Art relies on change, on flux. As old methods become tarnished with use, artists seek out new ways of giving meaning to their expression. So when in Russia, the October Revolution of 1917 saw the splintering apart of centuries of Tsarist rule, many artists saw in this the opportunity of creating new and profound work. Here was something no one there had ever experienced – a brave new world in art as well as politics.
In the Royal Academy’s “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932”, the impact of this momentous event on the community of artists, film makers, poets, writers and designers working in Russia at the time is examined for the following decade and a half. The exhibition is divided into a number of rooms, each of which explores a different aspect of the Revolution in relation to the arts, and in one case, with the painter Kazimir Malevich, looks at the oeuvre of one particular artist.
In the first room, Salute the Leader, large portraits of the new regime’s architect, Vladimir Lenin, and his moustachioed successor, Joseph Stalin, vie for the attention with works replete with the trappings of victory – red banners fluttering and the ubiquitous hammer and sickle. It is here that one gets a sense of the variety of artistic movements at work. The prominent Realist painter Isaak Brodsky was a favourite with Lenin and painted the leader many times. In Vladimir Lenin and Manifestation, 1919, he is presented cropped to the waist, his right arm flung out and resting on a sill. Behind him, obscuring two thirds of the background, are the folds of a crimson banner, as gorgeously red as anything from Ancient Rome. In the top left can be seen a milling throng.
Such is the perspective, that although clearly in the distance, the people look like tiny folk and Lenin a giant, who could easily grab and crush them with a single hand. By the time Brodsky painted Lenin in Smolny in 1930, the leader had been dead for six years. It is a surprisingly quiet and low key portrait with Lenin writing on his lap in a very modest room, the chairs of which are draped in white dust sheets, like squat ghosts.
In contrast to these are Kliment Redko’s Insurrection from 1925 and Georgy Rublev’s Portrait of Joseph Stalin, c.1930. Redko trained as an icon painter and his large canvas contains the primitive, childlike elements of this genre with a diminutive Lenin at its centre surrounded by ghost faced lieutenants either standing to attention or marching with weapons or military instruments. Rublev’s portrait sees the great leader reclining on a wicker chair, one leg folded under the other in Oriental fashion. He is reading a paper, dressed in a white suit with almost colonial implications, and wears an amused, ironic expression. A red dog rolls at his feet, barely visible against the deep red background. Both paintings are ambiguous to read, containing elements of subversive humour and critique. It is no surprise that neither was ever exhibited – the first remained hidden until the 1980s, the second until the artist’s death.
This contrast between the conventional, more easily read Realism of artists such as Brodsky and Deineka, and the esoteric nature of Avant Gardists such as Chagall, Kandinsky and Malevich, polarised opinion in the Party. It is true that in the aftermath of the Revolution and during the civil war that followed, there was a great flowering of disparate forms as artists vied to discover what best expressed this new world. But as the decade wore on and stability returned, it became increasingly apparent that the Party’s interest in art was in how it could best serve the Party, not in how it might express universal truths.
The next room one enters is entitled Man and Machine and reflects the country’s sudden determination to become an industrial superpower. The canvases by Alexander Deineka are particularly striking – monumental examples of Expressionist Primitivism. In Textile Workers from 1927, barefooted women with cropped hair and short functional dresses, operate machinery in a large, spotlessly clean factory. In Construction of New Workshops from 1926, two women, again bare foot, stand at the entrance of a vast hangar criss-crossed with iron girders. One faces us, her torso pivoting, a frozen smile on her face. The other one, heavily haunched, powerful, hauls a hand truck across rails.
There is something curiously science fiction and unreal about these paintings, as though they have dropped from a story by Aldous Huxley or Ray Bradbury. Elsewhere there are photographs of muscled workers clambering up machinery or turning cogs, a prefigure of the idealist Socialist Realism that was to be become the officially sanctioned form (and in one example the homo eroticism of a certain 1980s Athena poster!) It was all an illusion. After 1917, with landlords murdered or in exile, a famine raged across the land in which five million people died.
In the room, Brave New World, there are some wonderful paintings by the great Vasily Kandinsky. In both Troubled and Blue Crest, painted in 1917, the vibrancy of colour and movement hint at the representation of things one feels but can’t quite see, suggesting in their surfaces music held spellbound on canvas. Like many others, Kandinsky was optimistic for the new future, both for art and the social reality. Pavel Filonov’s work is also notable. In Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat from 1920-21, a mass of highly detailed geometric forms reveals, on inspection, dozens of tottering houses and tiny figures. Drawing on Cubism and Futurism, Filonov created his own brand of Abstract Primitivism. By 1925-26’s Heads (Human in the World) something darker had crept in. The many disembodied heads with their shocked and blasted expressions resemble the nightmarish doodles of a 1980s adolescent, with its strong sense of Outsider Art.
One of the most comprehensive rooms in the exhibition is that dedicated to Kazimir Malevich. Malevich was a supremely talented and experimental artist who spearheaded a new form dubbed Suprematism which can be likened to a geometric rendering of Kandinsky’s organic approach. He attracted many followers including Marc Chagall but he had a troubled relationship with the authorities which resulted in spells of imprisonment and interrogation. Ironically in 1932, when the Avant Garde was under increasing attack and those deemed dubious were daubed with the dirty word of Formalist, Malevich was invited to put together a large official exhibition of his work.
Extraordinarily the RA has managed to reassemble this notable but fateful exhibition. Amongst the many classic Suprematist pieces from his earlier days are a number of the more representational ones from the early 1930s when Malevich altered his style to accommodate the Party’s predilections. In most of the portraits such as Peasants, Woman with Rake or Three Female Figures, the figures are featureless, with faces as smooth as boiled eggs. Is this a celebration of the collective identity or censure of the destruction of the individual?
In the room marked Cultural Heroes are dozens of portraits, both photographs and paintings, of many of the key creative figures of this era. Some of them, like Kandinsky and Chagall, disillusioned by the philistinism of the new regime and the turn it had taken, went into voluntary exile. Others, like renowned theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, were imprisoned and executed. By the mid 1930s when Stalin had consolidated his power and Socialist Realism had become the only acceptable means of expression, no one was safe. Even Shostakovich was denounced as an “Enemy of the People” and much of his work banned.
My main feeling on pacing the halls was profound sadness. I sincerely believe that artists are the conscience of a nation and when they are repressed and neutered, a light goes out in the deepest part of that country.
‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932’ runs at The Royal Academy until 17th April 2017. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.royalacademy.org.uk.