by Merryn Williams
“In October 1917 came the Revolution. To the artists this was the signal for the extermination of the hated old order and the introduction of a new one based on industrialisation.”
– Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922.
It’s history, how they left behind
these bold and brilliant designs
on canvas or on fraying cloth;
talents hugely squandered, both
dead in their early thirties, one
of scarlet fever from her son,
the other in an aerodrome
turned exhibition, where she’d gone,
weak from diphtheria, to paste
posters up to celebrate
the transformation of the State –
the Revolution, one year on.
Dramatic colour, soaring line.
Figures in some heroic frieze,
footnotes in art histories,
two young women stalk my dreams,
red banners flap in draughty rooms.
Lyubov’s voice, ‘I’d rather see
a worker or a peasant buy
a length of cloth, designed by me,
than win what people call success’.
Nor yet the academic prize,
not laurel, marble or the rest;
credo of a futurist
to smash the archetype, free the line,
throw open art to all mankind.
Museums complement the book;
men scan the text, walk past, and look.
I gaze at Olga’s burning squares
(still ‘modern’ after all these years)
and ponder, if they hadn’t died,
how soon till they were pushed aside?
The century’s bloody footprints go
across the canvas-coloured snow;
machines, supposed to liberate,
become the handmaids of the state.
You watch a tatty world unfold,
the adman’s easy art takes hold;
their memory fades, the great ideas
become the butt of well-fed sneers.
How ‘modern’ is that oeuvre you see
caught broken-winged in history?
All’s changed; the new no longer shocks,
the avant-garde turns orthodox.
They died. The crown was not for them,
the praise of being grand old men;
the fragile bodies overthrown,
the artist’s hands becoming bone.
Yet time wheels round; you clean a pane
and glimpse their outlines once again.
The steel and copper shades unfold,
the picture sets, comes out pure gold.
Keep cleaning; future, present, past
touch hands; they smile through streaming glass.
A new design appears, takes shape.
They drop the brush.
You pick it up.