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The adventures of abstract artists, including in Russia

Marina Koldobskaya, Newtimes.Ru

The Soviet regime created avant-garde art and made it its ideology in art. But several decades later it destroyed that art

In the well-known project, "The Choice of the People", which was the brainchild of two Russian conceptualist artists living in America, Komar and Melamid, all laurels have gone to the most popular picture entitled Christ's Appearance to the Bear, in which a river, birch-trees, little kids and other innocent things are depicted. Its blissful idiocy won out over the other picture, a canvas with abominable blue-and-red triangles, crumbly surface, and rags glued to it Ц an excellent licensed product of American abstract art.

Declaration of non-love

Abstract art was greatly disliked in our country. For half a century it was a synonym for "vile innovations" and the "corrupt influence of the West". The reason for that non-love was as simple as the newspaper Pravda. Abstractionism was declared "Enemy No 1" in art when the Cold War began. The main political enemy was the United States where abstract expressionism was one of the most popular trends in art. Curses hurled on abstractionism were part of the anti-American propaganda at the time.

Besides, it was believed that "common people" naturally prefer realism and good-quality hack-work. Soviet art critics, taking advantage of public ignorance, mocked abstract art and artists, saying that "their work was done with the help of a donkey's tail." Distinguished propagandists of socialist realism drew caricatures and parodies.

Nikita Khrushchev publicly hurled abuse on modern abstract artists bordering on indecency and that made a profound impression on Bohemia. A "historic battle" between abstract artists and orthodox art students took place in the hostel of the Academy of Art in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1963. I remember an abstract canvas with a huge hole in the middle: having exhausted all arguments in a heated discussion with his opponent, an abstract artist brought the heavy thing down with all his might on his head. I also know of an artist who burned all his pictures in fright, locked himself up in an insane asylum and never produced anything more. Many people used the negative attitude of the authorities to abstract art to defiantly declare themselves nonconformists. Now it does not seem such a terrible fate, no worse than the ordinary life of the Soviet engineers and other specialists who admired works of the persecuted talents.

A romantic myth was current among Soviet intellectuals at the time about an artist who "paints like he breathes" and the authorities that suppressed him as much as they could. Nonconformists seemed guiltless victims, and thus a "classical drama" was played out: "the creator and the regime", "the poet and the mob", "the genius and villainy". But art critics "in plain clothes" viewed the situation differently. For them all modernist art was an act of ideological subversion, and those admiring it were regarded either as conscious saboteurs or "lost sheep". Funny as it would seem today, but many Soviet art critics were more honest in their view of things than the intellectual frondeurs who attacked the authorities, on one hand, and on the other, demanded recognition from them. In other words, they wanted to climb up the fir-tree without scratching their asses. But the fir-tree proved too prickly.

The infantile and gloomy views of our intellectuals on art are not difficult to explain. Disliking the Soviet regime, they searched for an ideal in the pre-revolutionary past, in the culture of the salons of the Silver Age. A virtuoso-decadent was regarded the only correct type of creator. Besides, decadence was rich in various modulations evoking tender emotions: a lonesome rebel, a melancholy demon, a persecuted genius. The Silver Age gave way to avant-garde art, which could hardly move anyone, despite the really tragic fate of many of its exponents. First, avant-garde art was revolutionary, which could easily be explained from a historical point of view, but was difficult for them to approve. Secondly, avant-garde art was a collectivist phenomenon. And if an artist is a demon, then an artistic group is a crowd of demons united by common interests and discipline. So what then was avant-garde art as a whole? A winged host at the service of the state...

It proved simpler to view art in the Marxist vein, not as a message from heaven, but as part of political ideology, and the artists themselves were regarded as soldiers mobilized on the ideological front.

The cradle and grave of avant-garde art

Abstract art was born in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1915. Kazimir Malevich painted his famous Black Square, the world's first picture which did not depict anything, except a pure idea, the "point zero", "the embryo of all possibilities". Black Square became the trademark of Russian avant-garde art and Malevich himself became an example of an artist who made a revolution and was made by it.

