Everything You Need to Know About Modern Russian Art in 25 Minutes: A Visual Introduction to Futurism, Socialist Realism & More

Few things fas­ci­nat­ed me as a child more than Rus­sia. I wasn’t alone in this. Every­one expe­ri­enced it. And it wasn’t only the Sovi­et Union—though it played the bogey­man in Cold War films, loomed over his­to­ry text­books, and seemed to exist in a for­bid­den par­al­lel uni­verse in Reagan’s Amer­i­ca. But what came before it was equal­ly out­sized and trag­ic: the Romanovs, Rasputin, Cather­ine the Great, Peter the Great, Ivan the Ter­ri­ble.… Russia’s mod­ern his­to­ry came into focus through its novelists—the intri­cate social dis­tinc­tions and com­pli­cat­ed fam­i­ly dynam­ics, the palace intrigues, the gal­lows humor, dis­con­tent, and res­ig­na­tion of ordi­nary Rus­sians….

After 40 years of uneasy détente with the world’s oth­er super­pow­er, Amer­i­cans found the pieces of their view of Rus­sia falling into place almost imper­cep­ti­bly. But nothing—I repeat, nothing—prepared The West for Russ­ian mod­ernism. It drove the CIA to such dis­trac­tion that they secret­ly fun­neled mon­ey to jazz artists and Abstract Expres­sion­ists to fight a cul­ture war. It made no sense to us. “This is com­plete­ly ridicu­lous!” says Bri­an Cox above, express­ing a sen­ti­ment shared by many when they encounter Russ­ian For­mal­ism, or Supre­ma­tism, or Futur­ism, and oth­er avant-gardisms.

Cox, nar­rat­ing the “Quick­est His­to­ry of 20th Cen­tu­ry Art in Rus­sia,” does an excel­lent job of con­vey­ing the shock, excite­ment, and bewil­der­ment we feel when we encounter Male­vich and Mayakovsky, the star­tling folk Neo­clas­si­cism of Russ­ian Art Nouveau—where the film begins—the Con­cep­tu­al­ists of the Thaw, and the out­ra­geous per­for­mance artists of the post-Sovi­et era. None of this, to quote Tris­tan Tzara, is art made to “cajole the nice nice bourgeois”—with the iron­ic excep­tion of Social­ist Real­ism, which out­lawed the Russ­ian avant-garde and said “look, every­thing we have is so grand, abun­dant! We have every­thing aplen­ty!”

Social­ist Real­ism resem­bles noth­ing so much as Amer­i­can mag­a­zine adver­tis­ing of the Life mag­a­zine and Nor­man Rock­well eras, a reminder of one way the two bel­liger­ent empires came to increas­ing­ly resem­ble each oth­er over time. “Social­ist Real­ism,” says Cox, “is almost a car­i­ca­ture, only with incred­i­ble pathos.” It is “the first ten­den­cy to rule out crit­i­cism com­plete­ly.” It absorbed cri­tique and turned it into cel­e­bra­tion and denun­ci­a­tion, both of them noble acts of State. Where Amer­i­can didac­tic art sold hun­dreds of prod­ucts and a hand­ful of ide­o­log­i­cal pos­es, the Sovi­et vari­ety sold one thing: the Par­ty. This does not, how­ev­er, mean that Social­ist Real­ism is “bad”—not entire­ly. It is, instead, like so much mod­ern Russ­ian Art to non-Russ­ian eyes… uncan­ny.

The 25-minute “Quick­est His­to­ry of 20th Cen­tu­ry Art in Rus­sia” comes from a series of “Crash Cours­es” from Arza­mas Acad­e­my that includes “Ancient Rome in 20 min­utes” and “Ancient Greece in 18 min­utes.” All of them fea­ture the wry, mel­liflu­ous voice of Cox, and I high­ly rec­om­mend them all.

via Coudal

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Down­load 144 Beau­ti­ful Books of Russ­ian Futur­ism: Mayakovsky, Male­vich, Khleb­nikov & More (1910–30)

The His­to­ry of Rus­sia in 70,000 Pho­tos: New Pho­to Archive Presents Russ­ian His­to­ry from 1860 to 1999

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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