In November 1918, Petrograd’s Palace Square was invaded by an army of jagged, abstract forms, giant assemblies of colour-planes designed by Natan Altman to form the backdrop to the celebrations of the first anniversary of the October Revolution—prompting Mayakovsky to announce a month later, in his ‘Order to the Army of Art’, that ‘the streets are our brushes, the squares are our palettes’. Indeed, the early years of Bolshevik rule were rife with extravagant gestures and pronouncements, as avant-garde art sought to weave itself into the fabric of revolutionary life: in 1917 Malevich declared himself ‘the chairman of space’; in 1921 Aleksandr Rodchenko announced the ‘death of painting’, and in 1920 Tatlin designed his Monument to the Third International, twin spirals of steel around a core of colossal glass structures, intended—of course, it was never built—to rise to twice the height of the Empire State Building.

But in a time when acts of innovation and iconoclasm followed one another in quick succession, the role of theory was somewhat muted—following the trails blazed by art’s practitioners, backing one or other faction. This is particularly true of the visual arts, since here we find no easily identifiable counterpart to the Formalist school of Jakobson, Shklovsky and Tynyanov in literature. Members of the LEF group such as Osip Brik and Boris Arvatov elaborated the principles of Production Art, and had a standing to rival that of the Formalists; but otherwise the picture is rather one of isolated figures about whom little is known and whose work was limited to tantalizingly brief articles and pamphlets—Aleksei Gan, the originator of Constructivism; Nikolai Tarabukin, author of Ot mol’berta k mashine (From Easel to Machine, 1923).

The art critic and historian Nikolai Punin is at once an exception to this rule and a further demonstration of it: an exception because of his immense standing in the Russian and early Soviet art world; a further instance, in that he is primarily renowned not for his writings—on materiality, as a common thread linking icon-painting and the Russian avant-garde; on the Constructivists, Tatlin in particular; on Byzantine, Western and Japanese art—but for his fifteen-year affair with the poet Anna Akhmatova.

Punin was born in 1888, the son of a well-to-do military doctor. Extracts from the closely written diaries that he kept from 1904—early entries detail the sentiments of an arrogant sixteen-year-old schoolboy from Tsarskoe Selo—until his arrest, in 1949, have now been published in both Russian and English editions. They furnish a fascinating if frustrating addition to our picture of the early Soviet art scene. Punin’s earliest formation was Nietzschean, and strongly pro-German. There, to the west, lay ‘the sun of Europe . . . the way out of the individualistic morass, of religious weakheartedness, of moral blight’, he confided to his diary. Socialism (‘not Marx’ but ‘healthy’, monarchical socialism)—Germany—Futurism were described as ‘a worthy triad’. Toiling in the squalor of the Nikolaevskii Military Hospital in the autumn of 1916, despairing and exhausted, he asks: ‘How can one fight against that which saves you?’ By this time, he had already become a central figure in the stellar grouping—Tatlin, Malevich, Popova, sometimes Mandelshtam and Mayakovsky—that gathered at Lev Bruni’s studio, ‘Apartment no. 5’, overlooking the Neva, to argue and to work. ‘The “bourgeois”,’ writes Punin, ‘were already . . . épatés by the war—by this Futurist who roamed the globe in a bloody coat of endless sunsets’. The debates at Apartment no. 5 centred on method—the search for ‘a means to seize reality with an iron grip’—and material. In a section from his unpublished memoir Art and Revolution, included in both the editions under review, Punin evokes Bruni’s studio at the end of 1916:

Canvasses, stretchers and easels had been pushed into corners; everywhere there lay ‘materials’: iron, tin, glass, cable, cardboard, leather, some putty, lacquers and varnishes . . . Tatlin’s ‘Corner Counter-relief’ hung by ropes in the corner, left with Bruni after the Streetcar V exhibition . . . We sweated over the construction of spatial models, over various types of collections of materials of different properties, qualities and forms. We sawed, planed, cut, ground, stretched and glued. We almost forgot about easel-painting. We spoke only of contrasts, of links, of tension, of the angle of a cut, of ‘textures’.

From his desk in the Icon Section of St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum, Punin had already published striking work on the Russian avant-garde—at once marking its distinctions and departures from Impressionism and Cubism, and underlining its continuities with Russian icon-painting traditions. He saw Impressionism as an ‘optical illness’ which dissolved the world into the play of light, bypassing the material nature of the paint on the work’s surface; this, according to Punin, was mere illusionism. Cubism’s re-orderings of space reflected a similar malady, with the artist unable to tear himself away from the surface of the painting—leaving the canvas ‘writhing, as if in agony’, under the weight of forms incongruously loaded onto it. What the tradition of icon-painting provided, according to Punin, was an insistence on materiality: colour itself was treated as a ‘material’ element of the work; the board on which icons were painted always showed through the empty space around the saints and madonnas. This was the inescapably physical nature of painting which culminated in the decision of Tatlin and others to leave canvas behind, devoting themselves to the properties of materials and their relationship to space. ‘All of 1916’, writes Punin in this fragment from Art and Revolution, ‘passed under the sign of a sharp and uncontrolled movement to the left . . . The war slowly turned to revolution. When the revolution began we don’t know: the war had no end’.

Punin’s relation to the Revolution was quite as ambiguous as this comment suggests. By early 1917 he had become associated with the artistic ‘Left’ of the Petrograd Arts Union, founded in the wake of the February Revolution. Although he opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power, and was certainly never a member of the Party, he worked with Lunacharsky in Narkompros, the Commissariat of Enlightenment, from as early as December 1917. He effectively edited Iskusstvo kommuny (Art of the Commune) from the journal’s inception in December 1918 until its demise six months later, publishing some of the key articles, poems and manifestoes of the revolutionary avant-garde, including Mayakovsky’s ‘Order to the Army of Art’ and the work of Malevich and Brik. Between 1919 and 1921, Punin was also a deputy of the Petrograd Soviet. Frustratingly, though, no diaries are available from late 1917 to 1919; entries for October 1917 have been razored out.