This year offers an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of artists in response to the 1917 Russian Revolution and many were looking forward to the Royal Academy’s show in London as part of a year-long series of events to mark the centenary.
For the £18 admission fee, visitors could expect some understanding of why artists felt liberated and became pioneers of new movements which changed the nature of artistic production forever.
Not only artists, but architects, designers, film makers, playwrights and musicians – well-established ones and avant-garde alike – were thrilled to be part of the cultural renaissance that swept through Russia in the years following the revolutions.
They embraced the downfall of the Tsarist autocracy in February and the Bolshevik revolution in November. Cultural workers accepted offers to run art colleges, decorate propaganda trains, public squares, make films, write and produce plays, design radio towers, conference centres, workers clubs and even ration cards.
They saw the revolution as an opportunity to give new meaning to their own endeavours. For the first time, all kinds of art could be introduced to millions of people, art education could be transformed for the better and so could people’s lives. They were keen to help the new Soviet regime accomplish this.
In the visual arts, Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich, Tatlin – to name but a few – contributed to the massive cultural change that was transforming their country. Some left Russia in the harsh 1920s when famine and civil war ravaged the country, while others remained right through the period covered by Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932.
Sponsor Mikhail Fridman may indeed be an oligarch, but he has a good grip on what took place in Russia after the 1917 revolution. “There was an incredible outburst of artistic creativity and optimism as well as a wish to re-define art,” he writes. Would that the curators of this show had fulfilled that as a brief. For, despite a few bites at the revolutionary cherry, this show is a dispiritingly skewed, illogical jumble of the great, the good, the bad and the seriously indifferent.
Worst of all, it flies in the face of the vast new knowledge that emerged after the opening up of archives from mid-1980s under Gorbachev’s glasnost and still continuing. There is simply no excuse for eliding the different moments of the revolution into one great slide towards repression. While new research does appear in the pages of the exhibition catalogue, the show as a whole reinforces old prejudices, stereotypes and anti-historical approaches to the history of art.
It opens with a claustrophobic red space under the trite rubric Salute the leader. Portraits of Lenin and Stalin are hung side by side, as though they were the only leaders. Trotsky, leader of the Petrograd Soviet – decisive in the taking of power – and who became Stalin’s most determined antagonist, is confined to incidental mentions.
No effort is made to distinguish between Lenin and Stalin, or to point out that Lenin was utterly hostile to the notions of a personality cult, or that his dying struggle was against Stalin’s accumulation of power. Thus, the political thrust is that there was a leadership cult at the outset with no opposition which, of course, is countered by the diversity and content of the actual works of art made in this period.
The show’s approach flows from a superficial and prejudicial reading of history that is promoted by, among others, Vladimir Putin, establishment historians such as Victor Sebestyen and the right-wing media. For them, any deviation from Western, bourgeois democracy is a crime against humanity and doomed to end in failure.
The overwhelming physical effect is to re-bury the opposition to Stalinism, by suggesting there was a seamless unity between the revolutionary period and the counter-revolution to come. There is no accounting for the fact that many different tendencies and styles flourished immediately after the revolution and during the 1920s and right up to 1932!
For example, while Isaac Brodsky’s depictions of Lenin and Stalin feature prominently, his 1924 painting of the 3nd Congress of the Communist International, which included scores of portraits of leaders from around the world, soon to disappear, isn’t given a mention. That kind of work clearly can’t be squeezed into the narrative that the revolution was from the very beginning predicated on the myth of a single, all-powerful leader.
Lunacharsky, appointed to head the People’ Commissariat of Enlightenment (the body responsible for education and culture), was utterly opposed to any state line on the arts. Trotsky actively campaigned against a state-imposed diktat in any of the arts.
In November 1927 Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party. Only a few months earlier, Malevich was briefly arrested on his return from a trip to Berlin. Nonetheless, critic Nikolai Punin ensured that Malevich had an exhibition of his own as part of the vast retrospective Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic organised in 1932.
That space has been reconstructed at the RA. Hung like abstract altarpieces behind sculpted architectural models, Malevich’s squares and dynamic forms float through space. It’s a vision of a new and different world.
Tatlin’s 1920 model for the Monument for the Third International is, as co-curator John Milner, notes, “an immensely influential idea … which excited the imagination and lived in the mind, and remains unforgettable”. A similar spirit animates the rotunda, where the artist-designer’s 1932 flying fantasy has been hung, in a beautiful reconstruction.
But any momentum these, and the amazing, rarely-seen depictions of women workers in factories by Alexander Deineka, could generate is quickly dissipated. The disparate works put together under the theme Eternal Russia make your heart sink. A ghastly 1933 rendering of two people on a sledge behind horses’ huge backsides is in the Socialist Realist style. You might ask why it’s been included, as it falls outside the exhibition’s time-frame.
It’s downhill from there, to the final space, where we can sit down and weep over the unbearable pain suffered by the victims of Stalin’s terror, but none the wiser about how this ever came about. Sad.
Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is at the Royal Academy of Arts until 17 April. Open daily. Admission £18/£16. Accompanied by a programme of talks and related events.