Sue Hub­bard

Un­happy Fam­i­lies

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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.

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