The Avant-Gardists

The first book to describe in full the history of the complex relationship between a group of leading avant-garde artists and the Soviet state. Related from the personal perspective of the artists, it is part group biography, part cultural history. The result is a quintessentially twentieth-century tale about the rise and fall of a small number of extraordinary talented people trying to navigate the political turmoil of a new state.

Original title
De avant-gardisten
Sjeng Scheijen

In April 1918, just five months after the Russian Revolution, Kazimir Malevich, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky and Vladimir Tatlin became powerful officials within the new ‘People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment’.

The old regime had rejected these notorious figures, who in the years before the revolution, had established themselves as the most innovative artists in Europe. Now they were assigned to transform entire inner cities with their murals, posters, installations and performances. Setting up modern art museums across the country, they dispatched their radical, often abstract artworks to the remotest regions. They rigorously reformed art academies, developing new pedagogical systems that would influence the Bauhaus and other major new art institutions. Tatlin presented his pioneering installation, the Monument to the IIIrd International; Malevich his series of White on White paintings, works of daring originality.

But less than a year later, opposition to the avant-gardists rose. Once the Bolsheviks grasped the groundbreaking eccentricity of their ideas, they branded the artists charlatans who ‘infuse[d] decayed poison into the healthy nature of the proletariat’.

The avant-gardists’ aim of bringing ‘Art into Life’ was not in line with the Bolshevik interpretation of a revolutionary culture. The new rulers, instead, wanted to use art as a tool for entertainment and propaganda of the masses. Before long, the avant-gardists were ejected from their powerful positions. Chagall and Kandinsky emigrated, Malevich was imprisoned. Those who stayed desperately tried to maintain their former standing. Some adapted to the demands of the new system, some tried to preserve a small haven of artistic freedom, but ultimately all were marginalized. Sjeng Scheijen calls on an unprecedent-ed number of often unpublished letters, diaries, and remembrances (often from inaccessible Russian archives or libraries) to produce a vibrant, touching portrayal of these phenomenal artists.

Sjeng Scheijen
Sjeng Scheijen (b. 1972) is a Slavist and a specialist on Russian art. He was cultural attaché at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Moscow (2007-2009), and artistic director of the year Russia - Netherlands in 2012
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