And he was not alone. Innovative artists supported the Soviet regime without hesitation because it gave them a chance to play their game. The Soviet regime accepted avant-garde art, although with doubts, because it was necessary to destroy the old world to the very foundation, and then... Their alliance was rather dramatic, but quite voluntary Ц a marriage of convenience, with passion, but without love.

It is generally believed that the Soviet regime destroyed avant-garde art. But it is equally generally forgotten that it created it and made it its artistic ideology for more than a decade. In February 1919, at the height of the Civil War, a conference was held in hunger-stricken Petrograd under the chairmanship of Anatoly Lunacharsky. At the conference it was decided to set up an unprecedented museum of art, which would only exhibit works of modern "innovative" art, not the "trash of old times". It was an ideological life-and-death struggle. It was said that Malevich and his friends once visited the Academy of Art and smashed all the "ideologically harmful" plaster sculptures kept for study purposes. Academic realism was considered the aesthetics of the "exploiter classes". A new authority in art was needed to spell out for the public what deserved eternity. It is believed that the Museum of Art was the world's first museum of contemporary art: it was at least 20 years ahead of the New York museums of modern art Ц MOMA and the Guggenheim Museum.

Having done away with the market, the Soviet regime supported revolutionary art as much as it could. Artists' works were purchased by state commissions according to plans and distributed around the country. Art studios, laboratories and museums were opened in provincial towns. A system of art education was set up making it possible for a conscious worker or peasant to bake abstract paintings like hot cakes.

The revolutionary ideas in art were propagated on a worldwide scale. In 1924 Malevich submitted suprematist pictures to the Venetian biennale. The Russian revolution definitely did one good thing Ц it freed Russian intellectuals from provincial inferiority complexes. The avant-garde artists and theorists had a unique experience, they well understood it and hurried to force it on the entire world.

There is a story about the Soviet pavilion at the Paris World Fair of 1925. It was designed by Konstantin Melnikov and the interior decoration was done by Alexander Rodchenko. As usual, everything was done in a great hurry, and the floor, which had been painted black, did not dry in time. Visitors to the pavilion spread the black paint all over the fair grounds on their soles. This was a trace of the revolutionary infection. Perhaps, it was the best, although a chance, work by Rodchenko.

The moon invented by a German

Russia was one pole of the revolutionary frenzy, the other one was Germany. The architect Walter Gropius opened the Higher School of Artistic Design called Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919. The market was dying in the devastated country, hyperinflation was turning money into worthless heaps of paper and the urban population was virtually starving. But the people who had suffered so much from the war wanted a new world, new things and surroundings and means and methods to live among them. The Weimar Republic went from living in the hopeless present to believing in a bright future by opening and maintaining a school in which a group of utopian artists taught how to arrange human life beautifully, comfortably and justly with the help of avant-garde art.

The new world was thought to be international. The Russian Wassily Kandinsky and the Hungarian Moholy-Nagy taught at Bauhaus, and among the abstract artists who visited it were Le Corbusier and Malevich. Bourgeois "beauty", which had compromised itself, was driven out, and historical traditions, national features and social preferences were rejected. What was left was geometry Ц the kingdom of liberated reason. Universal "scientific" laws of forms were drawn up. Bauhaus teachers were utopian socialists, designers of the universe, and the creators and masters of the new world.

The Germans, being a very practical people, made architecture and design the pillars of everything. They really designed and built, aggressively breaking into the social medium. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the threat of being closed down loomed over the "left-wing" school.

They say the then director of Bauhaus went to see Joseph Goebbels and asked him to help save the school. The style of the Third Reich was not clearly defined at that time and it was believed that Goebbels was a man capable of listening and solving matters. Previously, he adhered to left-wing views, was rather well educated and had rather progressive artistic tastes. He patronized some expressionist artists and appreciated Gothic art. During the conversation with the school director he posed as a liberal and suggested a compromise: to crown works of rationalistic architecture with peaked tile roofs for national colour. The next day the Bauhaus director packed his suitcases and left for America.

America, above all!

Almost all artists and architects from Bauhaus Ц Walter Gropius, Joseph Alberts, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee left for the New World. German expressionists, French, Spanish and Belgian surrealists, dadaists, futurists, fauvists, cubists and the whole legion of cosmopolitans without kith or kin who were the pride and glory of European art Ц all went there.

