Gustavs Klutsis (Klucis) was one of the most famous Soviet artists from XX century twenties. His brilliant constructivist art and impressive soviet propaganda posters has made a historic legacy. Gustavs Klucis was Latvian, born in Latvia. As many young Latvians he was caught by the First World War and ended up in Revolutionary Russia. He became a passionate communist believing his experimental avant-garde art has place in the new socialist country. He also believed that his propaganda art is in within the lines of the soviet politics and ideology. In the end he became the victim of his own beliefs and was sentenced to death by his own regime. Yet, his art outlived him and is popular today. He is not forgotten in Latvia. This year at the art exhibition hall Arsenal a large collection of his works were displayed. A worldwide known Latvian artist that has the place in the Latvian history.
Klutsis was born on 4 (16) January 1895 in the Valmiera district Koņu parish. A Latvian family, father Gustavs and Mother Ede. He had two elder brothers Jānis and Ādams, and four sisters Elīze, Ieva, Klāra and the youngest Alvīne. He was baptized in the Rūjiena Lutheran church. On 1905 his father died in accident. Family was left without breadwinner and Gustavs had work in the farming and go to school at winters. On that same year the revolution in Russia broke out and came to Latvia. His brother Jānis took part in the rebellion and was arrested and sentenced 15 years penal prison. No doubt this affected young Gustavs political worldview. From 1909 to 1911 he took studies in the Rūjiena pro-gymnasium.
Despite desire to study arts, do to the lack of money he came to Valmiera Teachers seminary on 1912. On 1913 he started studies in the Riga City Art School. The director of the school was Vilhelms Purvītis a well known Latvian artist – landscape painter. He attended the school till 1915 when the war came to Riga. He was conscripted in the 9th Latvian Riflemen regiment. Eventually he came to Russia and witnessed the February Revolution and later the October Bolshevik Coup. He joined the Red Latvian Riflemen guard to defend the Bolshevik Government at the Smolny Institute and served as machine gunner. When the Bolshevik government moved to Moscow he was defending the train used by Vladimir Lenin and his henchmen. This closeness to the heart of the Bolshevik revolution boosted his beliefs. He met Lenin at the Kremlin garden and had a talk. When off duty he used to write sketches of him. There in Moscow his artistic carrier had begun. His first work featuring the photo-montage technique was called “The Attack. The Latvian Rifleman” on 1918. Later he employed the photo-montage at full scale.
But before that he was involved in the supermatism and contructivism. He begun work at the Second Free State Art School (SFSTAS) workshop. It was lead by Kazimir Malevich the author of the revolutionary Black Square painting on 1915. Malevich soon left the SFSTAS and was replaced by Anthon (Nathan) Pevzner. However, Malevich left impression on Klutsis. Malevich wrote a book about the new artistic systems and connected supermatism with cosmic spaces. His ideas about connection between two cosmic bodies – Earth and Moon that rush trough the space – the possibility of making a new supermatistic satellite that would enter its orbit creating his own new way. With its contacts lost with Earth it can be studied and researched as any new system. Klutsis got this idea and started working on the Dynamic City project. Kazimir Malevich created The Black Circle painting that was used further by Klutsis as his dynamic cities grew out the circles with skyscrapers and constructive futuristic forms. The paintings involved photo-montage.
In the winter of 1919 he met his love of the lifetime Valentina Kulagin. A Muscovite artist she accompanied his artistic efforts and stayed faithful until his death. On 1920 he joined the Communist Party and came to Artistic Culture Institute (ACI). He kept his connections with Malevich who was residing in Vitebsk. His art became more constructive and formalistic as he has preoccupied with complicated structures. It went well with Soviet Union in those days when it was a giant laboratory of ideas and structures. He called his art as a experimental laboratory. One of his most interesting constructions where the Radio Operator towers – futuristic weird looking structures. Only few were made and photographed.
The constructivim soon entered the political posters. Klutsis had no problem of becoming a political agitator – instead he made the posters as art. Photo-montage first regarded only as small artistic element became the core of his posters. First posters including photo-montage came out in 1927. Already recognized as a great artist, his posters became famous within the Union. The avant-garde collages involving workers, soldiers and his idol Lenin as the central figure, the formation of the figures were impressive and mesmerizing. One of the most famous posters the 1928 Gym and Sports dedicated to Sparticide sports with brilliant photo-montage scheme of jumping swimmers was great example of his art.
