Russian Revolution. A Contested Legacy
by Masha Chlenova
Text for the two-person exhibition at International Print Center New York
In 2011 contemporary artist Yevgeniy Fiks, who was born in Moscow and has lived and worked in New York since 1994, performed a staged reading of an essay Soviet Russia and the Negro, written in 1923 by the African-American poet and activist Claude MacKay, on sites in Moscow where violent crimes had been committed recently against people of African descent. MacKay’s essay was inspired by his visit to Moscow, in 1922, as an invited speaker at the Fourth Congress of Communist International, where he talked about the solidarity between “all workers of the world regardless of race or color” in the struggle for social justice. For MacKay Soviet Russia in 1922 embodied the freedom and equality African-Americans were seeking and which he found being implemented in the fledgling socialist state. Fiks’ artistic strategy – to evoke a specific historical moment of idealistic social aspirations within the grim reality of growing xenophobia in today’s Russia – and through this unusual juxtaposition provoke our reflection on both.
The exhibition Russian Revolution: A Contested Legacy uses a similar strategy. It celebrates the centennial of the Russian Revolution by highlighting those of its genuine pursuits that are important to preserve today, namely its struggles for individual freedoms such as emancipation of women; internationalism (with its focus on racial equality and the rights of ethnic minorities, especially Jews); and sexual and gay liberation. While the rhetoric of individual freedoms and civil rights in the Soviet Union outlived their actual implementation and thus largely lost credibility by the mid-to late- 1930s, it is important to remember the real gains that did take place, even if their lifespan was limited. The exhibition’s narrative oscillates between addressing broadly outlined issues such as internationalism and women’s emancipation with such iconic graphic works of the Russian avant-garde as Gustav Klucis’ Elizaveta Ignatovich and Sergei Sen’kin’s agitational posters, and opening up pockets of individual historical experiences, such as Claude MacKay’s visit or El Lissitzky’s continued preoccupation with traditional Jewish culture evident in his Yiddish publications in Berlin in the early 1920s. Historical aspects of early Soviet revolutionary history are seen in a new light through contemporary takes on some of its most poignant aspects brought by the works of Russian-born New York based contemporary artists Yevgeniy Fiks and Anton Ginzburg, whose sustained interest in the highest aspirations of Soviet revolutionary culture is combined with a critical perspective from the vantage point of today’s socio-political reality. The exhibition’s ultimate goal is to underscore our shared historical responsibility towards revolutionary history in all its complexity and to celebrate the continued struggle for individual freedoms and social justice, which remains just as relevant today, in Russia, the United States and the world at large.
The exhibition starts with a painting from Yevgeniy Fiks’ Leniniana series , where the artist repaints the best known portraits of the revolutionary leader, but erases his figure from their compositions thus signaling a lacuna of memory – a deliberate erasure by censorship or a forgetting and distortion brought about by layers of historical circumstances. In this work Fiks invokes one of the most iconic early portraits of Lenin, Lenin on the Tribune, painted by Aleksandr Gerasimov in 1929-30. Painted without a commission, this inspired romanticized portrait of a revolutionary hero, who rises high above the masses against the background of gathering storm clouds propelled by the arrow-like diagonal of the fluttering red flags, struck a chord with the Soviet masses and authorities alike. Widely popular, the painting quickly acquired the status of an iconic prototype of the image of a revolutionary leader, while Gerasimov became Stalin’s favorite portrait painter for decades. Distributed widely through millions of reproduced copies throughout Soviet history, Lenin on the Tribune is one the most ingrained images in the visual vocabulary of the Russian revolution and continues to carry a specific DNA of historical memory.
Leniniana #1 functions as a kind of epigraph for the exhibition, for it announces the specificity of historical experience of the revolution as well as the complexity of its legacy, carried through the printed medium as the quintessential vehicle of mechanical reproduction and wide distribution. This work also anchors the exhibition’s key strategy: to take at face value the iconic and broadly framed proclamations of Soviet revolutionary society through its posters, which call its viewers to repay the coal debt to the country, conquer the five-year plan, bolster the multi-million ranks of Komsomol and celebrate proletarian solidarity. It is not an easy task to maintain the genuine pathos of these slogans or to discern with certainty in which cases they were indeed fully earnest, when we know how many of the promises of the revolution were discredited by subsequent Soviet history, and after they were ridiculed as so much empty and hypocritical rhetoric by Soviet non-conformist artists in the 1960s and 70s. Yet by restoring the historical facts of the real gains of Soviet revolutionary society –the task the timelines in this brochure takes on – and by bringing in specific individual experiences the exhibition validates the revolutionary efforts and thus asserts the possibility of social transformation and the need for a continued struggle for individual freedoms mixed with a healthy sense of historically informed discernment.
