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Arts

Russia's revolutionary art endures 100 years later

The state authorities may have brushed over centenary celebrations of the 1917 Russian Revolution, but the era's artistic innovations are visible across Russian design today, in everything from fashion to architecture.

A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution ushered in an era of change. The czarist monarchy was brutally overthrown by the Bolsheviks who went on to forge the Soviet Union. It was a time of political, social and economic upheaval.

For that very reason, official commemorations of the centenary in Russia have been muted. The government hardly wants to celebrate such dramatic regime change, lest it give anyone any ideas.

A post showing Lenin at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 (picture alliance/CPA Media Co. Ltd)

Lenin (above) led the Bolsheviks in the overthrow of the Provisional Government on November 7, 1917

But the Russian Revolution brought with it an era of profound artistic transformation. A century later, modern-day Russian culture boasts ample evidence of the legacy of that period of frenetic artistic creation.

The atmosphere of the years leading up to and following the 1917 revolt was one of rampant experimentation in every corner of society. Artistic innovation was being pushed to its very limits, and the movements of Suprematism and Constructivism got into their strides.

Their boundary-pushing aesthetic impact was felt in all creative spheres — from fine art, to architecture to fashion.

Read more: The historical turning point: Revisiting the Russian Revolution

Artistic innovation

In the spirit of the revolution, Russia's creative classes aimed to destroy the concept of art as an exclusive medium and focused on broadening the audience of high culture, making it a more democratic form.

Revolution-era artists experimented with modes of abstraction, taking the concept to its limit. They experimented with ideas they deemed useful to the cause of the new socialist state.

Suprematism, associated with artists such as Kazimir Malevich, was borne out of an optimism for a utopian future. It rejected all figurative representation in art, focusing instead on geometric forms and artistic feelings.

Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist Composition (picture-alliance/ dpa)

Malevich's 'Suprematist Composition' exemplifies the movement's use of bright geometric forms

Constructivism was the more practical application of its Suprematist sister, manifesting itself in posters, sculpture and architecture. The movement's notable figures included Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova.

Popova believed that art should be more than solely decorative; it should have a social function as well. She and Rodchenko eschewed the traditional role of fine art and branched out to design costumes for theatre productions.

Irina Vakar, a curator at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, says Constructivism "emerged as artists understood that the new government wanted new ideas. There needed to be a new environment for the people. Houses had to be refurbished, women had to be dressed differently, people needed different furniture."

Alexander Rodschenko and wife Stepanowa in a photo from 'Fashion for the people' exhibition in Moskau (DW/E. Sherwin)

Rodchenko (L) and wife Stepanova (R) were leaders of the Constructivist movement

Radical housing

And that idea translated into new methods of architectural design. Among the basic tenets of the communist Bolshevik ideals was a desire to transform society's focus from the individual to the wider group.

The best example of the Constructivist architectural experiment is Moscow's Narkomfin Building. It was designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis as a paragon of the socialist ideal — a radical form of community living.

The complex was designed with a kindergarten and canteen, freeing women from domestic chores to work instead on building a new society.

Having fallen into disrepair, the Narkomfin Building is being restored under the watchful eye of architect Alexei Ginzburg, the grandson of the building's original designer.

Narkomfin building in Moscow (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Krasilnikov)

The Narkomfin building in Moscow was ground-breaking in its combination of architectural form with social purpose

"It has a lot of space where people could socialize. It's of course a social house for social people," Ginzburg says. He vows to maintain the building's authenticity during the period of renovation. "It's important to show that the ideas with which [Moisei] Ginzburg built this house are still relevant."

And there's certainly been an increase in attention afforded to the era of design.

"In the last ten years there has been a change. There's now a huge interest in our society in the art of the era, the art of the avant-garde," Ginzburg says.

Fashion revival                                                                                              

The centenary of the revolution is also being celebrated by the fashion world. An exhibition in Moscow's GUM department store called "Fashion for the People" displays sketches from the avant-garde era and modern incarnations of the aesthetic it inspired. 

One display features sportswear worn by the Russian Olympic team. Russian fashion brand BOSCO was inspired by avant-garde elements in its design of the Team Russia uniforms for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games.

Bosco sportswear in 'Fashion for the people' exhibition in Moscow (DW/E. Sherwin)

Bosco's sportswear, seen above at the 'Fashion for the people!' exhibition, is inspired by the bold block elements of Russian avant-garde art

It's this idea of "Russianness" that seems to be resonating a hundred years later.

"The common thread is Russian design. That's why the idea of Constructivism, formulated at the beginning of the century, is so close and so relevant to us," says Ilya Kusnirovich, the head of a new pop-up shop in GUM dedicated to showcasing modern Russian designers.

He believes the Constructivist idea that art doesn't need to be divided into categories is still relevant. "It was a creative message," he says. "It meant that art didn't have to stay in one framework. Different elements of design complemented each other. Clothing is one of those elements."

Stepanova's designs at 'Fashion for the people' in Moscow (DW/E. Sherwin)

Russian revolution-era designer Stepanova's designs are on display at the current 'Fashion for the people' exhibition

But Kusnirovich denies any overt political connotations inherent in the revival of the design and points out that many of the artistic ideals, such as primitivism, came before the revolution.

"This is a cultural message that exists outside of politics. There is no point in attributing any policy to the avant-garde."

Aesthetic legacy

Eventually, the era of rampant creation succumbed to Stalinist practicality. Wildly ambitious plans for a "Palace of Soviets" were scrapped. Moisei Ginzburg's other architectural projects fell by the wayside. But all around modern Moscow, visible remnants of the period of artistic innovation still remain, even if the political ideals associated with it are no longer relevant.

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