Red Star Over Russia

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November 7  2017 marked the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution when the workers and peasants overthrew the oppressive Tsarist regime. The apparent contradiction arising as Russia at that time still used the Julian Calendar which was several days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West so as far as the Russians were concerned the date was 25 October.  This exhibition at Tate Modern featuring posters, prints, photographs and other images collected by the photographer and graphic designer David King, who died only recently in 2016, is meant to mark the historic event.

The Revolution started with great hope and optimism about creating a new kind of Society, unleashing enormous creativity by artists who supported its aims. Sadly in the face of counter revolutionary forces supported by the west the early idealism turned sour leading to the vicious dictatorship of Josef Stalin.

David King collected over 250,000 books, journals, posters, documents and newspapers dating from the Russian Revolution to the Khrushchev era which were acquired by the Tate just before his death. A cross section of the collection is included in this exhibition, which uses them to give visitors a glimpse of life in the Soviet Union during this period. As the Guardian’s review puts it, it’s

a condensed vision of five decades of Soviet hopes ending in devastation and despair.

 

I’m not going to attempt a full survey or critique of the exhibition but, as photography was allowed, here’s some of my favourites from the items on display.

From the early optimisitic days of the Revolution, the first room included this banner

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and a wall covered with prints and posters

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which included El Lissitzky‘s well known Supremacist poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

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The red triangle driving into a white disc against a black ground, urging the revolutionary Bolsheviks to defeat the reactionary White Russians. 

Underneath, this imaginative work – a photomontage making up a hammer and sickle by Yakov Guminer

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The next room was my favourite with the photographs and graphic work by Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky both of who also produced works in collaboration with their wives, Varvara Stepanova and Sophie Küppers respectively.

There were a number of extraordinarily brilliant ground breaking photographs by Rodchenko

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and a series of abstract graphic works by El Lissitzky

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There were also examples of the journal, USSR in Construction, to which both couples contributed photomontage and other design elements.

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In the next room the walls were lined with a series of photographs providing snapshots of the history of Russia from 1905 until WWII.

Unfortunately the period of experimentation and radical art didn’t last long. 1934 saw the dawn of “Socialist Realism”, the Stalinist State dictating that artists should use realist styles to create highly optimistic depictions of Soviet life. There was a typical example of this in the next room with a series of large paintings by Alexander Deineka  produced for the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris, portraying   which “fused reality with aspiration”.

The next room brought us back down to Earth. Here there were “before and after” photographs showing us how leaders and other individuals who fell out of favour with the Stalinist regime were “erased from history”. And there was a particularly moving display of photos of some of the many hundreds of thousands of people, many of them true Revolutionaries, who were murdered by the Stalinist State.

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The final room featured posters and photographs from the period following the German invasion in 1941when artists were mobilised to create propaganda, in some cases reworking images from the early revolutionary period.

I enjoyed looking around the exhibition and was pleased that I’d had the opportunity to catch it before it closed. And I still had an hour or so to spare to look round some of the free displays before I had to leave to catch my train.

 

Revolution at the Royal Academy

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

The Bolshevik. Boris Kustodiev, 1920

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

surveying

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, VI Lenin and a demonstration 

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.

Blacksmith. Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1921

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

Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station

Arkady Shaikhet, Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station, 1928

Presenting humdrum industrial objects in unexpected and interesting ways.

Boris Ignatovich

Boris Ignatovich Tightening the Bolt: Lever Controls for Tramways, 1930

Control levers, 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)

Ivan Puni Flight of forms 

and the intricate, multi levelled images of Pavel Filinov

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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

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

Malevich Peasants 1930

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.

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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

and who

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

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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. Gelatin silver print. 9 1/4 x 7 1/16" (23.5 x 18 cm). Gift of the Rodchenko family. 789.1998. Photography:

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.

Malevich at Tate Modern

The Tate seem to have a thing about artists whose names begin with M at the moment. The main temporary exhibition at the Liverpool Gallery features the work of Piet Mondrian and Nasreen Mohamedi, while the Tate Modern in London is showing major exhibitions by both Matisse and Kazamir Malevich. during my trip to London last week I managed to find some time for a couple of visits to the Tate so I can now tick all the M’s off my to do list.

Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1913

Of the exhibitions in London, although the Matisse had some beautiful works on display, the Malevich was definitely the best of the two. A retrospective covering the whole of his artistic life with a comprehensive selection of paintings and drawings and a room of contextual items – photographs, lesson plans and the like.

The exhibition traced his development as an artist – his rise and fall – in the context of the social and political upheavals in Russia during the first half of the 20th Century. Born during the reign of the Tsars he lived through the First world War, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the rise of Stalinism. And his art reflected what was happening around him.

His early works in Room show how he was immersed in French Modern Art from the early years of the 20th Century through access to the art collections of two rich merchants in Moscow. His pictures show how he absorbed the influences of the Impressionists, Post_impressionists, early Picasso and Matisse and the Fauves, which can be detected in the paintings on display. Some of the paintings also show influences of traditional Russian religious art.

Self-Portrait (1908)

The second room showed how he built on all of these influences to develop a Russian Modernist style which concentrated on depicting Russian subjects. After 1910 he changed tack as Malevich and other Russian artists came under the influence of the Italian Futurists, absorbing their ideas but going on to develop their own interpretation of the Futurist approach, more radical than the Italians

What came next, however, was without precedent. At a time when the workers and peasants of Russia were struggling to overthrow the old, repressive order, and would go on to try to create a new society based on new ideals, Malevich was in the vanguard of a revolution in art that would overthrow all the established ideas and approaches.

Although I knew it was coming, it was still something of a shock to walk into the room where the Black Square and a small number of other, similar works were displayed. The complex cubo-futurist patterns had gone, replaced by canvases with only simple blocks of colour. This was Suprematism, “the painting of pure form” and “the supremacy of pure feeling”.

It is difficult for us today to appreciate just how revolutionary and shocking this reduction of painting to simple form and pure colour was in 1916. To understand how it came about we need to understand the tremendous upheaval taking pace in society in Russia at the time and view this art in that context. Malevich and his circle were revolutionaries in terms of their art but also their politics. Society was being turned upside down with the old structures and ways of doing things being overthrown and this is exactly what Malevich was doing. Malevich wrote in 1919

‘Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it,’

I think this aspect is underplayed in the Tate’s analysis and explanation in the exhibition. Many of the avant-garde artists at the time were active particiapnts in the Revolution, producing posters and decorations for anniversaries, pageants, street theatre and agit-prop trains.

Malevich and the Suprematists continued to produce these works as the Russian Revolution progressed. This culminated in the paintings displayed in Room 8 – The End of Painting – my favourite room in the exhibition. The culmination of the approach was the creation of paintings with white on white such as White Suprematist Cross (1920-21). This room also contained a number of paintings where simple blocks of colour are starting to “dissolve” at one edge, perhaps representing how society itself was dissolving and disappearing.

Suprematist Composition- White on White, (1918)

But Suprematism could only go so far. I think it was inevitable that the Suprematists would take their art in new directions, building on what they had learned. That’s progess. Art like society doesn’t stand still. Unfortunately Russian Society started to move towards dictatorship culminating in the rise of Stalinism. Avant-garde art started to be seen as elitist. Malevich returned to painting figurative works, but they were were complex and semi-abstract. But in the 1930’s, under attack from the Stalinists who favoured “Socialist Realist” art, he returned to painting true figurative works, particularly portraits and there are many examples of these in the final room. But even then he stamped them with his own approach with many of them looking like Renaissance figures, so he was subverting Stalinist art in a subtle way.

Worker - Kazimir Malevich

His earlier works were too much for the Stalinists. They were banned and hidden away after he died in 1935. But his followers made a last stand, mourners at his funeral paraded with images of the black square.

malevich funeral

This was a marvellous exhibition I’d love to visit again. There was too much to absorb and digest in one sitting. But it demonstrated that Malevich was a great artist who could produce great works in whatever style he chose to work and was also responsible for creating a new style.

I went to see the Matisse cut-outs exhibition showing on the Second Floor the next day. That was good but the Malevich exhibition was by far the more interesting, thought provoking and exciting of the two.