Raphael up against the wall

Overturning an adherence to cultural classics has historical precedents. For the Soviet avant-garde, revolution meant dispensing with symbols of reverence: everything from Renaissance paintings to Tolstoy. And, in the process, the likes of Mayakovsky left their own work ultimately open to being cancelled, both conceptually and for real.

In his 1918 poem Radovat’sia rano (It’s Too Early to Rejoice), Vladimir Mayakovsky, the most celebrated poet of his generation in Russia, muses that if his Bolshevik comrades were to ‘find a white guardsman’, they would, without doubt, put him ‘up against the wall’. At the time of the Russian Civil War, an enemy of the new revolutionary government would, in other words, be executed. ‘But have you forgotten Raphael?’, asks Mayakovsky provocatively, suggesting that the Renaissance artist’s work was just as much an enemy as a member of the White Army. Mayakovsky’s meaning appears quite clear. His attack was against classical works in general – Russian, as well as Western – which represented a bourgeois canon that the Bolsheviks should overturn. October 1917 marked not only the greatest political revolution but also the most radical cultural turn.

This is how Mayakovsky has been understood by generations of scholars. No one likes to believe that he was calling for the actual physical destruction of Raphael’s paintings. Rather statements by Mayakovsky and other representatives of the avant-garde on the obliteration of masterpieces have been interpreted, almost automatically, in a metaphorical sense.

And yet this concept of the destruction of the culture of the past can be perceived through the prism of a profound and ultimately tragic paradox that lies at the heart of the Soviet avant-garde experiment. The avant-garde had meant exactly what they said: radical originality depended on extermination. Raphael’s place – alongside that of the rest of the Renaissance masters and the great names in Russian literature – may have been facing the firing squad but so too would be the avant-garde itself. Once Mayakovsky’s poetry achieved masterpiece status, it would also become an impediment to radical originality. Mayakovsky would be put ‘up against the wall’ too.

The Sistine Madonna in Russia

Mayakovsky’s focus on Raphael wasn’t coincidental: the great Italian artist had become the most notable and uncontested example of artistic genius across Europe. His artworks had acquired the status of masterpieces – and none more so than the Sistine Madonna. Contemporary scholars have drawn attention to ‘Raphael’s entrenched position’ in Russian intellectual history.1 Pushkin’s 1830 love sonnet Madonna draws analogies between his beloved and future wife and Raphael’s image of the Sistine Madonna.

Sistine Madonna, Raphael, c. 1513-14. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The artistic references would have been familiar to Pushkin’s audience, who had been exposed to the romantic fascination with Raphael’s iconic painting. The poet Vasily Zhukovsky, Pushkin’s older contemporary, had written a well-known essay Rafaeleva Madonna, glorifying the art of the Italian artist’s work in the most dramatic terms. Even earlier, in 1789, Derzhavin, a poet with close ties to the court, wrote an ode to Catherine the Great, referring to Raphael as ‘miraculous’ and ‘unequalled’, a ‘glorious painter’ and a ‘portrayer of divinity’. Derzhavin wished that Raphael ‘may sketch the image of my godlike Tsarina’. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the reputation of Raphael was such that even Pavel Florensky, one of the foremost thinkers of the age, who devoted much of his energy to making a case for the superiority of the Russian icon over Renaissance image-making, wrote that the Sistine Madonna was a great work of art on a par with icons.2

The Sistine Madonna and the Soviet avant-garde

Against this background of reverence, it’s no wonder that Raphael became the obvious target for Mayakovsky and his circle. As Vladimir Kirillov boldly declared in his 1918 poem We: ‘in the name of our Tomorrow, we will burn Raphael / destroy the museums and trample the flowers of art’. Modern scholars have gone to great lengths to insist that what the avant-garde meant was not destruction but ‘redefinition, renewal and transformation’.3 Unsurprisingly, the Soviet avant-garde features regularly in studies on utopian thought, while Futurist iconoclastic statements have been  frequently perceived as expressions of ‘playful hooliganism’.4 It is true that the rhetoric of destruction was very common in Italian Futurism, which certainly exerted an influence over the Russian movement. Indeed, before 1917 the same element of posturing and an obvious desire to shock existed among Russians as well, as evidenced in The Futurist Manifesto of 1912 by Mayakovsky and the group around him. Published under the revealing title, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, its authors’ declared their intention of ‘throwing Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc. off the steamboat of modernity’.

