IT WAS not just the picture that was outrageous: it was the way in which the artist insisted that it be hung: high up, in the corner of the room, angled downwards towards the viewer. Malevich’s Black Square, a simple black square with a white border, set out to shock by being placed exactly where, until that moment, in every Russian room, the icon, a sign of the presence of God and his saints, would have hung.
There was more theology than I expected in Revolution: New art for a new world (BBC4, Monday of last week), one of the programmes marking the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. Or, if not exactly theology, then anti-theology, or theological resonance.
Perhaps the Bolsheviks’ most significant dethroning was that of Orthodox Christianity. No new order could be built without the destruction of the Church’s — as it was seen — enslaving and despotic power over the proletariat. Black Square proclaimed that God was deposed, and a new beginning had dawned in which everyone was free to create his or her own image.
The Communist leaders were keen to replace the Church’s traditional colouring of a hard life with their own art, a project enthusiastically taken up by Russian artists. It was not enough to destroy the churches and their vestments and icons: in a hungry country, the government allocated huge sums to commissioning street art, propaganda, posters, and travelling art shows.
The abstract and avant-garde, in which Russia led the world, provided visual parallel to a social experiment without precedent. Veneration of Lenin was consciously promoted as a cult to fill the vacuum of faith; and Stalin imposed a new direction: the avant-garde and abstract were now anti-Soviet, and must be destroyed. Only Socialist realism, extolling the triumphs of the revolution, was now countenanced. But we learned that many curators cut the offending abstract pictures from their frames, made a bonfire of the frames to make a good show for the commissars, and walled-up the canvases until better times.
Does art matter at all? Isn’t it merely a distraction for the powerful? Russia clearly did not think so, as shown by The Real Doctor Zhivago (BBC4, Tuesday of last week). Boris Pasternak survived against all the odds while all around him fellow poets and writers were denounced, tortured, and shot. Later, it was revealed that Stalin had personally protected him, removing him from successive lists of enemies of the people — all because Pasternak had written him a letter of deep sympathy when Stalin’s wife had committed suicide.
But Doctor Zhivago, far too honest a depiction of the suffering of Russia, was recognised as dynamite. The State’s fury when the novel was smuggled out and first published, translated, in the West was exacerbated when a Russian edition was smuggled back into its native land.
Pasternak died in poverty; but the government’s determination to make him a non-person utterly backfired, digging more deeply its grave of worldwide condemnation.