ANEW EXHIBITION opens at the Royal Academy this week marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution by exploring the art made in that country in the 15 years after 1917, the period until Stalin began his violent suppression of the avant-garde. Jewish artists are, unsurprisingly, well represented in this exhibition as, following years of antisemitism and oppression under the Tsars, Jews embraced the revolutionary ideals and became involved with the government, in the hope that the new social order with new rules would improve their lives.
One such artist was Marc Chagall, who exhibition curator Dr Natalia Murray tells me was “one of the most important artists for the formation of not only 20th century Russian art but European modernism.” Chagall wrote of his enthusiasm for the Revolution, saying it “shook me with a full force that overpowered the individual, his essence, pouring across the borders of imagination and bursting into the most intimate world of images that turn themselves into part of the Revolution.” Something of this sentiment can be found in his 1917 painting
which shows Chagall taking a walk in his home town of Vitebsk with his beloved wife Bella, who flies up above him, waving like a flag, suggesting something of the freedom, exuberance and excitement of the time. Chagall served as Comissar of Arts in Vitebsk where he organised revolutionary street decorations and was Director of the People’s Art School. However, his enthusiasm for the Revolution did not last. At one point Party officials asked him what his flying animals had to do with Marx and Lenin. In 1922, Chagall obtained permission to leave the country and the couple settled in Paris.
Also on show at the RA will be works by Isaak Brodsky, another Jewish artist, much less wellknown in the west, who, however, is renowned in Russia as a forefather of socialist realism in particular for his portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Born in Sofievka in the Ukraine in 1884, he studied first at the Odessa School of Arts and then received one of the few places reserved for Jews at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. Briefly involved in the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of Arts in 1916, he always acknowledged his Jewish heritage and wrote in his memoirs of the antisemitism he experienced prior to the Revolution. He was one of a number of young artists who became involved in the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR), a neo-Realist group created in 1922. Its declaration ambitiously announced: “Our civic duty before mankind is to set down, artistically or documentarily, the revolutionary impulse of this great moment in history.”
Recognisable portraits of the