The Avant-Grade Movement

Between the years 1907-1917 Russia began changing, exploring new ideas and pushing boundaries with new forms of experimentation in it’s art. This change is known as the Avant-Grade movement. The movement consisted of young artist who had new views on the world, and ways to express these new ideas though art. The Avant-Grade movement called attention the real world, and rejected ideas of the mystical in their art. Gancharova, a leading member early in the movement produced a new “neo-primitive Russian style” with the use of angular silhouettes. Larionov, another leading member early in the movement was called the first Russian impressionist. With Ganchoarova and Larionov Russia began to surpass other European countries in the art world Larionov often said “the future is ours” and Ganchoarova stated “we are not a providence of Paris.” But the artist in the new movement often were faced with criticism, for example when Larionov and Gancharova organized an art exhibition many critics stated that the art work looked like it could have been painted by a donkey. Later a new group became central to the movement, this group was know as the Futurists, members of this group came from many divers backgrounds and therefore produced different styles of artwork. Futurist included poets, painters, and actors that would work together to produce new forms of art. Poets would write books of poetry, which would then be illustrated by painters creating a new exciting type of book where painters and poets mixed words with images. Stavinsky’s Rite of Spring, is another example of the artist braking away form the traditional art. Rite of Spring is a ballet that used different style then typical ballets. The set and costumes are filled with vibrant colors and the dancing are not as gracefully as what is typically thought of as ballet. Although the Avant-Grade movement was short lived in had a lasting impact on Russia and the rest of Europe.

The Cultural Revival of Old Russia

The discussion of Russian popular culture and art in the early twentieth century is one heavily characterized by innovation, novelty, and experimentation. With the expansion of free speech seen in the advent of hundreds of newspapers and magazines, including the still famous Pravda, so too expanded the artistic venues by which painters, poets, composers, and actors plied their craft. In the closing years of the nineteenth century the Symbolists reigned supreme in Russian arts. Very much representative of traditional Russian culture, Symbolists followed a very hierarchal view of creative works, holding the artist as a “high priest,” affording him the right of interpretation and the ability to dictate the meaning and value of a work to the masses. Within a decade of the dawn of the 1900s, however, the revolutionary tendencies of popular politics took root in artistic movements, with new generations of poets and artists challenging tradition. The mysticism and almost religious veneration of old art was rejected in favor of concrete attention to the “real world.” New avant-garde artists Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov led the push to create a uniquely Russian medium for expression. Both created works evocative of the simple life, of country folk and the strong, old-fashioned tendencies they carry with them. This craving for a specific Russian culture, free of European influence, resulted in a resounding desire to flesh out and populate the movement with new works, a desire that saw Goncharova and Larionov illustrating poems written by their contemporaries, while poet Vladimir Mayakovsky set about setting peer paintings into poetic narratives. It is perhaps ironic that this desire to buck tradition led to such a saturation of work featuring folk life, popularly described as traditional. Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, Rite of Spring, was heavily influenced by Russian Primitivism, with the choreography filled with strong, decisive movements and powerful actions. Absent are the complex twirls, bounds, and poses that come to mind when one pictures ballet, replaced by almost tribal, ritualistic unified movements by crowds of strikingly costumed performers. Interestingly enough, Stravinsky is said to have denied the grounding of his compositions in traditional Russian folk music. Regardless of whether this claim holds truth, Stravinsky’s piece is evocative of traditional Russian peasant life, and ties in nicely with contemporary Russian neo-primitivistic works.

Socio-Economic Change and The Rise of The Avant-Garde in Russia

When asked about Russian art the mind typically thinks of Byzantine Russian icons or matruschki dolls, not the ground breaking art made by the avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century.  In reality, however, there was an artistic explosion in Russia from 1907-1917. But how did this artistic revolution develop in a country commonly ignored by Western Europe?

By the early twentieth century, economic change had come to Russia but the old soslovie social system remained the same. This resulted in the awakening of the lower class and the development of an intelligentsia. The turmoil and changes the country was experiencing created the perfect environment for creativity, experimentation, and individual expression. This perfect storm of turmoil and creativity spawned a new breed of artist that not only rebelled against the metaphors and mysticism of the Symbolists, but also rejected the established esthetics. By rejecting all known and common conventions of art a new liberation and independence among the arts was discovered in Russia. Artists explored new styles at a ferocious pace and kept pushing the boundaries further and further.   From the creation of Primitivism to the development of Suprematist theory, these artists were relentless. This led to a dissipation of the artificial lines separating the different forms of art, resulting in creative collaborations between poets and painters, and composer and choreographers.

One of the best examples of this is The Rite of Spring, a collaboration organized by Diaglev with Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes. The choreography by Nijinsky challenged traditional ballet and exceeded it limits. The dramatic angular and choppy movements expressed the heart of Stravinsky’s radical musical score. Nijinsky also used the imperfect form in his choreography having dancers freeze in unnatural angular shapes or with pigeon toed feet. The storyline of a young girl being chosen as a sacrifice and dancing herself to death after pagan rituals celebrating the advent of spring was also an atypical story line for the ballet. The avant-garde and revolutionary nature of The Right of Spring lead to riots in Paris and upheaval in Russian audiences. These riots are omens of future change, turmoil, and revolution in Europe.


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.

Cultural Revival pre Revolution

When speaking about the revival of art in Russian in the early 20th century it is important while reviewing this information to understand what Avant-Garde refers to  and who Diaghilev is. Avant-Garde refers to experimental or innovative cultural work that pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable as the norm. Second, Sergei Diaghilev could be considered a patron of the arts during the early 20th century in Russia. He was an art critic, patron of the Ballets impresario, and founder of the Ballet Russes, where many famous dancers and choreographers would come from. The beginning of the 20th century Russia was a hotbed for a variety of new art movements. Some of the main ones where: the Symolists who for them music was the pinnacle of their art form. This movement was challenged by the Acmeists who were realist in expressing art. From this radical movement of the avant-garde to notable artist emerged-Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. They where the first Russian “Impressionist” and launch a new movement Primitivism. This movement spanned painting, poetry and music and the influence could be seen in Stavinsky’s Rite of Spring. Rite of Spring, from my own impression reminded me of a folklore ballet that are performed throughout the world. It breaks from tradition in that it does not remind one of the refined ballets one is use to seeing. It show raw and unconstrained emotion. It is more about expression of emotion set to dance then performing specific dance moves is as the case in a traditional ballet. The Primitivist movement no doubt had a strong influence on Stravinsky while creating this ballet. During this time period another unusual thing that is worth noting is the great number of women artist. During this same time period in Europe few major women artist stand out but that is not the case in Russia. The influence of Russian art on the rest of Europe cannot be overlooked. While many of the great Russian impressionist are not as familiar to mainstream as other notable impressionist of this time are they led the way in true abstract art that Europe followed a few years later. Personally I love Malevich pride in his abstract art when he proclaims “objects had disappeared like smoke.” Russian artist culture was on a roll. During a brief period Russia had ushered in the 20th century as a leader in artistic expression. They were truly progressive and ahead of the times in many way. However almost overnight the curtain fell, i.e. the Russian Revolution, on the cultural revival taking place with a dearth of expression coming from the Rodina.