Revolution- Russian Art at the Royal Academy 1917-1932: Extended Review (2017)

A couple of years ago, Brian Eno gave a lecture in which he spoke of the culture in Russia before and just after the Revolution. Having believed himself to be pretty knowledgable on the subject, Eno found to his surprise that after seeing a show at the Barbican, he in fact knew relatively little. There were so many artists on show who were completely unknown to him.

This thought occurred to me when viewing ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932’, which runs at the Royal Academy until 17th of April 2017. Marking the centenary of that fateful year 1917, this exhibition chronicles the 15 that followed the Russian Revolution. It was a time of extraordinary creativity in which new ideas evolved and flourished, only to be cut off by Stalin in his rise to tyranny. On display are works you probably know, along with quite a few in all likelihood you wont have seen before.

This show takes as it’s starting point the huge retrospective, curated by Nikolai Punin, which took place in Leningrad at the State Russian Museum during 1932, covering the same period. It seeks to examine in detail contrasting artistic tendencies through the works on display, as well as considering the wider social and political issues through other forms of documentation. Presented thematically, it allows the viewer to piece together many varied examples of art, design, photography and film in order to see them in context.

All the same, the revolution itself didn’t directly initiate a cultural golden age in Russia, because it’s artistic and intellectual climate were already thriving in the years before 1917. Rather it gave an added boost of utopian idealism. The prerevolutionary period was one of rapid evolution, in which seminal figures like Malevich and Kandinsky produced their most innovative work and formulated key concepts. Russian artists and ideas travelled back and forth along the railway lines between St Petersburg, Moscow and the great cities of Europe; making significant contributions to the development of Modernism. Manifestos appeared and lofty goals were declared; the Future is Now! It was also a time of great acquisition. Collectors brought prodigious quantities of the latest art from Paris, Munich and Berlin back to Russia. The media too had recently been granted new freedoms which helped to stimulate debate and there were a great many exhibitions that enabled artists to get their work seen. All these things paved the way for further developments in Russian art; laying foundations and seeding the vibrant cultural scene. After the revolution, although initially there were some progressive measures taken by the new government to encourage the development of art; in actual fact the writing was on the wall for totally free expression, because the Bolsheviks believed they needed to maintain control over every aspect of life, making the personal, political. This last point is especially interesting in relation to Soviet Cinema, which I’ll come on to a bit later.

Of course, in a stable society art is allowed to be political or express a contradictory view to the prevailing government. Before the war, having been infiltrated by the Okhrana (the Tsar’s secret police) and under surveillance in the countries to which many were exiled; the Bolshevik leaders had developed their fair share of ‘who’s behind the door’ paranoia. Then, their party emerged from the fringes of politics and got a lucky break into power. They weren’t going to let anything stop them from keeping hold of it; which included any art (or artist) perceived as subversive or critical. It’s true that the Tsarist régime had imposed censorship on cultural matters, but that would eventually pale into insignificance in comparison to the repression that came later.

‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932’ is interesting because it attempts to provide a comprehensive overview of the period, beyond more familiar Modernist critiques. On the one hand, this was a time full of avant garde ideas and utopian hopes to make a better world. In all creative fields, there was a large amount of experimentation going on and many of the works displayed document that activity.

But this exhibition also shows that for many artists, conventional forms of representation continued pretty much along the same ‘heroic’ lines previously established. In the section ‘Salute the Leader!’, paintings of Lenin, Stalin or other leading Bolsheviks demonstrate many of the pictorial tricks and effects as would have been used- more or less- to depict the Tsar. ‘Eternal Russia’ presents landscapes that celebrate the agricultural heart of the country, as if trying to reveal something about what it means to be Russian. Whilst ‘Stalin’s Utopia’ shows us pictures of those deemed ‘acceptable’ as subject matter in that later period; sports stars and the like. Such as Alexander Samokhvalov’s ‘Girl in Football Jersey’ (1932).

As art historian Jonathan Jones makes clear, we should never forget the historical context into which this art was born. When you know about ‘The Terror’ and upheaval that accompanied the Revolution, much of the art might appear to be naive or at least insular. So I think it is essential to briefly consider the world into which this work emerged in order to draw your own conclusions as to its relative value.

Nicholas II, Tsar and Autocrat of all the Russias, took his vast empire into World War One in July 1914. By mobilising on the allied side against Imperial Germany in order to support the Serbs, he and his government grossly overestimated Russia’s capacity to conduct a modern, mechanised conflict. The sequence of events that followed would eventually cost Nicholas his throne and his life; plunging Russia into an unmitigated tragedy. She suffered many millions of casualties during the conflict and in its bloody aftermath.

