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VIVARTE June-August 2017


russian avant-garde



Futurism in Soviet Russia. What’s behind the futuristic make-up?

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Author: Tatiana Feoklistova, Tretiakov Gallery, Moskow

Like their italian counterparts, the russian futurists were fascinated with the dynamism, speed, and restlessness of modern machines and urban life. In contrast to ma­­ri­n etti’s circle, russian futurism was primarily a literary rather than a plastic philosophy.

(Rus­s ian: Пощёчина обществен­ ному вкусу). Other members included artists Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich, and Olga Rozanova. Although Hylaea is generally considered to be the most influential group of Russian Futurism, other groups were formed in St. Petersburg (Igor Severyanin’s Ego-Futurists), Moscow (Tsentrifuga, with Boris Pasternak among its members), Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa.

M o dernity Like their Italian counterparts, the Russian Futurists were fascinated with the dynamism, speed, and restlessness of modern machines and urban life. They purposely sought to arouse controversy and to gain publicity by repudiating the static art of the past. The likes of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, according to them, should be “heaved overboard from the steamship of modernity”. They acknowledged no authorities whatsoever; even Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, when he arrived in Russia on a proselytizing visit in 1914, was obstructed by most Russian Futurists, who did not profess to oweanything.

D. Burliuk, V. Mayakovsky, N. Burliuk, B. Livshits, 1912 — 1913.

Although many poets as Mayakov­sky, Burlyuk dabbled with painting, their interests were primarily literary. However, such well-established artists as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and Kazimir Malevich found inspiration in the refreshing imagery of Futurist poems and experimented with versification themselves. The poets and painters collaborated on such innovative productions as the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, with

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From the left: A. Kruchenykh,

R us s i a n F u t u r i s m m ay b e sa i d to have been born in December 1912, when the Moscow-based literary group Hylaea (initiated in 1910 by David Burlyuk and his brothers at their estate near Kherson, and quickly join­ ed by Vasily Kamensky and Velimir Khleb­nikov, with Aleksey Kruchenykh and Vladimir Mayakovsky joining in 1911) issued a manifesto entitled A Slap in the Face of Public Taste


music by Mikhail Matyushin, texts by Kruchenykh and sets contributed by Malevich. Members of Hylaea elaborated the doctrine of Cubo-Futurism and assumed the name of budetlyane (from the Russian word budet ‘will be’). They found significance in the shape of letters, in the arrangement of text around the page, in the details of typography. They considered that there is no substantial dif­­­fer­ence between words and material things, hence the poet should arrange words in his poems like the artist arranges colors and lines on his canvas. Grammar, syntax, and logic were often discarded; many neologisms and profane words were introduced; onomatopoeia was declared a universal texture of verse. Khlebnikov, in particular, developed “an incoherent and anarchic blend of words stripped of their meaning and used for their sound alone”, known as zaum.

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half ago when, as fading hoardings in the workmen of the country towns the streets of Moscow still testify, rev- who had the luck to see them. The olutionary art was dominated by the “Red Cossack” is quite different. As BuFuturist movement. Every carriage is rov put it with deep satisfaction, At decorated with most striking but not first we were in the artists’ hands, and very comprehensible pictures in the now the artists are in our hands (The brightest colours, and the proletari- other three trains were the “Sverdat was called upon to enjoy what the lov”, the “October Revolution”, and the pre-revolutionary artistic public had “Red East”). Initially the Department of for the most part failed to understand. Proletarian Culture had delivered BuIts pictures are ‘art for arts sake’, and rov bound hand and foot to a number can not have done more than astonish, of Futurists , but now the artists had and perhaps terrify, the peasants and been brought under proper control.

With all this emphasis on formal experimentation, some Futurists were not indifferent to politics. In particular, Mayakovsky’s poems, with their lyrical sensibility, appealed to a broad range of readers. He vehemently opposed the meaningless slaughter of World War I and hailed the Russian Revolution as the end of that traditional mode of life which he and other Futurists ridiculed so zealously.

The Bolshevik propaganda War correspondent Arthur Ransome and five other foreigners were taken to see two of the Bolshevik propaganda trains in 1919 by their organiser, Burov. He first showed them the “Lenin”, which had been painted a year and a

The poetry book “Sadok Sudey” published by futurists and printed on wallpapers.

