Bella Kesoyan

The research explores the changing idea of ‘cosmos’ in the Russian art of the twentieth century. The key word here is change. The aim of the essay is to build a timeline and explain the shift in the understanding of cosmos and its representation in visual art. There are three components to the analysis. The first factor is technological progress. As the idea of space travel transformed from being a mere fantasy to reality and eventually a fact of life, its representation in art became less abstract. The second factor is political climate. As the scope of the essay covers the period of the existence of Soviet Union, the question of how the developments in the people’s expectations of the regime also influenced the perceptions of the cosmos and space travel is crucial. Last, Russian Cosmism, a philosophical movement, played a major part in providing the inspiration for artists in the beginning of the century. Although it virtually disappeared by the time of ‘the thaw’, the movement was revived in the last decades of the twentieth century.

The twentieth century was arguably the most turbulent period in the Russian history. In a span of hundred years, Russia officially changed five different names and underwent tectonic transformations from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union in the years following the October Revolution of 1917, and subsequently to the Russian Federation in 1991. Despite the political and social turbulence, Russia contributed a number of technological innovations to the world during that period, most notably in the field of space exploration.

The image of cosmos has been recurring in the works of major Russian artists throughout the century. Ranging from Russian avant-garde icons, such as Kazimir Malevich and Lazar Markovich Lissitzky (El Lissitzky), to the Moscow Conceptualists of 1980s, from design objects and posters to badges and match boxes, the idea of conquering the universe has been a ubiquitous source of inspiration. 

The present essay explores the evolution of the perspective of cosmos in the works of Russian artists of the twentieth century. Building on the existing research, the essay aims to create a timeline explaining the shifts in the perspective of cosmos throughout the century. The research to date appears to concentrate on isolated parts of the twentieth century or individual art movements; however, it is equally important to understand what drove the transitions from one period to another. Such high-level perspective on the subject gives a better understanding of not just the development of the art world during that time but also its interaction with external forces like politics, society, science, and philosophy.

The first angle considered in the essay is the interaction of science and spiritual devotion, which echoes the earlier philosophical ideas of Russia’s ‘special path’ benefiting from its geographical location – scientific reason from the West combined with the spirituality of the East. Both the concepts can be linked to the idea of space travel. To be able to fly into space, extensive scientific research is required; however, part of the purpose of the endeavour is spiritual, even to the point of the resurrection of past generations. Another angle is political climate. The time frame of the analysis perfectly coincides with the existence of the Soviet Russia, between 1917 and 1991. The essay looks at the transformation of the link between the idea of space travel and Communist ideology as reflected in the works of the artists of the time. Last, technological progress per se is used as a third factor influencing the perspective of cosmos in the twentieth century Russian art.

The century is split into three – interrupted – periods. Each period corresponds to a unique combination of the three factors outlined above. The beginning of each period is marked by a major turning point, when the representation of outer space underwent important changes both in the minds of the Russian nation and visual art. The end of each period is linked to the evidence of the artistic approach being largely exhausted. Such a method addresses the specificities of the understanding of the idea of cosmos at different times. To analyse each period, a single work of art is chosen to represent it and provide a solid basis for the research.

The first period is between 1917 and 1932, when space travel was still unattainable and remote. The most progressive artists and writers of the time attempted to reconstruct the universe and change the world through their art. The outer space was a representation of a better and brighter future. The chapter aims to analyse the influences of Russian Cosmist ideas and the October Revolution on the Russian avant-garde art following the year 1917. While still exploring the impact of both the factors separately, the analysis aims to follow the organic links between politics and philosophy in the works of avant-garde artists. In the conclusion of the chapter, the evolution of these influences and the factors behind their demise will be outlined, and the link to the following years in the history of cosmos in Russian art will be drawn. A Suprematist Tale of Two Squares, a work of El Lissitzky, will be central to the analysis undertaken in the first chapter, but the essay also draws on the works and the writings of Kazimir Malevich.

The recording of the video presented at the exhibition: « Chagall, Lissitzky, Malévitch … L’Avant-Garde russe à Vitebsk », at the Centre Pompidou in Paris from the 28 March to the 16 of July 2018. It illustrates the work by El Lissitzky « The Two Squares. A Suprematist Tale in Six Constuctions », Berlin, 1922.

The second period highlighted in the essay is between 1957 and 1969. 1957 marks the year when the first Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union, while 1969 was the year when the United States of America (US) landed a man on the moon. Since the 1950s, space flights became a long-awaited reality and part of popular culture. People were able to relate to the heroes of space travel and the Soviet art reflected this attitude. This chapter discusses in detail how and why the cosmos became representative of Soviet power during ‘the thaw’ and how it was reflected in the art of the time. Aleksandr Deineka is a major representative of Socialist Realism, and The Conquerors of Space, a painting of his, provides an important insight into the period and, therefore, is chosen as the basis for the analysis in the second chapter.


The Conquerors of Space, Aleksandr Deineka, 1961 
Medium: Oil on canvas 
Dimensions: 350 x 425 cm/ 137.8 x 167.3 in. 
Location: Lugansk Art Museum, Ukraine

Image credit: kitchener.lord

The third and final period is between the 1970s and 1990s. During this time, the ideas of Cosmism of the 1920s and 1930s were revived and translated into the new environment. The outer space did not represent the future anymore, and space flights existed parallelly to the everyday struggles of people. It once again became a representation of a better life, but now stripped of Communist ideology. The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, an installation by Ilya Kabakov, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. 

The essay concentrates specifically on major works of art of the period and provides an in-depth analysis of each work. El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Deineka, and Ilya Kabakov are key building blocks of the art history of twentieth-century Russia. They can be referred to as major innovators of their time, and their works are crucial for the research on the period in question. The works of art chosen for the research range between a painting, a book of prints, and an installation. For each period, a work has been chosen to best represent it in terms of the art movement, an artist, and a medium.

In the conclusion of the essay, the transformations between periods are aggregated in two century-wide trends. The first trend reflects the gradual materialisation of the idea of the outer space in people’s minds. The second trend is related to one of the ways in which politics consistently influenced the perspective of cosmos for both the society and the artists: the struggle between ‘private’ and ‘collective’.

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