After October 1917, however, these statements were made and understood in a completely different spirit: the revolution made them appear possible. For a short time, particularly during the period of War Communism, which ended with the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1922, the avant-garde were on the ascent in a way unparalleled in any Western country. Practically all the major figures were on board with the revolution and held government positions. The American writer Max Eastman, who went to Russia in 1922 for almost two years, later wrote a highly critical book Artists in Uniform in 1934, describing what he saw as the bureaucratization of the artworld. Mayakovsky and the left-wing of the avant-garde, as well as artists such as Chagall and Kandinsky, before they emigrated from Soviet Russia, and Malevich, who remained, must have revelled in the exhilarating sense of their power to change reality. After all, they saw, before their very eyes and against all the odds, the victory of the revolution. Now, they were part of the most radical social, political and cultural transformation that the world had ever seen.

When the future is more real than the past

Within just a couple of years after the revolution the role of slovo (the word) changed dramatically. When the Futurists wrote in their 1912 manifesto that ‘from the skyscrapers we gaze’ at the ‘nothingness’ of the great Russian classics, they were well aware that the skyscrapers did not exist and were figments of their imagination. The Dvorets Sovetov (Palace of the Soviets), the gigantic architectural project of the new regime, didn’t exist either and, indeed, never came into being. But you wouldn’t know that from the many references to it at the time: article after article described the Palace as an existing structure; images of the building were pervasive, featuring in films and world fairs.

Contemporary scholars tend to focus on the palace design competition in which some of the most internationally renowned architects, including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mosei I. Ginzburg took part. But more fascinating is that slovo had created reality, just as the revolution had made everything seem possible. Authors writing for the the journal Sovremennaya arkhitektura (Contemporary Architecture) in 1926 expressed the conviction that even if a single new building wasn’t put up, the ‘new Soviet architecture’ would still become an organic part of the Soviet environment. In other words, the Soviet avant-garde project was oriented towards the future to such an extent that the future became far more real and tangible than the present. The non-existing Palace of the Soviets belonged to this future: it was fittingly glorious, grand and very real.

Stamp featuring design of the Palace of the Soviets, USSR post, 1937. Image via Wikimedia Commons

When Stalin saved Raphael

In a reversal of fortune, Stalinist cultural policy put an end to the avant-garde project in the 1930s. As Sheila Fitzpatrick remarks, under Stalin ‘conformity meant … respect for Gorky, respect for Russian classics, emulation of the style of Pushkin or Nekrasov in poetry, Tolstoy in novel, and so on. … For painters, the nineteenth-century peredvizhniki provided the orthodox model; for composers, Tschaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.’5 In other words, classical heritage was back in a big way. Ironically, Stalin had saved Raphael. ‘The communist intelligentsia – professional iconoclasts, makers of the “cultural revolution”, and exponents of “proletarian hegemony” in culture during the First Five-Year Plan period – quickly lost authority, influence and identity as a group in the 1930s,’ writes Fitzpatrick.6 From the mid-1930s, accusations of ‘formalism’ against the avant-garde were becoming louder and repercussions for members of the movement were becoming more politically dangerous.

The famous émigré linguist, Roman Jakobson’s moving 1930 essay The Generation That Squandered Its Poets has largely been understood in the shadow of an increasingly totalitarian control of culture, which drowned creativity. Jakobson’s text, likely occasioned by the suicide of Mayakovsky, whom he had known personally, reveals a tragic paradox. It was the avant-garde, in Boris Groys’ opinion, that ‘formulated a specific type of aesthetic-political discourse in which each decision bearing on the artistic construction of the work of art is interpreted as a political decision.’7 As the art critic, media theorist and philosopher rightly argues, ‘it was this type of discourse that subsequently … led to the destruction of the avant-garde itself.’8 Putting Raphael ‘up against the wall’ implied that, at some point, artists of the future would find themselves similarly and profoundly irrelevant and dispensable.


This article shares content with a piece published in the IWM Post 132 (Art and Society), 2023.  


L. Ceballes , ‘“With no great quantity of paintings”: Pushkin’s Polemic with Raphael in “Madonna”’, Pushkin Review, Vol. 14, 2011, pp. 97-118; also I. Pearson, ‘Raphael as Seen by Russian Writers from Zhukovsky to Turgenev’, Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 59, No. 3, 1981, pp. 346-369. The references to Zhukovsky and Derzhavin that follow are from Ceballes’ article.

P. Florensky, ‘Reverse Perspective’, 1919.In: P. Florensky, Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art, ed. N. Misler, trans. W. Salmond, London, 2002.

A. Sarabyanov and N. Strizhkova, Art and Power: The avant-garde and the Soviet state, 1917-1928, London, 2021, p. 26.

R. Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian vision and experimental life in the Russian Revolution, New York and Oxford, 1989.

S. Fitzpatrick, ‘Culture and Politics under Stalin: A Reappraisal’, Slavic Review, Vol.35, No. 2, 1976, p. 223.

Ibid., p. 231.

B. Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: The Avant-garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and the Beyond, London, 1987,  and New York, 2011, p. 21.


Published 17 June 2024
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

Contributed by Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) © Clemena Antonova / Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) / Eurozine



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