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Imagining the Unimaginable

World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917

Aaron J. Cohen

Publication Year: 2008

As World War I shaped and molded European culture to an unprecedented degree, it also had a profound influence on the politics and aesthetics of early-twentieth-century Russian culture. In this provocative and fascinating work, Aaron J. Cohen shows how World War I changed Russian culture and especially Russian art. A wartime public culture destabilized conventional patterns in cultural politics and aesthetics and fostered a new artistic world by integrating the iconoclastic avant-garde into the art establishment and mass culture. This new wartime culture helped give birth to nonobjective abstraction (including Kazimir Malevich’s famous Black Square), which revolutionized modern aesthetics. Of the new institutions, new public behaviors, and new cultural forms that emerged from this artistic engagement with war, some continued, others were reinterpreted, and still others were destroyed during the revolutionary period.
Imagining the Unimaginable deftly reveals the experiences of artists and developments in mass culture and in the press against the backdrop of the broader trends in Russian politics, economics, and social life from the mid-nineteenth century to the revolution. After 1914, avant-garde artists began to imagine many things that had once seemed unimaginable. As Marc Chagall later remarked, “The war was another plastic work that totally absorbed us, which reformed our forms, destroyed the lines, and gave a new look to the universe.”

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Studies in War, Society, & the Military


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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-ix

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pp. xi

I have many people to thank. My family encouraged and supported me in the most difficult times. Jeffrey Brooks, my doctoral adviser at The Johns Hopkins University, read several versions of the dissertation that later became this book and has been very supportive through the years. I would also like to thank the rest of that dissertation committee—Vernon Lidtke, Jane A. Sharp, Brigid Doherty...

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pp. 1-12

War has been no stranger to Russian life in modern times. Three violent cataclysmic events—World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War—devastated the country in the early twentieth century, and Russian people suffered incredible...

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1. The Wars against Tradition: The Culture of the Art Profession in Russia, 1863-1914

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pp. 13-50

In the years before World War I, prominent members of Russia’s artistic avant-garde declared war on the country’s philistine Victorian culture and stuffy art world. “We alone are the face of our Time,” proclaimed the notorious iconoclast David Burliuk in the 1912 manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, which contained a provocative...

2. In the Storm: Reshaping the Public and the Art World, 1914–1915

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pp. 51-84

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3. Love in the Time of Cholera: Russian Art and the Real War, 1915–1916

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pp. 85-114

Imagining the unimaginable became a necessity for artists in Russia as they struggled to redefine their lives and their work amid the intellectual and material disturbances of the Great War. Public culture had changed, and modern war’s existential challenges posed great paradoxes to artists who wanted to uphold the idea of art as a representation of reality and the artist’s role as the creator...

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4. Masters of the Material World: World War I, the Avant-Garde, and the Origins of Non-Objective Art

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pp. 115-147

Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (figure 1) and Vladimir Tatlin’s Corner Counter-Relief (figure 21), today recognized as great achievements of European modernism, were created in an intellectual and institutional environment made unstable by war. Before 1914 the avant-garde used rhetorical confrontation, unorthodox...

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5. The Revolver and the Brush: The Political Mobilization of Russian Artists through War and Revolution, 1916-1917

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pp. 149-179

The appearance of avant-garde art in the public culture of early Bolshevik Russia was a striking aspect of the revolutionary experience. In 1914 the avant-garde was a small minority with little influence in the Imperial Russian art world, and they were not a part of pre-revolutionary leftist political culture. With a few exceptions...

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pp. 181-187

In 1915 Kazimir Malevich was supremely confident that Europe’s artistic tradition lay in ruins. His striking Black Square (figure 1) was to be the absolute, indestructible zero point for the construction of a new human culture, a culture designed to replace the old, corrupt, and dying art of European civilization. But Malevich could not have imagined that he and the Black Square would help shape...


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pp. 189-193


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pp. 195-224

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 225-228


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pp. 229-232

E-ISBN-13: 9780803217355
E-ISBN-10: 0803217358

Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Studies in War, Society, & the Military