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Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 at the Royal Academy

March 2, 2017

ArtsMixed Media | by Harry Seymour


Appearing like an angelic spider, Vladmir Tatlin’s winged glider Letalin rotates pensively around the Royal Academies gold-domed Wohl gallery. With its elongated talons and wiry frame this construction was a proto-type flying machine designed during revolutionary Russia. Pieced together out of cotton and twine and other relegated materials destined for the garbage heap, Tatlin ripped everything apart and stuck it back together again to make this beautiful scarecrow-like structure. Tarnished by flawed logic and caged inside the gallery walls, this is a flying machine that will never fly. The glider functions as a vibrant metaphor for the hopes which lodged themselves in the concept of a communist utopia, of freedom, equality and unity, ideas which would rot away in the gulags of Stalinist Russia.

Tracing art in the Soviet Union from its shaky beginnings, from propaganda posters to the flourishing avant-garde of the 20s to Stalin’s maniacal crackdown on abstraction, the Royal Academies Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932 is an ambitious exploit. Rather than coolly weighing up the aesthetic merits of this period in isolation, curators located the art within a historical trajectory, one organised by loosely thematic segments.

Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik, 1920. Oil on canvas, 101 x 140.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery. Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, Royal Academy.

As the Bolshevik government wrestled control of Russia, the decadent friezes of Tsarist Russia were washed away and replaced by a new aesthetic dialogue. Art was geared towards epitomising revolutionary struggle and forging a blank space upon which a new society would be carved.

The first part of the exhibition ‘Salute the Leader’ is situated at the beginning of Lenin’s reign and at the eclipse. Painting in the style of Soviet-Realism, these stiff and academic portraits present omnipotent leaders. Appearing in official poses, Stalin and Lenin shuffle through official documents or gaze paternally down at their little revolutionaries. This room gives credence to the trembling birth of a new art form: the poster. Rather than being stuck onto the walls of angsty, hormone ridden teenage rooms, these graphic prints were programmed to depict and sell the ideas of the state to a largely illiterate population. The soviet mastery and skilled wielding of this art form was as effective as gaining a monopoly on Netflix would be now.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy, 1925. Oil on canvas, 50 x 64.5 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, Royal Academy.

The posters of Adolf Strakov and Alexander Rodchenko exploit a brilliant punchy style with a limited colour scheme (good for inexpensive mass-production). The slogans are terse, and to a capitalist’s eye naively unglamorous but they communicate a message, as short and sharp as an emoji. Across the walls sit chincy teacups and fabrics emblazoned with the sullen face of Lenin. Like coronation crockery these pieces of china pollute the domestic environment with a romanticised image of the state. As the citizens of Russia sipped their tea they were accompanied by the omnipresent glare of their compatriots.

In the late 1920s an increasing number of peasants were ushered into the nuts and bolts of the factory. Idealising the industrial worker became an important mechanism of the state and this is the focus of the second room ‘Man and Machine.’ During this period of technological expansion, photography was perceived as the medium which would supply the monuments for the future world. Fast, cheap and infinitively reproducible, taking pictures was reified as instant socialism. In Rodchenko’s Construction of the Moscow Telegraphic Centre two human bodies are obscured under fusion lines of steel. The blatant symmetrically of the image places the men in sublime unity with the metal they wield. Whilst in Arkady Shaiket’s Komsomolets at the helm a muscled worker wrenches a wheel around. Appearing like fleshy cogs, the crunching, munching, carnivorous machine is absorbed into a dialogue with his taught limbs. He is the literal and metaphorical driver of industrial progress, an archangel coming to usher in a new era of space age progress for the common man.

Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927. Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 185 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. © DACS 2016. Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, Royal Academy.

As well as photography, the exhibition shows paintings which deify proletarian heroes from tomato paste factory workers, Shock Workers and Alexander Deinka’s The Defense of Petrograd where industrial workers turned soldiers march into a white clouded abyss to save their country. In Deinka’s Textile Workers three women are surrounded by an armoury of spools and weaving machines. The painting has a stilted quality, like someone has attacked the pause button and clamped down on all movement. It’s like a surreal scene from 2001: Space Odyssey. The whole painting serves to divert attention away from reality, the women appear like appear like alien goddesses rather than production line drones and the use of soft, harmonious colour pattering fabricates an idyllic factory scene, one ordered by the dictates of logic, time and harmony.

Most of the paintings in this section show a dehumanized mass of bodies. Workers have their faces obscured by terse muscled limbs, faces are smeared with washes of colour, and the clefts of their faces follow a standardised type. Freckles, dimples and crooked noses are clouded over, emblematic of the Bolshevik orthodoxy that the individual be subsumed by the collective.

