Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

The Crisis of the Russian Avant-Garde in Iurii Olesha's Envy

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

The Crisis of the Russian Avant-Garde in Iurii Olesha's Envy

Article excerpt

By the late 1920s, social utilitarianism and new aesthetic trends were emerging that combined utopian social ideas with a realistic mode of representation. In this essay I will analyze Iurii Olesha's novel Zavist'(Envy, 1927) against the backdrop of the crisis within the Russian avant-garde. I will argue that Envy can be viewed as the author's vision of the avant-garde's destruction and its replacement by Socialist Realism.1 While I use the paradigm of Ophelia, Chetvertak and Anechka's bed as a metaphor for the crisis within the avantgarde movement, it is not my intention to imply that a specific avant-garde work lies at the heart of Olesha's Envy. Rather, I see the avant-garde as an effective prism to probe the novel's subtleties.2

In his book The Total Art of Stalinism, Boris Groys asserts that the avantgarde movement paved the way, as it were, for Socialist Realism, which in a certain sense remained avant-garde but fused with the bureaucratic and repressive Soviet state system. In retrospect, the crisis of the avant-garde in the mid-1920s resulted from the dominant role that the Bolsheviks assigned it in the new Soviet state. The studies by Groys, Irina Gutkin, John Bowlt, Camilla Gray, Ol'ga Matich and other scholars show that the ideology of the early avant-garde, which is associated with such movements as Suprematism and Futurism, was strikingly different from the affirmative, socially-oriented tendencies of the ensuing Constructivism and "productivism" (proizvodstvennoe iskusstvo) of the 1920s.3 Sharing utopian, i.e., life-creating aspirations with the earlier trends of the avant-garde, the new generation of artists and writers claimed for themselves the roles of engineers, agitators, construction workers and other specialists"practitioners." As Gutkin explains, "The turn toward serving the needs of everyday life did, in fact, constitute a watershed in the history of life-creating aesthetics."4 In his book Po labirintam avangarda (In the Labyrinths of the Avant-Garde), V. S. Turchin states that the pervasive tendency to utilize art in effect signified the demise of the avant-garde as a philosophical and aesthetic system: "[In the Russia of the 1920s], Futurism, already marginalized by... Constructivism and `productivism,' was left with no future."5

The new Constructivist and productionist movement that dominated the official avant-garde of the 1920s associated itself with technology and industry. The ideologists of productionism maintained that the new socialist way of life challenged art with the problem of construction not as contemplative representation but as pragmatic function. The most durable of the productionist groups which promoted the convergence of industry and avant-garde utopian ideas proved to be Proletkul't (Proletarian Culture) and LEF (Left Front of the Arts); the latter included former Futurists.6

The Constructivists, however, were still creating abstract and "artistic" compositions (postroeniia) that were essentially concerned with such modern materials as aluminum, steel, and glass and were assembled according to the precise laws of mechanics. In the spirit of the militant cultural debate during the post-revolutionary period, their constructs were more and more frequently condemned as individualistic expressions of a bourgeois consciousness and, therefore, alien to a collective society. Among the most articulate critical statements in this respect was a manifesto published by students of Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) as early as 1922. The manifesto stands out as an ominous rebellion by these production-oriented disciples against their "art-for-art's-sake" mentors: "We, former leftists in art, were the first to feel the utter rootlessness of further analytical and scholastic aberrations... We have not taken the road trampled by the theory of Constructivism... We want to create realistic works of art..."Bowlt argues that "it was the 1922 manifesto of AKhRR [Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia] that, with certain modifications, came to serve as the springboard for the formal advocacy of socialist realism in the early 1930s. …

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