
Exhibit of the week
A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde
Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through March 12
Sometimes art history stalls for decades without much innovation, said The New Yorker. At other times, it “explodes in a flash.” That’s what happened 100 years ago, when political revolution in Russia inspired a burst of artistic experimentation. Painting was distilled into the arrangement of simple geometric shapes. Printmakers created art books that made no effort to hide their rough edges. Filmmakers spliced footage from newsreels into dreamlike montages. Even though MoMA’s new 260-piece survey provides few new insights on this era, said Nicole Rudick in TheParisReview.org, “the exuberance, energy, and freshness” of the work on display inspires awe. In 1920, painter and printmaker El Lissitzky wrote, “The artist is transformed from reproducer to builder of a new world of forms.” That new world is still with us.
The earliest works offer “a kind of prelude, or reveille, for the upheaval to come,” said Mark Feeney in The Boston Globe. Five years before Czar Nicholas II’s abdication, Russian artists were already putting their own spin on Western Europe’s cubist and futurist movements. But Kazimir Malevich opened “brave new territory” with suprematism, a movement that employed only the simplest geometric forms, arranged in striking ways. In 1915, he painted a black square and a red square on a white background, then gave the work the magnificently absurd title Painterly Realism of a Boy With aKnapsack—Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension. By the 1920s, the Russian avant-garde had turned its focus onto film, with Lenin’s encouragement. In one gallery, four screens display excerpts from four of history’s greatest films, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, and Alexander Dovzhenko. The effect is “almost comically overwhelming,” but that’s the point. “Soviet film of this era bears comparison to Elizabethan drama, say, or Dutch painting of the Golden Age.”
“The show ends with the avant-garde still on the rise,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. A beautiful 1934 architectural model for a proposed military production facility suggests that its designer, Ivan Leonidov, was a master of postmodernism three decades before any American thought to try it. But Joseph Stalin had consolidated power by the mid-1930s, and he ordered Soviet artists to take up social realism if they wished to continue working. Purges of the intelligentsia would follow; they are this exhibition’s unmentioned coda. Everything we do see suggests that the Russian Revolution, though it failed in its promises of a better world, precipitated “a giant step for art.”