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Russian Avant-Garde: a Romance with the Revolution 1999


Distributed by Films for the Humanities and Sciences, P.O. Box 2053, Princeton, NJ 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by Quadrat Films
Directed by Alexander Krivonos
VHS, color, 88 min.

High School - Adult
Multicultural Studies, Art, History

Date Entered: 11/09/2018

Reviewed by Michael Fein, Coordinator of Library Services, Central Virginia Community College, Lynchburg, VA

While the works of some of the Russian avant-garde artists of the turn of the last century are known to those in the West, (the works of Chagall and Kandinsky comes to mind) almost all emigrated to the West. Those who remained in Soviet Russia are not so well known. The works of some of the latter group, as well as their sad fates, are related in this video. A Russian-Danish production, it incorporates still photos, archival newsreel footage, as well as contemporary video to show the work, the times, and the fates of Pavel Filonov, Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and Nikolai Punin.

Centering on the life of Punin, the script uses his work and association with the first three artists named to provide context for the narration. Punin, who was also the third husband of the poet Anna Akhmatova, was an art critic who worked at the Russian Museum and, like his colleagues, was an ardent supporter of the Bolsheviks during their first years of Soviet power. This early enthusiasm for the Soviet regime is aptly conveyed in the production and is one of the great ironies in this tragedy. Many of the artists and writers at this time saw the rise of Soviet power as a springboard to not only a new political order, but also to a new social and artistic order. Their dreams were soon killed and then obliterated. When hearing the narrator relate their hopes for their new art, as well as their attempts to enlighten the proletariat, the artists' naivete as well as their self-absorption is striking. There is something of a pathetic air to all of this. All of the artists suffered the fate of having their art renounced by the authorities. Punin died in the Gulag in 1953.

This superb production employs two narrators: one, a woman with an English accent, lucidly reading the narrative portions, the other, a man, reading actual quotes from the artists. The use of stills, newsreel, and contemporary views is skillfully mixed and done to good effect. The opening contemporary view of St. Petersburg in winter conveys the sad mood of this tale. Another section shows stills from a museum of avant-garde art taken in the 1920s. These views are contrasted with contemporary video of the same rooms. The final segment describing Punin's incarceration in the Gulag shows the remains of a camp, which is probably the very camp where he perished. Dissonant music accompanies the production. Overall, sound quality matches that of the video.

This production is recommended. It would have been highly recommended if there had been more background given of the historical and artistic context of the time. High school, undergraduate and perhaps even graduate level classes in Russian/Soviet history and art, as well as art history courses will benefit.