Modernism died early in Russia. After leading the world in art – “advancing” rapidly from symbolism to cubo-futurism to suprematism and constructivism – the state sponsored Socialist Realism imposed a wretched sentimental aesthetic that celebrated ruddy peasants, muscular youths and great Russian achievements. It is, with some exceptions, kitsch of the sickliest kind. And yet, interestingly, was much more popular among the spectators at the Guggenheim Bilbaos big summer show than the more worthy modernist works. Indeed, the crowd that gathered around Malevichs 1933 socialist realist female worker was five times bigger than the cooly modern female torso from 1928.
The trouble with modernism is that it needs to be situated within its own clear narrative to make (common) sense. All those isms were their way of showing that they were “advacing” along the lines of history, but advancing only with regard to what came before. In Russia, which went from a backwards pre-industrial country to an industrial leader in a few years, modernism could no longer progress because history could no longer progress, not once it became entrenched in dogma.
In the West, modernism embraced the neat categorizations of Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art, Minimalism, and Pop Art – all of which fit within the narrative of the twentieth century. Even now, when the bustle of post-modernism supposedly means an end to the idea of progress, narratives may be discerned once the dust settles.
This blockbuster exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao offered a strange view of the history of Russian art, rich in generality but lacking in detail. The enormous lacuna of the exhibition was the absence of graphic design and photography. Surely, if you can display jewelled robes and bibles in the medieval section, you can stretch to a few El Lissitzsky posters. In this regard, the exhbition was quite retrograde, especially considering that the Guggenheim bookshop is chockfull of design books.