Internationalism is presented in the exhibition through several specific narratives that function as a lens for broader histories and experiences. Claude McKay’s visit to Moscow in 1922 and his enthusiastic essay in the magazine of African-American activism Crisis, where he praises Soviet achievements in fighting racial prejudice, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, are but one example of a multitude of black activists, including writers, artists and actors, who visited or lived in the Soviet Union and found inspiration in its genuine internationalist aspirations and racial equality. Thus Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes spent a year in the USSR between 1932 and 1933, while the actor Wayland Rudd, frustrated with the racial prejudice in the American film industry, moved to the Soviet Union in 1932 and continued his career in film and theater there until his death in 1952, working with such prominent directors as Vsevolod Meyerhold, Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Radlov. Fiks’ archive of representations of African-Americans in Soviet visual culture, entitled Wayland Rudd Collection (2014), is dedicated to the American actor and reveals a complex and sometimes contradictory relation between socialist ideals and Soviet reality.
A different mode of identity shift happens in the work of Jewish artists Natan Al’tman and Lazar Lissitzky who joined the ranks of the Russian avant-garde in earnest after the February revolution of 1917, which granted Jews the freedom to live and work outside of the Pale of Settlement, to which they were confined since the late 18th century. Integration of Jews into the building of socialist society was an important part of Bolsheviks’ policy to give equal rights to ethnic minorities. Seen from this perspective, the work of El Lissitzky as a leading figure of International Constructivism who continued to advocate for a modern international Jewish culture in a modern graphic language in such works as Chad Gadya and Ukranian Folk Tales, published in the cosmopolitan Berlin of the early 1920s, challenges the established art historical narrative of Lissitzky’s definitive break with the provincial ethnic visual culture of the shtetl and instead presents his identity as hyphenated. The term ‘hyphenated’ comes from Fiks’ own description of his prints Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (2015) where he superimposes Yiddish letters onto the Russian ones in Lissitzky’s famous poster made during the Civil War. Records of other aspects of Soviet-Jewish graphics are found in Al’tman and Sergei Sen’kin’s designs for the covers of books that report on the largely forgotten episode in Soviet history, when starting in the mid-1920s Soviet government gave land to Jewish communities and facilitated their transition into agriculture, for the first time in nearly 2000 years since their dispersal from their ancestral homeland. Strikingly modern Yiddish graphics by Mikhail Dlugach and Mark Epstein accompanied the Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East starting in 1928. In the 1920s and 1930s modern Jewish culture in Yiddish thrived in the Soviet Union and it is important to see its legacy as inextricably linked to avant-garde graphics. In his turn, Anton Ginzburg addresses the internationalism of the Yiddish Kultur League in his poster of the same name, where he uses the graphic language of Constructivists underscoring their common ground. In another poster from this series he calls Meta-Constructivism, titled Esperanto, Ginzburg casts a contemporary glance at the broader pursuit of the protagonists of Soviet internationalism as embedded within modernist aspirations worldwide: the search for a universal language. Ginzburg’s starkly contemporary series of anodized aluminum prints entitled Zaum/ESL, created in conjunction with this exhibition, that play on (dis)junctures between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets of Russian and English, further asserts deep ties between the zaum (trans-rational) poetry of the Russian avant-garde and its Western counterparts. At the same time, these prints invoke today’s globalized world where pursuit of universality and fluid communication collides with the unsettlement and limitations of displacement.
The third of Ginzburg’s posters from the Meta-Constructivism series boldly proclaims: Revolution Was Ruined When It Rejected Free Love. It Must Not Exclude Pleasure From Its Program. It brings up yet another central aspect of the Soviet 1920s, brought about by the idealistic aspirations of the revolutionary society: sexual liberation, effective legalization of homosexuality and advocacy of the rights of sexual minorities. This short-lived but very important aspect of early Soviet society, just like its internationalism, fascinated and inspired some of the most progressive western minds. Sexual liberation was an essential part of the program of the revolutionary advocates for women’s rights, such as Inessa Armand and Aleksandra Kollontai, two prominent female members of the Communist Party who, with Lenin’s support, founded its Women’s Section (Zhenotdel) in 1919, which exercised its legislative powers to give Soviet women rights that were unseen anywhere else in the world, including the right to abort, divorce and keep their maiden names in marriage. The emancipation of women and their liberation from domestic chores through the establishment of communal childcare centers and public canteens was a central trope in Soviet graphic arts. Thus Elizaveta Ignatovich’s poster calls women to receive technical education, Sen’kin’s appeals to them to join the ranks of Komsomol, the communist youth organization and the most graphically fascinating poster by the less known Boris Klinch and Vladimir Kozlinskii calls working women to rise against the enslaving power of religion and fight for socialism instead. Here the viewer is put in an active position of the one who is shining light into the space of the image, where socialism triumphs over the dark scenes of domestic violence on the bottom right and superstitious praying on the left and instead brings clarity and transparency powered by the woman architect or engineer who is instrumental in creating the light and ultra-modern glass structures of the workers club and the communal kitchen behind her. Her determined forward looking gaze is backed up by the authoritative support of Lenin himself, whose profile mimics that of the woman and whose wisdom rests on the volume of Karl Marx.
