The Avant-Gardists: Artists in Revolt in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union 1917–1935

Thames & Hudson. May 2024. 504p. ISBN 9780500024553. $45. FINE ARTS
Acclaimed fin-de-siècle historian and Russian art expert Scheijen (Diaghilev: A Life) takes a deep dive into the initially symbiotic but ultimately violently repressive relationship between early 20th-century Russia’s groundbreaking avant-garde artists and the dogmatic revolutionaries behind the 1917 Soviet revolution. In his painstakingly researched book, Scheijen uses letters and correspondence as primary sources to illuminate the epic career arcs of flamboyant painter Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) and sullen painter/architect Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) as they worked alongside an ever-shifting core group of contemporaries (Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Olga Rozanova, Alexander Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova) to organize shows, create artwork, and teach classes about the liberating abstract expressionism they pioneered in painting, sculpture, performance, literature, architecture, and design—all while wrestling with the new Soviet state’s increasing focus on the more malleable social realistic style and its stronger propaganda value.
VERDICT In this deeply sourced and well-illustrated volume, Scheijen’s passionate embrace of the subject matter is almost overwhelming, and sometimes the density of the narrative makes for difficult reading. This is definitely a book for readers already familiar with the topic.
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