The Tsar had ruled an empire covering almost 1/6th of the earth’s surface; comprising a vast range of peoples that included everyone from urbane Polish intellectuals to the Chukchi, living as nomads deep in the eastern Arctic. His Russian Empire was almost a microcosm of the whole world, ruled over by a man unable to comprehend that the feudal age of autocracy was over. But as Dominic Lieven makes clear in his biography of the Tsar, Nicholas wasn’t as intellectually limited as he is so often portrayed. Thrown into a role that he was ill prepared for aged just 26, the Tsar certainly doubted his own abilities to the extent of saying to his Foreign Minister ‘I know nothing’ (about the business of governance). Nevertheless he coped to the best of his abilities against quite significant odds. A man of deep personal conviction, the young Nicholas had been instilled with the view that democracy would most likely bring chaos to Russia and that a strong country required a strong ruler. The image of his father which Nicholas found hard to live up to.

Russia had evolved politically and socially in quite different ways to other European Powers. For one thing, she only abolished Serfdom in the late 19th Century. This was thanks to the forward looking Alexander II, who had a relatively liberal outlook; necessary for reforming Russia’s outdated and inefficient system of government. Unlike most European Monarchs of the period, the Tsar had absolute power and there was no intermediate body to implement checks and balances on his policies. Although some attempts to modernise had been made, the end of Romanov rule witnessed large amounts of corruption and nepotism that eventually resulted in a level of incompetence threatening the very existence of the state. The tragedy is Russia had many people of conviction, vision and ideas, who offered alternate policies to those eventually pursued by the government. But because of internal opposition by more reactionary elements, ideas that could have resulted in a more stable future for the country were discarded.

The Tsar ruled through ministers, who could be dismissed if they failed to please or tow the line. Such absolute power required a strong, decisive leader to keep things working. When Nicholas II became Tsar in 1894, he was by contrast an amiable family man with a stubborn sense of duty to keep the empire in tact as well as delusions of Divine right to rule. Another aspect of Nicholas’s character was that he had a habit of deferring to his domineering wife Alexandra in matters of state, overruling the sound advice of his Ministers. Although the extent of this is disputed by historians, it would no doubt have had a huge impact on the events that marked the demise of Tsarist Russia. Yet despite all of this, for the majority of the population; especially those in rural areas, who often still had only the most basic education if any at all; the Tsar was seen as ‘The Little Father’, distant almost like a God.

But things were changing. Russia at the turn of the 20th century had seen rapid industrial expansion and was a fast growing economy, with an emerging middle class and increasingly free press. Yet in so many ways it remained a feudal country in an industrial world, playing catch up with the rest of Europe. Politics adapted to these circumstances; in many cases beyond the government and even Russia’s own borders, without representation.

It is important to remember during this period, the rising discontent felt by large numbers of Russia’s population. Many of those toiling in the factories were becoming politically aware for the first time and supported by educated men and women who felt a humanitarian kinship with them; often based on Socialist and Marxist principles. Significantly in Russia, Socialist parties had formed long before Liberal ones. This had the effect of creating a more radical political climate in the country. By seeking to improve working conditions through political reform, the left were following a tradition already established in countries like Britain, France and to a certain extent Germany. But none of their governments appeared as archaic and reactionary in comparison to that of Russia. Nor as politically unstable.

In the cities and industrial centres especially, there was an increasingly visible disparity between a tiny, conspicuously wealthy flagrant aristocracy and the number of toiling workers living in abject poverty. These conditions might have instigated a revolution, but things appeared to stay the same. There were demos, strikes and protest, but not the spark. That occurred in 1905, when the Tsar was forced into creating a Duma after defeat by Japan over Korea and a massacre in front of the Winter Palace by his own troops. All the same, most people (especially those in the countryside) carried on as before.

During these last few years of peace before World War One, political opinions differed on how to achieve an alternative to Tsarism. Nationalists made the point that it was the figure of the Tsar that held the country together and Russia only existed as it did because of its centralised structure. Moderates advocated gradual reform or even Constitutional Monarchy- something Nicolas II could never have imagined, let alone condoned. But the steely eyed Vladimir Lenin wanted to instigate a worker’s revolution to overthrow the Tsar and split from the Non Marxist ‘Socialist Revolutionary Party’ during 1903. The moderate ‘Mensheviks’ as they were called, distrusted Lenin, thanks to his dictatorial methods and hardline Marxist approach. But his followers- the Social Democrats- became known to history forever after as the ‘Bolsheviks’ and later on ‘Communists’. Among their number was a wily Georgian gangster named Joseph Dzhugashvili, who like Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov aka ‘Lenin’ or ‘Man of Iron’ had changed his name to ‘Stalin’ (‘Man of Steel’). But until relatively late in the story, these Bolshevik ‘radicals’ were see as nothing more than a faction of a faction. Nobody then realised they would become the inheritors of an empire.

