Art and the Russian Revolution

The Royal Academy of Art in London has had an exhibition called Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 which was inspired by a Leningrad exhibition in 1932 Fifteen years of artists of the Russian Soviet Republic, an exhibition which showed the incredible diversity of Russian art at a time when the avant-garde and social realism still existed side-by-side. However, from the late 1920s pressure mounted against abstraction in art and after 1932 it was deemed to be unacceptable. The exhibition includes paintings, prints, posters, photographs, ceramics and film clips, some from the 1929 film The man with a movie camera. A few of the art works from the exhibition are copied below, along with others by the exhibition artists that were not in the exhibition. Some celebrate the excitement of the time, while others express something more ominous. Many of the photographs, like futurism, play on the repetition of industrialisation and mechanised work, but others delve into blurred identities, overlapping images, and images taken at disconcertingly strange angles, possibly hinting at the confusion and uncertainties of the times.

Boris Kustodiev The Bolshevik 1920

Kazimir Malevich 1915

Dmitry Moor Help!

Pavel Filonov Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat 1920

Andrei Golubev fabric

Boris Ignatovich

Vavara Stepanova

Kandinsky Blue Crest 1917

Heroes and Victims 1918 Vladimir Kozlinsky and others

Ilya Chashnik

El Lissitsky 1924

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin 1919 sketch for 1925 Anxiety


Daria Preobrazhenskaya fabric

Ivan Puni 1919

Alexander Rodchenko

Vladimir Kozlinsky Then and Now

Arkady Shaikhet 1928

Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaya


Life, art and design 1905 – part two

There was tremendous hope for a new modern society after the Russian revolution and civil war, and a new geometric, dynamic and sometimes playful style in art and design, constructivism, grew in the early 1920s from the avant-garde ideas which developed earlier in the century.

el lissitsky 2 squares 1922

El Lissitsky 1922

Alexandra exter set design 1926

Alexandra Exter set design 1927

russian textile

soviet textiles 1920s

Soviet textiles 1920s

Although constructivism was revolutionary and full of force and vigour, it was eventually suppressed in favour of social realism, which the working people could understand, and which was not based on a desire for freedom and innovation, anathema to the Bolsheviks. It was probably this force and the geometric patterns and diagonal lines in futurism and constructivism that led to the popular art deco style, which, like Art Nouveau, influenced graphic design, posters, furniture, jewellery, textiles and ceramics.

art deco teapot

Clarice Cliff art deco teapot


Art deco Odessa travel poster

1929 Soviet poster by Valentina Kulagina

Valentina Kulagina 1929 poster commemorating the 1905 revolution

Outside of Russia, purely abstract art was developed mostly through the Bauhaus in the 1920s, and then suppressed by the Nazis in the 1930s. Again Kandinsky was a huge influence.


Kandinsky 1923


Paul Klee 1925

Paul Klee puppets 2

Paul Klee puppets

Many European artists emigrated to America between the wars or just before World War II. A group of them and several Americans such as Jackson Pollock began developing abstract styles after the war. Mark Rothko, born in Russia in 1903, may have something of Malevich and the suprematists in his work, but his paintings of rectangles are also thought to have been inspired by the 1905 pogroms and stories of mass graves that his family told but he almost never spoke of. And so we come full circle back to the pogrom in 1905.

mark-rothko 1956

Mark Rothko 1956

Life, art and design 1905

The one style that probably did influence everyday life in the early 1900s was Art Nouveau, which permeated design on every level, from architecture to furniture, wallpaper, illustration, jewellery, advertisements, posters, postcards, shop signs and textiles. There is no one who would not have seen posters on the street, shop signs, book illustration and postcards with the typical swirling patterns of art nouveau, and many household items would have been influenced to some extent.

odessa postcard 1902                                                              Odessa postcard 1902

Russian poster art nouveau soap

Russian Art Nouveau soap ad

 Vasalisa by bilibin 1899

Illustration Vasalisa by Bilibin, 1899

Popular artistic styles like the swirling figures and lettering of art nouveau would only have touched people’s lives minimally in their own homes, through the covers of books or magazines, a vase, or decorated tin.

Vysotsky tin flowers

Vysotsky tea tin

At the same time, an explosion into abstraction in art was beginning in the early 1900s, slowly in Germany and France, following the lead in Art Nouveau with artists like Klimt and Kandinsky, who went back and forth from Germany to Russia. At first, abstraction was brought into design, such as in fabrics, furniture and architecture, but painting soon followed with an incredible liveliness.

frances macdonald 1896

Frances Macdonald 1896

riemerschmid 1905

Fabric Riemerschmid 1905

klimt 1905 stoclet frieze

Klimt 1905

cezanne Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1905

Cézanne 1905

matisse 1905

Matisse 1905

kandinsky 1909

Kandinsky 1909

kandinsky 1910

Kandinsky 1910

jonasch 1910

Fabric Jonasch 1910

In early 1900s Russia, there was the realist style of painting of Repin, the satirical art of political posters and newspapers, and an Impressionism which moved close to abstraction at times. Artists of different styles responded to the events of 1905, especially the political graphic artists, but others as well.

