This past Sunday, the Washington Post ran an article about an exhibit of Russian porcelain figurines. From the author’s description I can imagine that when approached with the right mindset, this would be a very interesting exhibit, especially if there was a historiographical entry for each piece explaining the popular and political culture from its time period.
The issue I am righting about this article is not because of the exhibit, but rather the assertion the author makes in the first paragraph; that while Russians may have excelled at the audible arts, they have never been any good at the visual arts. His assertion is that at best they were aping french and at worst they were downright rustic. This thesis is fundamentally flawed.
Pre-modern Russian visual arts were tightly controlled by the Orthodox church and focused on the creation of Iconography. These religious symbols show a mastery of coded expression, much like catholic religious art from the same period. While during the early – mid 19th century it may be true that Russian art followed the french romantic schools, in the late 19th and 20th century everything changed. Russian artists started exploring non-representational art and geometric and cubist art in ways that Western Europeans did not reach for decades. The cylindrical forms of Kasimir Malevich’s Taking in the Harvest evoke early computer art and three dimensional renderings. Natalia Goncharova moved easily from naive through cubism to futurist styles, while the pure forms of Lissitsky’s work from the 1920′s could be confused for 1950′s American artwork and his faux architecture can be confused for the post-industrial towers. The middle work of Kandinsky is often praised for its dichotomy of color and forms with the stark realities they are portraying, while his latter work predates Jackson Pollack by decades but could easily be mistaken for one of his splatter pieces. And this is just three of the avant-garde artists that arose in Russia between 1860 and the rise of the Soviet Union.
While it may be true that Russia does not have the centuries long art culture that France and Italy have, it cannot be overlooked that they were the shinning star of the Modern art world before Communism squelched individual expression. To deny them this period of cultural exploration would be unjust.