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

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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

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