By 1917, change of one kind or another was seen as inevitable, but nobody really knew what kind of change to expect. That year there were two revolutions. The first overthrew the Tsar in the hope for democratic reform. The second brought to power the Bolsheviks who would end the war, yet had little time for compromise in their own radical policies.

Partly due to Russia having had no experience of constitutional government before 1905; the volatile mix of would-be rulers who vied for power in 1917 included representatives of all political colours. Although there were parties pledged to democracy, politics in general was moving towards extremes. In the case of the Bolsheviks to the far left but in general, mostly towards the far right. During that fateful period between the February and October Revolutions; Monarchists and Proto Fascists shared street corners with the Socialists, debating the future of the country. The Kerensky government appeared weak; which was something the Bolsheviks took advantage of when they organised their successful Coup d’état. Among so many of the put-upon population, suffering on a scale inconceivable in Western Europe; the prevailing feeling was that at last the fighting was over and now things might return to something like normal. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of educated and liberally minded people in the country hated the reactionary nature of the Tsarist regime, even if they may have had greater reservations about the Bolsheviks.

One particularly repellent aspect of Tsarist rule had been the ingrained and institutionalised anti-Semitism that (if you were from a Jewish family) significantly limited your options in Russian life. Antisemitism reached a new low during those final years of the Romanov Dynasty; as covert, state backed Pogroms led to large numbers of Jews being assaulted or killed. Thousands emigrated to safer places; particularly in the New World. Although dedicated to eradicating such prejudices in that early post-revolutionary period for ideological and practical reasons, the regime under Stalin would gradually reinstate the persecution of Jews on similar racist grounds, under the cover of Communist Party dogma. Many of the artists on display had Jewish roots. El Lissitzky and Marc Chagall for example. As did quite a few of the revolutionaries and future leaders of the nascent Soviet Union.

This ambitious exhibition includes over 200 works of art, design, photography and film; including loans from the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. One cannot help but notice the diversity and contrast between them all.

We see Kandinsky’s ‘Blue Crest’ from 1917. He had arrived at pure abstract art through an intuitive yet measured process early on: by 1910 in Munich. Kandinsky also published ‘On the Spiritual in Art’ the same year, which suggested the idea of liberating colour and form from representation. But this most cosmopolitan of artists had been back in his country of origin ever since the beginning of the war. After the revolution, Kandinsky was involved in reorganising the principles of art education in Russia; ideas which he would later develop further in Germany as a Bauhaus Master of Form.

At the other end of the scale, we see Isaak Brodsky’s ‘V. I. Lenin and Manifestation’ from 1919; the confident yet mischievous ‘guiding hand’ of the Revolution. Brodsky’s style would later become a reference point for ‘Socialist Realism’; but we see a more telling view of Lenin in several of his depictions, including ‘V. I. Lenin in Smolny’ from 1930. Here the Soviet leader is hunched over papers in a spartan room, looking more vulnerable and human than usual depictions of the ‘Man of Iron’. Towards the end of his life, Lenin was not a well man; both physically and mentally. But he was still violently committed to his vision for what he wanted the fledgling Soviet Union to be.

Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev’s ‘Bolshevik’ from 1920 embodies the spirit of the revolution as it happened: ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’. A giant walks astride the city in flux, holding aloft red banners that fill the sky. Like many works that eulogise the revolution, it shows the events of 1917 as an inevitable consequence of history and progress. The individual is significant only as a part of the greater whole.

There is an Intriguing painting by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin on show called ‘Fantasy’ from 1925. It’s subject consists of a figure on a red horse, rearing upwards in the manner of David’s famous portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. The symbolism here is more ambiguous than at first glance. Is the rider leading or being led by the horse or the other way round? If so to where? What exactly does the horse symbolise? Is it the revolution or the ‘spirit’ of the revolution? The rider seems to be looking backwards.

‘Brave New World?’

In 1930 Kazimir Malevich painted ‘Peasants’; which shows two figures, standing as if on parade among neatly ordered fields. Their heads are devoid of any facial features. Automatons in the ‘Worker’s Paradise’. It is worth noting that this image was painted in the wake of the forced collectivisation of farmland, which resulted in famine and destroyed an entire way of life for the Peasant communities that made up a large proportion of the population. By this point, Malevich and the followers of his esoteric utopian ideas had been marginalised in Russia by other developments in art, in addition to the general repression of free thought by the government.

