EXHIBITIONS / Peasant season: Andrew Graham-Dixon on Russian avant-garde art and a Peter Howson retrospective

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KAZIMIR MALEVICH'S The Reaper is a disconcerting painting that once seemed invested with the power of prophecy. Painted in the year before the outbreak of the First World War, it radically transformed an old Russian tradition of paintings of the peasant scene. Seen through Malevich's eyes, the worker, having been little more than picturesque staffage in earlier Russian painting, suddenly became an image of millenarian threat and promise. Here he stands, sickle in hand, an inscrutable robot: an image, in retrospect, of the working-class hero as both grim reaper and angel of the apocalypse.

Malevich also painted reaping women with tubular limbs in bright, metallically acid colours, toiling with the impersonal resolve of machines. They date from 1912, his busy female mechanomorphs, and they too look prophetic of later times and ideals, proto-propaganda for the achievement of Stakhanovite output norms.

Time has made these pictures seem poignant as well as prescient, emblems of the briefness with which, in early 20th-century Russia, revolutionary ideals and radical aesthetics were united. We know that the revolutionaries whose actions they seem to predict would eventually reject them. 'I consider Cubo-Futurism as the only possible way out and announce that those who will not step onto this path will be candidates for the cemetery,' declared Malevich in 1913. He was wrong, of course: Stalin made sure that it was the Cubo-Futurists who headed down cemetery road.

Shortly after the October revolution the new Commissariat for the Enlightenment appointed Kandinsky to the post of art-buyer in chief for the Russian state. The purchases that he made amount to an object lesson in the other Russian revolution: the overturning of the aesthetic status quo which took place there, roughly, between 1906 and 1924. Gathered together for the first time from the far-flung Russian provincial museums in which most of them have spent the last half-century, a large number of these pictures can be seen in 'Russian Painting of the Avant-Garde' at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.

The themes of the exhibition are textbook familiar: the relationship between new ways of seeing the world and the ambition to change the very face of it. But the story of early modern Russian art is startlingly reanimated in this retelling. Perfectly preserved by the storeroom gloom to which they were consigned by successive generations of censors during the long years of Socialist Realist hegemony, the pictures look as if they were painted yesterday.

Kandinsky, famous as the artist who painted the very first completely abstract painting (this is in fact questionable), was an appropriate candidate when it came to trying to assemble a retrospective view of the Russian avant-garde. He was well placed to appreciate what now seem the chief characteristics of the Russian modernist temper: a fantastic confidence in the artist's divine right to remodel the world, allied with a powerfully apocalyptic imagination.

Russian artists discovering modernism (unlike, say, their English counterparts) almost immediately adapted its forms to their own, original ends. Many of the most vital and innovative paintings of the Russian avant-garde took the impulse to violence, the will to dismember the world implicit in Cubism and Futurism, and pushed them to new extremes. Kandinsky himself was exemplary. His Southern, painted in 1917, the year of the October revolution, is a churning landscape of violence and affray, ploughed by the forces of perpetual metamorphosis that he saw as the guiding principle of the world: an unstable collision of the geological and the animate where living things look like fossils while rocks and stones swell, bulge and change shape with dangerous liveliness.

Kandinsky was fascinated by the principle of atomic fission, and by the notion that the world is made of minute particles in eternal flux. He wanted to paint pictures that were as abstract, as disembodied and, he hoped, as continually shifting as music (hence the constant musical allusions in the titles he gave to his paintings: Overture, Improvisation); but he allied this old art-for-art's sake aspiration with other aspirations borrowed from new models of scientific thought. 'Everything becomes precarious, unstable, soft,' he wrote. 'I would not be surprised to see a stone melt in the air before me and become invisible.' No wonder the Commissar of Enlightenment saw Kandinsky as a natural choice for the selection and purchase of modern works of art congenial to the Bolshevik view of things: like Malevich, he must have seemed like a prophet of sorts, this man who had spent the last five years painting the world as a place subject to permanent, inevitable revolution.

The new Russian art consistently repudiated older Russian art as well as responding to the innovations of School of Paris painting. Michael Larionov complicated the naivete of the lubok, the popular Russian woodcut, by crossing it with the canniness of Manet's Olympia to produce The Squaddy's Venus: a tired but monumental prostitute with enormous peasant hands sprawled on a divan. It is a disconsolate painting, but there is something undeniably heroic about this large and unhappy woman that must have made her seem, to post- revolutionary eyes, like a monument to the strength and endurance of the Russian peasant classes.

Many of the other pictures that Kandinsky bought for the Russian state seem as apocalyptic and inflammatory as his own: less like pictures than incendiary devices, designed to purge the world or at least to depict the inevitability of its purging. Liubov Popova begins by parodying Cubism but ends up by emptying it of its content, all the bric-a-brac of cafe society. She paints pictures that preserve the jaggedness of Analytic Cubism, its geometrical slices and slivers of form, but denude it of all reference other than bright, undilute colour (red and yellow prominent) so what you see looks like what Cubists might have produced had they chosen to paint the element of fire.

The sense of a world at the mercy of elemental forces that will somehow cleanse or reorder it is implicit, too, in the work of Natalia Goncharova, who takes the gentle, picturesque compositions of an older generation of artists and wreaks a peculiar transformation upon them.

Her wintry landscapes and city scenes are peopled by faceless silhouettes who find themselves dwarfed by white plains or towered over by trees whose snow-laden branches fill the air with great grey exhalations that look like mist or smoke. Her world threatens to turn as disconcertingly abstract as Kandinsky's, or Popova's, although it is engulfed rather than churned up or burned down: covered by a great spreading blanket of snow, cleansed, converted into a tabula rasa. It is not too far from these paintings to the white-on-white pictures painted by Malevich in his Suprematist phase: pictures that envisage the new world order by presenting the world still more radically and overtly as a blank page, an empty space of revolutionary possibilities.

Peter Howson, who has been accorded the honour of a major retrospective in a public art gallery at an unusually young age, has spent 10 years cultivating a vision of things which is, by contrast, distinctly dystopian. Howson's subject, like Malevich's in 1912-13, is The Workers, although his work is animated by none of the great Russian painter's sense of fervent social idealism. Howson's large and convulsive paintings of Goyaesque grotesques engaged in all manner of obscure allegorical wrongdoings (he has painted an enormous number over the last five years or so) occupy what seems like acres of wall in Glasgow's McLellan Galleries - but to no great effect.

The trouble with Howson's work lies chiefly in the rhetorical nature of its outrage and the production-line ease with which his pictures of gnarled and rugged sadists, proletarian goons to a man, have been willed into being. His moral indignation too often seems as manufactured as the style (a bastardised version of gloomily tenebrist and Expressionist sources ranging from Salvator Rosa to Goya, from Beckmann to Grosz) in which he paints.

Howson's images are most effective when confined to small scale, the scale of Goya's prints rather than his history paintings: the resulting compression lends his pictures of murderous multitudes an unpleasant, wriggling vitality that is dispersed when the artist paints mural-size paintings. The pictures work best when they exploit the termite-like quality of Howson's seething world, rather than when they aspire to monumentality. This retrospective may, in fact, have done him a peculiar form of disservice: unwise encouragement to an artist with the imagination of a Gillray who wants, mistakenly, to paint on the grand scale of a Gericault.

Exhibitions until 5 Sept at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh and McLellan Galleries, Glasgow.

(Photographs omitted)