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Introduction for Those New to Russian Avant-garde

Introduction for Those New to Russian Avant-garde

Welcome to our Russian Avant-garde Gallery. If you are on this page, I assume you know little or nothing at all about this wonderful chapter of the history of Russian Art, and I would like to help and show you this confusing world in as simple a way as I can.

Click on the tabs below for each chapter. The tabs scroll right and left on mouse over the scrolling arrows.


New to Russian Avant-garde? Start here.

Welcome to the Russian Avant-garde Gallery. If you are on this page, I assume you know little or nothing at all about this wonderful chapter of the history of Russian Art, and I would like to help and show you this confusing world in as simple a way as I can.

What is this much-discussed and little known "Russian Avant-garde" art? Why is it little known? After all it is from the very recent history. What is different about it from the other forms of art?

This form of art has come to the knowledge of Western and American public in the recent twenty years, while in Russia it has only been "permitted" in the last decade of the XXth century, before which time it was hiding underground.

Kazimir Malevich.
The Black Square.

Although its history is yet to be written, Russian Avant-garde has had great impact on the development of art all over the world. Already names such as Malevich, Kandinsky, Larionov, Goncharova, Lissitzky, Tatlin have found their place in the history of world art as founders of "off-side" art movements. The Avant-garde is much like an iceberg whose tip we can well see, but there are deep layers, numerous new names for the art-lovers, which even the art-critic specialists may find unfamiliar.

It has long been customary to consider the Avant-garde artists as charlatans; mutineers; breakers of form and rule. Nevertheless, when you leaf through the various artists biographies, it becomes apparent that most of these people have received a brilliant education in art (and in many cases - not only arts). They were all passionate about their work and worked incessantly; participated in international exhibitions all over the world, and with great success; have been awarded prizes and honorary titles. At the break of the 1930s, the Soviet government has "terminated" the Avant-garde, formally. The hundreds of paintings purchased by various museums were hidden away in storage cellars or sent out to small provincial museums, where most perished, though some enthusiasts were able to save a few works. Drawings were destroyed. And as to the artists themselves, they had to either change their skin and proclaim the regime, or remove themselves to teaching, organizing exhibitions and other such peripheral jobs. And even that didn't always save their lives and their secret "freedom" of expression. Many have paid with their lives or their freedom for their will to create differently, to innovate. Many lived in poverty, on the verge of hunger, and the exceptions had to serve the lies and empty slogans, and pay the toll.

Wassily Kandinsky. 1910.
Untitled (First
Abstract Watercolor).

I would not presume to the absolute completeness of the material presented here, although I shall strive to bring before you as many Avant-garde paintings of the greatest number of artists as I can, including their names and biographies, as well as some information on different movements in Russian art in the second half of the XX century. This would undoubtedly take some time, therefore I would humbly ask everyone who may find himself interested in this site to return again occasionally. The presented material would be growing continuously.

I hope that after you familiarize yourself with the creations of these artists and reach a better understanding of their ideas you may grow to love and understand the Russian Avant-garde.

In order to take an exciting journey into this phenomenon, I have broken it into the following series of short sections for you go through, including illustrations and a timeline. I hope you enjoy, fall in love with the Russian Avant-garde art and come here often.


Vera Kofyan

To continue the Introduction for those new to Russian Avant-garde click on the next tab above or any other tab of your choice.

Russian Avant-garde as a phenomenon

The Russian Avant-garde art is a collective term for the art made in Russia, and later the USSR, roughly in the first half of the XXth century, give or take a few years. It is a wide and unique phenomenon, far from homogeneous in nature, encompassing hundreds of artists, dozens of styles, groupings and movements and over 50 years of work.

So what makes it a single phenomenon? I would say, most probably, the all-powerful drive of these artists for a new, sharp, clear expression of the new, exciting and dizzyingly-fast-changing world. At the same time it is a dramatic story of people who fought for the freedom of art and self-expression under impossible contradictory conditions, in a whirlwind of change and at the crossroads of ideology and developing technology. It is one chapter in the history of art where it is interwoven inextricably with the history of the country.

