In this groundbreaking study, Nina Gurianova identifies the early Russian avant-garde (1910-1918) as a distinctive movement in its own right and not a preliminary stage to the Constructivism of the 1920s. Gurianova identifies what she terms an “aesthetics of anarchy”—art-making without rules—that greatly influenced early twentieth-century modernists. Setting the early Russian avant-garde movement firmly within a broader European context, Gurianova draws on a wealth of primary and archival sources by individual writers and artists, Russian theorists, theorizing artists, and German philosophers. Unlike the post-revolutionary avant-garde, which sought to describe the position of the artist in the new social hierarchy, the early Russian avant-garde struggled to overcome the boundaries defining art and to bridge the traditional gap between artist and audience. As it explores the aesthetics embraced by the movement, the book shows how artists transformed literary, theatrical, and performance practices, eroding the traditional boundaries of the visual arts and challenging the conventions of their day.
The Aesthetics of Anarchy Art and Ideology in the Early Russian Avant-Garde
The Aesthetics of Anarchy
The years 1910-18 in Russian avant-garde culture stand out for their remarkable intensity and concentration, especially in regard to the visual arts. In less than a decade, Russian painting expanded stylistically from Impressionism and Symbolism to Neoprimitivism, Cubism, and Futurism (and Cubo-Futurism as well), and aspired toward new developments in nonrepresentational art such as Suprematism. "No country at the early stage of the avant-garde movement produced such a wide array of personalities who differed from one another in significant ways," Dmitri Sarabianov, a prominent scholar of Russian art, emphasizes. "It's enough to mention several 'inventors' of non-representational art, such as Kandinsky, Larionov, Malevich, Tatlin, and Matiushin, in order to see that each and every one of them is absolutely autonomous, independent, and unique."
Russian poetry followed a similar path: from Symbolism to all the possible brands of Futurism, toward zaum, the visual and sound poetry of Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov. The sharp, pronounced break with previous European cultural traditions in an attempt to create a new self-identity, and to see the world anew, as if for the first time, as "other," distinguishes the ideology of the Russian avant-garde from that of earlier "Westernized" modernist movements.
Although the words "anarchy" and "anarchic" are to be found in the vocabularies of the artists and poets of this period, neither the avant-gardists nor their critics directly treated them as aesthetic terms. VasiliiKandinsky, Nikolai Kulbin, and Voldem?rs Matvejs (best known by his Russian pen name, Vladimir Markov) used them more persistently than others in their theoretical writings to valorize the new aesthetic system. In 1912, the Russian composer Thomas von Hartmann, a friend and follower of Kandinsky's and a member of the Blaue Reiter group, tried to justify the principle of anarchy in art as a new methodology, revising widespread interpretations of Bergsonian ideas founded on the primacy of intuition and the unconscious in creative work:
To me, the engagement of the conscious element seems to be necessary, absolutely necessary, but only to enrich creative methods; i.e., only if this conscious element provides new possibilities, discovers new worlds. Herein lies the great hope for future musical theory, as well as for the other arts; a theory that does not want to promulgate the tedious "one can" or "one cannot," but does say, "In this case one can use this, or that, or yet another method." These methods will perhaps be related to earlier ones, but they will possibly reveal much more efficient possibilities than those that are made available to us by the unconscious feeling only.
The principle of anarchy in art should be welcomed. Only this principle can lead us to a glorious future, to a new Renaissance. But this theory should also not turn its back on other courageous pathfinders. By discovering the new laws, art should rather lead to an even greater, more conscious freedom-to different new possibilities.
In the context of the early Russian avant-garde, we can see this "principle of anarchy" as an essential feature of an open and diverse aesthetic phenomenon that those involved did not even articulate until that brief period came to an end. This indicates a paradoxical contradiction in the movement, which was unwilling to build a dominant school or style controlled by one leading aesthetic system. Different trends, that the critical literature often joins together under the vague and historically motivated terminological umbrella of the "Futurist movement" constituted the most noticeable element of the early avant-garde in Russia, and the most important for our discussion. Due to its stark difference from the Italian movement of the same name, the application of this term in the Russian context is often confusing, particularly in relation to the so-called Cubo-Futurist branch, which enlisted most of the avant-garde artists and poets. Kazimir Malevich named a series of his 1913 works "Cubo-Futurist Realism" and was certainly one of the first artists to use this term, which he continued to reference in his brochures in 1915-16.
[Figure 1 here]
Sarabianov suggests that the naming itself testifies to the "odd mixes" that took place and cites the well-known mutual opposition between French Cubism and Italian Futurism. He adds that in Russia, "the term 'Cubo-Futurism' was very convenient, since it embraced Futurist poets as well as Cubist painters. The Cubo-Futurist group also included painters who did not practice Cubism and were closer to Expressionism." Nikolai Khardzhiev, the authority on the subject, argues that this was "a generalizing term that turned up on the pages of critical articles," explaining this circumstance by the fact that "the Futurist poets appeared publicly in close contact with the Cubist artists." The impact of the visual arts on Futurist poetry was indeed a crucial ingredient in the development of the avant-garde. It led to the methodological phenomena defined by Roman Jakobson as "visualization of metaphor": a unique mark of Russian Futurism. Whether in painting, prose, or criticism, artists and poets such as Kandinsky, Guro, Kruchenykh, Mayakovsky, and Rozanova started from a visualization, and immediate visual reminiscences always dominated over abstract logical schemes.
