Both the avant-garde and the Realists flocked to celebrate the Russian Revolution, but, as Michael Murray-fennell discovers, there could only be one winner
Michael Murray-fennell assesses the revolution in Russian art
Revolution’ is an exhibition of Russian icons. not the religious variety, but the secular: lenin and Stalin, the figure of the peasant and the worker. A painting from 1924, By Lenin’s Coffin, shows the dead Bolshevik leader lying in state, his face with that familiar goatee beard radiating a sanctified aura.
elsewhere, a 1929 photograph, Brigade Meeting on the Collective Farm, has shafts of light illuminating the profiles of young, square-jawed men, every one of them a disciple of the latest of Stalin’s Five-year Plans. even a fish in a still-life by Kuzma Petrovvodkin (who trained as an icon painter) is imbued with a glowing spirituality, all the more keenly felt owing to the sheer scarcity of food at the time.
Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this engrossing exhibition charts the period from the fall of the tsars in 1917 to a major 1932 survey of the Russian art created in those first 15 years of the Soviet Republic. As Stalin’s grip tightened, the 1932 exhibition proved to be the swan song of the country’s avant-garde movement as the heroic, figurative Socialist Realism became the only permitted art of the new society.
However, what the curators of today’s excellent exhibition are at pains to stress is that, before 1932, albeit for a relatively brief moment, it was not an ‘either/or’ situation; both schools were encouraged and both approaches tried to capture the excitement and the possibilities offered by the proletarian revolution.
in 1917, everything seemed possible. in a series of graphic posters, vladimir Mayakovsky warns the capitalists in england that ‘worldwide revolution is at their door—as clearly as two times two is four’. But why stop at this world?
‘This brave new world needed a brave new art’
Workers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains
Konstantin Yuon’s New Planet, from 1921, shows a bright Communist-red globe in the distance, the inhabitants of a parched planet greeting (or possibly fleeing) the rays of this new dawn.
This brave new world needed a brave new art. ‘Objective representation,’ declared Kazimir Malevich, the leading painter of the Russian avant-garde, ‘has nothing to do with art.’ A number of his Suprematism canvases are on display at the Royal Academy, painted as the Russian dynasty collapsed. Master of geometric abstraction, Malevich manipulates triangles, parallelograms and other shapes to express the dynamism of the age.
‘Art must provide the newest forms,’ he argued, ‘to reflect the social problems of proletarian society.’ The trouble was there were so many problems. In the first few years after the revolution, famine and drought, the failure of industrialisation and the collapse of the economy saw millions die. Collect- ivisation, combining farms into ever-larger communes, wiped out villages and an ancient way of life. Falling out of favour with the authorities, Malevich captured that loss of identity by giving his peasants blank, nightmarish oval-shaped faces.
But as the accompanying catalogue makes clear, the posters, photography and paintings of Socialist Realism proved far more effective propaganda tools than the abstractions of the avant-garde. The exhibition is a reminder of how well generators and pylons photograph and it is full of stunning black-and-white images of muscular youths—the Soviet Union’s ‘shock-workers’— at the wheels of industry.
A photomontage towards the end shows a waving Uncle Joe surrounded by the fruits of his Five-year Plan, including combine harvesters, vast industrial estates and, inevitably, a row of tractors. From prints to film, to ceramics to paintings, there has never been a show as devoted to the art of this farm vehicle.
Within a separate space, a re-creation of one of Vladimir Tatlin’s gliders—‘a worker’s flying bicycle’— hangs from the ceiling. The delicate bent and steamed ash-wood structure is as apt a metaphor as any for the hopes and aspirations of the revolution. They proved as fragile as the bird’s wing the glider resembles and ‘Revolution’ ends on a distinctly sombre note.
In a small dark room are slides showing the victims of Stalin’s purges during the 1930s, including psychiatrist Viktor Finne, housewife Olga Pilipenko and Greek teacher Aleksandr Boldyrev. ‘Workers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains,’ wrote Karl Marx. In fact, they had a lot more to lose.
‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917– 1932’ is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, London W1, until April 17 (020–7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk)
Next week: Brian Rice at Belgrave St Ives
Above: In The Promenade (1917–18), Chagall celebrates his wife, Bella. The Revolution filled him with the same optimism, but he became disillusioned. Below: The giant figure in Boris Kustodiev’s The Bolshevik (1920) reflects the strength of the downtrodden masses
Above: In Fantasy (1925), Kuzma Petrov-vodkin depicts the red horse, a Russian symbol of change. Below right: In Blue Crest (1917), Kandinsky used abstraction to capture the energy of the revolution