Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Call of the Avant-Garde: Con­struc­tivism and Aus­tralian art Heide, Vic­to­ria. Un­til Oc­to­ber 8.

One of the most be­guil­ing yet mis­lead­ing ideas in 20th-cen­tury art was that the avant-garde had some in­her­ent affin­ity with rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics — that there could be par­al­lel rev­o­lu­tions in the so­cioe­co­nomic and the cul­tural-spir­i­tual spheres.

This dream be­gan with the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion whose cen­te­nary, as men­tioned a cou­ple of weeks ago, is marked this year. More ex­actly, the tsar was over­thrown, af­ter a se­ries of mil­i­tary dis­as­ters in the Great War, in March 1917 (Fe­bru­ary in the Ju­lian cal­en­dar), and the pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment was in turn over­thrown by the Bol­she­vik coup of Novem­ber (Oc­to­ber in the old cal­en­dar).

For the left, up to the col­lapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, this rev­o­lu­tion re­mained an epochal and al­most sa­cred event in world his­tory. But there were other rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments that also promised to in­tro­duce new eras for hu­man­ity — fas­cism from the 1920s and Nazism in the 30s. All of them had com­pli­cated re­la­tions with art and in all three cases, but es­pe­cially un­der the Nazi and Soviet regimes, artists be­came col­lab­o­ra­tors in the crimes of their gov­ern­ments.

The Nazi case was the sim­plest. The regime was op­posed to modernism and pil­lo­ried it in the no­to­ri­ous En­tartete Kunst ex­hi­bi­tion of 1937. Artists spon­sored by the Nazis tended to pro­duce straight­for­ward works of pro­pa­ganda and kitsch.

In Rus­sia, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment was ini­tially friendly to artists ea­ger to join in the great ad­ven­ture of cre­at­ing a new so­ci­ety, but un­der Stalin mod­ernists were ban­ished be­cause their con­cerns were too ar­cane and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to the masses. In­stead the regime turned back to the acad­e­mies and mar­shalled them into the pro­duc­tion of mass pro­pa­ganda images — a model later copied by the Chi­nese.

Italy was the only to­tal­i­tar­ian regime that tol­er­ated and, es­pe­cially in ar­chi­tec­ture, wel­comed modernism. Mus­solini de­clared it was not the state’s busi­ness to in­ter­fere in artists’ work, re­sist­ing the sug­ges­tion he should fol­low Hitler’s ex­am­ple in pro­scrib­ing the work of the avant-garde. Cer­tain artists were per­se­cuted, how­ever, if they op­posed fas­cism openly.

In France and the English-speak­ing world, left-lean­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als and artists looked at the Soviet Union through rose-tinted glasses for decades. Even re­ports of Stalin’s atroc­i­ties were in­suf­fi­cient to dis­pel il­lu­sions of a work­ing­man’s par­adise. And there were re­peated at­tempts, in- Cross Red and Black Kest­nermappe evitably end­ing in di­vorce, at a mar­riage of con­tem­po­rary art move­ments with home­grown com­mu­nist par­ties.

The most fa­mous of th­ese, per­haps, was when An­dre Bre­ton de­cided that the sur­re­al­ist move­ment was a rev­o­lu­tion of the mind that echoed — or, in the French con­text, pre­fig­ured — a so­cial rev­o­lu­tion. So the sur­re­al­ists duly joined forces with the Com­mu­nist Party, only to dis­cover to their cha­grin that they were not treated like star re­cruits; the com­mu­nists, for their part, soon con­cluded that the sur­re­al­ists were just spoiled mid­dle-class boys whose idea of lib­er­a­tion was es­sen­tially onanis­tic.

We had a re­peat of this mis­match of avant­garde and po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism in Mel­bourne dur­ing the years of World War II, when the Con­tem­po­rary Art So­ci­ety was di­vided be­tween avant-gardists such as Nolan, Tucker and the Reeds, who be­lieved in for­mal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, and com­mu­nists who pre­ferred a re­al­is­tic style ca­pa­ble of speak­ing to or­di­nary peo­ple.