The cultural situation in America was rather poor at the time. The United States was recovering from the Great Depression. President Roosevelt's programme aimed at overcoming the deep economic, social and political crisis was often compared with the great socialist projects. There were certain common features in the ideological sphere, too.

In the early 1930s the Federal project for the development of art was adopted. It was aimed, on one hand, at giving work to unemployed artists, and on the other, at ascertaining positive values for the consolidation of the spirit of the nation. Spiteful critics called it "Roosevelt's plan of monumental propaganda". It was a system of government orders for decorating public buildings and creating easel paintings. So-called regionalist artists spreading the ideas of American national originality were best suited to the new project. It should be borne in mind that isolationism and protectionism held sway in the economic sphere, and the ideas of collectivism and patriotism Ц in the social sphere.

Our viewers know little about the outstanding figures of the American regionalist school such as Thomas Benton, Grant Wood and John Stewart Kerry. Theirs was a realistic style, intentionally rough and provincial. They borrowed much from Mexican revolutionary art Ц Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, for at the time the United States was a pupil of Mexico as far as fine art was concerned. Regionalism was considered an American reply to the modernist temptations of Europe. True, by the early 1930s Europe had turned away from modernism. European dictatorial regimes welcomed realism. They liked the semblance of truth because it gave them the illusion of possession. Regionalism had much in common with both Soviet and German Nazi art. In their subjects one could see the ideas of "the blood and soil" and "America above all!". The human body was the object of social experiment, and landscapes Ц the background of human drama. True, the drama was different now. The art of European dictatorships depicted the collision of the struggle and victory for the sake of creating a paradise on earth. This art was utopian, heroic and beautiful. Whereas regionalism in democratic America was stern, puritan and rather repulsive. It depicted the drama of work and patience, and of earthly life which was always difficult and would never be easy. The main task of artistic propaganda was to arouse compassion for the needy and to cause pain in order to overcome it. American regionalist art, just as Nazi and Soviet art, remained within the bounds of its region.

Art: theory and history

In the 1930s not only people, but also works of art began to flow into the United States. In 1937, Goebbels, having got rid of his left-wing views, initiated an exhibition called "Moronic Art". It finally showed who was who. The morons hurridly fled. Their admirers either hid their works or sold them. The Nazi government also sold their pictures. Many modernist works from German museums were sold for a song at an auction in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1939, mostly to America. Later, during the war, American art collectors and their agents did good business in occupied Paris buying works of the "Paris school" very cheaply. The German administration did not put up particular obstacles to it.

By that time there was a real collection boom in the United States. Love of fine paintings became a true feature distinguishing a person of the elite from a simple money-bag. At the end of the 1930s, the Rockefeller family supported Alfred Barr who organized the Museum of Modernist Art (MOMA) in New York. At about the same time the big collection of the works of art belonging to Solomon Guggenheim was turned into a museum. He had collected works of "regionalist style" for quite some time. The influx of modernist art works from Europe changed his idea of what was valuable and the modern era. A great role in this was played by his niece, Peggy Guggenheim, an enthusiastic admirer of art and artists. She amassed a first-class collection of works of modernist art and helped the surrealist artists who emigrated from Europe. She was close to Max Ernst for many years. Under her influence Solomon Guggenheim changed his plans: the museum he founded in 1937 was called the Museum of Non-Objective Art. The creation of a museum is a turning point in any art, this means that the latter now has its own history. His museum was to support the art of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, and their American followers. Perhaps, there was the logic of "the enemy of my enemy" in this. If Hitler was persecuting the "morons", the Jew and plutocrat Guggenheim had to support them.

There were few real angry artists

There were quite a few followers. Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Franz Klein, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko and many others. But the main legend of American fine art was Jackson Pollock.

He was born in 1912 in a god-forsaken place in America and began his career as a pupil of the "regionalist" Thomas Hart Benton. The teacher was of left-wing views and for ten years Pollock worked on social themes, depicting the suffering of the working class, searching for national roots and painting myths of the Wild West.

