In early 20th century Russia, before, during and after the revolution of 1917, there was an extraordinary burst of artistic creativity that lasted until the Stalinist crackdown of the late 1920s. Much of this work was based on what was happening in the rest of Europe, but Russian artists also developed their own movements which would in turn prove influential.
In recent years, thanks to the relaxing of Soviet rigidity toward this art, much of it has been seen in the West for the first time. There was a major show at the Hirshhorn two years ago, and right now in New York there are exhibits of the work of Kasimir Malevich (at the Metropolitan through March 24) and Liubov Popova (at the Modern through April 23). So it is an appropriate time for "Russian Avant-Garde Art from a Private Collection" at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through April 14).
This small but choice selection, mainly of drawings and watercolors, concentrates largely (as does the collection as a whole) -- on the more abstract movements of the period. The first third of the show is devoted principally to the art of cubo-futurism. Works such as Ivan Puni's "Man with Pipe" (about 1915) andDavid Burliuk's "Atom" (1913) develop the cubism and futurism of the West into a synthesis that has its own originality.
Another movement was rayonism, as in Natalia Goncharova's "Rayonist Construction" (about 1912) and Mikhail Larionov's "Rayonist Construction" (about 1913-1914). Not quite totally abstract, such works retained aspects of futurism and reflected an interest in the qualities of light.
It is with the second third of the show, devoted to suprematism, that we leave the realm of the representational. Malevich developed suprematism as a pure art of geometric abstraction, well represented here by half a dozen or more works including Malevich's "Suprematist Compositon" (about 1916), El Lissitsky's "Study for 'Here is the End. Further' " (1922) and Ilia Chashnik's "Suprematist Composition" (about 1923-1925).
Vladimir Tatlin developed the opposing constructivist school, which sought to make art more utilitarian. The last third of the show moves into constructivism, first in works that suggest the three-dimensionality of constructions, such as Popova's "Composition" (about 1916-1917) and Puni's "Variant 13: Drawing for a Relief Sculpture" (1916), then in more directly utilitarian efforts such as Popova's "Design for a Banner" (about 1921) and "Set Design" (1922).
The show succeeds in several ways. It highlights principal movements. It includes many (though not all) of the leading figures of the time, including Tatlin, Malevich and Popova, the last of whom in some ways acts as a bridge between suprematism and constructivism. There are individual works of great beauty by Lissitsky, Puni, Vladimir Lebedev and Varvara Stepanova among others, perhaps above all Alexandr Rodchenko's "Untitled Composition" (about 1919). And it reflects the elegant taste that formed this collection.