This ex­hi­bi­tion con­sid­ers the stylis­tic de­vel­op­ments that arose in Rus­sia in the years lead­ing up to the rev­o­lu­tion and im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards, be­fore the in­creas­ing pres­sure of cen­sor­ship and even­tu­ally out­right sup­pres­sion un­der Stalin. Above all it fo­cuses on the in­flu­ence of this art on Aus­tralian artists, es­pe­cially in the 80s, but also be­fore and since.

Sam­ples of the work of Male­vich, Rod­chenko, Lis­sitzky and oth­ers are in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion. They cre­ated a vein of ab­stract art that was not ro­man­tic and spir­i­tual like the form de­vel­oped by Kandin­sky in the same pe­riod but, as the word con­struc­tivism im­plies, built up of el­e­ments, usu­ally geo­met­ric and hard-edged.

The re­sult­ing pic­tures are not with­out some ves­ti­gial ref­er­ences to the world, but they are pri­mar­ily ideal in­ven­tions, ge­o­met­ri­cal ideas that are the work of mind, not of na­ture and or­ganic pro­cesses.

Thus Rod­chenko’s Com­po­si­tion (1918) is painted on a panel com­posed of sev­eral boards joined to form a sub­tly con­cave sur­face. The work is thinly painted in oils so it leaves the wood­grain vis­i­ble in many places; the pal­ette is muted greys and browns bor­rowed from an­a­lyt­i­cal cu­bism — as is the style of paint ap­pli­ca­tion — but the forms are imag­i­nary ones that curve and in­ter­sect and weave into each other.

Sim­i­larly, the lit­tle un­ti­tled draw­ing by Male­vich (from 1915) in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion is a play of forms that gen­er­ate their own vir­tual space, each with its own qual­i­ties of mass and den­sity, po­si­tion with re­spect to each other and im­plied ve­loc­ity.

El Lis­sitzky’s lith­o­graphs are less spon­ta­neous than the Male­vich draw­ing and have less phys­i­cal­ity than the Rod­chenko paint­ing. They are lin­ear, quasi-geo­met­ric struc­tures that come into be­ing through the artist’s work and be­come, as it were, new ob­jects in the world, a sup­ple­men­tary creation in ad­di­tion to the works of na­ture, but with­out the util­i­tar­ian pur­pose of other cre­ations of the hu­man hand.

Ul­ti­mately, de­spite the os­ten­si­ble in­ter­est in pol­i­tics, so­ci­ety or pop­u­lar ac­ces­si­bil­ity — al­most al­ways il­lu­sory in modernist art — th­ese for­mal aes­thetic games are the most ex­treme forms of art for art’s sake. The ex­hi­bi­tion la­bel quotes Lis­sitzky: “From be­ing a sim­ple de­pic­tion, the artist be­comes a cre­ator of forms for a new world — the world of ob­jec­tiv­ity.”

A cre­ator of forms, in­deed: it is that plea­sure in cre­at­ing ideal ob­jects, things that ex­ist only as the in­ven­tions of the hu­man mind, al­though how or in what sense th­ese things are meant “for a new world” is ques­tion­able, as in­deed the com­mu­nists saw per­fectly well. The turn to­wards the rad­i­cally ideal is in­evitably a turn away from the prob­lems of the real world, what­ever one may tell one­self.

Equally, or even more naive, is the ex­pres­sion “sim­ple de­pic­tion”. This is to as­sume re­al­ity is some­thing that can be copied in a straight­for­ward way, and since the only things that can be copied in this way are things of the same na­ture, it is to as­sume re­al­ity is al­ready an im­age. But noth­ing could be fur­ther from the

John Nixon’s (1988), top; un­ti­tled work (1966) by Gunter Christ­mann, above; El Lis­sitzky’s Proun 1, (1923), right

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