It is now some twenty-two years since Camilla Gray's The Great Experiment opened up for us the achievements of the Russian artistic avant-garde immediately before and after the Revolution; 13 since the 'Art and Revolution' exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. But the story of that avant-garde is only slowly becoming clear, and it remains at once deeply tragic and electrifyingly exciting. For briefly what happened was that a quite small group of artists, architects and theoreticians found themselves seething with new visual ideas, many of these deriving from the larger Modern Movement in Paris, Berlin or Munich. Suddenly the old world and the old hierarchies collapsed around them, the artistic establishment kept its head down, a whole new range of challenges and opportunities opened up. On the one hand, everything had become subject to question; it was back to basics. On the other, there was a unique chance to put the new ideas to work in a climate of radical social experiment. For a time, then, the avant-garde and its sympathisers could feel that they were shaping the future, stretching to the full that brilliant speculative recklessness which distinguishes the Russian intelligentsia. Soon, however, their impetus became blocked, diverted, dispersed, discouraged - at any rate lost - and their whole story suppressed. Talents were twisted; hopes cut short.
LRB 1 November 1984 | PDF Download