In poetry, Cubo-Futurism applied to the "Hylaeans," Elena Guro, Velimir Khlebnikov, the brothers David and Nikolai Burliuks, Vasilii Kamensky, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Benedikt Livshits. "We found even the term 'Futurism' odious," Livshits later confessed. Nor were they particularly attached to the term "Cubo-Futurism," however, to which they did not attribute any special significance. Instead of calling themselves Cubo-Futurists, Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh coined the neologism budetliane (from budetlianin, a noun etymologically linked to the future tense of the Russian verb "to be," and sometimes translated into English as "Futurian"), which was immediately picked up by their fellow poets and artists.
[Figure 2 here]
In this discussion, we shouldn't forget that the specifics distinguishing Futurism as a cultural tendency were its fragmentation and heterogeneity, which were already noted by its contemporaries: "Futurism is not an aesthetic school but above all a moral watchword or motto confronting all contemporary culture," Genrikh Tasteven wrote. In Russia, it included many different artistic and literary groups, which at times were allied, or in competition and even at odds with one another. Visual and literary production, often described by different scholars as "Futurist," stylistically was very diverse and often eclectic; thus the terminology just doesn't hold up if we define Futurism strictly by stylistic and formal categories. It makes much more sense for us rather to interpret Futurism as an aesthetic philosophy that saw itself as a "radical revolution" in art and life, and to take this ideology into account. This latter perspective corresponds to the opinion expressed by many Russian avant-gardists: Goncharova, for example, wrote that Futurism's main purpose was "to offer renewal and a new point of view on every sphere of human activity."
The aesthetic and ideological autonomy of each poet or painter transcended any school. Thus, the persistent unwillingness to create a dominant style typifies the uniqueness of the early Russian avant-garde, as the "Futurian" painter Aleksandr Shevchenko proclaimed: "We are free, and in this lies our progress and our happiness. Any attachment to a school, to a theory, already means stagnation, [which] is already what in society is customarily designated by the word 'academi[ci]sm.'"
In 1918-19, the unique and brief period when the Russian avant-garde first came into direct contact with political anarchism, the artist Varvara Stepanova reflected on Russian art in her diaries: "Russian painting is as anarchic in its principles as Russia in her spiritual movement. We don't have [stylistic] schools and every artist is a creator, every one is original and radically individualistic.... Of course this is more obvious in the case of the leftist artists: there are not so many of them, but each individual is precious, each has made a valuable contribution, but all in their own way." Similarly anarchic overtones, expressed poetically, beautifully fulfill Khlebnikov's manifesto "An Appeal by the Presidents of Planet Earth" (1917), which is directed against the concept of the national state predominance, arguing indeed that the "black banner of unrule was raised by the hand of man and has been already snatched by the hand of the universe. Who will tear down these black suns?"
Anarchy and Art
The motivating idea and spirit of the early period reveal themselves in the aesthetics of ontological anarchy. The early Russian avant-garde always remained socially aware, but not politically engaged or linked to any party. I would argue that political anarchism, which seeks to replace one temporal power structure of authority with another (of rationality), has little in common with the idea of ontological anarchy. To provide some methodological and terminological grounds for my definition of the aesthetics of anarchy, I rely in part on the theoretical framework developed by Reiner Schürmann.
Since the nineteenth century, the term "anarchism," always a politically and socially charged term in both Russian and Western culture, had signified a political movement and a certain political philosophy that rejected the authority of the state. Nonetheless, it has been recently argued that "anarchism" could supersede its traditional definition: "the loosely defined tendency in contemporary thought known as 'post modernism' may be thought suggestive from an anarchist point of view. Michel Foucault's technique of undermining dominant value systems by laying bare the contingent and power-seeking genealogies underlying them implies a kind of liberation for those people previously controlled or marginalized by such systems."
I analyze the terms "anarchy" and "anarchism" in their relation to their root, arch?. The meaning of "anarchy" as an equivalent to "anarchism" ("no government," "no rule") does not seem to be the only possible interpretation. On the contrary, the word "anarchy" has acquired a more abstract significance that is not bound to a strictly political or social sphere. Thus, the negatively charged "disorder" cannot be substituted for "anarchy," and "order" and "anarchy" are not binary oppositions, as some critics suggest. Arch? has multiple meanings, and if we limit it to only one, "order," we violate the concept and oversimplify. Initially, arch? signified beginning, or origin: that which was in the beginning; primal. Among the Ionian philosophers, it denoted the first substance or primordial element, the origin and divine source out of which the world was generated. For the Pythagoreans, who tried to dissociate the term from anything physical, it referred to the origin of the number series. In Aristotle, arch? refers both to principles of action and principles of demonstration: according to his doctrine, all sciences and all scientific knowledge are founded on basic principles (archai) of matter and form. However, the meaning of arch? increasingly changed to accommodate related issues, raised by the idea of origin: ideas of foundations and principles. As a result, the meaning shifted in practical usage from "first power" to "method of government," "realm," "political authority." In philosophical discussions it became associated with newly evolved systematic concepts: "principle of knowledge," "ground of being," "cause of motion" or "source of action."
