20th Century / Art / Culture / Exhibition / London / Politics / Review / Russia / Russian History

REVIEW- Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932

The sky is blue and the sun shines bright in Boris Kustodiev’s painting Demonstration on Uristsky Square on the Day of the Opening of the Second Comintern Congress in July 1920. Nicholas II, the last Csar of Russia, has been overthrown. The Great War is finally over. And the government of Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks are busy putting their vision of a communist utopia into practice. The enthusiastic, flag-waving crowd comprises a cross-section of Russia’s new classless society: men, women, children, soldiers, sailors and workers. A man in the foreground reads a newspaper, no doubt keen to keep up with the whirlwind of political change sweeping the country. Needless to say, for a painting commissioned by the Bolshevik party, there is absolutely no indication from this picture that a bitter Civil War between Bolsheviks (the ‘reds’) and supporters of the Csar (the ‘whites’) has been raging for three years, that millions of peasant farmers are starving to death in the devastated countryside, and that in cities without a functioning sanitation system, rubbish disposal or electricity, disease is rife.

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Demonstration on Uritsky Square on the Day of the Opening of the Second Comintern Congress in July 1920 by Boris Kustodiev (1921). State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

One might be mistaken after seeing a painting like this in the first room of the Royal Academy’s Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition for thinking that the whole show is full of communist propaganda, and that artists in post-revolutionary Russia were government puppets, blind to the awful realities of what was happening in their country. And yes, there certainly is lot of communist propaganda here, part of a calculated campaign by the new government to spread the word of the revolution across a vast country with a largely illiterate population as quickly and effectively as possible – or as Lenin called it, ‘monumental propaganda’. But what this exhibition shows is the way that Russian artists responded to, and interpreted, the events of both the revolution itself and its turbulent and violent aftermath is far more surprising and far more interesting than you might expect.

The artistic style that we have all come to associate with the history of the Soviet Union – striking graphic designs and photomontages, highly stylised muscly factory workers and smiling peasant farmers all toiling away to build the communist paradise – did not become the definitive Soviet style until Joseph Stalin was already firmly established as supreme leader. Indeed, the moment when this style – ironically dubbed ‘social realism’ – took over can be dated very precisely to 1932. An exhibition hosted that year by the State Russian Museum titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic proved to be the last hurrah for what been, up until that point, a vibrant and richly diverse art scene, before Stalin set about suppressing anything avant-garde, experimental or not in-keeping with social realism’s depictions of communist perfection.

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In order to consolidate his power, Joseph Stalin had the leader of the Red Army and chief political rival, Leon Trotsky, sent into exile. His contribution to the revolution was subsequently airbrushed from history, as this handkerchief (with a design by Nikolai Demkov), whose owner has cut out Trotsky’s portrait on the bottom left, shows.

There are several examples in the exhibition of significant variation of style and mood within the repertoire of one artist. Boris Kustodiev may have enthusiastically celebrated the political fervor of the urban proletariat with his painting in the opening room, but his twee, Christmas card-esque village scene titled Carnival (1922), with its onion-done-topped churches, long bearded men and traditionally dressed country folk, sees him yearning for the days of the old Russia that was rapidly disappearing. Konstantin Yuan, meanwhile, heralds the dawn of a new age in his celebration of the revolution, 1921’s New Planet. Yet, like Kustodiev, he is clearly missing the days when the church was still a cornerstone of the Russian way of life. I found myself wondering if the Orthodox church in The Annunciation Day (1922), gleaming majestically in the winter sunlight, was one of the ones that the Bolsheviks simply closed down or blew up with dynamite. Seeing how each artist was conflicted in this way, or gradually changed their style as the government became more controlling over what artists were allowed to produce, is part of what makes this exhibition so fascinating.

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Kazimir Malevich, Peasants, c. 1930. Oil on canvas. 53 x 70 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg Photo © 2017, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