Russia 1905


Ivanov the execution 1905

Ivanov The execution 1905

MAC_020515 001

Isaac Brodsky Mother and sister 1905

Isaac Brodsky was from Odessa. My first impression of this painting of his mother and sister was that the girl seemed frightened and the two were clutching each other. This might be an over interpretation.

The earliest purely abstract art began with Malevich in Russia in 1912, inspired by a movement called suprematism in avant-garde poetry and modernist literature.


Malevich 1912

suprematist poetry

Suprematist poetry

This movement rejected that art needed to come from the natural or real world but could be centred solely on itself. Kandinsky was originally part of this movement but was later rejected because of his mysticism, seeing other meanings behind his purely abstract forms. The later Russian movement, constructivism, which grew up after the revolution, was inspired by Italian futurism and other movements that developed as artists watched the destruction and mechanisation of life during World War I. It developed through painting, sculpture, graphic design, textiles, theatre design and architecture.

To be continued…

Kataev, the pogrom and Bolshoi Fontan

In order to think more about where my grandparents might have lived, I returned to Kataev and his description of the pogrom hooligans leaving his apartment and heading out of town towards the road to Mali Fontan (later Frantsuzky or French Boulevard, Французький Бульвар), towards ‘Malofontanskaya and the corner of Botanicheskaya’. This was the beginning of my imagining my grandparents’ life in Odessa and my first intimation that the pogrom had moved out of the city and onto the road towards the resorts, dachas and fishing villages that lined the shore. Using old maps, websites with the history and photographs of Odessa streets, and Google Streetview, I followed the hooligans on their route out of town down Malofontanskaya or Frantsuzky Blvd, with its mostly elaborate mansions of Russian aristocrats and Jewish merchants interspersed with more humble dachas. I stopped at the corner of Malofontanskaya and Botanicheskaya, where it once had beautiful dachas surrounding the Botanical Garden area.

odessa map close up dachas 1901

Frantsuzky Blvd 1901

In this close-up of the city, the railway station and Kulikovo Field are in the upper left and Frantsuzky Blvd is the road running top to bottom on the right. The corner with Botanicheskaya (Botanical Garden St) is the street joining Frantsuzky Blvd at the letters Валт (дача Валтух, dacha Valtukh). This was 35 Frantsuzky Blvd, a very large plot of land, some of which had been sold, where there was a more modest dacha owned by a rich Jewish merchant, Usher Moshkovich Sigal, owner of a brickworks, ceramic factory and shop. He also had a large house in the Moldovanka area.

sigal french blvd sergekot

 Dacha Sigal 35 Frantsuzky Blvd

sigal 8 spiridonovskaya moldavanka

Dom Sigal, Spiridonovskaya 8, Moldavanka

Near Sigal’s dacha were two much more majestic summer homes: at number 31 lived the Demidov, Prince of San Donato (Демидов, князь Сан-Донато) family and at number 37 was the very ornate Dacha Makaresko. Other nearby dachas were the equally elaborate.


Dacha San Donato 31 Frantsuzky Blvd

37 french blvd dacha makaresko

Dacha Makaresko 37 Frantsuzky Blvd

dacha mavrokordato 2

Dacha Mavrokordato 42 Frantsuzky Blvd

dacha ashkenasi 85 french blvd

Dacha Ashkenazi 85 Frantsuzky Blvd

On the other side of the road near the corner with Botanicheskaya there were also dachas in large parks, though they did not have grounds leading down to the sea. Mostly now there are new apartment buildings on this side. In the directory, there were a few obvious Jewish names such as Grossman at number 16 and further down, Rapoport at number 26. The hooligans may have been going to any of these Jewish dachas. Other examples of the dachas on that side of the street are Dacha Perets at number 22 and Dacha Tseiner at 28.

dacha perets

dacha tseiner 28

Dacha Tseiner 28 Frantsuzky Blvd

After doing their damage, the hooligans may have continued down the Malofontanskaya, coming first to Mali Fontan and then may have moved on to the Sredni and Bolshoi Fontans, about 3 miles down the coast according to the 1914 Baedeker.

baedeker russia 1914

Baedeker Russia 1914 Odessa beaches and Fontans (springs)

In The Odessa pogrom and self defence, 1906, there is a chapter called ‘The journey of grief’ about the pogrom reaching the furthest resort, Bolshoi Fontan.

