Constructing A New World: The Soviet Experiment, 1920s–30s
March 1–October 15, 2018
Open: Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–3 p.m.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was one of the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century. Its leaders envisioned a new society, thoroughly reshaped in accordance with their radical program of social justice. Constructing a New World features works by a wide range of Russian artists, who responded to events transforming Russian society, not only the revolution but the subsequent civil war, and such developments as rapid industrialization of the country.
Bringing together artworks from the Thomas P. Whitney Collection of Russian Art and selected rare books and journals from the Amherst Center for Russian Culture, Constructing a New World also includes important works on loan from Hampshire College, The Merrill Berman Collection, and the Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York.
After the Bolsheviks came to power, they relied increasingly on the political poster for its visual content that was understandable even for illiterate people. Because of its vast agitational potential, the Soviet political poster became an aesthetic expression of communist ideology, comprising an important aspect of a state-sponsored campaign promoting Bolshevik rule.
In various works in this exhibition, we see positive images of the bright communist future, the nation’s political leadership, and the new socialist citizenry, alongside negative portrayals of the nation’s internal and external enemies.
Artists who had already been moving along the road of avant-garde art since the beginning of the twentieth century, associated the success of the Bolshevik Revolution with progress toward complete creative freedom. During the 1920s, there was a constant flux of artistic groups and exhibiting societies and a remarkable diversity of artistic styles throughout Soviet culture. Constructing a New World includes some examples of new modes of non-representational art, such as Suprematism.
The exhibition also features many works by Constructivist artists, including their experiments in the areas of photomontage and children’s books. The Constructivists’ utilitarian theories dispensed with art to satisfy the decorative and aesthetic needs of the individual, instead linking the creative process with technical progress, functionality, and manufacturing. The ideas of standardization and machine aesthetics were behind Constructivist artists’ appropriation of scientific, technical, and documentary photography for their book designs and posters.
After the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, the Communist Party called for art “comprehensible to the millions.” In 1928, with the inauguration of the First Five-Year Plan as a major program of Socialist Reconstruction, photographic images in general and photomontage in particular, became effective weapons in the rapid dissemination of the agenda of industrialization in the Soviet Union. Some experimental Soviet artists, such as El Lissitzky (1890-1941) or Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938), would eagerly embrace the Soviet regime and their role as propagandists for the new political system, while others would be eventually silenced or exiled.
In 1932 the Communist Party issued a decree, “On Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organizations,” which disbanded all artistic groups. In 1934 the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers ratified the sole sanctioned style of art—Socialist Realism, to which all artists were required to adhere. The period of experimentation and innovation in Russian art ended with an authoritarian dictate.
This exhibition has been made possible with the generous support of the Virginia and David Pennock ’60 Russian Culture Fund and Julia A. Whitney Fund for Russian Art.