A Conference on the Russian Avant-Garde

The actual topic of a conference at London’s Courtauld Institute 2-3 November, 2012, was Russian Culture in Exile (1921-1953) but we found ourselves talking about poets, painters and critics mostly in their formative years before the Bolshevik Revolution: big names like the painters Malevich and Kandinsky, the poets Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, and the less-well known Pavel Filonov and Nikolai Punin. Filonov (Horsemen, 1911, left) was an avant-garde painter who died of starvation in the siege of Leningrad. Death came prematurely to Punin, an outstanding art critic, in the Gulag. Internal exile as a psychological state of mind was juxtaposed with external exile or the actual business of being banished from one’s homeland. Both conditions contrasted with the relative good fortune of men like Stravinsky and Diaghilev who had installed themselves in Paris by choice almost a decade before the Revolution. We heard how Kandinsky who had spent formative years in Germany, tried and failed to engage with conditions in Soviet Russia. Neither his increasingly abstract style of work (Improvisation No 31, below) nor his cosmopolitanism, not to mention his monied social origins, led to any encouragement, shall we say, on the Leninist side. 

My own interest was in the enigmatic sometime Futurist poet, later best-known as a linguist, poetic theorist and critic, Roman Jakobson (1996-1982), who was a friend of and collaborator with many of these avant-garde figures, and left Russia in 1920, before he was pushed. An exuberant enthusiast for a revolution in artistic sensibility and lifestyle, Jakobson was distressed all his life by his exile. He remade his life in Prague and Brno between the wars, becoming an expert on Czech poetry and Czech Modernism, only for the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia again to make him homeless. He escaped via Norway and Sweden to make a third life as a distinguished Harvard academic.

What I wanted to show in my paper is how this brilliant man who became known worldwide for his linguistic theory carried his attachment to Russia with him through even his most esoteric theorizing about how language, and languages, work. For that I needed to tease out elements of autobiography where they might not be expected to be found. In the two outstanding biographical-critical essays of his multi-faceted career, Jakobson evidently associated with the poets Pushkin and Mayakovsky, both of whom he described having to come to terms with the unforgiving might of the Russian state. A self-description he drew out of the poet Pasternak, that everything about his life and work was displaced, applied as well to himself. The very least he could bring himself to admit directly of that displacement was when at the end of his life he insisted his job description had all along been ‘Russian Philologist’; further that he spoke twelve languages, all of them Russian. 

Jakobson was best-known in the 1960s as a pioneer semiotician who began by analyzing poetry in terms of the sign and what it signified, and found in that analysis a special place for the meaning of sounds, which he developed as the science of phonology. French semioticians like Lacan and Barthes overtook him in the global popularity stakes because especially in the case of Barthes their analysis extended to culture generally and was much more political: Marxist, in fact, something the exiled and essentially apolitical Jakobson could never have been. We need to roll back the years to the first decades of the twentieth century to remember a differently-oriented passion for a new kind of language in art and its appreciation. What Jakobson and, say, a painter like Kandinsky and a poet like Mayakovsky wanted, was for art to be allowed to have a life of its own, uninterfered with by politics: always a tall order in Russia. They wanted to secure art’s freedom.

Two things are interesting about the minute linguistic analysis to which Jakobson  submitted poetry. First, it gave words a life of their own as if they were elements out there in the cosmos, ungovernable by any humanly introduced constraints. Second, that technique, which was also a vision, stemmed from the avant-garde painters’ and poets’ reaction to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. That was why many of the artists of the day had an equal fascination with science and with new forms of artistic expression.

The general view nowadays is that Jakobson’s ‘science’ was less exact than it ought to have been, and that his analyses of poetry were rather turgid, adding nothing to understanding and enjoyment. My response to that would be to say that Jakobson’s time as a ‘scientific’ linguistician is indeed past, and where the interest of his career now lies is in a richly displaced Russian creative life. I would also say that by ‘science’ Jakobson like Malevich (Taking in the Harvest 1911, below) and Kandinsky, and Khlebnikov and Kruchennykh, the poetic inventors of a ‘transrational’ language called zaum, were responding to that dramatically different cosmos Einstein had unveiled, with space and time as components of reality constantly in motion. Jakobson , for instance, tried to find the same patterns in the intrinsic workings of language within a poem, as Relativity descried in the ‘events’ of the universe. Science, in this form, the discovery of the relativity of space and time, seemed to them to have freed up the universe for infinite new meaning.