There are over 30 works by Malevich on display, brought together for the first time since 1932, including a version of ‘Black Square’ from 1915. One of the most significant paintings in the history of art, it turned the idea of ‘painting’ upside down both formally and conceptually. There is no subject matter or discernible shapes to speak of here, other than the square itself (on another square). We can’t read the painting conventionally either; as there is no variation of form, texture or colour to give any visual clue, other than at the borders of the square which contrast, between where the paint meets the canvas. Overall it’s a void, other than a few imperfections on the surface.

Instead, any intrinsic value ‘Black Square’ may have relates to the artistic context into which it emerged or is placed. It acts as a catalyst. You compare and contrast the work with other paintings in order to find any relevance or ‘meaning’ for it. One might even say resembling a singularity; in that all the speculation about what each of us may see in it seems to reside outside its borders, like the Monolith in ‘2001’. Malevich’s ideas sought to liberate human beings; to seek a transcendence beyond the material world. In his development of Suprematism, the artist explored the world of pure forms in an ever increasing complexity of arrangement. He also developed his ideas into three dimensions that were called ‘arkhitektony’. Examples of these are on show. It is worth considering the relevance of Malevich’s work and ideas today. For example, as a source of inspiration for the architecture of Zaha Hadid.

An artist who worked with Malevich early in his career was El Lissitzky. He was part of a group called UNOVIS (Champions of the new art) at Vitebsk Art School that Malevich founded in 1919 to promote Suprematist ideas. Prolific in many areas of art and design, Lissitzky believed in its social function, so as to improve people’s everyday lives. That art and life should somehow come together. Although not exactly a new idea, it was (and remains) liberating in its implications. His Proun series are a mixture of fully abstract, geometric arrangements of form and colour on paper, projected in 3D or actually three dimensional reliefs, suggestive of possible architectonic or mechanical structures. The latter examples may be seen as a development of Picasso’s Cubist ‘Constructions’: extensions of painting into three dimensional space. From a visual perspective, Lissitzky’s works still retain their dynamic power and look as fresh as when he made them. His ideas would go on to influence a wide range of art and design; helping to revolutionise graphic communication.

In the show we see probably his most famous poster. ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ from 1919 was designed during the Civil War to promote and clarify the Bolshevik position. They were just about hanging on, as an alliance of forces (‘The Whites’) sought to destroy ‘The Reds’ (Bolsheviks). A brilliant piece of design, it demonstrated just how powerful abstract forms and colour could be in conveying sophisticated ideas and conceptual information. Also on display are his designs for a workers apartment. They include functional items of furniture and fittings that possess a timeless quality. So timeless in fact that you could imagine finding them flat packed in any branch of Ikea today. Lissitzky was also significant both as a photographer and in the development of photomontage. ‘The Constructor’ (1924) is a self portrait in which the eye, hand (and mind) of the artist appear unified in expression and manipulation of the physical world.

El Lissitzky, together with Alexander Rodchenko and in particular Vladimir Tatlin, were the vanguard of a movement that emerged in the wake of the Russian Revolution called ‘Constructivism’. This movement prioritised the central role of art and design in improving society at a collective level. Unlike the aims of Suprematism, Constructivism rejected any idea of individual metaphysical or spiritual dimensions within a work of art, in favour of its material application to transforming people’s lives. Constructivists sought to produce work that had social utility and often could be mass produced.

Vladimir Tatlin is probably best known for his proposed ‘Monument to the Third International’, a vast structure that would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower and required for its construction steel in quantities impossible to obtain in the country at that time. His beautiful daring ‘counter-reliefs’ explore the boundaries between two and three dimensions, in equally innovative ways to Lissitzky’s Prouns. But Tatlin’s constructions appear less formal than the latter’s work. They cling to the walls of the gallery and reach out into the space of the viewer.

Tatlin also dedicated his talent to producing a wide range of useful objects, so improving the workers’ lives. Although these included designs for clothes and furniture, the artist had more ambitious ideas. We see on display a model of his surely impossible ‘Letatlin’ personal flying machine. This would liberate the New Soviet Man from gravity and other Earthbound preoccupations (and presumably get him to work on time; Russian roads weren’t exactly reliable). The essence of this desire to fly high was a theme in Russia before and after the revolution, which would eventually culminate with Sputnik and Gagarin a few decades later.

