Revolutionary City

The streets shall be our brushes – the squares our palettes

Vladimir Mayakovsky

‘Art for the people! Art into Life!’, proclaimed the Russian constructivists in 1917, the year in which the Bolsheviks seized power and the Romanov dynasty fell to its knees. Moscow, the new capital of the Soviet Union, also became the centre for art as the avant-garde seized the opportunity to redefine culture and its role in modern society. 

Led by Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko, the Constructivists linked their radical vision with the ideals of the Revolution. Meanwhile, Kasimir Malevich was developing Suprematism. His search for a pure geometrical and spiritual essence set him apart from his more utilitarian contemporaries. Architects produced visionary designs for new types of building. Artists collaborated with writers and directors to transform the theatre and the cinema into a radical synthesis of the arts. But by the early 1930s, Stalin was tightening his grip. Asserting his control, and seeing the potential of art as a tool for propaganda, he established Socialist Realism as the official art form. The avant-garde were increasingly side-lined, forced to conform or face denunciation, imprisonment and even death.

Curated by Lutz Becker, a curator and filmmaker based in London.

Art for the streets

‘The streets shall be our brushes – the squares our palettes!’ exclaimed Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1917. In the early days of the Revolution, artists embraced the call upon them to publicise the cause through the production of colourful propagand – a flood of posters, strip cartoons, and pamphlets engulfed the city. Flyposted on walls and displayed in empty shop windows, they transformed the bleak streets into a bright parade of startlingly modern graphic design, making inventive use of photomontage and other mass media techniques. 

Building the new society

Moscow was changing under a process of rapid industrialisation. Dsiga Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera is a cross-section montage of urban life in Moscow, which captured the speed and machine rhythms of the new age. Technological advances and electrification were signalled by the sculptural wire webs of aerials atop telegraph stations and radio towers. An optimistic vision of the city found expression in a new architecture. Communal housing, workers’ clubs, schools, power stations and factories changed the face of the city. In order to find the best architects for these buildings, competitions were held. The winning design for the Moscow office of the newspaper the Leningrad Pravda was a towering glass edifice by the brothers Aleksandr and Victor Vesnin. Like many of these ambitious projects it was never actually built.

Art into life

‘Down with art as a beautiful patch on the squalid life of the rich! Down with art as a precious stone in the midst of the dismal and dirty life of the poor! Down with art as a means of escaping from a life that is not worth living!’ These slogans herald the vision of the Constructivist artist Aleksandr Rodchenko for a new, functional art that would be closer to industrial production. ‘Awareness, experiences, purpose, construction, technique and mathematics’, he continued, ‘these are the companions of contemporary art’. In 1917 Rodchenko began making three-dimensional constructions, influenced by the work of his friend, and the founder of Constructivism, Vladimir Tatlin. Later, after 1922, the Constructivists would decide that such works were still too socially disengaged, and would devote their energies almost exclusively to the applied arts, focusing on industrial design, stage and film sets, posters, and documentary photography.

In the works which he called ProunsEl Lissitzky sought an ‘interchange station between paintings and architecture’. Sharing with the works of Kasimir Malevich a quest for pure, geometric form, they resemble plans for three-dimensional constructions. Aleksandra Ekster was best known as a designer. She created dramatic sets for the theatre and made huge, abstract designs for ‘agit-steamers’ – or propaganda boats – and ‘agit-trains’. Her paintings, with their semi-geometric slabs of colour, show the influence of Malevich’s Suprematism. 

Theatre and cinema

Soviet theatre was a vibrant, energetic mix of all the art forms. Artists and architects collaborated with the great reformers of the stage: Vsevolod Meyerhold, Aleksandr Tairov and Nikolai Foregger. Enactments of revolutionary events and new plays written by Vladimir Mayakovsky and others provided entertainment for politically aware audiences. The Meyerhold Theatre was for many years one of Moscow’s cultural centres, attracting all those ready to experience the unexpected. Their production of Fernand Crommelynck’s The Magnanimous Cuckold in 1922, was seen as the epitome of Constructivist stagecraft. The sets and costumes were designed by the artist Liubov Popova, who devised a mobile stage construction representing a windmill with permanently rotating blades. Aleksandr Vesnin’s set for The Man Who Was Thursday incorporated platforms, conveyer belts, escalators, film projections and kinetic light elements to simulate a capitalist metropolis. Film, described by Lenin as ‘the most important of all the arts’, was approached with a similarly collaborative and experimental spirit as the dynamic and imaginative film posters of the period reveal – Rodchenko, for instance, designed the poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal film Battleship Potemkin.

The total art of Stalin

Stalin’s introduction of the first Five-Year Plan led to the forced collectivisation of agriculture and the construction of Soviet heavy industry. The Communist Party sponsored a journal entitled Art to the Masses, which promoted traditional values and representational art. The hard necessities of building the economic base for Socialism became an excuse for the introduction of mechanisms for repression and censorship. In 1930 Mayakovsky committed suicide and Malevich was imprisoned as a suspected spy. Stalin’s terror had begun. From now on, the Party determined the form and content of Soviet art. Vera Mukhina’s model for a sculpture, Industrial Worker and Collective-Farm Woman (c.1938), typifies the result. Brandishing the symbol of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle, these enthusiastic workers, representing industry and agriculture, surge towards a heroic tomorrow.