Etymologically and conceptually, "anarchy" is defined through negation (an-arch?) and is derivative from arch?. But does that mean that anarchy equates to chaos? Not exactly; I suggest that anarchy should be interpreted as the next step after chaos and order. One of the earliest definitions of chaos, found in Hesiod, is the unformed primordial mass of primal existence. An imposition of an order on chaos produced the cosmos. In Genesis 1, it is the earth "without form and void." In these interpretations chaos is a primary notion that exists before order: while order and chaos are opposed, arch? means an ordered universe, a chaos transformed. If chaos precedes arch?, arch? in its turn precedes anarchy. Following this framework, anarchy is neither order nor chaos, although it contains of elements of both, and may be defined as an action that connects them, a permanent strife produced between the constructing and deconstructing of origins.
Reiner Schürmann, an American philosopher and Heidegger scholar, offers an insightful definition of arch? and "anarchy" in relation to action, assuming that theories of action "reproduce the attributive-participative schema as if it were a pattern." He argues, that this schema, when accepted and indoctrinated as practice, "results in the ordering of acts to one focal point":
This focal point is continuously displaced throughout history: ideal city, heavenly kingdom, the happiness of the greatest number, noumenal and legislative freedom, "transcendental pragmatic consensus" (Apel), etc. But none of these transferences destroys the attributive, participative, and therefore normative, pattern itself. The arch? always functions in relation to action as substance functions in relation to its accidents, imparting to them sense and telos. In the epoch of closure, on the other hand, the regularity of the principles that have reigned over action can be laid out.
According to Schürmann, with "the closure of the metaphysical era," the epochal principles that "have ordered thoughts and actions in each age of our history are withering away." "The age of the turning," which follows the closure, can be expressed through Heideggerian "anarchy principle." Schürmann points to this oxymoron as indicative of a "discourse of transition," which he identifies with the deconstruction:
Needless to say, here it will not be a question of anarchy in the sense of Proudhon, Bakunin, and their disciples. What these masters sought was to displace the origin, to substitute the rational power, principium, for the power of authority, princeps-as metaphysical an operation as has ever been. They sought to replace one focal point with another. The anarchy that will be at issue here is the name of a history affecting the ground or foundation of action, a history where the bedrock yields and where it becomes obvious that the principle of cohesion, be it authoritarian or "rational," is no longer anything more than a blank space deprived of legislative, normative, power. Anarchy expresses a destiny of decline, the decay of the standards to which Westerners since Plato have related their acts and deeds in order to anchor them there and to withdraw them from change and doubt.
In Russian modernity, however, ontological anarchy expressed as well a return, the turning point away from Eurocentric values established by two centuries of Westernization, and toward the cautious revision of the beginnings of Russian religious and intellectual thought, shaped by Byzantine and Eastern philosophies, and embedded in pre-Petrine culture.
From this perspective, anarchy may well be interpreted as a deconstruction of order. Anarchy is not an "origin," but it signifies this active process toward "origin," the strife produced between chaos and order that may be identified with the Heideggerian notion of beginning, which "always contains the undisclosed abundance of the awesome, which means that it also contains strife with the familiar and ordinary." That is why the necessary element for anarchy is an element of destruction that precedes new creation, not for the sake of destruction, but rather for deconstruction, reinterpretation, rereading, and so on. Chaos, on the other hand, does not have this element.
The notion of anarchy I have discussed here overlaps with art, and is based on the Heideggerian idea of aesthetics and a new ontology. In his essay "The Origin of the Work of Art," Heidegger writes, "Whenever art happens-that is, whenever there is a beginning-a thrust enters history; history either begins or starts over again." Art, according to the phenomenological interpretation, may be understood as a beginning, an opening, an origin without a telos; or, defined by Hans-Georg Gadamer as the project by which "something new comes forth as true," as an origin that is always other and always emerging, which defies the techno-scientific complex born from telic rationality. This transformation becomes transparent in particular movements, such as Zurich Dada or its predecessor, early Russian Futurism of 1910-14.
The Avant-Garde as a Culture of Crisis
In Europe and Russia the beginning of the avant-garde movement was determined by and coincided with an aroused historical consciousness and an awareness of historical transition beyond nationality. The German artist Franz Marc, a member and organizer with Kandinsky of the Blaue Reiter artistic movement and journal, who was close to cultural developments in Russia, expressed this historical consciousness as "the turning point of two long epochs, similar to the state of the world fifteen hundred years ago, when there was also a transitional period without art and religion-a period in which great and traditional ideas died and new and unexpected ones took their place.... The first works of a new era are tremendously difficult to define."