He also designed expressive decorations for the soviet exhibitions in foreign countries. One of them in Belgium was vandalized by far right anti communists. Various expressive avant-garde pavilions and exhibition stands were made and projected during twenties. He also made stage decorations for the satirical theater play “Bourgeoisie Latvia”. He had lost all connections with his birthplace and regarded it as any other capitalist country. Latvia was no stranger to avant-garde art it had its own modern art society. As the modern art was condemned by the conservative nationalist Latvians, these artists were mostly leftists. During the twenties and thirties the modern art was often regarded as a communist thing because it challenged the traditional art as much as the communists challenged the capitalist order.
At the late twenties the power in the Soviet Union was consolidated by Joseph Stalin. One of his first grand projects to change the country as the introduction of the five year plan. A move to centralize the countries economy by bringing up mass industrialization and collectivize the farming economy. For such radical and painful moves a influx of a mass propaganda was needed. And that is where Klutsis and his posters came in. The first five year plan was started on 1928. Klutsis worked with the IZGOIZ – the state art publisher. It ordered the posters and censured them. From 1929 to 1937 more than 50 posters made by Klutsis were issued. Working with collage, experimenting with photo equipment he could change the size of the objects, combine the negatives. He looked for the objects and people in the newspapers, books, took the pictures of himself. With the equipment of XX century thirties he made the poster even better then now with the use of the digital software. His posters featured industrial themes, workers, factories and Lenin himself as the ideological leader. In one 1930 poster Lenin was shown with Stalin, but Lenin still overshadowed rather obscure looking face of Stalin. With the omnipresent expressive red color combined with the black and white picture the posters showed the dynamism of the five year plan. Complete unity as shown in the Worker and the Worker woman with multiple hands raised up and one large hand. The largest hand belonged to Stalin the – leader. But in reality this was the hand of Klutsis taken for this poster. With his photo technique he changed the size of the had making a impressive poster.
On October 26 1932 Stalin attended the writers meeting at the Maxim Gorky residence. He said one of his well known phrases that “the artists are the engineers of the human soul”. It was a signal to increase the propaganda towards the peoples minds to convert them completely to the new Stalinist order. Stalin was no longer a mere shadow of the Lenin in the Klutsis posters, he was the grand figure of everything. Stalin was walking with the workers a thing he would never do in reality. The USSR was called as the strike brigade of the worldwide proletariat. Red banner raised above the red globe was the ambition of Klutsis and Stalin himself. A grandiose poster showing gigantic serious Stalin overseeing the factories with the slogan “The Victory of Socialism in our country is achieved! The Fundament of the Socialist Economy has been made!” The god like figure of Stalin filled with strife and anger showed him just as the way he wanted to look like. Other poster sketch showing Stalin smiling with the pipe in his mouth was never released. Stalin was to be feared not loved. As the Stalin’s favorite author Machiavelli had once formulated – leader should be feared in order to be loved. But the Stalin was not the only communist god. In the Soviet Holy Trinity there is three gods – Lenin, Stalin and Karl Marx the prophet of the socialist revolution. And in the poster of 1933 Karl Marx is overlooking the entire planet with a masses of proletarians. Behind a landscape of broken factories the slogan says “The goal of the Union is the destruction of the Bourgeois” It was indeed the Stalin’s policy after the socialism in one county was achieved the Soviet Union will bring the socialism worldwide. In other 1933 poster the armed proletarians are united under red flags of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Klutsis was still romanticized by the October revolution his scenes with fighting workers were still in line with the Lenin and Trotsky ideas. But it was not according with Stalin’s conception – the worldwide socialist revolution was to be achieved with tanks and bombers.
On 1935 Klutsis made one his most famous posters- Glory to the Red Army! Gigantic Stalin and Commander in Chief General Voroshilov overlooks the parade of tanks in the Red Square. Together with bombers the might of the Red Army was shown in scale. The intention to start a new world war was clearly seen. Another 1932 picture shows the Soviet youth with guns behind the masses of marching army towards the victory. Two young soviet boys showing concrete faces, but girl in the middle smiles. A rather naive smile, these people few years later will fight in the front lines. But there is one thing we should notice in the 1935 poster. It no longer features photo-montage, instead all the figures are drawn. Drawn realistically. Onward from 1935 the new soviet art style was the “socialist realism”. It had no place for the expresionism, avant-guarde, and especially formalism. The formalists were condemned. The new realist was actually a neoclassicism. A kind of art enjoyed by Adolf Hitler who himself once made realistic paintings. Nazis condemned the modernist art. Their posters were grandiose but realistic. Stalin in many ways impressed by the Nazi Germany also followed suit. It is no wonder many soviet posters have so much in common with the Nazi posters. It was the same reactionary conservative art style calling for complete unification of the society and the world domination. It was the art of complete totalitarianism a totalitarianism that will destroy Klutsis.
