The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863-1922

The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863-1922

The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863-1922

The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863-1922


'Reality is superior to its imitation in art'--wrote Chernishevsky the aesthetic propagandist of the 1860's in Russia. 'Let us tear ourselves away from our speculative activity [easel painting] and find a way to real work!'--was the cry of the Constructivists in the 1920's. The sixty years which divide these two quotations provide the scope of the present study.

Throughout this time and as a constant theme, now blazoned forth, now disguised, runs the idea of a renewal of art as a socially active force--'which must not reflect, imagine or interpret, but really build' [the Constructivists]--to prevent the accusation that art is an empty diversion to be despised' [Chernishevsky, the spokesman of the 'Wanderers']. In this book I have tried to trace the thread of this debate and the way in which it was worked out in art in Russia.

The debate was brought to a head in the work of Malevich and Tatlin, of the Suprematists and Constructivists, when the idea of art as a spiritual activity was juxtaposed to that of propaganda- art; the artist-priest to the artist-engineer, art for today and the masses, and art for tomorrow and the élite.

I should like to explain that it was these works and ideas of Suprematism and Constructivism which first excited me and drew me to this study. These works are thus the focus of this book and my treatment of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century developments has been governed by an attempt to trace back to the roots the ideas which culminated in the pioneer work of Malevich and Tatlin.

My task has met with many difficulties for the documentation on this subject is rare and hard to find. There has been almost no general account of the period of 1910-1920 in Russian art and I have had to turn to newspaper articles, unpublished memoirs, recollections of those artists still living-often so contradictory-exhibition catalogues, random references in published memoirs and occasional references in literary histories of the period which are far more numerous than those dealing with painting. The piecing together of this incoherent information dealing with a period of such historic importance but immense complexity has been difficult.

I have many people to thank for their help and encouragement over the four years during which I have been working on this book. I would first like to thank Mr Jay Leyda who first made the ideas and personalities of my story come alive to me and Mr Alfred Barr who has allowed me to use unpublished material from his personal archives of Alexander Rodchenko; they have both given me invaluable help and encouragement in the course of my researches. Others whom I must thank for their practical help and advice are Professor Meyer Schapiro, Mr Herbert Spencer . . .

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