We can follow this line of thought, arguing that anarchy also restarts history, and is a discourse of epochal transformation and historical "openness." Gadamer's observation that this new epoch "has no more room for the intimate and favors instead the transparency and openness of every space" is very important for us in this context. "[W]ith World War I a genuine epochal awareness emerged that welded the nineteenth century into a unit of the past," Gadamer writes. "This is true not only in the sense that a bourgeois age, which had united faith in technical progress with the confident expectation of a secured freedom and a civilizing perfectionism, had come to an end. This end is not merely an awareness of leaving an epoch, but above all the conscious withdrawal from it, indeed, the sharpest rejection of it."
This reflective knowledge was the preliminary preparation not only for creating art, but for the becoming of art. From this perspective, a more dialectical approach is the recent definition of modernist art developed by Arthur Danto, who views a work of art against a theoretical contextual background that Danto calls the "art world": "the nature of an art theory, which is so powerful a thing as to detach objects from the real world and make them part of a different world, an art world, a world of interpreted things." Danto argues that modernism begins after "mimetic" theory can no longer be sustained, and is characterized by the attempt to offer a new theory of what art is: "The 'aesthetic object' is not some eternally fixed Platonic entity, a joy forever beyond time, space, and history, eternally there for the rapt appreciation of connoisseurs. It is not just that appreciation is a function of the cognitive location of the aesthete, but that the aesthetic qualities of the work are a function of their own historical identity."
The withdrawal from the preceding epoch reveals not just a new style (or rather an anti-style in this case) in the pure sense, but a new aesthetic philosophy, one that emerged during the nineteenth century and took shape in the twentieth, based on a new definition of art. In 1917, Nikolai Berdyaev, one of the leading Russian intellectuals of the era, wrote: "We are witnessing a general crisis in art that is shaking it to its thousand-year foundations. The old idea of classical beauty has dimmed forever, and one senses that there is no returning to its images. Art is convulsively trying to escape from its boundaries.... Never before has the problem of the relationship between art and life been so critical; never before has their been such a hunger to shift from a creation of works of art to the creation of life itself-a new life." Describing avant-garde as a "culture of crisis," Matei C?linescu asserts provocatively: "Insofar as anarchism as an attitude implies a veritable mystique of crisis (the deeper the crisis the closer the Revolution), I think that this trend confirms the validity of the more general equation between the cultural avant-garde and the culture of crisis." Some critics argue against the "negative connotation" of this equation, pointing out that in the culture of avant-garde, negation sometimes goes hand in hand with the creative impulse-a striking dualistic view of the world, the modernist paradox. This is "the paradox which dominates the whole of the modernist period, from the fin de siècle to the avant-garde," Walter Gobbers writes.
In the historical trajectory of the early Russian avant-garde the aesthetics of anarchy represents a constant de-construction (dis-konstruktsiia, as the Russian futurist poet, artist, and theoretician David Burliuk put it in 1913) of the established canon, rather than a pure demolition of it.
Disharmony is the opposite of harmony.
dissymmetry is the opposite of symmetry.
deconstruction is the opposite of construction.
a canon can be constructive.
a canon can be deconstructive.
construction can be shifted or displaced
The canon of displaced construction.
This apathetic sequence of opposites leads to affirmation through negation, and makes it clear to the reader that Burliuk's "deconstruction" (or rather, in the most precise translation, "dis-construction") does not exist on its own, but follows "construction" and is etymologically and semantically secondary to it. Burliuk's notion of "deconstruction," which he applied to aesthetics, differs greatly from the modern philosophical concept. However, there are some points at which they overlap in a very general way, for example, in the deconstruction of the origin, or canon.
The strong element of negation in this aesthetic "projects" itself onto contemporary criticism and influences its language. It gave birth to numerous vague critical definitions founded on the acknowledgment of the same "negative passion" of the avant-garde, as "anti-art," usually associated with the transgression of cultural boundaries (a term coined by Zurich Dadaists), or an "anti-style" accepted by contemporary criticism.
The Early Russian Avant-Garde: Concepts
The anarchic tendency of the early Russian avant-garde manifests itself most clearly in the notion of "art for life" and "life for art," which developed into the theoretical concept of the movement: "The course of art and a love of life have been our guides.... After the long isolation of artists, we have loudly summoned life and life has invaded art, it is time for art to invade life." This concept of a mutual "invasion" of art and life, which merged the very different-often opposing-philosophical ideas of Nietzsche and Tolstoy, is as far removed from the pragmatic materialism of the later Constructivist and Productionist urge to employ "art into life" as it is from the decadent and aestheticist ideal of "art for art's sake."
