Politics and art have gone hand-in-hand from the earliest times. Politics has had an impact on art, and artists have made an impact on political structure. During times of unrest, especially, art becomes a political message as a motivational or propaganda tool. The decades prior to and immediately after the Russian Revolution, for example, shows how art relates to the social circumstances visa versa. Artist’s works played a critical role at this time in order to provide more information on the changing philosophy and create a new society.
Artists such as Ivan Kramskoy, for example, were involved with the ideological structure that represented Russian realism in the 1860s, a decade of reform and renovation. This liberal stage of the movement, reflecting the intelligentsia’s efforts to free individual thought and public activity from bureaucratic controls, lasted through the mid-1880s. Artists, with their decidedly inferior status in society’s estimation and their own, were overwhelmed with the importunate demands of the radicals that they ceased being quiet supporters of the state and decided to contribute their share to political reform. Kramskoy lectured his peers on the moral and civic role of art, telling them that “it was essential not only to draw and paint well but also to convey… thought clearly and expressively,” that pictures had to be “wise” and “educational” as well as “beautiful.” (Valkenier, 1975, p.256)
Christ in the Desert,” did not exactly portray the revolution, but it dealt with the choice between good and evil that people had to choose at this time. Times of revolution occur when there is a moral struggle and citizens must make a decision. Kramskoy interpreted Christ’s struggle in the desert against the temptation of Satan as representative of the basic fight against the dark side of human nature. There was so public controversy as to whether this Christ was supposed to represent a determined person ready to act or a disillusioned and exhausted man that finally Kramskoy explained that the picture symbolized the moral problems everyone faces at a decisive moment in life — whether to serve an ideal, “not to recede an inch before evil,” or to succumb to petty interests. Christ is trying to communicate to the viewer the reality of this inner, moral decision that all had to make (ibid).
Ilia Repin, who studied under Kramskoy, was one of the best well-known and documented Russian nineteenth-century artists of the revolutionary times (Millon and Nochlin, 1980). He was a painter and illustrator, master draftsman, etcher and lithographer, as well as a teacher with considerable influence over his students who made great strides in changing the art of future generations. Repin studied at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and traveled extensively throughout Europe and Russia.
Against the 1917 Revolution, one of his better known works is “They Did Not Expect Him,” painted at the time of the arrests of the terrorists following the assassination of the tsar. Repin stated at this time, “What a time of nightmare that was..pure horror…and I remember the placards bearing the inscription ‘regicide’ that hung on their chests (ibid, pg. 110). He said his intention was to put his art at the service of the “best” element in Russia to those people who through their “disinterested and heroic actions” sought to bring the most important elements to their country.
He never relented on his beliefs. When turning 80, and his birthday was commemorated, Repin took the homage as vindication of his struggle against alien influences. He assured his admirers in Leningrad that the “futurist degeneration, ” referring to the prominent position the leftists assumed in art after the Revolution, was bound to disappear and that “genuine art” would eventually triumph. He later wrote that their tribute reminded him of the “nation-wide” support he had received in 1913 in his fight against the “reds.” (Valkenier, 1978, p. 28).
The Russian Revolution also introduced an entirely new art form. It is thought that the period following the Bolshevik Revolution until the middle 1920s was progressive and at the forefront of the European avant-garde. Artists believed in the profound influence they could have on individual and social development: The Revolution gave them the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the formation of a new way of life (Birnholz, 1972, p. 146)
Lazar “El” Lissitzky was dedicated to new Soviet goals, such as teaching artists to benefit the state and society instead of the individual. He was adamant about renouncing private and elite forms of art-making, such as oil painting, for work that was egalitarian, affordable, and understandable to the masses. For that goal, he turned to printed forms like posters, books, and prints that could be mechanically reproduced in considerable numbers.
El Lissitzky noted: “And if Communism which set human labor on the throne and Suprematism which raised aloft the square pennant of creativity now march forward together, then in the further stages of development it is Communism which will have to remain behind because Suprematism — which embraces the totality of life’s phenomena — will attract everyone away from the domination of work and from the domination of the intoxicated masses.” This concept of art preceding economic and social change soon ran afoul of government policies and a heightened friction arose over precisely this issue of the mission of art (ibid).
Underlying his Lissitzky’s artwork was his belief that the art of Suprematism and had abolished existing barriers. By using the Communist Revolution as a social example, he observed that art had discredited old concepts that had set up barriers in society, including the notions of classes, nations, patriotism and imperialism. Based on this, he argued that towns would be rebuilt in such a way as to abolish the separation between their different elements, since houses, streets, squares, bridges and similar entities were now linked by “underground metro, underground monorail, electricity transmitted under the ground and above the ground” (Levinger, 1989, p.227)
States Birnholz, (1972, p. 146), “for [El Lissitzky’s] work to be properly understood it must be judged primarily in relation to the atmosphere of the Russian Revolution, with its upheavals and faith in a radical transformation of the world.”
In short, similar to Russian literature, this art can only be grasped from the vantage point of 1917.
Later, the role of artists solidified and the forms that art could take came under tight political control. The U.S.S.R. decreed Socialist Realism the official style of the nation, and work outside this style was limited. While the goal of this control was to use artistic forms to promote ideas and values of the worker society, the limits to artistic freedom created controversy. This period in Russian history raises important questions about the role of art in society, and its relationship to politics.
Birnholz, a. The Russian Avant-Garde and the Russian Tradition Art Journal 32(2):
Millon, H.A., and Nochlin, L. (1980) Art and Architecture in the Service of Politics.
Valkenier, E. K (1975). The Peredvizhniki and the Spirit of the 1860s Russian Review
1978) Politics in Russian Art: The Case of Repin Russian Review,
Historical Perspectives on the Arts, Sciences and Technology
Art and Mathematics in the Thought of El Lissitzky: His Relationship to Suprematism and Constructivism
Leonardo, Vol. 22, No. 2. (1989), pp. 227-236.