Mikhail Larionov. 1910.
A Street with Street-Lamps.

In Europe and America, artists ventured into similar areas of search and discovery, moving away from the well-known Realism in most forms. Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Abstractionism and many other "...isms" has found expression there. It has begun earlier than Russia, and taken much longer to explore and study. As it should have, in order to allow the artists time to discover and try for themselves the various aspects of the new. There was no rush, after all. Also, these searching were usually quite detached from the political and socio-economic life of the respective countries. No drama, no struggle, no revolutions.

In Russia, the overall movement from the "old" and the familiar has begun in the very turn of the century, together with all the physical, political and social changes happening all at once in the country around them and in their consciousness. The search for art which would represent this turmoil was like a mad rush, furious in its intensity and pace. Perhaps due to their heightened sensitivity, perhaps because of the accelerated pace of their whole lives around them, but Russian artists "swallowed" complicated concepts whole and mastered in a few years what has taken French or Italian artists decades to work through. Perhaps they just felt they had no time, and this gave them the motive and multiplied their already considerable drive to reach new grounds. Be it as it may, one cannot help but wonder at the depth of perception and the speed with which these exceptional people moved through in various directions all at once.

Lubov Popova. 1915.

It is enough to glance at the number of artistic groupings and movements, even just the main ones presented here, but surely the full list available separately, to understand just how much work has been done and in how many directions. There was suddenly a whole world of possibilities and the artists divided between them in this exploration, each group choosing its general direction and literally swallowing the concepts and techniques on the move.

It would perhaps be important to notice, for those who are not connected to art in any way, that this search for expression is not like the one of a child or a young student's early studies. It would be more appropriate to compare this search with scientific research for a doctor's degree, or post doctorate, when you need to do it in half or a quarter of the time. The various fields were thoroughly explored and experimented with, works were written on each technique and idea, principles founded and debated, educational systems developed. Most artists were teachers, many were theoreticians and some were founders of separate schools. Especially the latter is true about the "Stand-alone" category artists. These were artists who have developed whole new breakthrough views of art and founded schools of thought and new approach to seeing, to thinking. Wholly new ideas.

Volumes were written on the phenomenon of Russian Avant-garde, and I am not an acclaimed art critic, in fact - I am not an art critic at all. Those who wish to know the opinion of such may read them in these same volumes. I bring here a story of the Russian artists, on the brink of a new fascinating era, and then passing into and living under the impossible rule of the USSR "Communism". A story of a struggle to express themselves, to be heard, to participate in the events and portray them as their affinity dictates, as their deep sensitivity desires. The story of their triumph and tragedy.


To continue the Introduction for those new to Russian Avant-garde click on the next following tab above or any other tab of your choice.

The Russian Avant-garde artists

Some of these artists were avid Communists, some - the very opposite. Others believed in the wind of change and the future of social revolution, only to be disillusioned and bitterly disappointed. Most saw themselves as actively involved in the life of their country and the changes, whether desired or not, understood or not, shared or not - and dedicated to artistic expression of the world changing rapidly in front of their eyes.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
1918. Self-Portrait.

It was an exciting time to live in. Everything in Russia was changing all at once. Political change brought with it technological and industrial development in an unprecedented speed. There was a call for self-sacrifice, for personal excellence, for rearranging it all into a new and just system. If a call such as this went up today, can you see yourself swept up in the pure energy of renewal? Of the promise of improvement in every possible sphere?

As artists, they were mostly well-educated and traveled people, and they indeed saw themselves as public figures, with obligation before the Russian people, the so-called "masses", who were less fortunate and not as well-educated. They felt it was up to them to show them what is happening, to guide the "masses" into the new reality. Hence they needed to evolve their language - art - into new forms which would fit the changes they experienced. No longer was the old art applicable in the old ways, as the world was now new, moved faster and in a different manner.

The world as they have known it was ending.