To paraphrase the chapter:
The fishing village, Bolshoi Fontan is a place of lively dachas in summer, but by autumn there were only about 10 families living there full-time. On the Wednesday the rabble arrived wanting to crush the Jewish homes, and the Jews, realising that things were getting desperate, decided to band together. One family went to the German gardener of a neighbouring dacha belonging to the wealthy Ksida family. The German agreed to hide them in the greenhouses, until a few from the village arrived and told him that they would destroy the dacha the next day if he didn’t throw out the Jews. The Jews met with the gardener and decided that the first family to arrive would stay but the remaining 25 would leave the dacha, which might save the gardener. It was night and a journey of grief for those who left. There was a cold autumn rain and the sea was stormy. The shore from Bolshoi Fontan to Langeron (near Odessa) had been washed away. In the day, the broken, fragmented cliffs with the dachas above are beautiful, but one needed to be young and agile on the slippery, twisting clay goat- path. They tried to get to the Shveitsari shore, but by night the path was difficult for families, hungry and not dressed in the right clothing, and everyone was in despair. They were going in the direction of Odessa, from where the pogrom had begun.

odessa plan bolshoi fontan

Bolshoi Fontan and Shveitsariya (the Ksida Ксиди dacha is 86, centre left, and the Brodsky М Бродской dacha is 78, to the right running down to the shore

The children were whimpering, fathers gnashed their teeth, mothers pressed against their children, trying to warm them. The whole night they covered several versts along the shore and in the morning they had reached a church and asked the caretaker if he would let them in to warm themselves. The caretaker went to ask the priest. The priest came out with a stick in his raised hand and turned them away. They hid again on the cliffs and saw a huge crowd coming from Odessa by the shore, destroying Jewish dachas. They went further. And suddenly in front of them was a fugitive with a gun, but it turned out to be the judge Somov (Nicholai Sergevich Somov Николай Сергеевич Сомов). The people went with him to his dacha. He kept them there for three days, giving them food and drink and consoling them; he didn’t let them go before Sunday, when the pogrom in the town had completely ended. He took them to town and thoughtfully accommodated them and gave them some money. It is even more surprising that, before, Mr Somov was considered by the Jews of Odessa to even be somewhat anti-semitic. It is only in times of tragedy that you can distinguish friends from enemies.

The family which stayed at Ksidi’s did not have a less fearful experience: nearby the famous Brodsky dacha was destroyed. The German hid his guests in a pit which had recently been used to stir lime, which was covered with beams and rocks. The family were under this burial mound for several hours, while the hooligans robbed Brodsky.

b fontan cliffs

Bolshoi Fontan cliffs

sredni fontan

Sredni Fontan

I could not find much about the judge Nicholai Somov on the internet except for his name and a photograph on a family tree. However, the Ksida family was a very old and well off Greek family and Nikolai Ksida had recently built quite a monumental house, 12 Evreiskaya, for his marriage to the half-sister of the painter Vasily Kandinsky, whose mother also moved to 12 Evreiskaya. Kandinsky was often a visitor at the Ksida dacha, and there are photographs of the Bolshoi Fontan area in his archive as well as a couple of paintings which are attributed to him. Letters show he was at the dacha in late September 1905, a few weeks before the pogrom. (

dom kcida evreiskaya st

12 Evreiskaya

kandinsky cossacks 1910

Kandinsky Cossacks 1910

The Brodsky family was one of the most well-known Jewish families in Odessa and Russia and had several dachas outside the city. One of them was at 79 Frantsuzky Blvd. The painting of a dacha below is by Isaac Brodsky.


Brodsky dacha 79 Frantsuzky Blvd

brodsky dacha 2

Isaac Brodsky dacha

But the families left in Bolshoi Fontan in late October, the ones who lived there full-time, would not have lived in the luxurious dachas owned by families like the Brodskys and Ksidas. They would have lived in ordinary houses and worked locally or commuted to Odessa on the steam tram, which ran from a station outside the Kataev apartment by Kulikovo Field. There are no photographs of the large or small dachas around Bolshoi Fontan and it is only in a few paintings that they remain.

Alex Stilianudi 1918 b fontan

Aleksander Stilisnudi Bolshoi Fontan 1918

stilianudi 1904 b fontan street

Aleksander Stilisnudi Bolshoi Fontan 1904

There was one person in the pogrom death records, Moishe Elev Gaber, 32, who may have lived in Bolshoi Fontan. In the Odessa archives, Fond 359 Odessa office for small business, Jewish section 1893-1916, there is an Elya Iosevich Gaber, living on Naberezhnaya St 125 in Bolshoi Fontan, who may have been his father and possibly lived there full-time. The son, of course, may have been living in town. Naberezhnaya St runs right along the shore and now has small beach houses and cabins on the side of the street by the sea, and somewhat larger houses on the elevated ground on the other side.

odessa naberezhnaya st dacha kovalevsky

Naberezhnaya St Bolshoi Fontan

 But meanwhile the pogrom was mainly raging in the working class areas surrounding the centre of the city.