Revolution Inside MoMA

1915-1917 Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich

1915-1917 Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich

The Museum of Modern Art has pulled 260 paintings, films, magazines, books, drawing, porcelain, posters, and paraphernalia from its collection to take us back 100 years and tell the story of one of the most astonishing artistic and political breakthroughs of the 20th century in A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde, closing March 12.

While Picasso and company were breaking boundaries in Paris, the Russians exited the war years by overthrowing their monarchy, getting rid of classical style, inventing non-objective picture making, and creating forms of revolutionary works that could reach the masses.

Lyubov Popova’s 1917-1919 print showing Cubo-Suprematist style

Lyubov Popova’s 1917-1919 print with Cubo-Suprematist style

Creativity, artistic manifestos, photo mash-ups, new cinematic forms, and philosophical inventions poured forth like an avalanche between 1913 and 1923.

The curators at MoMA have organized the show chronologically to try to give context to the players and the “isms” that were being invented and then upended by the next new thing – Rayonism, Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism.

The artists truly believed that abstraction and upheaval from classic style would usher in the utopia envisioned by the fall of the Czar, hence the profusion of experimentation in theater, film, photography, cinema, books, textiles, household goods, and publishing.

Easel painting was a no-no. Manifestos, how-to-do-it manuals, and Suprematist road shows were the norm. Due to MoMA’s dedicated collecting in this almost-forgotten period, all of the art, tools, passions, and beliefs are brought to life in the show.

1928 magazine covers by Rodchenko for New LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts

Rodchenko’s 1928 magazine covers for New LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts

MoMA allows gallery goers to peek inside two of its most notable books in its Russian collection through digital touchscreens – Malevich’s 1920 portfolio of Suprematist drawings and El Lissitzky’s 1922 illustrated children’s book Of Two Squares.

El Lissitsky’s unbound prints from his historic Proun manifesto are mounted across the wall of the fourth gallery, allowing close examination of the masterful lithographer.

The latter galleries focus on 1920s Cubo-Futurist theater costumes and stage sets, breakthrough cinema techniques (with three films screening simultaneously in an immersion room), mass-market publications, and posters advertising films and sporting extravaganzas. See examples of all on Flickr.

El Lissitzky 1923 litho honoring the 1920 restaging of the Cubo-Futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun”

El Lissitzky 1923 litho honoring the 1920 restaging of the famed Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun

Everywhere you look, Rodchenko’s innovative typography, photographs, and layouts are jumping out, demanding attention. Among the more unusual surprises are Rodchenko’s branding for the state airline and the modernist  layouts in the 1925 Kino-Pravda films used to tell the public the status of Lenin’s vital signs during his final days.

The innovations created by this group of artist-revolutionaries would soon be undone by the Stalin’s preference for social realism. But although he stamped out Russian modernism in his day, the white-on-white Malevich, El Lissitsky’s fourth dimension, Vertov’s lightening fast film edits, and Rodchenko’s tilting letters still pack the punch on MoMA’s white walls nearly 100 years after they were created.

Take a look at some of our favorite pieces on Flickr, and watch a brief orientation to the show by MoMA curator Sarah Suzuki.

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