A simple black square on a white background might not be your definition of art. It may be “too abstract” or, on the flip side, too plain for words. But when framed in its proper historical context, even a black square can become a crystal clear portal into a culture.
Alfredo Franco, Curator of Education for the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, gave audience members a glimpse into the Russian mindset with his lecture, “Russian and Soviet Art" at the Barron Arts Center. Franco’s lecture covered a majority of Zimmerli’s Russian collection, dating back as far as the 17th Century and running through the Stalinist years of the Soviet Union. Any study of Russian Art immediately brings to mind this split between Pre and Post-Revolutionary Russia. However, the definition of “revolution” involves a turning over: a piece of a wheel will eventually return to its starting point, and the cycle begins again. In Franco’s lecture, we see these mini “revolutions” at play.
The earliest examples Franco showed are simple religious artifacts called “icons,” which were designed to spread Christianity through Russia.
“How do you teach an illiterate culture a text-based religion like Christianity?” said Franco. “Logically, you teach them through pictures.”
There was only one problem: “The Bible has a mosaic injunction against images,” said Franco. “There was a tremendous battle. Should we ban images? Should we break Commandments?”
Eventually, they found a loophole. Since these icons were meant to be visual texts of passages from the Bible, they were accepted. But because of this, as Franco put it, they are not considered works of art in the traditional sense.
“Makers of these icons were called “icon writers,” not artists. These icon writers were not allowed by the Church to impose any of their personalities. These are not works of self-expression, but rather an adherence to centuries of theological tradition.”
The icons, according to Franco, “were not about a tradition of change, but about continuity.” Despite their apparent lack of artistic individuality, the continuity in these icons served to inspire later revivals as well as a multitude of new styles, including a simple black square mentioned earlier.
Franco then jumped ahead to the Westernization of art through Peter the Great in the 1700s. Peter came up with the idea of a great Academy of Fine arts, which was opened 20 years after his death.
“This Academy’s goal was to produce Russian artists in the classic mold of Western European artists, and to purge all ‘Russianness’ from these artists,” said Franco.
Franco also noted that no one was legally allowed to be considered an artist unless they went through this Academy. And while the artwork was more expressive than icons, they were still within the strict confines of authority, this time of an Imperial, rather than religious nature.
The first mini revolution took place in the 1800s, Franco said.
“By the middle of the 19th Century, it became intolerant for new artists,” he said. “They wanted to depict the Russia of their time, which is not what the Empire wanted to disseminate.”
They began to paint portraits of serfs, and landscapes; landscapes being particularly repulsive to the Academy, because it contradicted the Academy’s Renaissance notions of portraying the human figure.
Eventually, this realist tendency became the dominant art form in Russia, before being supplanted by a more mythological and symbolic style by the late 1800s.
“It’s an art of the fantastical. It’s an art of the mystical," said Franco.
Franco also pointed out that these artists were inspired by artistic theories of Wagner, who believed in the unification of all art forms to create one total work of art.
As the 20th Century came around, this notion of unification in actuality exploded into unheard of modes of expression that were ahead of the rest of the world. One example was the famous atonal symphony, “The Rites of Spring,” by Igor Stravinsky. Another was Kazimir Malevitch’s “Black Square,” a work that, as Franco put it, is “possibly the first non-objective artwork in the history of Western artwork. Malevitch saw it as a new genesis in which art would no longer imitate nature, but would create new forms, liberating itself from nature - a little box of a universe from which a new universe of forms would emerge.”
It was at this point that Alfredo Franco quizzed the audience: “Does this remind you of anything we’ve seen? It’s like an icon.”
Sure enough, the shape and simplicity of the icon was transmuted into 20th Century form. This was especially telling in Franco’s earlier description of the aesthetic quality of icons:
“Icons rejected three dimensional perspective. They emphasized God’s world. When you create perspective, you create time, distance and sequence. Divinity exists in a different time; it’s instantaneous," he said.
Understanding it in this waym “Black Square” becomes the crucial center for which Russian art before and after holds together. Painted in 1913, just 4 years before the Revolution, it’s easy to see “Black Square” symbolically as a window into Russia’s bleak future. But this is not the case, at least not immediately after the Russian Revolution.
From one square brought aerodynamics of shape. Art after 1917, although propagandistic, was incredibly expressive of the forms anticipated from “Black Square.” Lazar El Lissitzky’s “With the Red Wedge Hit the White” is the most symbolic of this.
“He’s taken these abstract forms and appropriated them to create a symbolic military struggle. That red wedge (Symbolizing Communism) seems to come in like a rocket from outer space into a planet size shape.”
Mixed media was also employed, with art being mixed with dynamic photographs of proletariat workers. “The Soviets latched on to photography,” said Franco, “because film to them was an immediate art form. They were looking for an objective, unsentimental view of reality.”
After Stalin took over, the explosive creative force of Russian art gave way to simplified, digestible forms of propaganda. When Kruschev came to power, art was not liberated, though there were some counter-revolutionary tendencies, such as Bulatov’s “Krasikov Street.”
“These workers don’t seem too enthusiastic,” noted Franco. “The city itself looks kind of abandoned. But look at the poster of a very positive Lenin. He (Bulatov) shows the contrast between the Communist system and its people.”
Painted in 1977, “Krasikov Street” shows history once again revolving back to its old place, for better or for worse.
Franco ended his lecture with a clip from the film Man with a Movie Camera (1923), directed by Dziga Vertov, “The last,” as he put it, “of the great experimental films of the Soviet Union.” Man with a Movie Camera uses montage, juxtaposition, as well as layering of images to give us the exuberance and vitality of the initial breath of Revolutionary Russia. The air would quickly become stale, but the wheel of revolution continued to turn, and like the religious icons of the 18th Century or “The Black Square” of the 20th, Russian culture would eventually come out of the framed void that it created - changed, but in some ways still the same.