Art & Revolution: Dictatorship and Propaganda

This period ran in tandem, yet independent to Modernism. Though here I will explore the relationship of politics to culture, the use of culture to drive through social change and how society is limited by politics.

This image depicts the Bolsheviks lead by Lenin outside the Winter Palace, November the 7th 1917. They were over throwing the provisional government, the Czarist regime. Until this point there was the Monarchy vs the  peasants, with no middle ground, from here a different social order rose up. This was the first communist republic; the workers took control, and Russia’s wealth was redistributed.

Between 1917 – 1921 was the Russian civil war: Reds (the people = revolutionary Bolsheviks) vs the Whites (anti-revolutionary Imperialists). Lenin lead the Bolsheviks to victory.

Before the civil war, Russia was a third world country; and during the war 18 million people starved. The path to revolution and communism was not an easy one. Russia was not an industrial country, this resulted in hyper-modernisation a massive acceleration of visual culture, all without a lot of money.

80% of the people were illiterate at the start of the revolution so there was no way to spread the message, so visual communication was important, and this relied on pre-revolutionary techniques such as painting, and portraits of religion and the monarchy.

This is The Bolshevik by B. Kustodiev (1920) The giant in the painting is a Bolshevik; this is apparent by the workers clothing, and he is leading the Bolsheviks to victory. This represents the might of the worker, and strength in unity. He is carrying the workers flag, red : stained with the blood of martyred revolution and their struggle for freedom and for a social utopia. The Whites in this image are represented by the white snow dusted on the rooftops of the bourgeois buildings.

Between 1917 and the mid 1920’s there was intense artistic experimentation. The Bolsheviks had worked so hard to over throw the unfair social system, why should they lazily inherit their culture? This was the beginning of the brave new world, they wanted a new Russia, a modern Russia, and a new cultural language that spoke for them. This period experimented in what art should be, what its role was and its aesthetic.

Visual language was formed in response to the industrialisation of Russia, and factories. Geometric shapes became part of the new aesthetic of art, and letter forms entered the works taken from mass media.

In 1924 Lenin died and was replaced by Stalin, and under his power Russia became murderous and totalitarian. Stalin decreed the end of experimental art, he likened it to the art of the west and capitalism.

Before the death of Lenin, in the period of revolutionary Russia, there was an air of excitement and it was encouraged that Russian artists look to the west at the Modernist movement. Not to copy, but to learn from, to learn from the experimentation to create authentic work, and the new Russian aesthetic. Like modernism, art moved away from realism, and Supremitism was born.

This work by Kasimir Malevich again uses the geometry of the modern. The aesthetic of suprematism was used not just in art, but also photography, architecture and graphic design.

This image by El Lissitzky Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge is one of the most famous pieces of revolutionary imagery. This uses the Reds vs the Whites imagery discussed earlier; the red wedge symbolises the Bolshevik might shattering the gates of the White’s Winter Palace. Constructivist designers like Lissitzky were employed by the state to spread the revolutionary message. Under the new social order there was no art market; nothing bought or nothing owned. There was no censorship in what designers like Lissitzky could produce, but they had to be employed to some social cause.

This below ‘Books’ poster by Rodchenko was a design placed on kiosks containing free books and educational material for the illiterate Russians to educate themselves.

Educating Russia was seen as the key to continuing the revolution. The poster comprises of photo-montaging, the working class woman is shown to be shouting “books!”. Photography was a new, reproducible medium and was much more real than painting. The fact that the poster depicts a woman rather than a man is another tool of the revolution to symbolise equality.

This imagery was developed only 7 years after the start of the revolution, and it’s so strong that is still used today, which proves how this aesthetic has aged well and is successful:

Modern day response to Constructavist design in the form of an album cover for the band Franz Ferdinand

Because the nature of constructivism was so interdisciplinary (photomontage, print experiments) the categories of art and design began to dissolve.