In 1940, American artists came under the strong influence of Pablo Picasso's retrospective "Forty years of life in art". The gurus of modernist art settled in New York and recruited disciples and followers. The surrealists were especially active. The expressionist Max Ernst, supported by Peggy Guggenheim's money and connections, became especially popular and influential. She noticed the obstinate lad who churned out abominable pictures, studied Jung and Freud and earned his living by working at the museum joiner's shop.

By the mid-1940s, Pollock had stopped putting subjects and figures in his pictures having declared that he was immersing himself into his inner world. He created works using the "drip" technique. Paint was splashed or spilled from a bucket onto a canvas spread on the floor. Pollock splashed paint, swinging a can with holes in it over the canvas. He put his canvas on the floor and dripped, speckled or poured paint onto the canvas. He created works of art by using a rope smeared in paint and "whipping" the canvas with it. He was nicknamed "Jack the Dripper".

The German expressionist artists who had fled from Hitler exerted a strong influence on the new generation of American artists. At the time, psychoanalysis was in vogue and artists were striving to depict the subconscious and the unconscious. Traditional painting turned out to be hopelessly compromised, for its beauty and harmony were used by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. The war undermined faith in humanism and rationalism. Was art possible after Auschwitz? This question was asked by many art critics. The art of noise and fury was possible, indeed, and Pollock was the most angry and noisy.

Money began to be invested in Pollock. Peggy Guggenheim made no little effort and gave the money to send his works to the Venetian biennale of 1950. Pollock's one-man show in Paris in 1952 was a sensation. From then on, the fashion in fine art began to be dictated by New York.

In the mid-1920s, the surrealists put forward the idea of "automatic creative work": the artist would switch off, one way or another, his consciousness, releasing psychic energy from under control. Pollock did it with the help of alcohol Ц at that time there were no synthetic stimulants. He also resorted to Indian shamanism. The artist would perform an improvised ritual dance around the canvas until he went into a trance. He did not know, and was not interested in, what the result of his work would be. The painted surface of the canvas became a chance result of spontaneous movements, expressing the state of the soul of the creator fed by unearthly energy, a manifestation of an existential act, not the work of the artist.

Art required self-destruction. Various forms of obsession were in vogue, and people talked about existentialism in the salons. Pollock was one of the generation of "angry young men" who dressed in black-leather suits, engaged in drunken brawls in bars using broken bottles, and raced down the streets with frightening speed on terrible Harleys.

Pollock was not only angry, he was also suspect. During the witch hunt he was summoned to the Committee on Un-American Activities. It's interesting to note that the peak of abstractionism coincided with the peak of McCarthyism. The right-wing forces who ruled the roost in the United States at the time did not like the angry left-wing artists. Right-wing elements usually support disciplined objective art with definite subjects. But for all its notoriety, the Committee persecuted people not for their politically incorrect tastes but for un-American activity Ц espionage or pro-Soviet propaganda. It was difficult to accuse wordless irrational painting of these sins. Besides, despite its stern nature, the Committee acted in a democratic country. Senator McCarthy could think whatever he liked, but this did not prevent Peggy Guggenheim from buying a palace in Venice, organizing an exhibition of modernist art there and glorifying it throughout the world.

By the mid-1950s, Pollock fell into a deep depression. He ceased painting and preferred to ride his motorcycle during the night while heavily drunk. In 1956 he died in a car crash. Some people believed it was suicide.

Kilometres of canvas and barrels of paint

The 1940s and 1950s was the time of a heroic marathon of American art during which much was done for the first time. Using the words of Soviet art critics, art was adapted to the "sweatshop system" of capitalism.

The United States regarded itself a world empire, and empires, as is known, are inclined to gigantomania. America's grandeur required the highest skyscrapers, the most powerful cars and the most spectacular projects. "A great artist of a great country should create great pictures" Ц this was principle current at the time.

