MA History of Art

Beyond Utopia: Soviet and Post-Soviet Art

Dr Maria Mileeva

The October Revolution of 1917 changed the world with the establishment of the first socialist state in history. Since then, our understanding of Russian art of the twentieth century has been defined by the internal forces of revolutionary transformation, Stalinist and Cold War isolation, and the more recent nationalist turn in Putin’s Russia. Throughout the century, however, Russian art has also taken shape via a long and dynamic history of external cultural connections and exchange.

The course will investigate Russian modern and contemporary artists across cultural and geographical boundaries, focusing in particular on their involvement in global developments through travel, emigration, or deliberate cultural export, and their use of media such as exhibitions and publications, and collaborations. Moving away from fixed definitions of Russian identity tied to statehood or geographical borders, this course will reframe Russian art as polyethnic and transnational. We will focus on how changing ideologies led to the re-assessment of artistic production during the late Imperial, Soviet, Stalinist, late Soviet, and post-Soviet periods. We will also re-examine avant-garde experiments and proletarian art in relation to contemporaneous discourses of Marxism, nationalism, identity, gender, politics, modernity, propaganda, and mass media. The course seeks to question recurring leitmotifs in Russian art and culture more broadly, such as utopia, spirituality, anarchy, spectacle, humour, satire, and the collective.

We will retrace the historical trajectory of Russian art in a global context and critically examine artistic influence and interaction between socialist countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Our material will span from late Imperial Russia to the Cold War and our anxious global contemporary moment, in order to reveal the forces behind artistic change, transgression, and transformation. By resisting spiritual, political and binary clichés, the course proposes to reconsider Russian art in relation to the idea of “unbound” or located beyond borders, with a drive to transgress fixed definitions.

Case studies might include Diaghilev’s 1898 Exhibition of Russian and Finnish Art, Kandinsky in Germany and France, Russian artists in Rome in 1917, connections with the Bauhaus, Lissitzky among Dadaists and Constructivists, Alfred H. Barr, Le Corbusier, or Walter Benjamin in Russia, Gabo in emigration, Soviet exhibition in Japan in 1927, Malevich in Poland, the 1927 exhibition of French art in Moscow, Soviet pavilion at the 1925 Paris exhibition, American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959, Soviet links with Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in Ethiopia, socialist realism in Georgia, Kazakhstan, China, Eastern Europe, and Cuba, amongst others.

The course may include a study trip to St Petersburg and Moscow, where students will have the opportunity to examine a wide range of works of art in situ. It will interest students of twentieth-century art history, politics, cultural studies, and Russian studies. Russian language is not essential. German or French may be equally useful. Intensive language classes are available at the LSE, King’s, and UCL.

Course Leader: Dr Maria Mileeva

In the event that a course leader is on sabbatical, takes up a fellowship, or otherwise is not able to teach the course, they will be replaced by another experienced course leader either for a semester or, in some cases, the academic year.

Please note: whilst many Special Options will include site visits within the UK and further afield, these are subject to confirmation.

Special Options 2023/24

Please note: Special Options vary from year to year and are subject to demand. The Courtauld reserves the right to amend or withdraw the options if necessary, and will always directly inform applicants of any changes.