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Popova Portrait
Lyubov Popova Portrait, 1914-15
Oil on paperboard, 59.5 x 41.6 cm
State Museum of Contemporary Art
The G. Costakis Collection

Revolutionary Futurism

Review by Corinna Lotz

The Estorick Gallery’s Futurism show, which reveals the explosion of styles and experimentation that the movement produced, is a brilliant rebuff to those cynics who are so fond of repeating that revolution is incompatible with artistic freedom.

For the first time, London viewers can see the sister movements in Italy and Russia together, face to face. The Estorick’s director, Roberta Cremoncini, quotes the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who wrote in 1920:

“On May Day of last year, Russian cities were decorated with Futurist paintings. Lenin’s trains were decorated on the outside with coloured dynamic forms very like those of Boccioni, Balla and Russolo. This does honour to Lenin and cheers us like one of our own victories.”

The gallery in Islington is the ideal place to compare the Italian and Russian variants of Futurism, since it was founded to house Eric Estorick’s pioneer collection of Italian 20th century Italian art, though his interest extended to Russian art as well. An iconic image of Tatlin by El Lissitzky, once owned by him, is included in the exhibition.

With the overthrow of Tsarist autocracy in 1917 a new era opened up, which made the Futurists confident that anything was possible. Mystical and religious ideas about history and culture expressed this heady cocktail, as artists participated in a revolutionary change in society. Casimir Malevich, one of the first to make totally abstract canvases, saw his Suprematism as the successor to the Old and New Testaments.

The Russian Futurists looked to the future but they also looked backward, incorporating ancient myths, folklore and iconic forms of depiction. And, the visual movement was inseparable from poetry and music. In 1912, Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexander Kruchenykh joined with David Burliuk and Vladimir Mayakovsky to write a manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. Khlebnikov broke the Russian language into its elements and created new words, such as zaun – meaning “beyond sense”. He saw words as bearers of cultural identity and as an active element in history.

Kruchenykh Pomade
Alexei Kruchenykh Pomade, 1913
Illustrated by Mikhail Larionov The British Library

Following the October socialist revolution, avant-garde artists in the young Soviet Union enthusiastically participated in transforming social and political life. Futurists and other artistic pioneers, including Marc Chagall, Malevich, El Lissitzky and Vassily Kandinsky, were put in charge of organising street festivals, mass stage productions and making revolutionary monuments. Under Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the Commissar for Enlightenment, artistic freedom flourished, despite civil war, famine and a collapsing economy.

From the 1890s, the empires of Europe and Russia were in transition towards world war. But the impending explosion was felt and expressed most dramatically not in the industrial societies of the United States or Britain, but in the more backward ones of Italy and Russia. Analysing the reasons for this, Leon Trotsky believed that the creative community in these countries acted as a lightning conductor for the build-up of tensions. He also strongly opposed the idea that the state should endorse or sponsor any single tendency in the arts. He took issue with those who sought to impose “working-class culture” as an ideal, stating bluntly: “There is no proletarian art.”

The Russian Futurist manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, was drawn up by Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Mayakovsky and David Burliuk in 1910. Poets and writers collaborated closely with artists, producing small editions of fragile booklets with dynamic cover illustrations.

Goncharova The Forest
Natalia Goncharova The Forest, c.1913
Oil on canvas, 53.8 x 81 cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Purchased 1977

Artists in Russia took up the formal discoveries of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism, which was changing the course of painting in Western Europe and they made them into their own, swept along by the powerful currents. They took the Cubist exploration of space into new directions as in Goncharova’s The Forest of 1913. At the same time, they never lost sight of their own peasant, primitivist art. Chagall’s The Welcome and Mikhail Larionov’s Spring show this wonderful mix of sophistication, folklore and child-like innocence.

Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti declared during his visit to Moscow early in 1914 that Russian Futurism was “not futurism but savage-ism and its followers are not futurists but savage-ists, primitivists”.

Rozanova Explosion
Olga Rozanova Explosion in a Trunk from Universal War, 1916
Collaged book, 21 x 29 cm State Museum of Contemporary Art – The G. Costakis Collection

Like the Italian Futurists, when world war broke out in 1914, some like Mayakovsky, Malevich and Goncharova were swept along on the tide of nationalism, producing anti-Kaiser propaganda prints. Carlo Carrà made a collage called Atmospheric Swirls – a bursting shell, using stencilled words, while Olga Rozanova illustrated her partner, Alexei Kruchenykh’s War with images of exploding cannons. The brutal subject of war inspired a delicate collaged book, Universal War, preserved for posterity by Greek collector George Costakis.

Kruchenykh pays tribute to Rozanova’s innovative approach, writing that they shared a common aim – “the liberation of creativity from unnecessary constraints” – which, as he says, was later adopted by Malevich, Puni and others. Rozanova, who died tragically young, is only one of the many outstanding women artists who were leading members of the Russian movement. Her cut-out shapes look forward in their freedom of concept and style to Matisse’s paper “decoupages” of the 1940s.

With the success of the revolution, the Futurist exploration of language and form took a new political turn in Russia. The nationalist propaganda disappeared and artistic talent was deployed to educate people with minimal reading skills. Mayakovsky’s hand-stencilled sheets Campaign for Immunisation are like animated cartoon sheet, cut from sheets of cheap paper. How amazing that the country’s leading poet should devote his talents to such a project.

Milner Soviet Pavilion
Konstantin Melnikov’s Soviet Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts 1925
Model reconstruction by Henry Milner

The four galleries at the Estorick give a vibrant feeling of how Futurism went beyond the boundaries of painting and influenced all the arts – music, poetry, sculpture, theatre, design and architecture. Paintings made directly on the gallery walls, reconstructed sculptures and a puppet theatre contribute to this all-round view. A stunning model of Konstantin Melnikov’s Soviet Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts of 1925, made by Henry Milner, stands near Rodchenko’s famous Oval Hanging Construction No.12.

In the 1930s, Stalin’s repressive rule and canonisation of Socialist Realism brought an end to the Futurist movement and other new forms of art in Soviet Russia. After World War II, Non-conformist art in the Soviet Union began to look back to the revolutionary period for inspiration. But it was not until the 1960s that the Russian avant-garde began to be re-discovered. Their vision remains inspiring and their courage salutary.

13 April 2007

A Slap in the Face! Futurists in Russia is at the Estorick Gallery, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1 until June 17. Admission £3.50/£2.50. Free to under-16s and students. At the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University 23 June–18 August.

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