Demise After the Bolsheviks gained power, Mayakovsky’s group — patronized by Anatoly Lunacharsky, Bolshevik Commissar for Education — aspired to dominate Soviet culture. Their influence was paramount during the first years after the revolution, until their program, or rather lack there of, was subjected to scathing criticism by the authorities. By the time OBERIU attempted to revive some of the Futurist tenets during the late 1920s, the Futurist movement in Russia had already ended. The most militant Futurist poets either died (Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky) or preferred to adjust their very individual style to more conventional requirements and trends. Although other Russian Futurists dismissed the Ego-Futurists as puerile and vulgar, Severyanin argued that his advancement of outspoken sensuality, neologisms and ostentatious selfishness qualifies as futurism. The EgoFuturists significantly influenced the Imaginists of the 1920s.

Association of Ego-Futurism. Areopagus. Seated: the director of “Петербургский глашатай” Ivan Ignatiev. Standing: Dmitri Kryuchkov, Vasilisk Gnedov, Pavel Shirokov.

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unovis Vitebsk 1920 1922


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KONSTANTIN GRINEVICH, Museum of Marc Chagall, Vitebsk

Kazimir Malevich painter and teoritician, pioneer of geometric abstract art and the originator of the avant-garde Suprematist movement


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UNOVIS was a short-lived but influential group of artists, founded and led by Kazimir Malevich at the Vitebsk Art School in 1919. Initially formed by students and known as MOLPOSNOVIS, the group formed to explore and develop new theories and concepts in art. Under the leadership of Malevich they renamed to UNOVIS , chiefly focusing on his ideas on Suprematism and producing a number of projects and publications whose influence on the avant-garde in Russia and abroad was immediate and far-reaching. The group has been disbanded in 1922.

The Black Square. Kazimir Malevich, 1915. Oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

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Embracing the Communist ideal, the group chose to share credit and responsibility for all works produced. They signed all works with a solitary black square, a homage to a previous artwork by Malevich. This would become the de facto seal of UNOVIS and took the place of individual names or initials.

The name UNOVIS is an abbreviation in Russian of “Utverditeli Novogo Iskusstva” or “The Champions of the New Art”, while POSNOVIS was an abbreviation of “Posledovateli Novovo Iskusstva” or “Followers of the New Art”, and MOLPOSNOVIS meant “Young Followers of the New Art.”

Foundation and growth In its short history, the group underwent many changes. First founded as MOLPOSNOVIS, the group’s membership started to include some of the school’s professors and quickly evolved into POSNOVIS. The group was very active, working on numerous projects and experiments, in most if not all media available at the time. Malevich was invited to teach at the school in 1919 by Marc Chagall and immediately appointed by the director of the school at the time, Vera Ermolaeva, to head a teaching studio. In February of the same year, under the leadership of Malevich, the group worked on

A section of Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich exhibited for the first time at the 0.10 exhibition. Petrograd, 1915.

Expansion and influence

UNOVIS Council. Meanwhile, the group’s theories and styles were rapidly evolving at the hands of Malevich and his star students and collea­ gues, including notable Russian artists El Lissitzky, Lazar Khidekel, Nikolai Suetin, Ilia Chashnik, Vera Ermolaeva, Anna Kagan, and Lev Yudin, amongst others. The group’s objective was now to introduce Suprematist designs and ideals to Russian society, working with and for the Soviet government:

In early 1920, Marc Chagall selected Malevich to succeed him as director. Malevich accepted and radically reorganized not only UNOVIS but the entire school’s curriculum. He ”...organization of design work for new transformed UNOVIS into a highly types of useful structures and requirestructured organization, forming the ments, and implementation; the for-

mulation of tasks of new architecture; elaboration of new ornamentation (textiles, printed textiles, castings and other products); designs of monumental decorations for use in the embellishment of towns on national holidays; designs for internal and external decoration and painting of accommodation, and implementation; creation of furniture and all objects of practical use; creation of a contemporary type of book and other achievements in the field of printing.” The group took this big plan to the streets, furnishing much of Vitebsk

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a “Suprematist ballet”, choreographed by Nina Kogan, and the precursor to Aleksei Kruchenykh’s influential futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun.” Following the production, POSNOVIS underwent more changes and was renamed UNOVIS on February 14, 1920.


UNOVIS From the left. Standing: Ivan Chervinko, Kazimir Malevich, Efim Roiak, Anna Kagan, Nikolai Suetin, Lev Judin, Evgenia Magaril. Sitting: Michail Veksler, Vera Ermolaeva, Ilya Chashnik, Lazar Khidekel.

in Suprematist art and propaganda. Still, Malevich had more ambitious plans and he urged his students to do bigger, more permanent works — namely architecture. El Lissitzky, who was director of the architectural faculty, worked with Lazar Khidekel  and Ilia Chashnik, a young students of his, drafting unorthodox plans for freefloating buildings and enormous steel and glass structures along with more practical designs for housing complexes and even a speaker’s podium for the town square. Ilia would go on to succeed Lissitzky as head of the architectural facility along with his fellow student, Lazar Khidekel.