This is a model created by Vladimir Tatlin of of the Monument to the Third International. Tatlin envisioned this model to be built as a communist reposte to the Eiffel Tower, both were a celebration if modernity, and conveyed a certain truth to materials, however Tatlin’s monument was planned to be built with a social purpose to encapsulate socialist and constructivist ideals. The monument was designed to be three times the size of the Eiffel Tower, made of three tiers; the bottom would be an auditorium for teaching, education and literacy, the middle would form a stage for politicians, and the top would serve as a telecommunications hub. The tilted composition of the structure symbolises the natural tilt of the earths axis; Russia wanted to be seen as the centre of the world. Of course the Monument of the Third International was never built simply because Russia couldn’t afford to. With the new economic system, Russia didn’t have enough money for their desired utopia.

The aim of the Constructivists was to achieve “…the communistic expression of material structures.” They didn’t want to be seen as ‘geniuses’, just normal. In contrast, in the Modernist West, artists like Salvador Dali portrayed themselves ‘crazy geniuses’ through their appearance (that moustache). Designs were made based on the abstract modern aesthetic and applied to textiles. 

This fabric design was created by Stepanova. Note the use of black, red and white, and the geometric shapes. Revolutionary symbols were coming through is fashion. This brought art into the everyday mass through the production of consumer goods. The hierachy of art and design began to crumble; male dominated ‘Fine Arts’ were superior over female dominated crafts. The new social order resulted in a rise of the social role of women.

1925 saw the World Expositions; the trade offs between Paris and London. The Russian response was the USSR Pavilion. Russia came from nowhere, a third world country, to miles ahead of everyone else.

USSR Pavilion by Melnikov

Although this building is 90 years old, it still looks modern today. The architecture of the building is similar to the aesthetic of the constructivist works it housed inside. This style of architecture was applied to every day buildings too.

1920 saw the opening of the VKhUTEMAS – A progressive art school established by Lenin, to teach the new ideas created by the constructivists following the Revolution. The VKhUTEMAS (Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops) was opened around the time of the Bauhaus – the German Modernist art school, however the VKhUTEMAS was more radical, but simultaneously offering the same interdisciplinary structure. The VKhUTEMAS was closed by Stalin when he came into power, just how the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis under Hitlers regime. Many books are published on the Bauhaus, though a book of the VKhUTEMAS is hard to come by. It’s argued that this would be admitting communist constructivists were more modern and radical than the modernists. In western ideology Russia was the enemy, a series of judgements people eventually accepted.

In Russia, women were pioneering in the art and design initiative, though in the west pre 1980’s women were excluded. This image illustrates constructivist sporting outfits; functionality is primary (loose fit for movement) and looks were secondary. They are gender neutral. At the same time in the west, ladies fashion was highly sexualised with cinched in waists and high heels, objectifying females.

“It is time to move from designing clothing to designing the structure of the fabric. This will allow the textile industry to jettison its present excessive variety, and help it standardise and improve, at long last, the quality of production.” Stepanova

There was an assumption that excessive variety was bad and things should be standardised for equality. This ideal poses the following questions: How can there be an individualised society but still have equality? How can we have a social equality without jettisoning human individuality? Everyone has the same things, but are these things any good? The utopia would be fair, but would it be happy?

After the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin there was total regression.

Realistic oil paintings remerged such as this one by Garasimov depicting Stalin bathed in golden light like a Godly figure, whilst genocide was being committed under his command. Paintings showing happy peasants in their correct gender roles returned. Russia became a cultural black hole. There was nobody to bild the cites and design things under Stalins regime. Russia was paranoid that opening an ‘art school’ would be capitalist, so a school was opened that was about “…industrial equipment and consumer goods quality improvement by artistic engineering methodology implementation”. Decree 394 (1962)

In Summary

  • Revolution = new opportunity for art to progress
  • Constructivists desire to make art useful
  • Aim that art should help ‘construct’ new society
  • Use of new techniques and abstract aesthetic
  • 1934 Stalin decrees ‘socialist realism’ only

Russia came from nowhere to becoming global cultural leaders that was charged with politics which wouldn’t have been possible without the revolution. The violent rupture of the revolution meant a violent rupture of culture. The constructivists fused culture and art with everyday life to help build the new world. Before 1920’s Russia was a third world country where 80% of the population was illiterate, by the 1960’s they were putting people into space.


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