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche was the first to approach science from the point of view of the artist, and art from the perspective of life-being. According to Reiner Schürmann, Heidegger, in his interpretation of Nietzsche, "cites the following declaration of faith by Nietzsche, which flatly contradicts the Aristotelian declarations: 'Goalness as such is the principle of our faith.'" As a result of this "twist," Nietzsche's nihilistic overtone, which Maurice Blanchot calls "the very sense of his thought," paradoxically acquires a new, positive character. Blanchot suggests that here "nihilism is an event accomplished in history that is like a shedding of history-the moment when history turns and that is indicated by a negative trait: that values no longer have values in themselves. There is also a positive trait: for the first time the horizon is infinitely open to knowledge, 'Everything is permitted.'" Adopted by the early avant-garde culture, this nihilistic intonation becomes a leap defining freedom to create, and an open aesthetic consciousness, which strives toward a new epistemology. In Russian philosophy, a similar stance was taken by Nikolai Berdyaev, who was particularly interested in the investigation of the meaning of "freedom" and "creativity": "Creativity is something which proceeds from within, out of immeasurable and inexplicable depths, not from without, not from the world's necessity. The very desire to make the creative act understandable, to find a basis for it, is failure to comprehend it. To comprehend the creative act means to recognize that it is inexplicable and without foundation."
The fundamental Nietzschean idea of the "will to power" and the concept of "eternal return" have never been limited to the biological or organic domain (a vulgar interpretation of this idea popular in the beginning of the century), and refer to the universal force, the energy (energeia) of the very essence of being. This energy, at once creative and destructive, which determines the flow of being, is beyond the human realm, and therefore beyond "good and evil." It follows that the eternal return is nothing but the concordance of the creative power and of this energy, the "letting-be," the all-embracing acceptance of being with its joy and suffering, being as a united whole, indivisible into the binary oppositions of "good" and "evil," "beautiful" and "ugly," "art" and "life," and so on. Nietzsche calls it amor fati, the acceptance of one's earthly fate and faithfulness to every minute of one's life.
"And what else is left? To accept the world, humbly accept the world with all its seemingly senseless, insignificant details.... The process of life-one should believe in it," Elena Guro wrote in her diary in 1912-13. Acceptance of life "as such"-as a given, as a gift-hides the dramatic heroic stance of the early avant-garde. It brings with it the recognition of the finitude of human presence as well, death, understood as the highest revelation of "presencing-in-the-world." "Death to Art!" the Russian Ego-Futurist Ivan Ignatiev proclaims. "Authorial tone? A threat? No. Terror? Hardly. Perhaps a Joy? Yes, it happens when a long-drawn-out crisis is pronounced at its end. Joy creates a Poem. There is a Nothingness in the End, but this end initiates the Beginning of Joy, the Joy of a Creator." Ignatiev's words find an unlikely parallel in Cornelian tragedy, whose triumph of the heroic Maurice Blanchot interprets as the "naïve avowal of death": "The meaning of the death called heroic is its escape from death; its truth is its making of death a fine line. Where are you leading him?-To death-To glory."
It is no exaggeration to say that this "Hafizian" acceptance of life (Khlebnikov) or, as Guro puts it, "gay creativity" (a clear reference to Nietzsche's "gay science"), became one of the foundations of the philosophy of the early Russian avant-garde. This early avant-garde concept, where the notions of art and life are intertwined, differs from the preceding Symbolist sensibility, which still prioritized fixed ideas over the process of creation, even in Viacheslav Ivanov and the second generation of Symbolists' notion of "life-creating" (zhiznetvorchestvo). If the Symbolists, involved in "life-creation," tried to reconstruct life around them as a work of art, the Futurists submitted their art to the evasive flux of life "as such" instead. The dramatist and stage director Nikolai Evreinov, who was the first to develop the notion of "theatricality" in Russian culture, once praised his friend the Futurist poet and aviator Vasilii Kamensky for utterly merging his public image, life and art, comparing him to Leo Tolstoy as the only other example of such completeness. Evreinov dedicated his brochure on Theatricalization of Life (1922) to Kamensky, and placed in parenthesis the subtitle "Poet who theatricalized life."
[Figure 3 here]
For the Symbolists, both art and life are always perceived through the mediation of a symbol, a sign, which becomes an absolute model that controls reality. Symbolism's teleological philosophy presupposes a perception of the world, founded on the traditional division between practical experience and theoretical knowledge. This dichotomy between thought and action, "the ancient procession and legitimation of praxis from theoria," became a central problem of twentieth-century philosophy after Nietzsche and led to a crisis of metaphysics.
