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  • The Russian Avant-Garde and Its Audience: Moscow, 1913
  • Jane A. Sharp (bio)

In his 1923 essay entitled “Survey of New Tendencies in the Art of St. Petersburg,” the art historian and critic Nikolai Punin laid out the terms and premises which have subsequently dominated critical writing about the Russian avant-garde. 1 Punin’s immediate dilemma was to find a descriptive vocabulary that would span the divide of the 1917 revolution, terminology that could connect the pre- and post-revolutionary avant-gardes. The term “Futurist” was to be rejected, he opined, because of its inherently mythologizing character; so also was the term “leftists” (levye), for “if by that we understand an approximate orientation to revolutionary materialism—this too is a myth.” Instead, Punin urged, the core of the avant-garde experience in Russia was to be found elsewhere: its origins were to be firmly located in the evolution of French Cubism, or what he called “roughly speaking, the form of Braque-Picasso,” while its subsequent development was to be traced in the adaptations made by Russian avant-garde artists, adaptations which had culminated in what he termed the two different “paths out” (vykhody) of Cubism’s narrow concern with mimetic representation, paths which had been blazed by Malevich and Tatlin—yielding the distinctive and mutually antagonistic theories of Suprematism and the Culture of Materials. 2 Punin, in short, had penned a classical modernist treatment of early avant-garde experimentation, and its repercussions can still be felt today.

Like the famous frontispiece that first adorned Alfred Barr’s classic study of Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, a diagrammatic map of modernist art in which every movement stemmed [End Page 91] from the parent stock of Cubism, Punin’s revisionary account of Russian modernism has become an indelible part of art history, its assumptions taken for granted. 3 To this day it continues to provide the basis for formalist histories of Russian modernism, accounts that reduce the pre-revolutionary avant-garde practices to so many anticipations of either Malevich or Tatlin, and that evaluate the art of the Russian avant-garde, whether identified as Cubist, Futurist, Cubo-Futurist, or Suprematist, in implicit opposition to another term that is often left unmentioned but remains no less potent, “Socialist Realism.” Likewise, exhibitions which adhere to Punin’s account of early Russian modernism, such as the recent show on “The Great Utopia: the Russian And Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1922,” recognize the heterogeneity and competitiveness that characterized the visual culture of Russia in the 1920s, yet fail to offer a more critical account of how such apparent diversity thrived. 4 What has been lost sight of might seem obvious, but it is no less important for that. Punin’s account of Russian modernism was not a neutral description, but a polemical contribution to recent debate about contemporary art, and while his emphasis on form may have legitimately reflected the concerns of some artists in 1923 (Tatlin’s, if not Malevich’s), his historical genealogy would have simply mystified others. Indeed, to those who had directly experienced the artistic debates of 1913 and 1914, the terms that Punin discussed—chief among them, “leftists” ((levye) and “avant-garde” (peredovoi)—had typically been paired with epithets such as “rebellious” (buinaia) or “militant youth” (boevaia molodezh’), included in phrases which suggested social dimensions whose resonance simply vanished in Punin’s account. To them, as to many scholars today, it may well have seemed that Punin had done little to explain the real continuities in the cultural practices of a generation which, within only a few years, experienced the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the rise of the Soviet state. 5

To address the kinds of continuity that bind together the pre- and post-revolutionary avant-gardes in Russia, it may be necessary to turn away from the basic dichotomy between form and content which is presupposed by Punin’s account, to stop looking, in other words, for evolutionary continuity either in formal developments or in some putatively proto-revolutionary content that would span the period from, say, 1910 to 1923, and instead to consider the sites and staging venues in which debate about art, whether before...

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