Imagining the Unimaginable: World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917

Imagining the Unimaginable: World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917

Imagining the Unimaginable: World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917

Imagining the Unimaginable: World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917

Synopsis

As World War I shaped and molded European culture to an unprecedented degree, it also had a profound influence on the politics and aesthetics of early-twentieth-century Russian culture. In this provocative and fascinating work, Aaron J. Cohen shows how World War I changed Russian culture and especially Russian art. A wartime public culture destabilized conventional patterns in cultural politics and aesthetics and fostered a new artistic world by integrating the iconoclastic avant-garde into the art establishment and mass culture. This new wartime culture helped give birth to nonobjective abstraction (including Kazimir Malevich's famous Black Square), which revolutionized modern aesthetics. Of the new institutions, new public behaviors, and new cultural forms that emerged from this artistic engagement with war, some continued, others were reinterpreted, and still others were destroyed during the revolutionary period. Imagining the Unimaginable deftly reveals the experiences of artists and developments in mass culture and in the press against the backdrop of the broader trends in Russian politics, economics, and social life from the mid-nineteenth century to the revolution. After 1914, avant-garde artists began to imagine many things that had once seemed unimaginable. As Marc Chagall later remarked, "The war was another plastic work that totally absorbed us, which reformed our forms, destroyed the lines, and gave a new look to the universe."

Excerpt

War has been no stranger to Russian life in modern times. Three violent cataclysmic events—World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War—devastated the country in the early twentieth century, and Russian people suffered incredible hardships during the horrific years of World War ii. in the Soviet Union, military culture, values, and imagery came to pervade official public language, while countless novels, paintings, and films extolled Soviet military deeds. This militarized culture stood in stark contrast to pre-revolutionary Russian traditions, for war played only a minor role in the achievements of the artists and intellectuals who made Imperial Russia a center of European culture before 1917. Military conflict was something that happened long ago or far away for most people in the Russian Empire, and warfare, on the whole, was not a prominent theme in the country's intellectual life. the great exception was World War I (1914–18), which forced artists in Russia to grapple with the consequences of modern war, transformed the way they understood the artist's place in society, and patterned the invention of one of the most important Russian contributions to modern culture: the non-objective art of Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and other avant-garde artists. War was more important in Russian cultural life during the Great War than at any other time in the half century before 1914, and World War I, in important ways, had a more profound influence on the politics and aesthetics of Russian visual culture than even the revolution.

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