But, since exile was our topic, I wanted to focus above all on the 1937 essay ‘The Statue in Pushkin’s Poetic Mythology’.   Be it out of distaste or long-practised Russian caution over the direct expression of political sentiments, Jakobson never addressed the subject of totalitarian ideology head-on. In his final Dialogues (1983) with his wife Kristina Pomorska it’s almost comic to see him broach the topic only to explore it in an area of research he just ‘happened to be thinking about at the time’, namely the medieval history of the Christian church in the Slav lands. The world faced a greater totalitarian threat however in 1937, and  through Pushkin’s fear of the ‘stone commandant’ who crushed life and creativity, Jakobson found a ‘displaced’ way of talking about Stalin’s Russia. In his text he insisted on including a photograph of Falconet’s mighty statue of Peter the Great, standing on the Embankment in St Petersburg since 1782, alongside a drawing from Pushkin’s notebooks of 1929-30 showing a similar statue riderless. Here’s the Falconet statue:

Now imagine that horse riderless! What a metaphor for country a which still veers between depending on a strong leader and sallying forth anarchically! Another Pushkin drawing, this time a sketch for the title page of his fairy tale The Golden Cockerel, seemed to show Pushkin laughing at that classic icon of strong leadership by sticking a farmyard bird on top of a pole. At the same time Jakobson told the story, in his text, of how desperate had been Pushkin’s accommodation with tsarist authority in his day. I would only add, in the interests of obvious semiotic comparison, a famous painting of Lenin that the conformist painter Alexander Gerasimov had done in 1930, namely Lenin on the Tribune.  

The ‘situation’ of Jakobson’s life, what he fashioned his in some ways deceptively untheoretical writing out of, just like the poetry Pushkin and Mayakovsky made out of their encounter with Russian power, shifted between directly opposed poles of freedom and repression. It wasn’t so much political freedom his avant-garde generation was after as  the freedom for art to have a life of its own, which the revolutionary system they hoped for would have allowed. That’s the sense in which they are called ‘aesthetic Bolsheviks’. I see them as having waged a kind of aesthetic civil war in parallel with the real fighting between the Reds and the Whites. In the aesthetic civil war Jakobson and his friends were the revolutionaries and the new Leninist authorities who would soon enough start to clamp down on all artistic experiment were the conservatives. Jakobson already tackled his disappointment in 1921, in the first essay he wrote from his Prague exile, called, innocuously enough, ‘On Realism in Art’. What he explains there, with the Einsteinian enthusiasms of his generation hovering in the background, is that just as the concept of realism changes in art history, so too reality changes. It is constantly changing because that is the nature of the universe. Thus authorities which impose a single criterion of ‘realism’ in art — just what was about to happen with Soviet Socialist Realism’ – not only imprison art, but deny the cosmic truth. It’s a marvellously condensed essay, which by chance anticipates the great dilemma that will face Stalin and his ideologues in the 1940s, when they desperately want to develop a nuclear bomb to rival the Americans but can’t accept the theory of relativity on ideological grounds. (Of course they have to compromise.)

I had to go into this detail, about what realism and reality meant in the context Jakobson was writing about them, because in the run-up to the conference on Russian Culture in Exile I couldn’t help noticing the art historian John Hyman in 2004 had denounced Jakobson a propos of that essay. What was Jakobson doing undermining the critical notion of realism, and seeming to favour over it a language-based approach to art? Well the answer was quite clear. He was encouraging reading the signs of painting as a way of ensuring both the artist’s and the critic’s freedom to render indirectly what they could not show directly, in any situation where an ideologically fixed ‘reality’ had been imposed upon them. Our kindly British history really doesn’t equip us well for understanding how repression was experienced over the last two centuries in Russia, and what repercussions that has had for art and art theory.  On many occasions art and art theory too have been ‘displaced’, and forced in internal and external exile.  

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