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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



conventional name of a 20th-century artistic movement characterized by a break with the preceding tradition of the realistic artistic image and a search for new means of expression and formal structure. The term “avant-gardism” first appeared in the criticism of the 1920’s; by the 1950’s it was commonly used in art criticism, including the Soviet. However, it did not acquire a more precise scholarly definition, and various literary and art historians have endowed it with different meanings.

Avant-gardism, based on an anarchic, subjective world view, is a widespread and complex manifestation of the crisis of 20th-century bourgeois culture. In the years of its most intensive development (1905–30), avant-gardism appeared in a number of schools and currents of modernism, such as fauvism, cubism, futurism, expressionism, dadaism, surrealism, stream-of-consciousness literature, atonal music, and dodecaphony. Furthermore, several important 20th-century masters incorporated the avant-garde into their works at one time or another during their careers.

Contradictory tendencies and various masters with dissimilar creative destinies and different aesthetic, ideological, and social positions appeared at times in the general current of avant-gardism. The contradictions of avant-gardism reflected the sharp social antagonisms of the era—that is, the decline of bourgeois civilization, the crisis of art, and the confusion and despair in the face of social catastrophes and revolutionary upheavals. At the same time, the era of proletarian revolutions that had set in gave rise among some of the avant-garde masters to a thirst for renewal and to occasionally naïve dreams of the future, as if their rebellious outburst were capable of expressing the revolutionary spirit of the age. Some avant-gardists are painfully sensitive to the vices of bourgeois society; others slip into the chaos of subjective experience. Sometimes they summon considerable potential for social criticism, but often they resort to the anarchic cynicism of universal subversion of values. They frequently reflect a mood of anxiety, pain, and protest or estrange themselves from life, reaching nihilism and plunging art into a labyrinth of subjective digressions and pure formalism.

Sometimes the disparate tendencies are woven into one and the same artistic trend; at other times, they define the boundaries of new trends. Many important artists (P. Eluard of France, V. Nezval of Czechoslovakia, B. Brecht, J. Becher, and H. Eisler of Germany, and D. Rivera of Mexico) at first espoused avant-gardism; when they had surmounted the blunders of modernistic experimentation, they progressed to authentically revolutionary and socialist art.

Many representatives of avant-gardism were incapable of overcoming the limits of bourgeois consciousness and remained in positions of aesthetic subjectivism. Increasingly imbued with a decadent Weltanschauung, they became some of the pillars of modernism—for example, J. Joyce (Ireland), M. Proust (France), P. Mondrian (the Netherlands, S. Dali (Spain), P. Klee (Switzerland), and W. Kandinsky. Fantastic, unstable combinations of these various tendencies led to the general characteristics of avant-gardism: duality, contradiction (for example, the poetry of G. Apollinaire and the art of P. Picasso in France), and frequently artistic eclecticism. For all that, avant-gardism as a whole is saturated with capitalist and petty bourgeois individualism.

In the USSR the October Socialist Revolution determined the creative path of such major artistic innovators as V. V. Mayakovsky, V. E. Meyerhold, and S. S. Prokofiev, in whose earlier work the traits of avant-gardism appeared in one form or another. Decisively overcoming avantgardist individualism and subjectivism, they became the leading masters of socialist artistic culture.

At the beginning of the 1930’s, the work of most of the avant-gardists in the West lost its ostentatiously rebellious character. Such great artists as P. Picasso and P. Neruda (Chile) overcame the narrowness of the social positions espoused by avant-gardism and embarked on the path of active struggle with fascism, linking their activity with the communist movement.

After World War II (1939–45), a renewal of avant-gardist tendencies took place in the West; for example, the theater of the absurd, le nouveau roman, concrete poetry, the poetry of the Italian “Group 1963,” and aleatory techniques. However, all these neo-avant-gardist, now fully modernistic, currents are in conflict not so much with bourgeois society as with the ideals of the radical reconstruction of society on socialist principles. They actively oppose not bourgeois aesthetic conceptions but the best democratic and realistic traditions of culture—that is, the theory and practice of the art of socialist realism. Avant-gardism is acquiring an increasingly marked elitist, refined character and antisocialist direction, which is permeated with the spirit of reactionary imperialist ideology; it is, as a rule, becoming increasingly absorbed in formalistic experimentation.


Matsa, I. Problemy khudozhestvennoi kultury XX veka. Moscow, 1969.
Lifshits, M., and L. Reingardt. Krizis bezobraziia. Moscow, 1968.
Holthusen, H. E. Avangardismus und die Zukunft der modernen Kunst. Munich, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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