“Victims or vanguards?” That is the challenge faced by the artists in Revolution: New Art for a New World, a documentary about the freedom-seeking artists who helped overthrow Russia’s repressive tsarist regime, only to find themselves repressed by its totalitarian replacement, Stalin. And the answer, sadly, was both. The young artists on the eve of the Russian revolution were the first to move from representational art to abstraction, an artistic revolution of its own. The fearless sense of exploration and willingness to break the rules that had developed over millennia were embraced by the young political leaders who were breaking rules their society had lived by for almost as long. The art, we are told, “coincided perfectly with the Bolsheviks.”
One telling example in the film is the “Black Square” by Kazmir Malevich, one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century, who found the path to abstraction long before Picasso or Jackson Pollock. It was not just the visual image, literally described in the title, that was so revolutionary. The painting was deliberately displayed in a corner, symbolically replacing what occupied that corner in traditional Russian homes: a religious icon. Instead of a saint, the black square stared accusingly from the corner, signifying the removal of religious and historical constraints on the free mind.
Avant-garde artists by definition challenge the status quo. Once the previous status quo has been supplanted, whoever is next becomes the new status quo and suddenly speaking truth to power becomes a threat instead of an endorsement. What feels like heady freedom when they were all challenging the tsarist regime together seemed reckless and destructive once those new leaders seized power, got older, and became the establishment.
It is one thing to break the rules when eighty percent of the population are peasants ruled by tsars in a system going back for centuries. It is another when the rules of the new leaders are being put in place in turbulent times and order and predictability become priorities.
Down with abstraction. Up with realist monuments to revolutionary leaders, “monumental propaganda.” An artist who capitulated found one kind of success. A copy of his portrait of Lenin was hung in every Soviet schoolroom. Another ended up designing textiles for tractors.
That is the subject of director Margy Kinmonth’s documentary, a very sympathetic and respectful tribute to the 20th century artists whose creativity and innovation went from being celebrated to being controlled to being punished. She emphasizes that like the leaders of the revolution, the artists were almost all young and working class.
To tell the story, Kinmonth incorporates some of the techniques of the groundbreaking art itself. There are talking heads, including art experts and the descendants of many of the artists depicted in the film. But there are also impressionistic, non-linear, artistic touches with cutaways that are small works of art themselves, particularly a series of dancelike movements by two performers. The “biometric” gestures are based on another revolutionary art form originating in Russia at the same time that would become a worldwide phenomenon. It was the origin of what is now called “method” acting, a departure from formal theatricality to a more impressionistic, emotional, natural style of performance. She also includes some footage from pioneering filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Re-enactments including brutal interrogations are less successful.
The artists Kinmouth shows us with such deep appreciation begin as vanguards, but, as their families’ comments and a crawl at the end credits show us, most of them ended as victims. The exceptions are the few who escaped to other countries. Some are now considered indispensable to the collections of any major museum and famous enough to be known by just one name: Kandinsky and Chagall. It is not unusual for artists unappreciated during their lives to become appreciated when the world catches up to them, often after their deaths. When there is an overlay of official government suppression and attempts to turn art into propaganda, that affects the connection between artist, viewer, and history even further. This value of this film is in documenting that dynamic as a cautionary tale and returning some of these artists to public view.
Viewers may wish to follow this film with The Desert of Forbidden Art, about the discovery of 40,000 works that were hidden during the era of Soviet suppression of art, and they may want to explore the American propaganda experiment with a CIA/abstract art connection.