Vera Ermolaeva.
1932. Self-Portrait.

It was clear to the artists that their own education is placing them above the mostly uneducated masses, and in the newly emerging socially just world, where free accessible education to all was one of the slogans, they saw themselves obligated to serve as deacons of this education for said masses. No longer could the art remain the exclusive sphere of the elite, especially not the newly emerging, more complicated art. No longer can creation of art be justified for the sake of art, or for the benefit of the few. Many artists felt, and this was part of their emerging ideology, that their new role was not only to express themselves through art, but to bring art into forms which would best serve the masses on their way up. Thus was industrial art born, including Constructivism as art brought into and merged with the sphere of daily life of "simple" people. This coincided with the rapid industrial development, so that artists pioneered the textile industry, printing industry, interior design, architectural innovation.

One such new branch was photography, where artists saw themselves obligated to reflect the happenings back to the people by truthfully portraying the communal effort. The evolving abilities of the camera enthralled some of them, with the new possibilities emerging. Photography made possible another new artistic achievement: collage, which was put to good use in the poster and illustration fields.

Alexandr Drevin. 1915.
 Playing Cards. Self-Portrait.

However, soon enough the winds of change have brought with them a change of official attitude. It is common knowledge today that the intended freedom and equality turned within a little over a decade into the worse kind of dictatorship, which has reached its suffocating tendrils into the arts. Beginning in the late twenties the tendencies were felt by all non-conformist artists, meaning all those who have left the path of Realism. The lives of the artists have become difficult. Their art and their freedom of expression were increasingly repressed, until in the early 1930s they were forced into the clear choice: to conform or to rebel and ear the dire consequences. Many were repressed, which in the Soviet language translates into being persecuted, arrested, sent to camps, sentenced to death (shot) or left to starve without ability to work. Many perished during that time, their works destroyed or hidden in some remote basements. Many others conformed and "performed" as ordered. Still others have found a way to express themselves while seemingly conforming.

Browsing these pages, remember: this is their story, their time, their hard and sometimes impossible choices, that I am bringing here to you.


To continue the Introduction for those new to Russian Avant-garde click on the next following tab above or any other tab of your choice.

The changes taking place in Russia

The beginning of the XXth century has brought radical changes into the lives of the Russian people. Everything which was old and familiar, whether approved of or not, was disappearing and being replaced by something new and unfamiliar.

Varvara Stepanova. 1935.
Advertising poster
promoting literacy.

The long-standing monarchy was being replaced by the hopefully better, but still untried and thus unknown, government "of the people", and these people had hazy and contradictory notions about what that meant was expected of them. So while some feared the change, others welcomed it, according to these expectations and notions.

An aggressive anti-religion campaign was launched, painting religion as a symptom of backward ignorance, illiteracy and the general enemy of progress.  Socialism and science, alternately or together, were proclaimed the "new religion". As all else, it was done by every possible means, from agit-posters, books, ROSTA windows, to beautifully made porcelain dishes.

Alexandra Schekatikhina-
Modern Revolutionary
Thought is Socialism.
Oval platter.

Many artists were from families of faith, and expressed their view of it through their works. In time, about a decade and a half later, some of these artists were accused of "promoting religion" as a cause for their repression.

Social norms were overhauled. Literacy for all and equality for women were one goal actively advocated, and to achieve it the call and the benefits had to be brought home to the illiterate and the unequal. Publishing houses sprang up, requiring the illustrator to understand the new printing processes and exploring new possibilities.

Familiar social castes were abolished. No longer were the workers and farmers considered the lowest of the lowly - but found themselves suddenly the "proud owners" of this land, whatever that was supposed to mean. To bring to the people all the news and to connect them to the government, the artists were employed issuing dozens of journals, placards and advertisements.

Alexandr Rodchenko.
1930. Cog-Wheels.