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Embracing the Communist ideal, the group chose to share credit and responsibility for all works produced. They signed all works with a solitary black square, a homage to a previous artwork by Malevich. This would become the de facto seal of UNOVIS and took the place of individual names or initials.


In the 0.10 Exhibition in 1915, Malevich Suprematism is an art movement, fo- exhibited his early experiments in sucused on basic geometric forms, such prematist painting. The centerpiece of as circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, his show was the Black Square, placed painted in a limited range of colors. It in what is called the red/ beautiful corwas founded by Kazimir Malevich in ner in Russian Orthodox tradition; Russia, around 1913, and announced the place of the main icon in a house. in Malevich’s 1915 exhibition, The Last “Black Square” was painted in 1915 and Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10, was presen­ted as breakthrough in his in St. Petersburg, where he, alongside career and in art in general. Malevich 13 other artists, exhibited 36 works in also painted White on White which a similar style. The term suprematism was heralded as a mile­­stone. “White refers to an abstract art based upon on White” marked a shift from poly“the supremacy of pure artistic feeling” chrome to monochrome Suprematism rather than on visual depiction. and marked a new direction of research.

Influences on the movement Malevich also credited the birth of suprematism to Victory Over the Sun, Kruchenykh’s Futurist opera production for which he designed the sets and costumes in 1913. The aim of the artists involved was to break with the usual theater of the past and to use a “clear, pure, logical Russian language”. Malevich put this to practice by creating costumes from simple materials and thereby took advantage of geometric shapes. Flashing headlights illuminated the figures in such a way that alternating hands, legs or heads disappeared into the darkness. The stage curtain was a black square. One of the drawings for the backcloth shows a black square divided diagonally into a black and a white triangle. Because of the simplicity of these basic forms they were able to signify a new beginning. Another important influence on Malevich were the ideas of the Russian mystic, philosopher, and disciple of Georges Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, who wrote of “a fourth dimension or a Fourth Way beyond the three to which our ordinary senses have access”. Some of the titles to paintings in 1915 express the concept of a non-Euclidean geometry which imagined forms in movement, or through time; titles such as: Two dimensional painted masses in the state of movement. These give some indications towards an understanding of the Suprematic compositions produced between 1915 and 1918.

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Birth of the movement

In June 1920 UNOVIS’s ambitions accelerated, culminating in a print collec- Kazimir Malevich developed the contion of UNOVIS philosophies and the- cept of Suprematism when he was alories such as Lazar Khidekel and Ilya ready an established painter, having Chashnik, АERO: Articles and Designs exhibited in the Donkey’s Tail and the (Vitebsk, UNOVIS. 1920), and partici- Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) expation in the “First All-Russian Con- hibitions of 1912 with cubo-futurist ference of Teachers and Students of works. The proliferation of new artisArts,” which took place in Moscow. tic forms in painting, poetry and theUNOVIS students who made the trip atre as well as a revival of interest in from Vitebsk to Moscow rapidly dis- the traditional folk art of Russia protributed artworks, newsletters, mani- vided a rich environment in which a festos, flyers, and copies of Malevich’s Modernist culture was born. “On New Systems in Art” and copies of the “UNOVIS Almanac.” UNOVIS suc- In “Suprematism” (Part II of his book ceeded in achieving recognition and The Non-Objective World, which was became respected as an established published 1927 in Munich as Bauhaus and influential movement. While their Book No. 11), Malevich clearly stated influence on art lasted for generations, the core concept of Suprematism: their popularity immediately following the conference was short-lived. ”Under Suprematism I understand By 1922, the core group splintered the primacy of pure feeling in creand two contrasting, adverse fac- ative art. To the Suprematist, the tions formed. Malevich and his follow- visual phenomena of the objective ers championed practical, productive world are, in themselves, meaningmethods of changing society while less; the significant thing is feeling, the rest favored a more philosophical as such, quite apart from the enviSuprematism. ronment in which it is called forth.”


Quarterly art magazine. Personal publication concept and magazine layout project. A particular topic of art history is considered in every i...


Quarterly art magazine. Personal publication concept and magazine layout project. A particular topic of art history is considered in every i...