For a moment at the start, before they were devoured, the revolutionary artists of revolutionary Russia peered into the future -- and saw the future's art.
Their achievement is uncanny, and it has now been spread before us. "The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives," the 465-item exhibition which goes on public view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is as important -- and heroic -- a show of 20th-century art as this city has seen.
There are 40 artists in it, but there might have been a thousand -- they did not work alone. They banded into movements: neo-primitivism, rayonism, cubo-futurism, suprematism and constructivism. There were architects among them, photographers, musicians, carpenters and tailors. Their vast agit-prop theatricals -- such as "The Mystery of Liberated Labor" or "Toward a Worldwide Commune" -- employed casts of thousands.It is true that Russia's Revolution precipitated much evil: the corpses and the Gulag and the ice ax that pierced Trotsky's skull. But while it was still fresh, an art of pure imagination, fiery and free, rose out of its chaos. It nurtured modern art. This exhibition shows us that we are still in its debt.
The Russian show, which fills the whole third floor of that round museum, begins, chronologically, before the revolution when advanced Russian artists were still in thrall to France. The deliberate peasant crudeness of the neo-primitivists recalls the paintings of the Fauves; rayonism is a sort of Russian futursim. But there is no precedent in Paris for the suprematism that follows. From 1915 onward, we have left the West. This is not just a show of paintings. there are photographs and teacups here, theater sets and costumes, pre-Seasame-Street children's books and architectural models that seem eerily High Tech. No single style rules. Instead, as one progresses, he feels a dozen different threads being woven into a wholly unexpected crisp and austere art.
The masters represented here -- Malevich, Tatlin, Rodchenko, Mansurov, Kandinsky -- did not march in step. They fired off manifestos. They fought against the past, and with fists against one another.
They were communists, of course, and warriors of a sort. Their art was just as radical as the society they served. And that society served them. Stalin and his henchmen would, in the 1930s, turn upon them; but Lenin's government embraced them. For a while they were given teaching jobs, commissions, roles in the new order. The Great War had been ended, the revolution won. Nothing seemed impossible. Vladimir Tatlin, the constructivist, made a model for a monument twice as high as any the world had ever known. It was a moment of high anger, high hope and high passion. "Down with the bloody parasites -- the bourgeoisie," cried the painter Mansurov. Yet the art they left us does not raise its fists.
In retrospect these artists seem less protesters than prophets. Half a century has passed since their revolution, but their paintings, although small, still seem wonderfully fresh. This is a show of prototypes: In it one can find the seeds of minimalism, conceptualism, color-field abstraction, of half of modern art.
In 1922, Mikhail Matiushin made a little picture that eerily prredicts the stripe paintings of Gene Davis. The target paintings made in 1927 by Vera Nikolskaia prefigure those of Kenneth Noland. Olga Rozanova is represented here by a work of 1917 that viewers might mistake for a Barnett Newman. We applaud Ad Reinhardt and Bob Rauschenberg for daring to paint pictures that are all-white or all-black, but Mansurov did that in 1919. pThe cut-outs of Matisse, the canvases-with-plaster-casts that brought fame to Jasper Johns, Bauhaus Good Design, the new clean Swiss typography -- even Pattern Painting, last year's hottest fad -- may all be found in embryo in the Russian's exhibition.
To modern eyes their work speaks more of revelation than of revolution, for their show is full of worship.
In 1915, when Kasimir Malevich, perhaps the most heroic master represented, first showed his Black Square, he placed it high above the floor, in the corner of the room where the walls meet the ceiling, in the place of honor that had been reserved for icons in the past. This was no act of harsh negation; his motive was religious. He felt that through the non-objective he had glimpsed the holy. When he first discovered what he later called "the icon of my time," he "could neither eat nor drink nor sleep." Russian saints before him had experienced the same ecstasy.
When Lenin died in 1924, Malevich, a mystic, suggested that the leader's body be placed in a black cube, "as if in eternity." Flatly painted icons, less decorative than sacred, had for many centuries showed pious Russians the face of their God. The black square, said Malevich, "is the face of the new art." Minimalism springs from his revelation.
"Real materials in real space" was the credo of V. Tatlin. Though his art and his materials -- metal, glass and wood -- call to mind the factory. Tatlin, the constructivist, was no foe of the mystical. The great monument to the Third International that he designed was to have revolved in concert with the seasons. It was to have been twice as tall as the Empire State Building. The cube at its base (for legislative assemblies) would turn once a year; the pyramid above (for executive meetings) would revolve once every month; the cylinder at the top (for newspapers and radio stations that would broadcast the revealed truth) would turn once each day.
Women play a major role in this exhibition. The women who took part in the Russian avant-grade -- Alexandria Exter, the pattern painter Natalia Goncharova, the cubo-futurist Liubov Popova, among them -- were not followers but leaders. In no other early modern movement did female artists play as significant a role. In a sense, the feminism of our day is but one of the movements forseen by the energized, inventive artists in this show.
Their play is never playful. In El Lissitsky's "Prouns" (the term is an acronym for "Project for the Affirmation of the New"), in Georgii Stenberg's stange glass-and-metal constructions, in Alexander Rodchenko's geometrical drawings, as in Ivan Puni's grand collages, we sense the highest seriousness. We feel throughout this show -- in its clarities, its confidence, its impatience with the nonessential -- a yearning for the heights.
The artists reached, and they were crushed. In 1922, the Communist Party Central Committee called for a new art "comprehensible to the millions." All independent cultural groups were disbanded by decree in 1932. In 1934 "Socialist Realsim" became the style to which all of Russia's working artists were commanded to adhere.
The Russians soon began placing chandeliers in subways and painting boastful, overwrought, dull, old-fashioned pictures. How ridiculous that seems today. The rulers of that nation had been shown the new, but they could not see it. Works like those displayed here are still condemned in the Soviet Union as "abstract and decadent." Many were destroyed. The few pieces that survive are now stored in basements. The masses they were made for are not allowed to see them. Nothing in this show comes from Soviet collections.
The exhibition was organized by the Los Anegles County Museum, where it opened last summer. It has been beautifully installed here by Joseph Shannon of the Hirshhorn. No one who is concerned with the soul of Russia, or with the birth of abstract art, can afford to miss it. It closes Feb. 15.