In their attempt to resolve this crisis, the Russian Futurists retreated to the anarchic action, where contemplation and cognition precede the traditional formulation of inspiration and are equated with creative action. The final goal of being is being itself: the priority of telos is dissolved in the presencing in the world, where the very process of life initially posses its potency of cognizing. C?linescu made a very important distinction in his general discussion on the theory of international modernism and the avant-garde, pointing out that "the crisis of ideology is reflected in another highly significant phenomenon characteristic of a great deal of avant-garde art, both older and newer: its 'anti-teleological' drive." (However, it is not a new feature in the history of art or philosophy: the concept of "integral knowledge" was present in non-Western philosophy, as well as early Christianity, and developed by medieval mystics like Meister Eckhardt.) Life is understood here as a process of being, without a goal, "without why": "We are enthralled by new themes: superfluousness, meaninglessness, and the secret of powerful insignificance are celebrated by us." These words of the collective Futurist manifesto, which are used to valorize the new aesthetics, reflect an underlying set of new criteria. The process of artistic creation placed on the same footing as the creative presencing-in-the-world, a spiritual action (odukhotvorennoe delanie), became a goal of their art: "pure creativity is much more profound than the way it is understood in the everyday life of artists and painters. The essential moment of creation does not happen in the course of physical action, it happens in the course of contemplation. ... And it is so terribly easy to interrupt, to frighten off the contemplation following the prejudice of the necessity of action." Thought and contemplation are equated with action ("We join contemplation with action and fling ourselves into the crowd"), and knowledge is bound up with the process of thinking, of becoming. Consequently, the process of creation, involving material work as much as the elusive moment of cognizing, becomes more important than production and fabrication, which recognizes the accomplished work of art as the final result.
This intellectual position entertained by the early avant-garde appears to have a very contemporary resonance: thus, speaking about the issue of materiality in contemporary art, Arthur Danto suggests that when works of art become self-conscious "to such a degree that it is difficult to know how much of the material correlate must be reckoned in as part of the artwork ... they almost exemplify a Hegelian ideal in which matter is transfigured into spirit."
Expanding the aesthetic ideology of Russian Futurism into a philosophical discourse in 1917, in a lecture that was published under the title Krizis iskusstva (The Crisis of Art), Berdyaev wrote: "We must get through futurism and overcome it in life as well as in art. It can be overcome by delving more deeply into it, moving it into another dimension, a dimension of depth rather than that of a plane, through knowledge-not abstract but knowledge based on life experience, knowledge as being." Berdyaev's approach to "overcoming" Futurism, although removed from the attitudes of the avant-garde milieu, was perhaps provoked by Kruchenykh's statement made three years earlier: "Previously the painters' world had only two dimensions: length and width; now it has acquired depth and relief, movement and weight, the coloration of time, etc., etc. We started seeing the here and the there. The irrational (transrational) is conveyed to us as directly as the rational. We do not need intermediaries-the symbol, the thought-we convey our own new truth, and do not serve as the reflection of some sort of sun."
There is a hidden response to Berdyaev's essay in Olga Rozanova's "Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism," written in 1917. Rozanova was just as unequivocally committed to the idea of the continuous renewal and regeneration of artistic process. In the course of analyzing the significance of the Futurist period in Russian art, she wrote that: "In force and acuity Futurism provided art with a unique expression - - the fusion of two worlds,-the subjective and the objective.-Maybe this event is destined never to be repeated.... Futurism expressed the character of our contemporaneity, and it did so with complete acumen."
For Berdyaev, who thought of creativity as something "inseparable from freedom," which "derives from nothing which precedes it," Futurism gave the "tired" art of the preceding centuries that vitally necessary injection of novelty and "regenerative barbarism without which the world would have irretrievably perished": "Out of the dark abyss, not yet transformed by culture, barbarism of spirit, and barbarism of flesh and blood, drawing its strength from the deepest sources of being, must sweep over declining civilization in a mighty wave.... Futurism is this new barbarism at the pinnacle of culture. It has barbaric crudity, barbaric wholeness, and barbaric ignorance."
A closer reading of the texts of the early Russian avant-garde and consideration of the wide-ranging and extensive interests in such participants of this movement as Elena Guro, Voldem?rs Matvejs (Vladimir Markov), Olga Rozanova, Kazimir Malevich, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Velimir Khlebnikov, as well as many others, gives the lie to the facile notion of "the barbaric ignorance" of Russian Futurism. Ironically, it was first suggested by the Futurists themselves and was later strongly imposed on them by critics. For a while, Larionov's group called themselves "The Donkey's Tail," the title of the exhibition they put together in Moscow in 1912. This unusual name no doubt referred to the infamous "Boronali hoax": in 1910, a painting purportedly by a Genoese named Joachim-Raphael Boronali was exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, but in fact "Boronali" was a Paris donkey called Lolo, which had made the painting with brush tied to its tail. The profanity and mocking laughter of the Russian Futurists, who put on their notorious "donkey's ears" to provoke their critics, has a strong element of aesthetic "aggressiveness" in it.
