Last Tuesday it was back down to London with work. I arrived mid-afternoon and had a few hours before I was due to meet up with a colleague so decided to take in an exhibition. Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 had recently opened at the Royal Academy so I decided to go and have a look.
This was my first visit to the RA, which is housed in the rather grand Burlington House just off Piccadilly in Mayfair, probably the poshest part of central London.
The building is also the home to a number of other societies, including the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Linnaean Society.
This year is the Centenary of the Russian Revolution when the workers and peasants rose up to overthrow their oppressors (there are other interpretations of the events, but that’s my take on them). Unfortunately the promise of a better society was undermined by events and dictatorship of the proletariat was replaced by the dictatorship of Stalin.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum and reflects what’s going on in wider society. At the turn of the 20th Century society was in turmoil and this led to the emergence of many ideas including avant-garde approaches to art. In Russia, artists including Kazimir Malevich (of the notorious Black Square, the founder of Suprematism), Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall had produced ground breaking works before 1917. But with the Revolutions of that year, Society was turned upside down with the old structures and ways of doing things being overthrown – and this was reflected in the explosion of experimental and avant-garde art.
Kazimir Malevich,Dynamic Suprematism Supremus, 1915
Malevich wrote in 1919
‘Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it,’
And what was true of painting was true for other art forms – photography, poetry, literature cinema, drama and architecture.
Many of the avant-garde artists at the time were active participants in the Revolution, producing posters and decorations for anniversaries, pageants, street theatre and agit-prop trains. Artists were encouraged to make art for everyday life that would reach a wide audience.
Boris Kustodiev, The Bolshevik, 1920
Unfortunately, this was not to last. In the 1920’s, in the face of counter-revolution and hostile intervention from the West, the regime began to turn against radicalism and the abstraction, and with the rise of Stalin, the avant-garde was considered to be anti-Soviet, the dictatorship preferring Socialist Realism which glorified the Proletariat, the State, the Party and it’s leader
– using realist styles to create highly optimistic depictions of Soviet life (Tate website)
And in 1932 Stalin decreed that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable style for the Soviet Union.
The exhibition at the RA
explores one of the most momentous periods in modern world history through the lens of its groundbreaking art
the entire artistic landscape of post-Revolutionary Russia, encompassing Kandinsky’s boldly innovative compositions, the dynamic abstractions of Malevich and the Suprematists, and the emergence of Socialist Realism, which would come to define Communist art as the only style accepted by the regime.
It includes paintings, drawings, photographs, film, textiles, ceramics and even a reconstruction of a Constructivist glider.
The curators have chosen a thematic rather than a chronological approach for the exhibition but, for me, that wasn’t appropriate. I don’t think that exhibitions have to be chronological,but this is meant to be a survey of art during a period of turmoil and how it changed, so it would have been logical to follow the timeline.
Not only that, for me, it started on the wrong foot. The first room was entitled Salute the Leader and featured portraits of Lenin and Stalin
Isaak Brodsky,V.I.Lenin and a Demonstration,1919.
To me this set the tone for the exhibition, suggesting, incorrectly, that right from the start the Revolution was about the leader, when this wasn’t actually the case;. the cult of the leader really began as the Revolution began to degenerate. Was this approach deliberate?
The second gallery was also out of sync with the timeline. Man and Machine displays works mainly from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, when the new Soviet Union, having defeated the White counter-revolutionaries, was expanding its industrial production. 1928 saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans which led to a massive increase in production. The works in this room included photographs, paintings, film clips and ceramics, all focusing on industry and workers.
Reconstruction of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, Blacksmith, 1921
The photographs were particularly interesting especially as I’d only been to the exhibition of Modernist photographs from Elton John’s collection at Tate Modern just a few weeks ago. The photographs by Alexander Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovich, Arkady Shaiket, Georgi Zelma and Georgy Petrusov were outstanding examples of Modernist photography. Figurative images but abstract in the way they were composed – use of light and shade, unusual and unexpected angles and viewpoints
Arkady Shaikhet, Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station, 1928
Presenting humdrum industrial objects in unexpected and interesting ways.