Mechanization brought unseen before mass-production in all areas of life, rapid expansion of urban areas, changes in the rural parts and in the traditional roles and values. It also required development of the previously nonexistent design branch in the artistic professions, an evolution of "industrial art". Textile design,  book illustration and printing, home and everyday-life implements, transportation, building and hence architecture - all required development of new approaches, the finding of solutions to new problems, and naturally offered new possibilities for expression to the artists. No other country has gone through such massive and fast technological leap as Russia did, which has been possible to achieve in those early years only due to the highest and purest of motivations in a common effort by so many people, while the benefits were still mostly imaginary and in the unclear but much-promising future.

Vladimir Tatlin. 1927.
Design for a Chair.

In the realm of art, too, all these changes happened so very quickly, that the path of the Russian artists through the artistic development in many directions, which would under other conditions take decades (as they did in other countries) was accomplished in a much much shorter time, some - making huge leaps in a single year. The achieved amount of innovation and the power of new development accomplished by 1930s is simply staggering. This must be understood: the accomplishment is not in the creation of a painting in a different, new style. It is in the whole and thoroughly based style itself, including theory, basis (some - including scientific basis), thesis, techniques, materials, a teaching school and methods - a whole professional and philosophical outlook resulting in the said style.

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Avant-garde art Groupings and Movements

The artists in Russia were consumed with a search for new ways to express themselves, their ideas and the the changes taking place around. These searches were on the one hand, uniting the whole future phenomenon of Russian Avant-garde art, but on the other hand, divided them into groups of different approaches, ideas, styles, theories and understandings. The various groups formed around leading artists and teachers, whom they admired, whose ideas they shared and studied, and under whose guidance they explored and developed their own individual approaches and styles.

Nikolai Suetin. 1923-1924.
An Inkstand With Lid
in Suprematism.
UNOVIS movement.

The groups served as organizers for exhibitions and debates, published journals, wrote theoretical essays and brochures, developed pedagogical approaches, and facilitated the collection of orders, such as theatre productions or book illustrations.

Some artists chose to belong to this or that group, some joined several, or passed from one to another, as they matured as artists.

Some groups were more formal than others, and had greater impact. They had names, memberships, administrator-members and founder-members, manifestos of artistic line, and a clear direction. Some groups had a greater impact on the global development of the whole art, than others, and so they are called "Movements" to differentiate them.

Marc Chagall. 1914.
Over Vitebsk.
Union of Youth movement.

Not all of the many groupings of that time are represented on this site as Movements, but only the major ones, those with the higher impact or importance on the Russian Avant-garde art phenomenon. They were chosen by my mother, and I have not added to them. Perhaps, in time, I shall do that. In the meanwhile - you will find the list of movements at the left, in the "Movements & Groups" menu. By going to the next box, you shall also find a comparative interactive timeline I have prepared to make a clearer understanding of the time of operation of these groups.

In addition, there are a couple of centrally-important key styles or streams which encompassed many artists and whose importance caused them to be considered equal to Movements, as well. Such are the Mass and Agit Art, and the Official Art Movements.

The unaffiliated artists are grouped together for convenience: this group lists artists who were not affiliated with any Movement, and yet have their own just place in the Russian Avant-garde art phenomenon.

See the List of Groups.

To continue the Introduction for those new to Russian Avant-garde click on the next tab above or any other tab of your choice.


Stand-alone artists

Pavel Filonov. 1920-1922.
The Formula of the Universe.

Among the hundreds of names participating in the Russian Avant-garde art, several stand out on their own. These artists have accomplished huge break-through discoveries and innovations in the art. They were founders of schools of thought, teachers, writers, and accomplished theoreticians of art. To this group belong the artists Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, Wassily Kandinsky and others. You will find them under the "Stand-alone Artists" in the "Movements & Groups" menu.

The schools of these stand-alone artists are counted among the Movements, and are proclamation and continuance of their teachings. Thus the school of Malevich is the UNOVIS movement (the affirmers of New Art, as they called themselves); Filonov's school is the movement called MAI (Masters of Analytical Art); and Matiushin's school is the ZORVED movement. Sterligov's school falls outside the time frame for the Russian Avant-garde, and has no specific name. Kandinsky has left Russia and participated in different important art educational institutions and movements abroad, but had no specific school among the Russian artists.