Klutsis again remembered his Latvian roots. Before his relations with the Latvian Soviet diaspora was rather awkward. Now the socialist realism demanded to show the life’s of the ordinary soviet citizens, also nationalities. He joined Latvian cultural society “Prometejs” (Prometheus). By their orders he to the Latvian settlements in Russia and Ukraine and depict the Latvian soviet citizens. The shock workers or stahanovians as they were called and the landscapes. All of them were painted in the realistic way. His photo-montage posters were no longer needed. On 1936 he also tasked to research the Latvian signs and traditional arts. However, there was no good sources for this task. In order to create ethnographic album for the Latvians in the Soviet Union, Klutsis used the ladies journal Zeltene (Lass) from Latvia. Klutsis was not interested in the national value of the Latvian signs of symbols he was interested in their form and precision. He however, made a large research work. In his free time he made paintings of buildings and landscapes.
On 1937 he was in Paris, France for a few weeks. He attended the International Contemporary Art and Technic Exhibition. His task was to guide to creation of the photo exhibit in one of the Soviet pavilion halls. All the best Soviet artists were gathered there to show the might of the Soviet art. He was still needed, but not for long. Stalin was directing his country towards the great war. Massive repressions towards the old elite of communists from the days of the October revolution were issued in full scale. Latvians were considered as spies of the capitalist Latvia, in his war against the capitalist world they could no longer be trusted. Stalin ordered the extermination of the Latvian communists and public personalities – like Klutsis. He was too well known and no longer regarded as a genius artist. On January 17 1938 he was arrested as a member of a fascist Latvian nationalists. A accusation unimaginable for still passionate communist Klutsis. On February 26 by the protocol No. 128 of the February 11 issued by the Peoples Commissar of the Interior Affairs he shot at the Butovo polygon near Moscow. Butovo became the graveyard of thousands of Latvians killed by the Great Purge.
His wife Valentina Kulagina and son Edvards were spared. Only in 1989 Edvards found out what happened with his father. He was erased from the Soviet history for decades. Then on 1959 in Riga the deputy director of the Latvian and Russian Art Museum (now Latvian National Art Museum) Artūrs Eglītis wanted to bring Klutsis paintings to Latvia. It was the time when the Red Latvian Riflemen were again included in the Soviet propaganda. Without mentioning what happened to them in 1937-1938 it was accepted to display the Soviet Latvian art. Together with Klutsis, the works of Aleksandrs Drēviņs, Kārlis Veidemanis, Voldemārs Andersons, Vilhelm Jabub and Paul Irbītis were displayed for the first time in decades. After the end of the exhibit the Klutsis wife Valentina Kulagina presented the museum with of more than 350 Klutsis works. Also the Latvian SSR Ministry of Culture bought tens of more of his works and his personal archive. The Latvian and Russian Arts Museum and the Revolution Museum (now War Museum) got hold of enormous collection of Klutsis work. He was again remembered in other parts of the world and after 1991 Latvian National Art Museum displayed his works at the guest exhibits. His works were also displayed in Soviet Union. Novadays Klutsis works are popular object of the Soviet art and history. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony featured references to Klutsis propaganda works.
Gustavs Klutsis was one of the best artists in the Soviet Union. A true example in the constructivism and photo-montage. Unfortunately his communist beliefs did not live up the politics of Joseph Stalin. No doubt Klutsis would follow Stalin’s change of politics with greatest enthusiasm if the chance have been given. Instead he was shot along with other common minded Latvians betrayed by their beloved leader. But, his art has outlived his short life and preserved a never ending legacy of one of the most known Latvian born artists.
Derkusova, Iveta, Tsantsanoglou, Maria, Yates, Steve. (2014) Gustavs, Klutsis. Anatomy of an Experiment. Riga. Latvian National Arts Museum.