FLRU 2510 Russian Culture


Modern art intended to break away from the old order-romanticism and realism, in order to make us see things in a new way, shock and surprise us, make us think, and remake the world. At its height, modern art included many kinds of art: painting, sculpture, music, literature, design, photography, graphics, architecture and fashion. In Russia, it died out in the 1930's, forcibly replaced by Socialist Realism. The Soviet government only occasionally permitted modern art exhibits. Outside of the USSR, however, it continued to be influential.

NEOPRIMITIVISM ("New Primitivism")

Larionov and Natalia Goncharova were two early representatives of Russian modern art. They rejected the realistic art of the Academy of Art, dominated by the Wanderers in the late 1800's, and drew, instead, on the new Impressionism and modernists from Europe as well as Russian folk art and icon painting.
  1. An excellent draftsman, Larionov was certainly capable of "painting better," i.e., realistically, but deliberately chose instead to abandon realism. His painting "The Dancing Soldiers" demonstrates the characteristics of his style:
    1. simple, childlike images
    2. distortions of human figures (his soldiers have oversized, rough hands like peasants
    3. )
    4. absence of depth and perspective (suggesting here their brutal existence and expandability)
    5. bright colors (here, a violently red floor)
    6. words painted on the background (here, the soldiers' curses)
  2. Larionov's painting "Autumn" is even more extreme. It suggests the peasant art of lubki, popular prints made with wood blocks. They were usually simple, lacked perspective and were brightly colored and irreverent. Larionov sketches a nude woman in the pose of the "praying virgin" of icons, surrounds her with ordinary objects like food and vodka, then juxtaposes her with a "boy meets girl" scene. His style is deliberately childish and non-realistic.
  3. Goncharova's "Looking Glass," too, demonstrates a childlike quality—this time in its angle of vision: we look up at the mirror as a child would. The reflection of a modernist French painting in the mirror of an old-fashioned Russian room suggests a window into the brighter future the modernists hoped for.


  1. Neo-primitivisrn was followed first by Cubo-Futurism and then by Rayonsim. Cubo-Futurists were influenced by Europe but began to seek an independent style, while Rayonists broke away into a purely Russian style. In the context of Russia's many problems, both groups seemed to want to remake the world.
  2. In preceding centuries, art had tried to imitate life and nature ever more perfectly. But this task had been accomplished by the great masters of the past and by the camera. Now French Cubists like Picasso sought to make a painting an object in its own right —art for art's sake—not a mere imitation of life. They de-emphasized color and stressed the basic component of the painter's craft—geometrical shapes or form—hence, the name "Cubism." They painted real objects but analyzed their forms, painting objects from various angles and even from inside, sometimes all in the same painting.
  3. Futurism, which originated in Italy, tried to show the process of motion in painting. Influenced by multiple-image photography, Futurists no longer wanted to depict action frozen in a single moment. They were also fascinated with things of the future, such as science and machines. The two styles of Futurism and Cubism often influenced the same artists, and so they are sometimes considered to be one movement, called Cubo-Futurism.
  4. The close knit community of Russian artists adopted Cubo-Futurism with enthusiasm. Both painters and writers joined the avant garde (modernists). They delighted in shocking the public, not only with their art work, but also by decorating their faces and wearing outlandish clothes. Many modern artists were women. In Russia, Cubo-Futurism became an event more colorful phenomenon than it was in Europe.
  5. Rayonism was the next important modernistic movement and signified a clear break with Europe. Larionov, its inventor, was soon followed by Goncharova and other artists. Its 1913 Manifesto declared that Rayonists' aim was to achieve spatial form in painting derived from the crossing of light rays or the radiance supposedly emanating from objects-hence, the name "Rayonism." Larionov's "Rayonist Composition" and Goncharova's "Rayonist Garden" are close to complete abstractions.


  1. Malevich had gone through all of the movements mentioned so far and now surpassed them. He decided that the ultimate reduction of painting, the logical conclusion of modern art, was Suprematism, the "supremacy" of pure feeling in art. Another reason for his renovations was historical. Russia was facing defeat after defeat in World War I, and life had begun to seem meaningless, filled with death and despair.
  2. Malevich escaped into mysticism and painted such works as "Black on White," a black square denoting feeling on a white background of nothingness. He chose a square shape as a rejection of the triangle, i.e., Holy Trinity. If God could abandon man, then Malevich would reject God. He hung this painting in a corner like an icon. In "White on White," a later painting, even Malevich's black feeling was gone, leaving only a void.
  3. Malevich's disciples painted many geometrical forms on white backgrounds. Such paintings preceded and influenced much later American Modernist painters.
  4. Modernists considered all arts to be interrelated and worked together, sometimes in more than one medium, influencing each other. Malevich was also known for his "architectonics," geometrical forms made of wood blocks, which anticipated later architectural styles. In addition, he designed abstract theater sets and costumes for a 1913 opera, "Victory Over the Sun," in which illogical words by a futurist poet were sung off key to atonal music in celebration of the Future.


  1. Tatlin, the inventor of still another "-ism," Constructivism, crossed the boundary between painting and sculpture. He wanted to break through the surface of a painting and reach out to the viewer, into "real space." He replaced paint with such industrial materials as wood, metal and glass and "constructed" works that jutted out more and more from the surface, until ultimately some seemed to float in space. He, too, hung one work in the icon corner, a sort of new icon for the industrial age and the masses. Tatlin's work led to the construction of free-floating mobiles.
  2. Tatlin, like many other artists, tried to lend their talents to the revolution in the years immediately after 1917, creating imaginative and colorful works for propagandists. He and his followers wanted art to be useful in the new, workers' state and continued to apply the principles of engineering in their art. Constructivists also did pioneering work in typography, the graphic arts (book cover and poster design), clothing, theater set design, and film. Tatlin even designed a monument to the Third Communist International, composed of a huge tower holding four buildings on platforms within it, one of which was to be a propaganda center, but it was never "built."
  3. Modern art was ultimately doomed in the Soviet Union, however. Lenin was a man of conventional tastes. After the Civil War, when the new regime finally had time to think about art, many modernists were removed from positions of power in schools and museums. Stalin dealt a death blow to modern art in the 1930's, and today the Soviet government rarely permits exhibits of modern art.