Take, for example, Kazimir Malevich, one of two artists whose work occupies its own room in the exhibition, who was a pioneering abstract artist even before the revolution. With 1915’s (self-explanatory) Black Square and Red Square, he invented ‘Suprematism’, which took his geometric abstractions and his quest for ‘pure feeling’ to their logical conclusion. The Bolsheviks initially embraced abstract art, and the propaganda posters produced during the civil war as recruiting drives for the Red Army were heavily influenced by Makevich’s work (as was much of the porcelain being produced by the State Porcelain Factory, displayed throughout the exhibition). But gradually the Bolsheviks turned against abstractionism, and anything avant garde or experimental, deciding that anything that didn’t get a direct message across that could be easily understood by the masses, was not to their liking. A few years on, and Malevich was producing work like Red Cavalry (1932), and Woman With Rake (1930-32), realist works by his own standards, along with the possibly subversive Peasants (1930), where the two figures standing before an expanse of farmed landscape are, literally, faceless. Barely had his work taken a starring role in Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic – the display from that exhibition has been recreated here – and it had been declared ‘bourgeois’ art by the new art police, the Union of Soviet Artists, and by the time he died in 1935 he had been banned from exhibiting and had much of his work confiscated.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin also has a room of the exhibition dedicated to him, and is another artist whose works reflect the shifting of mood in the years after the revolution. A well-travelled artist before the revolution, his painting style was heavily influenced by French post-impressionists like Paul Gauguin, and he developed a distinct curved horizon line in his landscape paintings that would go on to inspire many avant-garde film directors. Along with Kustodiev and Yuan, Petrov-Vodkin was commissioned to paint ‘monumental propaganda’ by Lenin’s government. But his portrait of the great leader lying in state after his death in 1924 was banned from public display almost as soon as it had been painted, the government uncomfortable with an image showing Lenin dead. Indeed, the picture remains controversial within Russia to this day, and is rarely displayed publicly. Even before the death of Lenin, Petrov-Vodkin was clearly becoming disillusioned with the revolution. Just look into the eyes of the exhausted soldiers sitting round a table in After The Battle (1923), haunted by the ghosts of their fallen comrades, some of the many millions killed in the civil war, who leer over them in the background. 1925’s Fantasy, meanwhile, is a picture that sums up beautifully the scepticism, anxiety and fear felt by so many Russians with Lenin dead, Stalin tightening his grip on power, exiling and executing scores of political opponents along the way, and their country hurtling towards an uncertain future. The horse is bright red, a symbol of the revolution, and looks like it is about to charge off at any moment: a restless bundle of energy, difficult to control. While the rider, instead of facing in the same direction of the horse – forwards, onwards, into the future – faces backwards, gazing into the distance behind him. Like so many Russians of the time, he looks to the past with an increasing sense of longing and nostalgia.

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Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy (1925). Oil on canvas, 50 x 64.5cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

If the swift and total sweeping away of Christianity risked leaving a void in the lives of the Russian people,  then Stalin was determined to fill this void with a new religion: of industrialisation. In 1928 he initiated the first of his five-year plans, designed to overhaul the country’s largely agricultural economy and increase production at breakneck speed. In paintings, photography and film, and on cups, saucers and fabrics, industrial labour was glorified, machinery beautified, and modern technology worshipped. Factories would be the new cathedrals of the age, and factory workers the new saints. The man in Isaak Brodsky’s Shock Worker from Dnieprostroi (1930) has the physique of a classical sculpture. The factory floor in Alexander Deineka’s Textile Workers (1927) looks so futuristic it could be the interior of a spaceship, while Arkady Shaiket’s photograph of silhouetted figures stood inside a globe-like structure while putting the finishing touches on the Moscow Telegraphic Centre couldn’t be clearer in its evocation of a new world being built by the hand of men and women. Indeed, the prominent role of women in industry was a recurring subject, underlining communism’s message about equality. Very deliberately picking up were monumental propaganda left off (Lenin even appears in many of the five year plans’ propaganda posters, as though he were the one who had dreamt them up), Stalin wanted to ensure that his people would come to see the advance of industry as a continuation of the revolution itself. The brave new world that had been promised in 1917 was being built, one mill, one factory, and one power station at a time.

Displayed throughout the exhibition are reminders of how the artists of the Russian Revolution were reaching not just that monumentally small portion of society that visited art galleries, but the ordinary person, in the shape of a wide range of everyday objects. Propaganda found its way onto the breakfast tables of all Russians in the shape of mass-produced porcelain. Andrey Golubev designed a marvellous image of cotton mill workers that could be incorporated into an endlessly repeating pattern and printed onto fabric. There is even a full-scale model of an apartment on display, based on a design from 1932 by architect El Lissitzky, intended for the Narfomkin building in Moscow. El Lissitzky was the kind of post-revolutionary Russian who believed that there was not any single aspect of everyday life that could be re-designed, re-invented, and improved, though his simple, stark, and highly functional living space was considered a little too radical for the Narfomkin and was never actually built. And while I certainly would not have liked to have lived in the kind of soulless, sterile apartment designed by El Lissitzky, I would have loved to have tried out one of Vladimir Tatlin’s ‘worker’s flying bicycles’. Resembling a set of bird’s wings made of wood, that a person could strap to themselves and then take to the skies, Tatlin genuinely believed his flying machines would one day revolutionise transportation in the Soviet Union. The fact that such a downright bonkers idea was even seriously considered is a perfect illustration of just how real the sense of endless possibility that pervaded in those heady, post-revolution years was.

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In his painting from 1921 entitled New Planet, Konstantin Yuon interprets the belief that Russia’s new communist society will be like nowhere else on Earth very literally. Photograph: © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow/DACS 2017

There has been criticism levelled at this exhibition for glorying what was a brutal dictatorship even before Stalin’s rise to power, dismissing the art as communist propaganda. But then, as George Orwell has already taught us, all art is propaganda. By contrast, others have said that this exhibition portrays the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union in too negative a light, and have criticised the conspicuous absence of Leon Trotsky – though I think Joseph Stalin is much more to blame for that than the curators. Clearly, a century on from the storming of the Winter Palace, the Russian Revolution and its aftermath still has the power to provoke debate and split opinions. Why not pay this exhibition a visit, and decide for yourself?

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 runs at the Royal Academy of Arts until 17th April 2017. Tickets cost £16 for adults (book online here). I suggest you allow plenty of time to take it all in, for this is an exhibition that feels almost as vast and monumental as Russia itself.

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