In Boris Kustodiev’s The Bolshevik the crowd are nothing more than ant-like scratchy figures and the face of the expanded protester is plain like a Ken doll but without the distinguishing feature of good looks. Towards the end of the exhibition, Kasmir Malevich’s schematic figures, ‘sportsmen’, ‘woman with rake’ and ‘Peasants’ have no faces, only blank ovals. Through heavy shading Malevich makes them buldge out as though turbo-charged with life-force but robbed of individuality.

Wassily Kandinsky, Blue Crest, 1917. Oil on canvas, 133 x 104 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, Royal Academy.

Situated in the brief period of free artistic experimentation, the third room ‘Brave New World’ presents an array of fervent, formally experimental pieces. There are the carnivorous, jagged shapes of Lyubov Populava’s textile constructivism; the luminescent, disappearing contorted shapes of Kadinsky’s swirling environments and at the end of the lavish hall, curators have installed a Le Corbusier-esque capsule flat. With its streamlined structures, cantilevering and purpose-built objects, this heavily stylised environment is a profoundly modernist creation. Designed by El Lissitsky, every ebb of space is machined for purpose, under objects are draws and the bed is enmeshed into the silhouettes of other objects so it doesn’t clash and take up space.

In Konstantin Yuon’s New Planet composition, human bodies flail under the planets like a new world is spiralling into view. As the bodies tremble under an explosive sky we are met with a foreboding sense of a dawning era, like when aliens land in War of the Worlds. The revolution here is imagined as a quasi-mystical second coming. Through pungent yellow, striking orange and unfurling rayonist stripes the Earth appears to be charging up, like battery power is plugged into the sky, electrifying it.

Following on from the progressive abstraction is a room dedicated to the work of suprematist painter Malevich. Machining art towards the task of inventing a new society, for Malevich geometrical abstraction represented a final disengagement of painting from reality and marked its entry into the transcendent realm of ideas. His meshed shapes tilt towards a stratospheric future of turquoise, yellow and red. He opens up an unearthly, cleansed expanse upon which a new society untarnished by the infectious diseases of capitalism could be realised. The stunning accumulation of his spiritual project is Black Square, a reductive block of colour superimposed upon a white background, its abstraction at the nth degree, divine nothingness.

By situating Malewich’s work in isolation, it appears divorced from the fluid chronology of the rest of the exhibition. His abstractions appear irrelevant, as though he were disengaged from the political fervour and rabid exaltation of revolutionary Russia. A similar curatorial mode is employed later on in the exhibition with the spiritually-charged figurative paintings of Vodkin. Borrowing from the renaissance, Vodkin takes traditional imagery of succulent fruit and benevolent mothers and distorts it using a spherical perspective. His still life’s are surreally stretched out and rendered in metallic colours, light blue, deep red. Largely unheard of in the Western psyche, Vodkin’s abstraction from the narrative flow of the exhibition left me wondering who this man was and why was significant.

Isaak Brodsky, V.I.Lenin and Manifestation, 1919. Oil on canvas, 90 x 135 cm. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO. Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, Royal Academy.

The final faltering stage of the exhibition, ‘Stalin’s Utopia’ corresponds to the era of Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship. Rejecting abstraction as bourgeois formalism, Stalin wrenched down the paintbrushes of soviet artists and drilled them towards idealised three-dimensional figurations of the soviet landscape. Under this policy the dynamic whirrings of the avant-garde congealed into a clotted blur of repetitive images. In Deineka’s Race and The Skiers a cluster of hyper-masculine bodies lurch forward on toned thighs whilst Alexander Samokhvalov’s The Shockputer is a kitsch rendering of a blonde sportswomen, her frame enlarged and sturdy. They all appear in similar proportions and styles, the pliable bodies of athletes are rendered in fuzzy, smoothed over photo-realism. On a screen, propaganda film Motor Sports Parade shows women with clenched smiles, arranged row after row, all of them marred with the same static blonde hairdo.

As we see the hopes of a socialist utopia pulverised into dust, the exhibition ends with a haunting black box marked Room of Memory. Claustrophobic and shrunken, it is inscribed with the words of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, ‘no generation had a fate like that in history’. Inside a flittering montage shows the hallowed faces of those who were sucked from society and placed in a gulag. Decorated with fear, these men and women have been given back their robbed faces in order to testify to a secret history. After seeing optimism twisted and kicked into fear and terror, one leaves the exhibition with a sickly feeling of pathos.

By Annie Lord

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London, on until 17 April 2017.