But it is very important to remember that the unique nature of this "aggressiveness" has little in common with political or social violence. In one of his early articles, Kruchenykh emphasized the crucial differences between Italian and Russian Futurism in this way: "In art there can be discordant sounds (dissonances), but there cannot be coarseness , cynicism, and impudence (which is what the Italian Futurists preach), because it is impossible to mix war and fighting with creative work. We are serious and solemn, not destructive and coarse." Overemphasizing violence and the aggressive gesture in the both politics and aesthetics, Italian Futurists regarded anarchism as synonymous with intense, violent energy. In their manifestoes Italians used the same linguaggio-the same vocabulary and style-as in anarchist publications, such as La Rivolta, La Barricata, and others. The word "anarchist" became a metaphor at that time, the avant-garde slogan for artists (a 1912 article in La Barricata, "Anarchy and Futurism," concluded that "anarchists are Futurists"). Influenced by Nietzsche and Max Stirner, Italian Futurists shared anarchist political sentiments, and regularly published their writings in anarchist journals. Marinetti actively participated in the 1909 general election in Italy, publishing his first political manifesto. Soon his Futurist group introduced a form of the artistic and poetic manifesto as a weapon to express its radicalism. As Donald Egbert notes, "Marinetti had obviously adopted the manifesto as a time-honored weapon of political agitation." In Marjorie Perloff's outstanding study The Futurist Moment, this argument acquires a new depth and a new dimension: she not only discusses the political attributes of the genre, but defines the manifesto as an art form.
At odds with such political ambitions, the major explorations of the prewar Russian avant-garde were persistently apolitical. Indeed, this seems to have been a conscious choice on their part. Instead, Russian Futurists focused on epistemological issues and explored the nihilist idea of "primordial ignorance" as a potential impulse toward the continuous process of cognition, an idea that gave priority to "experience" over "notion." They were not interested in changing the world temporary through revolution or political representation, but were searching for a new ontology. The "Declaration of the Word as Such" proclaimed: "The artist has seen the world in a new way and, like Adam, proceeds to give things his own names." This epistemology of "ignorance" is an essentially anarchic idea, which propels the revolutionized cognitive process and unbound interpretation of the creative act. It also parallels Stirner's idea of knowledge that must "die"-return to a state of flux, and stimulate the process of endless questioning, new interpretations, new understanding. The epistemological "ignorance" of the early Russian avant-garde in a sense harks back to the theological tradition of docta ignorantia, "learned ignorance," which has its place in medieval Europe. The notorious "Donkey's Tail" can be seen, not only as a reflection of the recent scandal in the Paris Salon, but also as an allusion to the medieval Feast of the Ass, one of the carnivalesque manifestations of "learned ignorance" (implying a possible reference to Thus Spoke Zarathustra). "Besides carnivals proper, with their long and complex pageants and processions, there was the 'feast of fools' (festa stultorum) and the 'feast of the ass'; there was a special free 'Easter laughter' (risus paschalis), consecrated by tradition," Bakhtin writes in his well-known study of carnival culture. "All these forms of protocol and ritual based on laughter and consecrated by tradition existed in all the countries of medieval Europe; they were sharply distinct from the serious official, ecclesiastical, feudal, and political cult forms and ceremonials. They offered a completely different, nonofficial, extraecclesiastical and extrapolitical aspect of the world, of man, and of human relations."
The Russian Futurists gave priority to play over dogma , chance over choice, imagination over skill and intensity of the individual experience over the lifeless structure of "isms." They explored the irrational mechanics of the unconscious in the creation of images, metaphors, and associations irrespective of craftsmanship, as well as of the imposed individual and rationalized effort. They repeatedly mentioned that the unexplainable should not be explained, and the unconscious should not be transferred into the realm of consciousness. "All that is beautiful is random (see the philosophy of chance)," as Nikolai Burliuk wrote in his article on poetic principles. In all of these "random events," the category of aesthetic value accepted as a norm in a particular epoch is displaced, and art acquires a new significance outside of aesthetic definition.
In the early Russian avant-garde, the prevailing category is a category of temporariness, of time, perceived as a process of action in flux. Futurism destroyed dogmatic conceptions of time and space in much the same way as occurred in contemporary science. In his aspiration to discover "laws of time," Khlebnikov, who was a scientist by training, invented a new concept of metabiosis derived from the idea of symbiosis, which played an important role in Peter Kropotkin's view of the role of mutual aid in evolution. But Khlebnikov based his concept not on spatial relations (as in symbiosis) but on temporal ones, speaking in terms of generations, and proclaiming the "shift of space and time" in its qualities. As Kropotkin did earlier, Khlebnikov also projected his biological theory of metabiosis onto the social sphere, claiming that "the credo of militaristic pan-Germanism entails relations of metabiosis between the Slavic and the German worlds." For Khlebnikov, this notion of metabiosis, drafted in a short article early in 1910, was an organicist concept, anarchic in its essence, proving the unity of the world in its fragmentation, interconnecting the particular and the whole, individuals and generations, the lowest and the highest types of life, in a cycle: "Metabiosis unites the generations of corals within an atoll, and the generations of people within a nation. The death of higher organisms, including even homo sapiens, makes them, through metabiosis, connected with the lower ones." Later, he transformed this notion in his aesthetic theories, creating his own mythology of generations, a mythology of time.
