It's confounding. Pure puzzle and deep enigma. You could sit for two or three hours listing things that suggest or come from the Soviet Union and never come up with a hint of this. Even the works of modern-day Soviet dissident authors and intellectuals contain little of the daring and passion that characterize these works.
The Russian avant-garde movement began in the years just before the Russian Revolution in 1917. It was nurtured primarily by Russian artists living abroad and working under the influence of European artists. It flourished, however, in the 10 or so years after the revolution. Russian artists returned home at the start of World War I and their art burst upon that new society with the brilliance and intensity of a fireworks display on the Fourth of July -- and faded from history just as rapidly.
Although given the Communist Party's official support in the 1920s, the movement was snuffed out in 1934 under Stalin. it has been locked away ever since, not only from the Soviet citizenry but also, for the most part, from the rest of the world. Some paintings have made their way out from behind the Iron Curtain, but the art world has seen few examples of the movement that laid part of the groundwork for much of modern art.
Until now. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened an exhibition this summer of perhaps the most complete, independent collection of art from the Russian avant-garde assembled since the movement was in vogue. The exhibition; entitled "The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives," stays at the museum through Sept. 28 and then moves to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., Nov. 25 through Dec. 15.
There have been other showings of Paintings from the avant-garde in Russia, notably the "Paris/Moscou" exhibition last year in Paris at the Georges Pompidou Center. That show, however, relied almost entirely on works lent by the Soviet government and included, therefore, a significant dose of Soviet propaganda as a condition for a loan.
None of the works in the Los Angeles show came from the Soviet government. All emerged from Western sources, discovered and assembled for this collection over the past four years by two L.A. County Museum curators, Maurice Tuchman and Stephanie Barron. The results of their efforts have attracted considerable attention in the art world and sent Los Angeles museumgoers into long lines waiting to view the exhibition.
"Except for the response to the [King Tutankhamen] exhibition, which was a once-in-a-century exhibit," comments one museum official, "this is the most popular exhibit we've ever had."
It came about unexpectedly. The possibility of such an exhibit occurred to Dr. Tuchman, senior curator of modern art at the museum, "about four years ago when I realized that I had seen many Russian works in Europe. I thought about it and found that I personally knew of around 80 avant-garde works. So I proposed a show to the museum's board that would compare works from the Russian avant-garde with those of contemporary artists.
"However, with more and more trips to Europe, we began finding more and more items and eventually dropped the second part of the show. We were completely surprised to find the number of works rich enough for an exhibition solely on the avant-garde."
The paintings and other works were, for the most part, privately owned, and every one of them, Dr. Tuchman says, came out of the Soviet Union "extralegally, " sometime between 1925 and the present. "Without exception, they were all smuggled out." The team of Barron and Tuchman eventually tracked down some 800 works, placing 465 pieces by 40 artists in the show."
"I get chills up and down my back every time I walk through the exhibition," he says. "This is the precedent for what artists have been doing for the last 20 years."
"Abstraction," writes curator Barron in the exhibition catalog, "reigns as the dominant characteristic of the art of this century, and it developed simultaneously in France, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, and America. What set Russia apart, however, was the speed with which it began, matured, and eventually faded. The movement there consisted of several styles that initially drew on and eventually outpaced European work. Neo-Primitivism derived from Russian folk art. Cubo-Futurism was an interpretation of French cubism and italian futurism.
"What followed, however, were two totally unique schools: Suprematism and Constructionism. The movement culminated in Productivism, a rejection of painting and sculpture in favor of art intended for utilitarian consumer products -- clothing, ceramics, furniture, typography, and graphic design."
While the Bolsheviks were upsetting traditional concepts of society, artists with equal zest were overturning traditional concepts of art. They seemed to be racing to see who could remove the most artistic restrictions.
Suprematism, heralded by one of the best-known of the avant-garde group, painter Kasmir Malevich, pioneered nonobjective art, what Malevich termed "pure feeling in art." He rejected everything but the basic elements of art: color and shape. Likewise, Constructivsm became totally abstract.
As an insight into history, the exhibit offers a glimpse of the intellectual freedom that prevailed in Russian art circles until it clashed with the tyranny that soon characterized Soviet Government.
"This was one of those amazingly fertile periods of history," comments Dr. Tuchman, a period when "experiment" was the order of the day, and Marxists and artists considered the prospect that society would embrace their ideals.
The avant-garde movement became officially anti-Soviet under Stalin, replaced by "social realism" -- a concept responsible for the "Heroic Worker Standing Next to His Faithful Tractor" type of painting. Some artists fled Russia, some disappeared during the Stalinist purges, others died in obscurity. Much of their work was placed in deep storage by the government. But some of it was hidden by friends and eventually worked its way out of Russia. These are the works that are exhibited by the Los Angeles County Museum. But hundreds of works remain in Soviet vaults.
"We knew about [the avant-garde] as a major art movement, but you couldn't see it," Dr. Tuchman says. "This exhibition has been my dream as a curator, but it has also been the dream of every other curator of modern art."