Like Kandinsky, the Bolshevik government appointed Alexander Rodchenko to assist in the reorganisation of art education after the revolution. His innovative work as a painter, photographer, sculptor and designer contains drama and surprise, as well as a clarity of meaning; continuing to inform the creative practice of many working in these areas today. Eventually however, Rodchenko’s art proved too revolutionary for the Revolutionaries and he was accused by conservatives as being a ‘formalist’. Sidelined, he managed to carry on working as a documentary photographer, although he did take up painting again later in life.

Marc Chagall had also been at Vitebsk Art School and was responsible for Malevich teaching there. He was a great example of the cosmopolitan spirit in Russian art circles before the First World War; travelling between Paris, Saint Petersburg and Berlin. Chagall was eventually successful internationally and made a significant contribution to the development of Expressionism. His highly sophisticated paintings are based on personal mythology; subjects often drawn from the folklore of his Jewish upbringing in the Shtetl. They are poetic and lyrical, combining Expressionism with elements of Cubism and Futurist simultaneity. A good example being ‘Promenade’, which was painted in the tumultuous first year of the Bolshevik Revolution.

‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932’ shows us decorative objects that convey the same spirit of progress and belief in the future evident in many of the paintings. These include tableware like ‘A Cup for Serving Tea’ by Lyudmila Protopopova, with motifs drawn from machines and arranged in repeat patterns. Perhaps ironically, similar motifs would later emerge in the Art Deco style extolling the Capitalist Utopian dream.

We also see film of peasant farmers, who are presented as if to have welcomed the agricultural reorganisation policies implemented by the government. Yet in fact the true consequences of these draconian edicts were intensely brutal and pitiless; killing vast numbers and destroying an entire way of life in the Russian countryside. Such examples prove how much official Soviet propaganda was a cynical fantasy; arguably complicit in the deaths of millions by keeping the population ‘under sedation’ from reality. During Stalin’s tenure in particular, the whole country had to pretend these fabrications were the truth. By saying anything else, you risked deportation to the GULAG or even worse. Russian society came to exist in a climate of fear, suspicion and denunciation.

However, despite the grim realities of everyday life, many great filmmakers like Vertov, Eisenstein and Dovzhenko (among others) still managed to produce work that stands the test of time as great art. Film is seen by many as the most important artistic medium of the 20th century. Just like painting, it could express meaning and emotion on multiple levels, as well as be used formally. By introducing the fourth dimension (time), film makers were able to manipulate real events into whatever they wanted and present a subjective view with reality. Film enabled the construction of complex narratives that could be used to convey political or satirical messages and even in its infancy was seen as an extremely powerful means of persuasion.

In the early years of revolution, the Bolsheviks used ‘Agitprop’ trains to spread their political message across the largely illiterate countryside. They wanted propaganda films to simplify the complexities of Russia’s highly precarious situation and take everyday realities of ordinary people’s lives; presenting them back as a template for how to live the perfect Soviet life. Yet as artists struggled to produce authentic works of art and perhaps allude to what was really going on using the new medium; the Commissar always lurked in the background, ready to overrule all but the most privileged of filmmakers on every decision.

In conclusion, this period of intense creative activity continues to hold a fascination for us. But it must be seen in perspective. During the period 1917 to 1932, the confiscations, arrests and liquidations that began right after the Bolsheviks took power, never ceased. Stalin’s paranoia took these to new levels of savagery and senseless waste of human life, as documented in the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But it was only after the tyrant’s death that some sense of normality returned. Many of the artists who supported the revolution in principle or even passionately believed in its ideals, would eventually be sidelined, silenced or arrested. Even killed. The exhibition has a ‘Room of Memory’ fittingly dedicated to showing the arrest cards of those unlucky enough to be detained, Many never to be seen again. They would sometimes have been denounced as ‘Enemies of the People’ on trumped up charges, then end up on death lists in order to make up the numbers. The walls outside this space show photographs and film of the Soviet Union under Stalin. We see the huge choreographed sports events that gave the impression to many in the outside world at the time that this might truly be a ‘Workers Paradise’. Together with film of the 1931 demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in the name of ‘progress’.

Today the influence of Constructivism and Suprematism on contemporary art and design is everywhere to be seen. What stands out in this show however is the sheer array of talent and vision among so many of these artists, working in conditions that many would find impossible. The world as we know it would surely look different without their artistic and theoretical contribution. Imagine graphic design or cinema without Lissitzky or Vertov for example. In creative terms, ultimately it was the idea of Russia after the revolution that proved more powerful and enduring than the reality. Measured against real life during the period, the myth of a ‘blank slate’ that many held as fact is proven to be a seductive yet dangerous illusion.

(c) Gideon Hall 2017