Avant-garde: List No. 1

Author: Elena Milanovskaya

Elena Milanovskaya graduated from the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts (2015, thesis topic: Soviet paper architecture of the 1980s). Ph.D. student at the Graduate School of Art and Design (School of Design, HSE). Her thesis is focused on the work of the graphic artist, D. B. Lion. Milanovskaya is based in Moscow.

After looking through the guestbook for the art exhibit Avant-garde: List No. 1, I thought to myself: “What a pity!”. But not because the reviews were negative. On the contrary, there were only positive responses. I felt sorry for the extraordinary experimental ideas of ​​the avant-garde inside the walls of the Museum of Painterly Culture and the plain manner in which they were shown. Not a single viewer among those who left comments were confused by this fact. Among others, there was a review by a geologist, who opposed the “capable” (gifted) artist Vasily Polenov (whose exhibit was held in the next gallery hall) to the artists who are “mocking common sense” (authors from List No. 1). At the end of the note, the visitor proposed hanging excerpts from a 1936 Pravda newspaper over the exhibit entrance (an author patently refers to articles that crushed Russian formalism). It seems that still many viewers cannot look critically at avant-garde exhibits. Museums, in turn, are rarely successful in promoting that approach.


Exhibit Avant-garde. List No. 1 is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Museum of Painterly Culture (MPC). But, as it often happens with “to the nth anniversary…” type exhibitions, a milestone birthday for many viewers is not a reason to think again about an artist/event/process, but a chance to meet with them for the first time. Many works were shown at the exhibit for the first time including, for example, Solomon Nikritin’s analytics. His experiments, unfortunately, did not receive a proper accompanying description and assessment of meaning. The whole depth of his ideas was redirected into some plane-pictures that obscurely hung on the wall. This unique artist and theorist deserves a personal exhibit and his appearance at the exhibit about the Museum of Painterly Culture could be a successful prelude.


One would have expected the curators of the exhibit to do some kind of reconstruction. Indeed, the halls were separated according to the historical structure of the Museum. “Museum” in large letters appeared above the passage to the first room, but the viewer still got into the Tretyakov gallery. To avoid this “disappointment”, one could start the visit from the second-to-last room which was devoted to the analytical part and projectionism [1]

There it became a little clearer what kind of institution the Museum of Painterly Culture was, and what people were creating there in the full meaning of that word. However, the spirit of experiment and research, which is essential to understand avant-garde and the aims of MPC, was mostly conveyed by works themselves, without the help of the curators. As the hanging made apparent, they tended to see only an image in ideas and methods on paper/canvas. The general impression of the exhibit was reduced to a presentation or demonstration. The labels did not differ much from the hanging, they were always short and each meaning was self-contained. Quotations by artists on the walls in several rooms could speak for themselves, but without full exposition response, they seemed nothing more than phrases torn from the text. 

The big “sewn” polyptych manuscript The Tectonic Study of Painting by Nikritin was exhibited in such a way as to make it impossible to go into details of the text-manifesto, text-artwork, text-treatise. During the original exposition of 1924 at the 1st Discussion Exhibition of Associations of Active Revolutionary Art, where the canvas was presented, a stepladder was attached so that everyone could study it. Such a detail today would bring today’s viewer much closer to the life of the MPC (the safety of the work could be resolved by installing a copy or special protection). Did the curators take Nikritin's writing seriously since they did not allow visitors to read it? We may recall the exhibit of N. I. Khardzhiev's archive at the In Аrtibus Foundation in 2017, where Kazimir Malevich's notebook was exhibited on a display screen, which was easy to view and read. Or was The Tectonic Study of Painting presented as an acquisition? The manuscript was considered lost until 2012, and now it was presented to us, but in some sense, it is still hidden from the present viewer.


As to the second-to-last room, it is necessary to mention The Library part, which also remained only a sign of the library: a variety of very intriguing books were put behind the glass. I recall the exhibit If our soup can could speak... (2018) [2] at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art: visitors were allowed to read all the books, journals, and newspapers inside the exposition, which not only provided a pleasant whirlpool for them but also in a simple way immersed them into discussions and the spirit of that time. 

The glass cases at Tretyakov Gallery with letters, documents, and books in the center of the hall became "crystal coffins" for artifacts and objects. It seems that the second-to-last hall was for theory, context, meanings, and laboratory research. 

At Mikhail Larionov’s personal exhibit in the Tretyakov Gallery not so long ago, there was a similar arrangement: in the last hall, through the books and albums that belonged to the artist, the viewer could see from what “garbage heap” [3] his pictorial language and artistic thinking were formed. In both cases, passing from the end to the beginning of the exposition provided a deeper understanding because the visitor could observe the halls with specific knowledge. Indeed, in historical MPC the Analytical Cabinet was closer to the end, but 100 years ago the exhibit was followed by the advice: "If you want to read these texts, you should spend 2 hours on them”.


The MPC was planned as a methodological museum: it was supposed to open to the viewer not a list of paintings in history but works through the painting method, which could give visitors a universal key for interacting with art. As an echo of this problem at the exhibit Avant-garde. List No. 1 there is a reconstruction of thematic halls: Plane Group, Plastic, but the exhibit itself (not artworks) did not develop this idea, the universal key was not explained properly. It would be interesting as well to tell something about the further development of ideas which belonged to MPC’s members.

As part of the history of MPC, the panorama of the relationship between artistic circles could be drawn, but this side of the avant-garde is not well known among non-specialists. Usually, it goes around dates and periods of membership in art groups. Meanwhile, outside the walls of the exhibit halls, human passions were raging, the struggle for trends and styles was not only between forms but also between people (young people!). Finally, the scenario of abolishing and transferring the collection to another bigger institution echoes our reality with its “optimizations”, “rationalizations” and other cover-ups of centralization. Therefore, the exhibit could be relevant, but this course is not followed due to the current cultural policy. 

The ending of the MPC history with a "red" epilogue (represents political changes) gave the viewer a feeling about inevitable deadlock on the way of the MPC. Ironically, the photographs of the historical exposition of "bourgeois painting" also contained a banner with the word "dead-end" that described avant-garde painting.


 It seemed to me that there was some kind of hermetization at the exhibit. This hermetization touched upon the theories of the avant-garde and enclosed its achievements in a time period on the MPC example. This equally contradicts the nature of avant-garde and the conception of the Museum of Painterly Culture.

1. Projectionism (from Latin рrojectus) is an experimental study of the avant-garde of the 1920s, whose creator and leader was Solomon B. Nikritin. The group of projectionists is associated with the names of K. N. Redko, S. A. Luchishkin, A. N. Tyshler, M. M. Plaksin, et al.


2. More about the exhibition: https://garagemca.org/en/exhibition/i-if-our-soup-can-could-speak-mikhail-lifshitz-and-the-soviet-sixties-i


3. A phrase from the poem I have no use for regimental odes... by Anna Akhmatova:

I wish you knew the kind of garbage heap

Wild verses grow on, paying shame no heed…

(trans. by A.Z. Foreman).