Let’s Talk About: A Reassessment

The whole point of the outfit which I chose to write my 2019 Art History dissertation on was that it has political connotations. As it was almost a century old, and my interest came out of the ways in which the objects intentions had been broken down over the subsequent years. In the last year I’ve had reason to revisit it, as that political context has in a way become newly and tragically relevant again. For it was a Russian artwork.

"Ukrainian Girl" by Ilya Repin, Realist painting of a young woman in traditional Ukrainian dress, wearing a wreath of flowers on her hair
“Ukrainian Girl”, Ilya Repin, 1875. Repin has recently been re-categorised by the Met as a Ukrainian, rather than Russian, artist

Now this is not really a mea culpa, or apology that I’ve thought Russian art fascinating. In fact I’ve found that over the last year that this history has become more interesting to me than ever. Not ever to excuse the actions which have brought us here, but to help make sense of them. But with that in mind, I’ve felt it useful to revisit my work and see what I’ve missed, and the reasons why.

The object of my particular enquiry was a design for an outfit called sportodezhda, created by Constructivist artist Varvara Stepanova. Without going into too much detail, I was interested in how the outfit was an ideological encapsulation of the early Soviet period. Stepanova was a Constructivist artist but these works were enmeshed with Productivist principles. From the revolutionary fervour of the period 1917-early 1920s spung ideas about how society needed to be reshaped, and new ideas about how what people saw, used and wore everyday could play a fundamental role in achieving this. It was always a flawed piece – ambitious, but misguided from the outset. Productivism saw itself as utopian, a new attitude for the dramatically new world which was emerging across the Russian Empire, but you don’t have to look to deep to spot the fascism inherent in the principle: “we will shape this world to our will, and you will eventually conform”. And it’s these tensions between optimistic world-building and the horrors of where this thinking led to (even though it did so without these artists) which I found so fascinating1.

I approached the topic knowing that I was looking at and working with a specifically Russian context. I knew that this period looked and felt different in the different territories of the Soviet Union, and that in the scope of one MA piece of work there wasn’t enough space to cover all of these. On paper this is fine, a good exercise in focus. In practice I’ve become increasingly aware of the narrowness of what I was doing – which was, essentially, toeing the official line. In main cities of the Russian Empire/ Soviet Union, revolutionary goals could essentially be straightforward: railing against economic and class inequalities. I shed no tears for the Imperial nobility. But what about in the various territories: Ukraine, Estonia, Kyrgyzstan, to name three at random? The official line of the Soviet authorities was always about “brotherhood” – all peoples being equal. Of course this was never the case at all – brotherhood was always conditional upon accepting Russian domination.

Outfits designed by Varvara Stepanova being modelled in a theatrical performance, 1923

What does all this have to do with Art History? Rather a lot, actually. Because as it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s been toeing the line of this being a fundamentally “Russian” conversation. Museums and academics Art History has, in the months since the invasion of Ukraine, been beginning to realise that a lot has been incorrect, or at least too simple, for a long time.

The reaction is a general reassessment. Just this week the Met announced they’d be recognising Ilya Repin as a Ukrainian artist. This might sound like a small step but is an important one, given Repin’s prominence in the historically Russian “Wanderers” movement, towards de-centralising Russian identity and untangling the complexities of diversity which actually existed at the time.

Academics are catching up to the ways in which calling Repin – and other artists, such as Kandinsky- simply Russian artists is to flatten their culture and influences. I cannot recommend enough (if you’re interested in the subject) reading this article by art historian Allison Leigh. Called Farewell to Russian Art, Leigh is brutally honest about the compromises, panderings and short-cuts that her studies have demanded, and the extent to which that the colonialist view of all artists as Russian, no matter where they were actually from in the Empire, has been allowed to pass.

And I admit, this is the academic context in which I wrote my dissertation. I didn’t think that questions of identity were directly relevant to the subject, but the fact that I could think this, that they never even came up, is hugely significant. I knew I was taking a deliberate Russia-centric approach, but didn’t consider – or rather, naively assumed – that if an artist worked in Russia (or more specifically, in Moscow or St Petersburg) they must have thought themselves Russian. Like the rest of the discipline, I was too ready to flatten the story, let the Imperial identity take precedence over the national one. I’ve been comfortable with the term “Russian Avant-Garde” because I felt it was justifiable to apply to artists based within a Russian city.

I might only have been an MA student writing one insignificant little essay, but reflecting on the experience has been instructive for me to think about how Art History reflects how our entire thinking about the setup of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) has gone wrong. Some of Putin’s many and often inconsistent justifications for the invasion include denying that Ukraine has ever existed as a state2, but even in December he was calling Ukraine a “brotherly nation”3. And at its core the discipline of art history – of which my dissertation was, in its way, a small part of – has been happy to basically agree.

"Ukrainian Dancers" by Edgar Degas. Pastel drawing of a group of dancers in a field wearing traditional Ukrainian dress
“Ukrainian Dancers”, Edgar Degas, c.1899. The work has recently been renamed by the National Gallery, having previously been known as “Russian Dancers”

It’s inexcusable, really – especially when the work to say otherwise has been being done. In the winter of 2021 I went to the Kumu Museum in Estonia, which is very good at assessing art which might historically have been called German or Russian (the two Empires to which the country has belonged for most of its history) as specifically Estonian. Similar work was already happening with Ukrainian artists – but those who take the lead on these subjects weren’t listening. Look, I get that it’s complicated to answer the question of what it was to feel a defined identity as an artist from, say, Ukraine, working in the Imperial or Soviet context. The fate of the Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv is currently a topic of debate because Mikhail Bulgakov, author of the outstanding The Master And Margarita, was essentially an Imperialist. His earlier novel The White Guard makes for interesting reading in the current context for the Russo-centric contempt it shows for Ukrainian national identity. Meanwhile statements made and artwork by Repin add weight to the claim that he saw himself as primarily Ukrainian, though within a Imperial context. These things are messy. But that doesn’t mean that we should brush it under the carpet. This is how colonization works – by being assumed as the dominant force.

At least the questioning has begun eventually: better late than never. Certainly thinking about these questions in relation to how I’ve previously thought has been instructive in reconsidering the problems and limitations within wider Art History. It’s making me consider where else the official narrative has been too accepted. And you’d think that by now I – and in fact the entire arts community – would know how to do this. But perhaps the process of finding blind spots is a never-ending path, and this has been the next step along that road.


1: I recommend reading Boris Arvatov’s The Total Art Of Stalinism for a far more eloquent explanation of why the avant-garde failed & where its ideas went next

2: The key points of Putin’s speech of 22nd February 2022 outlining these ideas are well summarised on Reuters.

3: The “brotherly nation” concept has long been part of Kremlin rhetoric, especially since 2014 – here you can get a sense of how it was used 8 years ago.

No number, but another nice article which informed this post from Time.

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