From Chagall to Malevich: The Competitive Drama of the Russian Avant-Garde

Natalia Goncharova, The Cyclist, 1913, oil on canvas. Saint Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

They say that competition breeds innovation. In art history, nowhere is this principle more perfectly illustrated than in the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century. In a span of about 10 years, from 1910 to 1920, Russia experienced a veritable explosion of avant-garde styles, movements, schools, and associations. In the fire of impending political and social revolution, the avant-garde movements each promoted their own isms, each breaking with the past and espousing radical visions for the future of artistic production.

Natan Altman, Portrait of the Poet Anna Akhmatova, 1914, oil on canvas. Saint Petersburg, State Russian Museum © Bildrecht, Vienna, 2016.

Currently at Vienna's stately Albertina Museum, the range and scope of this artistic revolution is on display--from the wild expressions of Neo-Primitivism to the non-objective restraint of Suprematism. Curated by Albertina Director Albrecht Schröder and Evgenia Petrova of the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, the exhibition "Chagall to Malevich: The Russian Avant-Gardes" overviews this dynamic period through opposing works by key figures such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall. Their art forms, the various isms, like Rayonism and Constructivism, were all "deeply original Russian adoptions of western European developments," Schröder points out. Integrating styles, to varying extents, from Paris, Munich, and Milan with Russian pictorial folkloric traditions, the Russian avant-garde sought to break away from aristocratic painting traditions, to celebrate every day, proletarian themes, and explore the future of painting through figurative expressionism or, on the other hand, pure abstraction.

Natalia Goncharova, The Blue Cow (from the cycle Grape Harvest), 1911, oil on canvas. Albertina, Vienna - The Batliner Collection.

The exhibition marks the beginning of the Russian avant-garde with the introduction of Neo-Primitivism in the works of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov in 1907. Drawing inspiration from Russian folk art, Neo-Primitivism embraced a kind of "unlearning" in art, using strong outlines, childlike, flat forms, and the brash and bold colors of Fauvism and German Expressionism. Inspired by electricity and the dynamism of rays of light, Larionov and Goncharova also established Rayonism, with a manifesto calling for the autonomy of painting from naturalism, an important precursor to the theories of abstraction and non-objective painting of later movements such as Constructivism and Suprematism.

Lyubov Popova, Man + Air + Space, 1913, oil on canvas. Saint Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

In the early 1910s, Goncharova and Larionov formed artistic societies with leftist leanings and Futurist aspirations, counting Malevich, Chagall, and Vladimir Tatlin as members, and laying the basis for the many offshoot groups and movements that would later develop in quick succession. Malevich, along with other artists, including Alexandra Exter and Lyubov Popova, first experimented with Cubo-Futurism, a combination of Futurism and Cubism, with gleaming machine-like surfaces and fragmented forms, before he moved towards total abstraction with Suprematism. Constructivism, led by Tatlin, Alexandr Rodchenko, and El Lissitzky, also advocated perfect abstraction and geometric forms, with an underlying social goal. These artistic movements not only concerned themselves with aesthetic developments, but also held political dimensions, and with the Russian Revolution and the triumph of Bolshevism, the artists of the avant-garde enjoyed the status as "official art" of the new left-wing regime.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, circa 1923, oil on canvas. Saint Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

Not all of the avant-garde developments in Russia at the time followed the path toward pure abstraction. Many artists remained devoted to representation, forging their own competing theories and approaches in opposition to Cubo-Futurism and Rayonism. Pavel Filonov advanced his concept of Analytical Realism with figurative paintings incorporating the visual language of Russian icons with Cubist fragmentation. Boris Grigoriev, on the other hand, espoused Neo-Realism with highly expressive and haunting scenes of Bohemian city life and the poverty and strength of the Russian working classes. Even the figurative and representational painting of the time was rife with innovation, as artists rejected the staid academicism of naturalistic painting, and experimented with elements of space and form. 

Boris Grigoriev, Portrait of the Theater Director Vsevolod Meyerhold, 1916, oil on canvas. Saint Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

As the country wrestled with establishing itself as a socialist state, competition between avant-gardes became ever fiercer, as certain artists became more insistent and polemical, bolstered by recognition, support, and appointments to public office. Aesthetic and conceptual differences fueled heated struggles for power in the new regime. Chagall, who had appointed Malevich to the public art college in Vitebsk where he served as director, was ousted by his own students, who had defected to Malevich's uncompromising Suprematist agenda and rallied against Chagall's "outdated" representational style. Kandinsky suffered a similar fate, when he was deposed from the Institute of Artistic Culture by Rodchenko and the Constructivists for his "spiritual" outlook on art. The heady days of forward-looking optimism were drawing to a close.

Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, 1912-1913, oil on canvas. Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Chagall®, © Bildrecht, Vienna, 2016.

After the tumult of World War I and the Revolution, Russia's lack of infrastructure and art market made living as an artist impossible without an official appointment. The competition was no longer friendly. "The problem is that in Russia suddenly there was no broadly based society anymore that could have absorbed competing artist groups and competing styles and art systems," Schröder explains there was "just one collector - the Bolshevik state." The conflict between Chagall and Malevich, Rodchenko and Kandinsky, originally based in aesthetics, sharpened into jealous competition over the scraps of remaining orders for artwork, "a potentially deadly conflict," says Schröder. Destitute, Chagall left for Paris in 1922. Kandinsky quit Russia for the Bauhaus in Germany a year earlier. Out of all the avant-garde movements only Suprematism and Constructivism remained strong, but not for long.

Vasily Kandinsky, On White I, 1920. St. Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

In the end, none of the avant-garde groups emerged triumphant in Russia. Stalin came to power in 1924 with a new agenda for Soviet art. Malevich was compelled to adjust his vision of Suprematism into a new approach, Supronaturalism, depicting human figures in symbolic shapes, to accommodate Stalin's insistence on figurative styles. But even Supronaturalism would not satisfy the new decree, issued in 1932, that instated Socialist Realism as the only legitimate form of art in Soviet Russia. All other art forms and movements were prohibited. In the end, the vigor of competition was reduced to a single, state-issued, artistic monopoly.

Kazimir Malevich, Man in a Suprematist Landscape, c. 1930/31, oil on canvas. Albertina, Vienna - Batliner Collection.

--Natalie Hegert