Avant-garde. List № 1. To the 100th Anniversary of the Museum of Painterly Culture

Author: Konstantin Dudakov


Konstantin Dudakov-Kashuro is Associate Professor at Moscow State University. He teaches at the Russian State University for the Humanities and is a senior researcher at the State Institute for Art Studies. A scholar specializing in “historical avant-garde”, he has also written extensively on the history of noise music from the early Soviet era. Konstantin Dudakov-Kashuro co-curated the widely acclaimed touring exhibition Reconstruction of Noise and co-authored the sound performance Reconstruction of Utopia, which received the Grand Prize of the Sergey Kuryokhin Prize in 2013. In 2017, he took creative part in Theatrum Orbis MMXVII of the Russian pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.

Exhibition reconstruction has emerged recently as a surefire way to attract spectators, usually by leveraging familiar items and concepts. The notion of reconstruction stands in remarkable harmony with a post-conceptual strategy one might label as “exhibiting the exhibition”. Unlike the art of the 1960s and ’70s, it does not seek to discredit the objects on display in their aesthetics or economics, but rather to valorize the exhibition as a work of art — following its prior discreditation. The shift in emphasis from a work of art to its presentation is a feature of the novel approach to exposition that once appeared revolutionary, and perhaps was, but has grown to be a manifestation of modern or contemporary art being historicized, with the exposition perspective and not merely individual exhibits recognized as archive-worthy material, justified in terms of its historical impact and certainly in terms of ticket sales. 


Such reenactments might come in the form of remixes of sorts, like the revision of minimalism in the Other Primary Structures (2014), or as literal reproductions, such as Klein’s The Void or Harald Szeemann’s projects. That said, achieving that “literal” quality proves impossible, not just for material reasons (the original exhibits are often missing and impossible to restore, as is the case with In Search of 0,10) or spatial reasons (the authentic exhibition venues are unavailable). 


The inevitable limitation plaguing any attempt to zero in on complete authenticity is the distance in time and therefore culture, history, etc., which simultaneously undermines the aura of authenticity and mythologizes it. When this distance gets incorporated into the concept of an exhibition, promoting an interplay between the past and the present — akin to what happened with the second version of Primary Structures — this shifts the focus away from archaeologizing tendencies and problematizes fetishist nostalgia.


Avant-garde. List № 1. To the 100th Anniversary of the Museum of Painterly Culture is hardly a reenactment in the strict sense of the word. Its underlying concept does not build on a particular exhibition but on the history of the experimental museum. It is nevertheless evident that what Tretyakov Gallery set out to display is the Museum of Painterly Culture (MPC) recreated as a faithful if condensed model that draws on numerous documentary sources and features many original pieces of art. Specifically, this reconstruction revisits the museum at an early stage and only in its Moscow incarnation, with the items selected for the Tretyakov Gallery a century ago, according to the so-called List № 1. That said, the reconstruction was not an end in itself for the exhibition’s creators. Over the several years that it took to prepare the show, they had retraced the museum’s history from its early projects up until the fate of its artworks in the collections of contemporary Russian museums. This sets Avant-garde. List № 1 apart from many shows with what might seem like a similar agenda: it is neither a rigorous reconstruction, nor an exhibition as such, but rather a project intended to initiate contemporary research on the Museum of Painterly Culture and its heritage in present-day galleries across Russia, as well as toward correcting art misattributions — with the latter objective already accomplished in part during the preparation of the exhibition. 


Perhaps the most substantial and noticeable result of that project is a catalog containing vast amounts of analytic data, archival documents, the reproductions and provenances of previously unpublished artworks, etc. As early as 1998, the State Russian Museum undertook a similar effort with respect to the former Museum of Artistic Culture in St. Petersburg, which is somewhat analogous to MPC but had a briefer and even more complicated life. The Russian Museum set out to recreate MAC’s last exhibition, dating back to 1925, but the resulting exposition seems simpler and more unassuming compared with the recent show at Tretyakov Gallery, despite the impressive catalog accompanying the 1998 reconstruction and its relevance at the time when the Russian avant-garde had already acquired great export value but had only begun to gain the appropriate recognition of museum experts and art researchers at home. In any case, both the 1998 and the 2020 shows have proved indispensable to our understanding of the significance, scope, and content of Russia’s two chief post-Revolution modern art museum projects. In that regard, the main task of the reconstructions mounted at the Russian Museum and, more recently, at Tretyakov Gallery appears fulfilled, whichever perspective one adopts on them.

Any critical evaluation of the exhibition staged in the halls of the New Tretyakov Gallery, one floor above the main 20th-century exposition, has to account for its quality of indication, documentation, and chronicling of an Atlantis apparently consigned to history’s oblivion. The principal curator of the show, Lubov Pchelkina, employed an art hanging principle rarely used at the Gallery before, relying on the documents and photographs of the original exhibition spaces of MPC from the time it was housed in a building of the Vkhutemas art school at 11 Rozhdestvenka St., Moscow, and served as its academic museum. That approach enabled the exhibition to recreate what might well carry the most importance — the authentic scheme of artwork arrangement with respect to the associated methods and formal principles. Developed by the founders of MPC, that scheme went beyond art hanging and also manifested itself in the show and exhibit descriptions, which were often penned by the MPC artists and art theorists themselves. 


Considering the show’s merits, even the non-obligatory yet somewhat intrusive voices of Lenin and Lunacharsky (the first Soviet People’s Commissar for Education) at the entrance, along with the stereotypical red of some of the walls — à la avant-garde — and the books from the MPC library hiding from the public behind the glass are all more of a minor faux pas than actual flaws.

In fact, what appears far more questionable is one of the exposition halls toward the end of the exhibition, called “formally theoretical” in MPC terms. While it does evidence an attempt to reveal the museum’s achievements in its research-oriented capacity — chiefly on examples from Nikritin and, to a lesser extent, Kliun — the vague and pretentious analytical tables of Nikritin are commented on in a way that is just as vague. From a spectator’s perspective, this hardly offers any clear insights into the achievements of MPC theorists. 

On second thought, it might be seen as an indication that the analytical work done at MPC by Nikritin, as distinct from similar endeavors at Ginkhuk or the Vkhutemas faculties, largely amounted to a series of haphazard, unproductive experiments of little promise, as illustrated by that part of the exposition, despite the unmistakable fondness of and interest in Nikritin on the part of the curator, the leading expert on his legacy. There is no doubt that it is through her efforts that the “formally theoretical” aspect could be so well-represented in terms of the items on display — perhaps even more so than it merited.

In summary, the exhibition, to say nothing of the accompanying catalog, offers a perspective on the methods and approaches to the museum presentation of modern art — the way it was perceived in the ’20s by its practitioners and theorists — that is as rich, substantiated, and integrative as ever at the Tretyakov Gallery. This begs a comparison with what is happening in the Gallery’s main exposition one floor up: distilled art, classified by styles and movements based on the somewhat 40-year-old notions of Russian art history, exhibited in a way one might expect from a small-town museum of the same period. Purged of any social and political implications of the times, the dynamics of movements and internal development, and entirely divested of the visual principles that would uncover art of the first half of the 20th century to the general public, the main exposition is a polar opposite of Avant-garde. List № 1. Perhaps it is in supplying this polar opposite, in documenting and putting on display a model for how a museum of noncontemporary modern art might be organized that the creators of Avant-garde. List № 1 make their main contribution. And while that contribution might lack immediate utility, it certainly highlights both the advantages and the disadvantages of the approach.


Translated by Nikolay Posunko