ed. by John E. Bowlt, Nicoletta Misler, and Evgenia Petrova. Skira, September 2014. 320 p. ill. ISBN 9788857219165 (cl.), $60.00.
Reviewed March 2015
Elena Cordova, Project Archivist, Museum Archives, The Museum of Modern Art, Elena_Cordova@moma.org
The Russian Avant-garde: Siberia and the East is an ambitious text. It is determined to rewrite the history of Russia's late nineteenth and early twentieth-century avant-garde, mainly by writing Paris out of the equation. Though very few of the nineteen authors that contributed short essays to the catalogue say so explicitly, their shared objective is to disentangle Russia's modern art history from the hegemonic hold of the French capital, and to challenge the notion that all European modern art traditions trace their origins directly back to its bohemian neighborhoods.
The contributors to the catalogue, published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the Fondozaione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, include notable Russianists Evgenia Petrova, John E. Bowlt, Elena Barkhatova, and Maria Tsantsanoglou. In Svetlana Romanova's and Tat'iana Sem's essays in particular, we read of a Russian avant-garde inclined to the East, particularly those writers and ethnographers drawn to the mysticism of the nomadic tribes of Siberia and Mongolia, as a way of self-consciously differentiating itself from Western counterparts. The catalogue of works that compose the second section of The Russian Avant-garde is a beautiful collection of color images—but unfortunately, the connection between the images and the earlier essays is tenuous at best. In fact, there is relatively little critical analysis of how the most well-known Russian avant-garde artists—Malevich, Rodchenko, Goncharova, Kandinsky—used or relied on, or appropriated, Eastern motifs in their work. The scholarly essays spend too little time analyzing the visual works of these and other avant-garde artists, and this is the catalogue's greatest weakness.
The Russian Avant-garde moves with major trends in contemporary art historical scholarship, which privilege the examination of cultural formations and identities and the subsequent emergence of specific national artistic movements. The most interesting essays deal with the subject of shamanistic practices indigenous to the nomadic tribes of the Siberian frontier and their place in the development of a Russian folk culture. One would have liked to see these authors also engage with longstanding critical arguments about the modern artist as shaman.
If the reader is not already familiar with contemporary discourses surrounding European modernism and the visual arts, The Russian Avant-garde's connections between cultural and artistic histories may prove too difficult to follow. As such, the text is best suited for upper-level undergraduate students and graduate students. It is an important book to have in art libraries because its subject remains underrepresented in the English-speaking world. It is also well-equipped with brief artist biographies and a preliminarily bibliography, both of which are helpful tools for further study.