In a society where individual body and psyche were meant to be in sync with the collective body, images of homosociality were as ubiquitous as those of equal and liberated women. Gustav Klucis’ well-known posters Let’s Storm the Third Year of the Five-Year Plan (1930) and Let’s Repay our Coal Debt to the Country (1931), create a dynamic diagonal rhythm of repeated male bodies lined up in a march of solidarity to conquer the heights of socialist construction. These images of homosociality embodied the socialist collective where men and women stood shoulder to shoulder in their labor ennobled by the task of creating a society of equals. This theme is further underscored by a selection of covers from the popular magazine Krasnaia Niva where images of male bonding and independent women appear in a broad variety of artistic styles – a helpful reminder that Constructivist graphics and photomontage were not the only visual language in the 1920s and early 1930s, but one of the most effective amidst a range of modes of artistic expression.
As history often has it, each of the idealistic arcs of social and political transformation presented here had its downturn, and there definitely was a point where slogans and agitational imagery started losing its grounding in actual lived reality. The chronology on the following pages traces some of the historical markers in each trajectory, some of which are better known than others: in 1929 Stalin proclaimed that “the Woman question in the USSR was solved completely and definitively” and in 1930 Zhenotdel was closed; homosexuality was recriminalized in 1934; foreign visitors to the USSR faced increasingly strict conditions, while the autonomy of Jewish communities was significantly curtailed by the late 1930s. The difference between the announced freedoms and their actual implementation and the fragility of political reforms whether in the Soviet Union, the United States or elsewhere is made evident in Yevgeniy Fiks’ reflection on the individual experience of Harry Hay (1912-2002), the founder of the modern gay rights movement in the United States. Having been a communist activist in the 1930s and 1940s, during the McCarthy era Hay was forced out of the Communist Party USA. Toward a Portfolio of Woodcuts (Harry Hay) (2013) narrates the contradictions of being communist and gay
in mid-century America, revealing the conflicts between political beliefs and sexual identity and the ways in which the two intersected. The complete series consists of 8 woodblocks, each of which has a quote from Hay scratched with a sharp tool, as if in preparation for a woodcut that never materialized. One of these invokes the idea of the Soviet Union, the hypothetical land of communism where justice reins: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in the Soviet Union and could do this every day?”; another phrase invokes the McCarthy era question on the application for American citizenship: “Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?” where ‘communist’ is replaced with ‘homosexual’ underscoring the exchangeability of these markers as potentially threatening one’s entitlement to full civil rights. On yet another woodblock a fragment of a dialog formulates an active position: “With my Communist background I knew I could not work in a group without a theory, I said. All right, Harry, what is our theory? And he said: We are an oppressed minority culture. I agreed instantly.” These suggestive propositions situate us as viewers in an open-ended field of historical reflection combined with an active social position of responsibility, of the kind this exhibition seeks to evoke in relation to the complex historical legacy of the Russian revolution.
Anton Ginzburg’s project of Stargaze: Orion (2016) concludes the exhibition’s narrative with a tribute to the legacy of the revolutionary avant-garde that also links it to the universalizing modernist aspirations. The work’s main component is a sculpture, shown here as a 1/8 scale model, commissioned in 2014 by the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program for the American Embassy in Moscow and is planned to be erected in its inner courtyard in the Spring of 2018. The sculpture consists of a vertical structure, whose colored planes frame prescribed views that direct the gaze, while its mirror-polished surfaces reflect the sculpture’s surroundings and the viewers. The base, a black bronze pentagon, represents a stellar map of the Orion constellation. The accompanying poster further clarifies the work’s symbolism. Stargazing is a universal mode of humanity’s aspirations to find its place in the universe and establish its underlying structural principles. The ambition of Russian Constructivists was nothing less than that, grounded also in the practical ambition to perfect the organizational principles of the future socialist society. Ginzburg conceived this work as a tribute to the universalizing structural principles that underlie Russian Constructivism and much radical modernist art that came after it. The sculpture is meant to bridge the divide between national identities and the limitations of discrete historical moments, yet remain attentive to both in their momentary specificity. Political climate has changed a lot since the work was commissioned under the Obama administration, and as a result of strained diplomatic relationship with Russia the personnel of the US Embassy had to be drastically reduced. Made only a year ago as a model and being now manufactured in full scale, Stargaze: Orion bears witness to just how quickly political circumstances change but also stands to demonstrate to what degree questions posed through aesthetic means carry through the changing tides of politics, but also inevitably embody specific conditions of their creation, which are always not only broadly historical, but also always personal and deeply felt by individuals under very concrete historical circumstances. Good cultural workers do their best to balance both, as this exhibition’s curator and artists have
attempted to do.