Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at The Royal Academy

Belphoebe New

Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this latest exhibition at The Royal Academy tells the story of The Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rule through the artistic voices of the time. It mostly focuses on two particular styles: socialist realism, which was the accepted art form by the Soviet authorities, and the Avant Garde, a more abstract form adopted by prominent Russian artists such as Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky and largely condemned by the Soviet regime. They tell the stories of industrialisation, revolution and violent suppression, beginning with the Bolshevik takeover of 1917 and culminating with Stalin’s brutal regime in 1932.

Documenting the intersection between art and politics at this transformative time was always going to be a challenge, and interestingly rather than creating a chronological timeline the exhibition is more thematic. With such a diverse range of work exhibited, it’s sometimes difficult to realise exactly what is propaganda and what is artistic expression. Of course, there are blatant examples. The first room is bathed in an angry red colour implying the shift from tsarist rule to Lenin as the leader of the new Bolshevik state. Art was adopted for propaganda in the socialist realist style, with Lenin’s portrait being a prevalent image on everything from official portraits through to handkerchiefs. The Man and Machine room explores how Josef Stalin’s Five Year Plan was facilitated through a glorification of industrial processes. Close-up photographs of cogs and machinery signify a new existence for the proletariat worker, enshrined as a noble statuesque figure in Arkady Shaikhet’s Wheel, where we look up to the man at work with his machinery, like a classical sculpture in an industrial landscape.       

Photo credit: Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik, 1920 Oil on canvas, 101 x 140.5 cm State Tretyakov Gallery Photo (c) State Tretyakov Gallery
As the exhibition progresses the nature and style of the art changes beyond recognition. Veering away from social realism, the figures become warped and twisted, such as Boris Kustodiev’s iconic work The Bolshevik, where a giant archetypal Bolshevik figure waving a flag almost tramples on faceless proletariats on the ground – a not so subtle indication of ruthless Bolshevik rule. There’s Pavel Filonov’s work, where he adopted a technique which he named ‘universal flowering’, incorporating intricate detail into his paintings that reveals more imagery as you look closer at it, a mixture of buildings, faces and memories. Despite its deliberate ambiguity, this abstract art often served a political purpose (past its own controversial existence). An entire room is dedicated to prominent Russian Avant Garde artist Kazimir Malevich, whose groundbreaking depictions of peasants with bright colours and geometric shapes loudly and uniquely symbolised the faceless peasants, dealing with starvation due to the regime and misrepresented as healthy and rearing fruitful crops within Soviet propaganda. It’s no surprise that Malevich’s work was condemned by Soviets for not depicting a social reality, although his own work perhaps revealed more about the true Soviet reality than they’d care to admit.

Kazimir Malevich, Peasants, c. 1930 Oil on canvas, 53 x 70 cm State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo (c) 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
The Avant Garde artists were in many ways desperately searching for new worlds and ideas, and initially looked to the Bolshevik revolution as the catalyst for artistic liberation and change. An unmissable installation piece is a reproduction of Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, an enormous glider with a skeletal cage structure inspired by Tatlin’s fascination with natural structures and the flight of birds. He hoped one day to be able to fly the piece and use it to unite communities, but was ultimately unsuccessful. As it became clear that the new world was rather more frugal and considerably more restrictive than they expected, a longing for traditional Russian culture began to infiltrate the work of Avant-Garde artists. A glaring example is Aristarkh Lentulov’s Tverskoi Boulevard, which shows a Moscow street with a traditional Orthodox Russian domed building and the statue of Alexander Pushkin, a prominent Russian writer. You have to look closely at the bottom of the painting to see the anxious faces of Moscow residents, easily hidden in the shapes and colours of the image, suggesting disillusionment with the loss of the national Russian identity. Similarly Kuzma Petrov Vodkin’s Fantasy, depicting a figure riding a red horse, symbolises the journey to a post revolution world yet also looks perhaps longingly back at Russia’s past identity.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy, 1925 Oil on canvas, 50 x 64.5 cm State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo (c) 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
The exhibition ends on a rather sombre note with Stalin’s Utopia, exploring Stalin’s rule over Russia with violent suppression and fear. The exciting abstract imagery of the previous rooms largely disappear and are replaced once again by social realism. Alexander Samokhalov’s Sportswoman and Alexander Deineka’s Race depict the Soviet utopia with disturbing parallels to the propaganda promoting a Nazi Aryan race in the 1930s, showing strong, white blonde Russians playing sport as the Soviet ideal. In Stalin’s vision for Russia, resistance was immediately quashed, which becomes chillingly clear in the Room of Memory, a slideshow of those persecuted in the Great Purge that included many radical writers, activists and painters. It reminds us of the lasting power of art to influence and make political statements, and how dangerous the work of artists was in the post-revolution Russian landscape.
Revolution is both an overwhelming and emotional experience. The Royal Academy have certainly been ambitious in attempting to include everything, from propaganda posters through to documentary film and painting. Whether Soviet propaganda or groundbreaking Avant Garde art, these works document a staggering period of suffering and oppression. The tension between the accepted socialist realism of communist rule and the more lucid and abstract art is what makes the exhibition so constantly engaging, suggesting that even the most abstract forms of art are able to communicate subversive and radical ideas. For those interested in the history of this fascinating period or more generally in the production of art during turbulent political times, Revolution really is one of the must-see shows this year.   
Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 runs at The Royal Academy until 17 April 2017. With the National Art Pass you can get reduced price entry. Find out more and book tickets here.
The National Art Pass by Art Fund offers free entry to over 240 museums, galleries and historic places across the UK, as well as 50% off entry to major exhibitions. The scheme supports the work of Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art. Find out more here.

This article was written in partnership with the Art Fund, who have provided the London Calling team with a National Art Pass to explore their affiliated venues and events. All opinions are based on our experiences.

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