Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, Royal Academy of Arts, until 17th April 2017
Remake everything. Organise it so as to make everything new, so that our false, dirty, boring, ugly life becomes just, clean, happy and beautiful.
Alexander Blok, The Intelligentsia and the Revolution, 1918
One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, with insurgency stirring across the contemporary world from the USA to the Middle East, the Royal Academy’s exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 could not be timelier. It is almost impossible not to look at it through the lens of contemporary events. But what, if anything, can we learn from the past? Does culture produced a century ago teach us anything about propaganda, lies and the use of art as a coercive tool to hoodwink the masses? Or do we have to muddle through history, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each generation in our own particular way?
The Russian Revolution was one of the most turbulent periods in modern history. Centuries of autocratic rule, along with the grip of the Orthodox Church, were swept away in October 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and the socialist Bolshevik Party came to power, leading to a civil war between the Communist Reds and the Tsarist White Russians. Initially there seemed to be a sense of euphoria that promised a sunlit proletarian future. But, with the rise of Stalin after Lenin’s death, the early elation and creativity were crushed under his repressive dictatorship. Avant-garde artists originally embraced the revolution and, with it, the potential to create new art forms for a new world order. But by the late 1920s many of them were condemned by the Soviet authorities—who favoured propagandist forms of Social Realism to avant-garde innovation—to the gulag. Others were shot.
The Royal Academy exhibition is an enormously ambitious show with works borrowed from Russia that many of us have never seen before and are unlikely to see in this country again. It takes as its starting point the major exhibition of 1932 at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad curated by the art critic Nikolai Punin that showcased art from the first fifteen years of the Revolution. Arranged in thematic sections it explores the complex and often shifting relationship between art and politics. The Bolshevik government urgently needed to create new myths and stories in order to reach the largely illiterate population previously ruled by an absolute Tsar. ‘Cultural legacy’ became the Bolsheviks’ priority. By April 1918 Lenin had mounted his Plan for Monumental Propaganda. Brightly painted trains covered with populist slogans travelled the vast swathes of the USSR spreading radical ideas. Sculptures, banners, slogans, textiles, photographs and even Grayson Perry-style ceramic pots, decorated with revolutionary scenes and portraits of Lenin, were used to propagate Communist ideas. Vera Mukina’s Valkyrie-like bronze female figure, Flame of the Revolution, 1922-3, a monument designed for Yakov Sverdkiv, Chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, not only fetishizes the revolutionary ideal also illustrates the importance of women during this landmark moment in history.
With the start of the Revolution the existing cultural frameworks collapsed. Many artists saw this as an opportunity to create a Brave New World where they could construct an entirely new culture. In the early years there was an extraordinary exchange of ideas between East and West. Cubism can be seen in Lyubov Popova’s Braque-like constructions, while the speed, excitement and bravura of Futurism infiltrates throughout. This momentary freedom and the euphoria it produced spawned some of the most innovative talents in theatre, the visual arts, music, literature and architecture. Talents such as the architect and artist El Lissitzky, painters like Kandinsky, the theatre director Vsevolad Myerhold and poets Akhmatova and Mayakosky, as well as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, whose portraits are shown here in a stunning array of gelatin silver prints.
Russia was a profoundly religious (and superstitious) country. When the Orthodox Church was banned religious icons were replaced by images of
Lenin who, on his death, was enshrined like a saint in a mausoleum in Red Square. The many portraits of him shown here range from the intimate but academic by Isaak Brodsky, to those printed on kerchiefs, presumably for the masses.
By the time Stalin rose to supremacy his principal goal was to make the Soviet Union a powerhouse of industrial production and in 1928 he introduced his first Five-Year Plan. The section ‘Man and Machine’ presents some of the exhibition’s most fascinating images and insights. Black and white photographs of fresh-faced young workers–both male and female– are set dramatically against cranes, crankshafts and power cables–all that was, then, new and modern. Photography, unlike painting, could be easily reproduced and widely distributed and technology was presented as the salvation of the masses. Komsomal at the Wheel 1929 depicts a young worker in a singlet standing astride a mass of impressive pistons. Both anonymous and god-like, he clasps a great iron wheel in his hands conjuring both Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and an idealised Greek sculpture.
