Alexander III (reign 1881–94) and his son Nicholas II (reign 1894–1917) revoked many of the reforms of Alexander II, who had been assassinated in 1881, and firmly asserted sovereign power with the help of the secret police. In 1905, Russia suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and the country entered into a troubled period domestically after a peaceful protest outside the Winter Palace was met with deadly force. This event, known as Bloody Sunday, marked the beginning of widespread peasant unrest and general strikes. Russia’s entry into World War I in August 1914 initially provided a rallying point for the nation, but the demise of tsarist Russia unfolded as the war dragged on.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Mikhail Vrubel had developed a style and mystical subject matter related to international Symbolism, a mode further developed by other Russian artists. During the tumultuous period from Bloody Sunday to the Russian Revolution of 1917, a major revolution in art was underway in opposition to progressive groups of the previous century such as the Wanderers and movements such as Symbolism. A new generation of artists—chief among them, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov—developed a synthetic art that combined elements of French Fauvism and German Expressionism with Russian folk art and icons into a style known as Neo-primitivism. Many of its proponents participated in the group known as the Jack of Diamonds, which was founded in 1910 and had factions whose members had distinctly “French” and “Russian” styles.
By 1911, radical groups and movements emerged in rapid succession, holding exhibitions and issuing manifestos. Russian artists continued to respond to and adapt the leading styles from abroad; for example, Cubo-Futurism combined the dynamic formal language and machine aesthetic of Futurism with a Cubist visual vocabulary. In 1915, Kazimir Malevich introduced Suprematism—at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings, also known as 0.10, in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd)—with paintings such as the first version of Black Square, which hung in a manner reminiscent of the traditional display of icons. Vladimir Tatlin exhibited Counter-Reliefs, which simultaneously reflected the influence of Pablo Picasso and introduced a utilitarian orientation that evolved into the movement known as Constructivism.
In March 1917, Nicholas II abdicated, and a provisional government was appointed, which served until October 24, when the Bolsheviks—whose motto was “Peace, Bread, and Land”—stormed the Winter Palace and assumed power under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. Leftist artists embraced the change in government and actively participated in the establishment of a new visual culture fundamentally rooted in mass-media forms, which included publications and films, as well as posters and other graphics for public spaces. State art schools taught industrial arts and design. The social role of the artist came under intense debate, and easel painting fell out of favor for a time. In 1921, Alexander Rodchenko exhibited a set of three monochrome paintings—Triptych: Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color—which constituted a declaration of the end of painting.
ABOVE: Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, ca. 1930. Oil on canvas, 53.3 x 53.3 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: © State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.