Artists worked very rapidly, it often took just one sitting to paint a picture. The painstaking work of an artist who created a masterpiece after spending several years on it seemed an archaic thing of the handicraft era. The thoughtful experimental work of modernist-theorists also became a thing of the past. "Art laboratories'" turned into a conveyer belt. The work of an expressionist painter was measured in kilometres of canvas, barrels of spilled paint and megajoules of energy. The most radical artists sold their canvasses in metres, "in length", or they covered the walls of houses under repair with paintings. The energetic labour of young artists evoked admiration: it was a demonstration of the boundless strength and stamina of the American people. Now the artist was not a genius sitting in his study but a man-machine, man-plant, and, on the other side of the coin, a man-terminator.

It was thought that the abstract expressionists had "derailed the train" of traditional art with its cult of mastery, gracefulness and respect for past experience. Now something new was expected from an artist practically at every exhibition. It was thought that art should change from season to season and that fine art should submit to the beat of world fashion. What was created twenty years ago was now considered "ancient". At the turn of the 1950s-1960s, art was divided into modern art Ц modernism and revolutionary classics, and contemporary art Ц what was being done at the time.

It was then that the price of modern art works skyrocketed, because in a futuristic era myths are created not about the past, but about the present and future. Pictures were bought with their paint still wet: the radicalism of gallery owners matched the radicalism of artists. Those were investments in American names and America's future.

In the early 1960s a new generation of artists came to the fore. Having begun as abstract expressionists, pop-artists continued their career by overthrowing idols. The young Robert Rauschenberg, having bought a pencil drawing by de Kooning for a big sum, openly repeated the movement of the hand of the master with an eraser. In 1964 he was awarded the Grand Prix at the Venetian biennale.

Many old guests

"There is no freedom, only liberation," wrote the Russian poet Maximilian Voloshin, who witnessed the Russian revolution and many other turbulent events at close hand.

When one happens to go to an exhibition of abstract expressionism today, one gets the impression of conscientious boredom. During the heroic years, the passion and aim of this art was the destruction of old myths. Having scored victory, abstract expressionism has become the ABCs, a school through which almost every artist starting his career has to pass. Today, purchasing works in this style is a banal and safe way of decorating one's home or office. A hint of rebellion over the bed or work-desk looks quite liberal and respectable. Having lost its Sturm und Drang and shocking novelty, abstractionism has turned into a salon art which some malicious tongues call the "production of wallpaper". It is just, because even in Russia one can see splashes, blots and stains decorating the walls of clubs and cafes. As much else, abstractionism has entrenched itself in our shops earlier than at museums.

In 1999, the first exhibition of abstract expressionists was held at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The speeches made at the opening ceremony were full of nostalgia Ц abstractionism had been admired by the "advanced" young Soviet people already in the 1950s-1960s. "At that time", grey-haired admirers of abstract art recalled, "any person could go to the library of the Academy of Art, take art magazines and look at these works." It was precisely in that manner, through photos in magazines and in Soviet books about the harmful nature of modernism that our local artists got familiar with contemporary art.

There were quite a few abstract artists in this country, perhaps, no fewer than in America. And the number of their admirers was just as great. The difference lay in that there were influential circles in the United States which asserted that this art was the pride of the nation. In the USSR there were also pro-abstractionism circles, but their influence was confined to the boundaries of their own living quarters. As for the authorities, they regarded abstractionists almost as enemies of the people, at least as suspected enemies.

In order to restore the historical truth, the Russian Museum undertook the project "Abstractionism in Russia" in 2001. It was a rather spectacular, but naive and belated attempt to make Russian art life part of world culture and prove that everything here was as anywhere else. The main idea of the initiators of this project boiled down to a kind of "total mobilization". The exhibition took the form of a festival. It made one think that there were very many abstractionists and their admirers in Russia. It was an undoubted success, inasmuch as the main aim of the project was to prove the mass character of this phenomenon in art and, hence, its influence.

Indeed, both did exist. The Soviet abstractionist artists of the late 1950s and the early 1960s seriously dreamed of acquiring status, drawing closer to the powers that be, and becoming a new official current in art under the progressive-minded regime with a human face. However, the scandal at the Moscow Manege exhibition hall in December 1962 cut short these pipe-dreams. Official recognition of abstract art did not occur in Russia. Instead, we have this story about the adventures of abstractionists in Russia, a subject which is so far in the past that there is no need either to disprove or support it.

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