To continue the Introduction for those new to Russian Avant-garde click on the next tab above or any other tab of your choice.


Timeline of main groupings and Movements

In order to make further order in the various major Russian Avant-garde Art groupings and Movements, I have prepared an interactive Timeline. It spans the years 1890 to 1935+, and shows the relative operation time for each Movement.

By clicking the Movement time bar you shall be taken to that Movement page and may learn about it and its artists. You may always go back and click on some other movement.

I hope this tool helps you put things in their proper chronological perspective.


To continue the Introduction for those new to Russian Avant-garde click on the next tab above or any other tab of your choice.

The Russian Avant-garde Gallery website is arranged simply as a library, an encyclopaedia, if you will, of the Russian Avant-garde art.  It is a non-profit, educational website, made with the aim of bringing all the information about the Avant-garde art to the general public and the people who love it or are working with it.

And now, after the reprogramming and total upgrading of the Russian Avant-garde Gallery, it has become a membership site, distinguishing between 3 groups of visitors:

  • Non-registered users: these do not create any sort of lasting relationship with the Gallery, and their access is limited to the very basic information.
  • Free members: those who register for FREE at the forum or the website. They receive regular updates about the new developments and events, and have access to most of the type of information that was available on the static website. However, to access the new modules and the most detailed and time-consuming information an upgrade to Gold membership is required.
  • Gold members: they pay a small symbolic monthly fee and receive access to all the most detailed and interesting information on the site, and in the future - to more exciting services I plan to add.

    As mentioned before expressely - it is a non-profit endeavor, and all the income from the membership at this point is considered a necessary contribution intended for the improving of the website, such as:
    • pay the wonderful programmer who made this upgrade possible and untangled the fix it got into with the previous one, for the programming and support of this site;
    • allow to expand the team working on this site, in order to bring to you more content more quickly; to manage, moderate and promote the forum; to connect to galleries, museum and auction houses and keep you up to date on the events in Russian Avant-garde; and much more;
    • and finally, to compensate myself to some extent for the immense work I do here as labor of love, and will continue doing (but even laborers of love need to pay bills), but which nevertheless requires a great deal of my time daily. 

To find out more about Gold membership packages, click here.

So, going back to navigating this website. On the right-hand-menu you find a list categories:

  • General and Introduction -

    Information about us and administrative side of the website.

    Here you find information about the Creators of this website - Tatiana Kofyan and her work; and Vera Kofyan; as well as the contact page; the Terms & Conditions and the Mission & Policy documents. Here you may see what has changed and what was added, read the Newsletter or browse in the Archive.

    Here is also located the Introductory module you are browsing right now, and the list of Groups, a new addition to the Gallery. Don't hurry, take your time to explore it well.
  • Movements & Groups -

    The central Movements of the Avant-garde art, connecting to pages on each Movement, which explains the artistic direction and line of the specific Movement. Then there is a list leading to individual artists' pages for those belonging to the specific Movement.

    On each such page the works of the artists are presented, divided into tabs according to work types, such as paintings, graphic art, design, theatre, sculpture etc. The first tab for each artist is a biography of the artist. The last tabs are recommended books on the artist and bibliography used to make the page. These last two tabs may be incomplete, but please remember that this whole website is a constant work in progress, and visit the News section often for updates.

    The last link on the Movements & Groups menu is dedicated to the Stand-alone artists, much in the same way as those artists belonging to Movements.
  • Avant-Garde Community -

    Services for the lovers of Avant-garde art. Recommended books, films and special bookshops. Information on shows, exhibitions, auctions, fairs etc. The Gallery Forum, where one may connect to other members of this Gallery and discuss what they like with people, united by the love of Russian Anvant-garde.

Enjoy your browsing!

To go back to the Introduction for those new to Russian Avant-garde click on the next tab above or any other tab of your choice.

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