The Political Background

About The Collection

The Political Background

1915 - 1925

Sculpture - Korolev Bakunin

In the midst of the chaos of WW1 another power struggle was unfolding in the Russian subcontinent. For three centuries the ruling Romanov Dynasty had kept most of the population in feudal societies not much more advanced than those of medieval Europe. In the palaces of Moscow and St Petersburg the ruling bourgeoisie lived an entirely different lifestyle. Depending on the prevailing ruler and one’s ethnic background, the Romanov rule was at times benevolent, or bloody and autocratic.

Matters came to a head in February of 1917 with the advent of the February Revolution, there followed more bloodshed and civil war. By April of 1918 the group known as the Bolshevics emerged from the melee as the new ruling party although civil war continued on many fronts until 1923. Famine was rife and shortages of even the most basic of necessities were common.

Despite all this in halls of Russia's prestigious artistic institutes other power struggles were taking place. Chaos was the prevailing narrative everywhere, with Objectivists, Traditionalists and Subjectivists all vying with one another for supremacy in the control of the artistic institutions.
Russian political background In this war without bloodshed it was the Objectivists who gained the upper hand, proponents of traditionalism and subjective teaching methods such as those advocated by Kandinsky were largely pushed aside by the Supremacists, Futurists, Rayonists etc etc. Kandinsky himself was forced from his directorship at the Inkhuk and moved to Germany to participate at the Bauhaus.

Of course, there is a much more detailed and intricate story to be told here, but there are hundreds of history books already dedicated to the detail. Much of that material is also speculation due to the massive loss of archival material from the period. Everyone has heard of Kandinsky, but few have heard of the young sculptor who prepared the artistic curriculum for the Inkhuk following his departure for Germany. That sculptor was Alexei Vasilavitch Babichev.

From the mid 19th century under the rule of Nicholas II cultural exchange with the rest of Europe was flourishing in the courts and cultural institutions, and indeed this cultural exchange continued even into the Stalin era post 1924.

The young Babichev himself had traveled in Europe and studied classical sculpture under Bourdell at the Ecole de Grand Chaumier. It is not surprising, therefore, to imagine that he may have become aware of the exciting new artistic movements developing in Paris and other major European cities.Russian political background

In the period after the 1917 revolution, existing institutions were transformed into educational experiments. One of these experiments was known as the First State Free Art Studios it occupied the building previously home to the famous Stroganoff School of Applied Art. The Moscow School of Painting Sculpture and Architecture became the Second State Free Art Studios. Throughout the period of 1918 to 1920 respective artistic groups waged wars of rhetoric both privately and publicly. Life was not easy for these young enthusiastic artists, practically every material one could have need of was in short supply. Russian winters were hard and long, very often furniture had to be sacrificed to keep warm.

During the period 1919 to 1920 the sculptor Anton Lavinski who had originated from Sotchi, and previously served in the army until 1917 transferred from Petrograd, and became involved with the Moscow group of Objectivists.

The State Free Studios were abolished in 1920 and the two institutions merged under instructions from Lenin to form the VkHutemas.

By the end of 1920 a group of Objectivist artists had taken virtual control of the major art and technical institutions in Moscow. Senior members of this group became known as the Constructivists, though the larger circle included other artistic disciplines. Lenin and the Bolshevics were not slow to realise the energy and art of this group could be effectively harnessed to spread revolutionary propaganda and so political ideals of the communist party were also integrated into the curriculum. Art and literature critic Ossip Brik was influential in this respect, Russian Sculptor particularly through the publication LEF. Artists work was purchased by the state on communist principals with no particular regard for artistic merit. Were it not for this policy many of them without doubt would not have survived.

Much discussion on the place of art in the revolution took place on the steering committees of the departments both in the Vkhutemas (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops) and the closely related Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture). In fact many of the same individuals sat on the committees of both institutions. Reading the minutes of these meetings the names of Anton Lavinski and Alexei Babichev appear frequently alongside their much better known co workers on the executive committee of the Inkhuk. They included Rodchenko, Stepnova, Popova, the Stenberg brothers, etc.

The courses at the at the Vkhutemas were divided into several categories including Architecture, which was the largest, and Sculpture which was the smallest. That said, it’s numbers exceeded that of the better known Bauhaus by many times. The Department of Sculpture was headed by Anton Lavinski, assisted by Alexei Babichev, and Boris Korolev.

Babichev was also responsible for the courses provided to workers wishing to enrol in the Vkhutemas but not having any previous technical artistic backgrounds. In addition to his teaching duties, he was responsible for a sub group of sculptors known as MONOLITH, the purpose of which was to provide sculptural monuments to the revolution to replace public works of the Imperial Reign.

Where Lavinski became familiar with the ideas and technique of cubism remains a mystery as does much of the history of the artists of the period. During the period of two world wars, widespread famine, and the reign of Stalin, much archival material was lost or destroyed. The well known collector George Costakis witnessed much of the indifference that Russians held for the art of the Avant-garde even as late as the 1970s. He recounts several tales of entire archives being burned or of paintings by now highly sought after artists being used for utilitarian purposes, left to rot, or simply burned to keep warm.

Russian political background

It is reported by Lavinski’s wife, that he was heavily influenced by the opinions of Ossip Brik and on one occasion after reading an article in LEF, penned by Brik, that he personally destroyed many of his own sculptural works. The article apparently was critical of all art forms not directly in the service of the revolution as activities of the bourgeoisie. Lavinski subsequently resigned from the sculpture department in 1922 but continued to work at the VkHutemas in the woodworking department. There he designed practical objects and kiosks for the sale of agit prop literature. He never returned to working with sculpture.

Lavinski participated in the construction of the Russian pavilion of the Paris 1925 Exhibition designed by Melnikov, this was the last time he ventured outside of Russia.

Alexi Babichev continued to work as a sculptor but returned to a more traditional approach to sculpture in the socialist realist style heavily encouraged by Stalin from 1924 onwards. This was actually closer to his roots in the classical style which he developed at La Chaumier art school with Antoine Bourdelle.

Tatlin tower Despite this impressive political and artistic history they remain largely unknown, this is true not only in terms of the work they personally produced but with reference to the hundreds of students they educated.

The existence of this collection is a significant discovery in the record of sculptural art of the Russian avant-garde.

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