One of the most poignant sections of the exhibition is dedicated to Kazimir Malevich, who had a fraught relationship with the regime, precariously caught between success and failure. In the late 1920s his abstract paintings were denounced. A mystic and innovator of geometric abstraction Malevich was wedded to notions of spirituality, which he expressed through Suprematism, epitomised by his iconic work Black Square that represented ‘zero form’. The RA has reproduced the original room from the 1932 exhibition where Supremastist works are shown alongside his later figurative paintings that attempted to conform to the representation demanded by Soviet dogma. Nevertheless the blank faces subversively suggest the loss of personal identity under Communism. Hung above an altar-like table where he assembled his arkhitektoniki– prototypes for buildings without windows and doors, the tallest of which is topped by a tiny model of Soviet man–he created a complex installation that attempted to meld his internal creative world with what was acceptable to the regime.
When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 they promised the peasants their own land. A pledge they had no intention of keeping. (It’s hard not
to see parallels between those betrayed peasants and Donald Trump’s deceived rust-belt voters assured fantasy jobs.) The Soviet emblem of a hammer and a sickle promoted the notion of equality between industrial and agricultural workers. But the industrialisation of agriculture couldn’t easily be achieved with old farming methods. Crops failed and millions starved. Idealised paintings such as Alexei Pakhomov’s Harvest, 1928, showing a woman reaping golden sheaves of corn, belied the truth that famine was stalking the land.
A number of artists retained a nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary Russia of the Tsars with its landscape of birch trees and onion-domed churches. Those such as Vasily Baksheev and Igor Gravar expressed a longing to return to this romanticised idyll and lost way of life. Such images stood in stark contrast to the modernist prototype of Vladimir Tatlin’s 1932 flying machine, which in the RA has its own ante-room. Letalin evokes not only Leonardo’s bird studies but stands as a metaphor for both political and imaginative freedom and all that was deemed possible after the Revolution.
As did the Nazis, the Communist party regarded sporting prowess and physical fitness as a way of developing healthy minds and bodies. As early as 1922 Gustavas Klucis and El Lissitzky, two artists associated with constructivism, produced work that celebrated sport. Alexander Samakhvalav’s paintings Sportswoman with a Shot-put and Girl in a Football Jersey from the early 1930s demonstrate not only the democratisation and sexual levelling inherent in sport but also reflect, following a 1932 resolution, that all art would, henceforth, be in the approved style of Social Realism and directed to ‘the service of building socialism.’
Perhaps no other art form was better suited to the times than film. As Lenin said: ‘of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important’. While the October Revolution was triumphantly proclaimed to the west through Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, films such as Days of Struggle and Sickle and Hammer were shown on the agit-trains and river ships that carried the Bolshevik message to far flung corners of the continent and became integral to the Soviet cinema’s romanticised founding mythology.
After the 1932 exhibition, ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, when Stalin’s leadership became absolute, avant-garde art vanished, to be locked away in basements and storerooms. In the early years, Constructivists had decried painting as bourgeois but, now, only Social Realism was tolerated. Any artist who deviated from the Party line was deemed a formalist and could be sent to the Gulag.
The exhibition ends with a chilling film made up of mugshots of victims of the purges. There are engineers, teachers, railway workers, writers and actors. No information is given as to their so-called offences. Only the stark facts are noted. The date of their arrest, the length of time they were held and when they were shot or, in very rare cases, released. Any one of them might have been Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s model for Ivan Denisovich. Begun in a blaze of fervour and utopian idealism the Russian Revolution produced some of the most innovative art of the twentieth century. But it was not long before that avant-garde, like many of the dissonant voices that exposed the reality and brutality of the Soviet regime, was crushed. The grand utopian visions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are now out of fashion. What is spreading today is repressive autocracy led by rulers motivated by greed and profit. Such leaders rely less on terror than Stalin and more on rule bending. But ‘alternative facts’, lies and propaganda are common to both. That Donald Trump has started to cut the National Endowment for the Arts should, perhaps, be a timely warning.