The rev­o­lu­tion should not be li­on­ized


One hun­dred years af­ter the 1917 Soviet rev­o­lu­tion in Rus­sia, two baf­fling mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions at­tempt to re­cast one of the blood­i­est regimes in hu­man his­tory in a pos­i­tive light. “Rev­o­lu­tion Ev­ery Day” at the Smart Mu­seum and “Revo­lut­siia! De­mon­strat­siia! Soviet Art Put to the Test” at the Art In­sti­tute take dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to their sub­ject, but nei­ther pays much more than lip ser­vice to the mil­lions of vic­tims of the his­tor­i­cal pe­riod these shows cel­e­brate.

“Rev­o­lu­tion Ev­ery Day,” ac­cord­ing to the in­tro­duc­tory text in its brochure, “un­der­mines our ready­made re­sponses to the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion and makes it pos­si­ble for Western au­di­ences to ex­pe­ri­ence Soviet vis­ual art anew.” The show con­sists of Soviet pro­pa­ganda posters, film clips, and pho­tos from the 1920s and ’ 30s— many made by fe­male artists— and at­tempts to re­late all the ma­te­rial to more con­tem­po­rary art, such as Olga Ch­erny­sheva’s videos of postUSSR pa­rades and por­traits by ex­hibit cocu­ra­tor Zachary Cahill.

Wan­der­ing through the gal­leries I saw fa­mil­iar Soviet slo­gans ex­hort­ing the pro­le­tariat to pull to­gether to­ward a bright fu­ture but lit­tle ac­knowl­edge­ment of the grim re­al­ity of life in Rus­sia dur­ing the early- to mid- 20th cen­tury. In a blog en­try on the ex­hibit’s site, Cahill seems to de­fend those who over­threw the Czarist regime, then cir­cuitously ties that time pe­riod to our present po­lit­i­cal mo­ment. I’m hor­ri­fied by the cur­rent state of Amer­i­can life, but look­ing to Lenin and com­pany for a way for­ward is dan­ger­ous and fool­ish. By even the most gen­er­ous ac­counts, the fa­ther of the Soviet Rev­o­lu­tion was a ruth­less dic­ta­tor who crushed any­one who dared op­pose him, be they the old- guard Whites— who wanted to re­store the monar­chy— or the Men­she­viks, com­pet­ing so­cial­ists who cham­pi­oned al­ter­nate ap­proaches of gov­ern­ing to Lenin’s Bol­she­viks.

“Revo­lut­siia! De­mon­strat­siia!” doesn’t try to as­so­ciate the early days of the Soviet era with the present, but in­stead at­tempts to ex­hibit the arts and crafts of that time on their own terms. It’s a sprawl­ing show spread across sev­eral i nter­con­nected gal­leries. Each room ad­dresses an as­pect of Soviet life, such as home, school, and work. There are re- cre­ations of a pe­riod ex­hi­bi­tion space, a work­ers’ club­house, and nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of artists’ de­signs for ev­ery­day ob­jects, from chess pieces to dish­ware to fur­ni­ture.

Ex­hibit or­ga­niz­ers Devin Fore and Matthew Witkovsky quote Walter Ben­jamin in their in­tro­duc­tion to the ex­hibit cat­a­logue, say­ing that the Soviet Rev­o­lu­tion was “one of the most grandiose mass- psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­per­i­ments ever un­der­taken in the gi­gan­tic lab­o­ra­tory that Rus­sia has be­come.” But al­most nowhere through­out this en­cy­clo­pe­dic ode to the era is there ac­knowl­edge­ment of the many vic­tims of that ex­per­i­ment. The cu­ra­tors’ aim is stated thus: “Per­mit­ted to in­habit its own ar­ti­fac­tual tem­po­ral­ity, the art­work drifts out of phase with the his­tor­i­cal pa­ram­e­ter of po­lit­i­cal ex­i­gency and en­ables al­ter­na­tive ac­counts of Soviet cul­ture on this cen­te­nary oc­ca­sion and into the fu­ture.” The trou­ble is that no amount of the­o­riz­ing can wash away the blood of the mil­lions mur­dered by that “cul­ture.”

By con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates, the Red Ter­ror that took place be­tween 1918 and 1920, which Lenin ini­ti­ated to squelch op­po­si­tion, ac­counted for 100,000 deaths; that doesn’t in­clude ca­su­al­ties of the con­cur­rent civil war. The Bol­she­viks fought a so­ci­o­log­i­cal and cul­tural bat­tle as well— the “New Man” the Sovi­ets sought to cre­ate would soon enough turn on artists who thrived dur­ing the first decade of the USSR. But the Art In­sti­tute doesn’t stray too far into the 30s, when Stalin extinguished most at­tempts at in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion.

In the cat­a­log for­ward, Art In­sti­tute pres­i­dent James Ron­deau de­scribes “Revo­lut­siia! De­mon­strat­siia!” as “panop­tic,” which im­me­di­ately made me think of 18th- cen­tury philoso­pher Jeremy Ben­tham’s Panop­ti­con prison. Ben­tham de­scribed it as “a new mode of ob­tain­ing power of mind over mind, in a quan­tity hith­erto with­out ex­am­ple” and as “a mill for grind­ing rogues hon­est.” Those are much more ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tions of the Soviet en­ter­prise than any­thing one will find in the halls of the Smart Mu­seum or the Art In­sti­tute at present.

On my way out of “Revo­lut­siia!” I looked into a vit­rine filled with chil­dren’s draw­ings. I was mo­men­tar­ily charmed, un­til I read the ex­plana­tory text iden­ti­fy­ing the doo­dles as be­long­ing to Stalin’s daugh­ter. In a lit­tle girl’s scrawl she com­mands her fa­ther to spend more time with her, us­ing the cold and bu­reau­cratic lan­guage of the Bol­she­viks, an im­per­sonal style you might find in le­gal doc­u­ments, in which re­quire­ments are made to one party. This was the New Man be­ing cre­ated in Rus­sia— un­bend­ing, au­thor­i­tar­ian, sav­age, and cer­tainly noth­ing to be in­spired by, no mat­ter how dark our own times have be­come. “REV­O­LU­TION EV­ERY DAY”

Through 1/ 14/ 18. Tue- Sun 10 AM- 5 PM ( Thu till 8 PM), Smart Mu­seum of Art, 5550 S. Green­wood, 773- 702- 0200, smart­mu­seum. uchicago. edu. “REVO­LUT­SIIA! DE­MON­STRAT­SIIA! SOVIET

ART PUT TO THE TEST” Through 1/ 15/ 2018. Sun– Wed and Fri- Sat 10: 30 AM– 5 PM, Thu 10: 30 AM– 8 PM, Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, 111 S. Michi­gan, 312443- 3600, aic. edu. $ 25 , $ 19 stu­dents, se­niors ($ 5 dis­count for Chicago res­i­dents), free kids un­der 14; free for Illi­nois res­i­dents Thurs­days 5- 8 PM.


Vladimir Sten­berg and Ge­orgii Sten­berg, The Mir­ror of Soviet So­ci­ety, cover for Red Field mag­a­zine, 1928; Valentina Ku­lag­ina, In­ter­na­tional Work­ing Women’s Day Is the Fight­ing Day of the Pro­le­tariat, 1931

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