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.


Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was born in Nagaevo, Russia.  Her great-grandfather was the famous poet Aleksandr Pushkin.  She enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.  She and her lifelong partner, fellow painter Mikhail Larionov, helped found the Russian avant-garde movement.    Goncharova was best known for Primitivism, but she also painted in the Cubist, Cubo-Futurist, and Rayist styles.  Aside from painting, Goncharova also designed sets and illustrated books.  She finally married Larionov in 1955.  She died in Paris.

Painting “Electric Lamps” by Natalia Goncharova.

“The Avant- Garde” by Suzanne Massie