The first ever Dutch retrospective of work by Gustavs Klucis (a.k.a. Gustav Klutsis, 1895 – 1938) goes on show soon in the print room of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. Klucis was taught by Kazimir Malevich and is regarded as the pioneer of Constructivist photomontage in Russia. The forthcoming presentation will include drawings, posters, postcards, book jackets and exhibition designs in which the photomontage technique emerges as a powerful new art form and means of political propaganda. The presence in the museum’s own collection of work by Dutch photomonteurs Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema makes the Gemeentemuseum a highly appropriate venue for this exhibition, organised in collaboration with the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga.
From 1913, Klucis studied at the City Art School in Riga. In 1915, when the city was attacked by German troops, Klucis was conscripted into the imperial Russian army and ordered to Ochsta near St Petersburg, where he subsequently studied at the Art Academy. In the days following the October Revolution of 1917, he volunteered to join the Ninth Regiment of the Latvian Red Infantry in defence of Lenin. Inspired by Malevich and Constructivism, he also began around this time to produce art in support of the emerging Communist state.
In 1919 Klucis produced a series of drawings, photomontages and paintings entitled Dynamic City, showing that he wanted to turn Malevich’s Suprematism into a more concrete artistic movement. Developing alongside Tatlin, Pevsner and Gabo, he became one of the first Constructivists, producing work that exemplifies the political engagement and spirit of innovation that inspired this Russian movement. Around 1919, he discovered photomontage, which he himself later described as a new kind of art for the masses: the art of the Socialist revolution.
From this time on, Klucis was offered a series of prestigious design commissions. These included, for example, one for the 1928 Spartakiade (the Soviet Union’s alternative to the Olympic Games). Klucis designed a series of postcards and a poster establishing a clear link between sport and revolution. In all, he produced over a hundred poster designs, many of them relating to the Five Year Plans and supporting the collectivisation of agriculture and the large-scale industrialisation of the Soviet Union.
Gustavs Klucis was arrested on 17 January 1938 and accused of belonging to a Latvian terrorist organisation (such ‘random’ political purges were a feature of life under Stalin). He was taken away and for many years his wife, artist Valentina Kulagina (1902-1987), knew nothing of his fate. In 1956 his family heard that he had died of heart failure in a labour camp in 1944. It was not until 1989 that they were informed that he had in fact been shot in Moscow on 26 February 1938.
This exhibition has been organised with the support of the Latvian Embassy in the Netherlands. It is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue authored by Iveta Derkusova, Frans Peterse and others.