Boris Ignatovich Tightening the Bolt: Lever Controls for Tramways, 1930
Boris Ignatovich ,Control levers, 1930
This was realism – “but not as we know it Jim”
A similar approach was taken by film makers during the period and clips were showing on an overhead screen of films by Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin.
The next two rooms concentrated on avant-garde art from the early days of the Revolution
Radical innovations in Russian art had already occurred a few years before 1917, when artists such as Kazimir Malevich developed styles based on pure geometric form and colour. But in the heady days after the Revolution, Vasily Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Pavel Filonov, Lyubov Popova and many others seized their chance to shake off the past and produce brave new art.
The existing cultural infrastructure collapsed. Trains brightly painted with slogans and images, distributing propaganda materials, travelled throughout the country spreading Bolshevik ideas and art. 5 Avant-garde artists took on official cultural roles and gathered around the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (known as NARKOMPROS), led by Anatoly Lunacharsky, which recognised their status and secured them state commissions – an important source of work in the absence of a commercial art market.
The freedom and euphoria of the Revolution produced some of the most remarkable talents in art, theatre, music, literature and architecture.
There were a number of discoveries for me including the propaganda glass paintings by Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaya
Dymshits-Tolstaya’s propaganda paintings were unconventional in their use of glass. They link images of workers’ tools with fragments of slogans from the early revolutionary years.
Ivan Puni’s Flight of Forms (1919)
and the intricate, multi levelled images of Pavel Filinov
Pavel Filinov Formula of the Petrograd Soviet (1920-21)
Gallery 3 also included photographic portraits of Russian artists from the period, including a portrait of Mayakovsky by Rodchenko
Moving on the next room, which included
an almost exact re-creation of that display. ‘Red Square (Pictorial Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions)’ and ‘Black Square’ (a later version of the 1915 original) occupy the centre.
Complex Suprematist canvases are exhibited with Malevich’s later, more figurative paintings, in which blank faces hauntingly evoke lost identity on the collective farm. These were Malevich’s attempt to conform to the Soviet dogma that required art to be representational.
So we can now see how artists were having to adapt their works to the demands of the Stalinists while, as Malevich did, attempting to maintain a Modern approach to art
Kazimir Malevich,Peasants, (c. 1930)
Discoveries in this room included the paintings of Ivan Klyun
and the Suprematist designs on pottery by Malevich and Nikolai Suetin
Moving on through the galleries the art began to become more conventional reflecting the pressures of conforming to the directives of the State to produce more conventional Realist work.
However there was something of a surprise in the central gallery. A reproduction of an enormous bird like glider designed by Vladimir Tatlin. Reminiscent of a flying dinosaur, dramatically displayed, suspended from the ceiling, revolving and casting shadows from spotlights directed towards it from the ceiling.
It was worth the price of admission to see this astounding work.
I was less interested in the second half of the exhibition which traced the changes in artistic expression as the Stalinists consolidated power, with changes in output and style reflecting shifts in policy such as War Communism and the New Economic Policy (NEP)
Much has been written about how the Stalinists forced artists to abandon their avant-garde approaches and favour more traditional approaches to art. But I found it interesting to see the works produced by artists who were
nostalgic for the beauty and charm of the old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses
pleaded for the retention of the Orthodox faith and argued for the preservation of churches and the traditional peasant culture threatened by collectivisation. In lyrical paintings and beautifully decorated art journals, artists expressed their longing for a country that no longer existed
Little is said about the backward looking art of the counter-revolutionaries by those who criticise the Communists for preferring more traditional forms. Malevich would not have prospered if the Whites had been victorious.
The final room – Stalin’s Utopia – represented the final victory of Stalinism and Socialist Realism. Despite this some of the works revealed an undercurrent of innovation and originally
Alexander Deineka, Race, 1932
And it’s hard to completely suppress true talent, so the work of some artists, like Alexander Rodchenko still shone through
Aleksandr Rodchenko, Pioneer with a Bugle, 1930
After 1932 avant-garde art was suppressed. Within a year, it had vanished. The Union of Soviet Artists was the sole arbiter of Soviet art,and Socialist Realism became the only approved style in the Soviet Union.