The Avant-Garde: Revolutionary Art

“Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two acts”-A fitting tagline for Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet, Rite of Spring. Written and produced in 1913 during an artistic revolution in Russia, as well as Europe, Rite of Spring epitomizes the shift in artistic and political thought in Russia. The staccato rhythm of the music combined with the ritualistic, abrupt, and unstructured movements deviate from the traditional ballet performance centered around fluid scores and the graceful motions of the dancers. This departure from the classic ballet style with the depiction of an ancient pagan ritual reflects the revolutionary changes occurring in the arts, science, and philosophy with the emergence of the avant-garde.

In her book, Land of the Firebird, Suzanne Massie dedicates a chapter to discussing the evolution of the avant-garde in Russia. Emerging between 1908 and 1910, this new genre of art opposed the popular Symbolist movement that glorified hierarchy and the mystical world. Movements within the avant-garde instead sought to establish a new, modern art form that rejected the old world of art and placed its attention on the real world. This new artistic genre impacted all aspects of Russian creativity: poetry, painting, music, literature, and theater. One of the earlier styles to emerge during this period of artistic revolution was a new, neo-primitivism. The leading creator of this new Primitivism, artist Natalya Goncharova, gained her inspiration from popular lubki prints, the shapes of wooden dolls, and the folk art of the people. Not only did new Russian Primitivism influence other forms of art such as poetry and music, but it also reflected the shift in political and philosophical thought within Russia.

Following the romantic movement sweeping Europe during the nineteenth century, intellectuals and reformists in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century began to focus on the common people of Russia, the peasantry, and their customs in an effort to reform and revitalize Russia. The artistic movement away from the old world order, whether purposeful or not, is indicative of the social and political changes occurring in Russia. Starvinsky and Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, being the most controversial contemporary example of the avant-garde movement, provides a strong example of this revolutionary genre.