[Figure 4 here]
For Russian artists, Futurism became a training ground in different modes of cognition and a lesson in the transcendence of "linear" time on the levels of both form and subject. It is no coincidence that clocks appear so frequently in paintings of the 1910s, for the clock is a kind of image of time or "symbol of faith," and the Futurists dismantle and anatomize its mechanism. In their artworks, the object is "animated" (as in a children's game) and individualized. In this respect, the avant-gardists are rather like savages who know how to invoke, worship, and play with objects. For them, to draw something means to possess and control it and create it anew.
For example, the clock mechanism in Rozanova's Metronome (1914) is transformed into a prototype of both the eternal and the momentary-the perpetuum mobile of historical time and a symbol of its finitude. Gerald Bruns sharply calls the similar phenomenon of the "movement of time" in international avant-garde writing "anarchic temporality." This anarchic temporality typified early twentieth-century aesthetic and philosophical theories. It informs Nikolai Fedorov's dream of "resurrecting" the dead generations, P. D. Ouspensky's idea of supratemporal reality, Velimir Khlebnikov's concept of time as unity of past, present, and future, and the hypotheses of many others. The Neoprimitivists and Futurists continued this line of "achronic" consciousness, which led to an innovation along with archaization-retrospectivism in the broadest sense-as a reinvention of language, and the free choice of tradition.
[Figure 5 here]
The avant-gardists' paradoxical commitment to the restoration as well as to the "creative destruction" of tradition relied on their principle of everythingness, mentioned in the Introduction. In Russian, this odd word rhymes with, and is morphologically akin to, tvorchestvo (creativity) and otchestvo, which means "patronym," "patronymic." The semantic contrast between these words alludes to the invented self-identity of an artist, who is free to choose and redefine his or her origins, and so unbound from any traditional, national, or filial ties to "forefathers." In many respects, the principle of everythingness responds to the anarchic nature of the early avant-garde movement, and defines the major points of its ideology. The national and ethnic sensibility of the early avant-garde, in particular the pluralist aesthetics of Neoprimitivism, was by no means a sectarian bond to a single culture. The creative interpretation of foreign influences still remained among the distinguishing national features of Russian art, but it rarely spilled over into direct stylization or the external imitation of form. As the Neoprimitivist artist Aleksandr Grishchenko put it, "When the Russians took over Western forms, they introduced into them their own distinctive national spirit." The devotion to the Russian or, as in the case of Khlebnikov, the "Eurasian" idea, did not contradict interest in German or French culture. The invented word "everythingness" exemplified the free choice of traditions proclaimed by Larionov: "We acknowledge all styles as suitable for the expression of our art, styles existing both yesterday and today."
This pluralist expansiveness represented the breaking of "taboos" in all areas of life, from the everyday to art to thought and language. The Russian avant-garde introduced a paradigm shift, a complete switch of reference points: "The most amazing, the most modern doctrine of Futurism can be transferred to Assyria or Babylon, while Assyria ... can be brought to what is called our age.... The Futurist movement can only be regarded as an extratemporal phenomenon." In practice, poets and artists tried to reinvent and to reveal this floating movement of time, this very process of transformation, anarchic in its essence.
About the Book
Reviews"In this meticulously-researched, in-depth examination of anarchism and modernism, Gurianova provides a new and compelling interpretation of the early Russian avant-garde. Her study has major implications for our understanding of some of the twentieth century’s most important modernists and is an important contribution to the history and theory of radical political thought."— Allan Antliff, author of Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde.
“Gurianova is the first scholar to study the early Russian avant-garde not as a precursor to the Constructivism of the 1920s, but as a distinctive movement in its own right. In this important book, she identifies an “aesthetics of anarchy” that characterized the movement’s politics and poetics—a concept with provocative implications for our understanding of the relationship between word and image. This is a work of original and compelling scholarship that will profoundly alter our understanding of the Russian avant-garde.”— Nancy Perloff, Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), curator of the exhibit Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde (1910-1917).
Table of Contents
Introduction. The Russian Avant-Garde and the Aesthetics of Anarchy
Part I. Movements and Ideas
1. The Aesthetics of Anarchy: Definitions
2. Ideas: Bakunin, Tolstoy, and the Russian Anarchists
3. Movements: Futurisms and the Principle of Freedom
Part II. Poetics
4. A Game in Hell: The Poetics of Chance and Play
5. Victory over the Sun and the Theater of Alogism
6. Deconstructing the Canon: Russian Futurist Books
Part III. Locating the Avant-Garde’s Social Stance
7. The “Social Test”: The Avant-Garde and the Great War
8. The Suprematist Party
Part IV. Politics
9. Art, Creativity, and Anarkhiia
10. The Last Revolt: Politics of the Left Federation
11. The Avant-Garde and Ideology
Conclusion. The Historical Paradigm: The Avant-Gardes and Revolution
List of Illustrations
- American Association of teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, Publications Committee of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eas