Revolutionary Red

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 (Royal Academy of Arts, 11 February-17 April 2017)

There were revolutions in Russian art before the turbulent events of 1917. There were artists who painted shape and colour, constructivists, people like Lyubov Popova, who rejected figurative art, and there was Malevich, with his variations on the black square. Revolutionary thinking requires revolutionary representation — except that there’s a line of left wing thinkers who prefer the photographic and the realistic. There’s an argument that realist art — especially in the written form — evolved to document commodities (see the patron and his stuff); soviet socialist realism ended up in a similar place. And the avant garde adapted or died. Or both.

The Royal Academy has brought together a large number of Russian paintings from 1917 to the mid-1930s, tracing some of the routes that artists took over almost two decades, from the October Revolution to the early days of Stalin’s purges. It’s too rich a brew to do full justice to, and I only wish I had my O Level notes on the revolution to hand. There were lots of photos — of workers, of artists, of politicians — and some of them seemed to echo the work of Stieglitz and Strand from about the same time. I’m guessing there’s crossover between the two.

The first room dealt with the image of Vladimir Lenin, the great leader the Germans let through to try and shift the balance on their Eastern Front. The Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government of the February Revolution, nationalised various companies and redistributed land. A massive personality cult clearly developed around cult — suppressing opposition. Isaak Brodsky’s Vladimir Lenin and a Demonstration has the leader in a dark coat, arm stretched out to his right on a sheet of paper, with a crowd behind him, presumably revolting. Behind him is a red sheet, not quite a curtain, too furled to be a flag, red for communism or perhaps red for blood. The same artist’s Lenin in Smolny (1930) is even more realist, depicting Lenin writing in a chair which is covered with a sheet, placed on bare wooden floor boards. The Central Committee of the Soviets was initially located in the Smolny Institute for Young Noble Ladies in Petrograd and this is where a life-size Lenin (dead by 1930, of course) is hard at work he could almost be Thomas Hardy. Kliment Redko’s Insurrection (1925) is an extraordinary image — a rectangular canvas of much darkness, with Lenin in the centre in front of a burning fire, surrounded by soldiers in a diamond shape, with fighting coming from the corners. The painting was hidden until 1980 — Lenin’s icon status forbidden. Georgy Rublev’s Portrait of Joseph Stalin (1930) has the dictator sat in a white, possibly wicker chair, for all the world a Habitat seat, and in a white suit. He is reading a newspaper, I assume Pravda. The background is an orange red, and almost invisible on this is a dog. I’m really not sure how to read this — unsurprisingly the painting was not exhibited whilst Stalin lived.

There was more experimental stuff alongside this realism. Natan Altman’s Russian Labour (1921) is abstract, sculpture as much as painting consisting of paper, enamel and charcoal on mahogany. Several of Popova’s Space-Force Construction (1921) show her stripes and curves of colour. Pavel Filonov’s Formula occurs in several versions, almost superimposed surreal images within images colours, almost like Richard Gadd in their obsessive detail. More experimentation can be found in Ivan Klyun’s Objective Painting According to the Principle of Light-Colour 1921. Then there’s Konstantin Yuon’s extraordinary New Planet (1921): red and yellow planets and moons on a landscape, a group of figures reaching up to a red planet. It is revolution as science fiction.

Of course, Malevich with his black square is one off the most challenging figures — this is a later copy I believe, but we’ve not long seen versions at Tate Modern and The Whitechapel Art Gallery. Malevich is represented from the Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic exhibition, held 1932-33 in what was then Leningrad – a Black Square, Red Square, coloured figures like crash test dummies, small white models, archons, architectural maquettes… remarkably all but one of the paintings survived. In 1932 this was apparently marginalised, but here it is clearly a highlight.

But the avant garde is countered by revolutionary realism and counter revolutionary realism. There are the paintings of peasants and supervisors and the electrification of the Soviet Union — the great shift from feudal society to an attempt at modenrnity, unsurprisingly doomed to failure. And one that led to thousands starving (which was hardly new). Konstantin Rozhdestvensky’s Family in a Field (1932) with spectrum strips of colour blue to red for the fields and horizon and sky, with an impressionist worker with sickle in the foreground. Suprematism meets realism. In a section of Eternal Russia, the art shows nostalgia for the old days and a wish to preserve the old ways, the old religion. We have birch trees by a lake — and I suspect the tree often presents the idea of national identity (see John Dahl and Caspar David Friedrich). Then there’s Marc Chagall’s celebration of his wife, Promenade (1917-18), a flying purple woman levitating above a green self portrait. There’s an almost Cubist green landscape and a pink church.

If you didn’t have a flying wife, then maybe you could avail yourself of one of Vladimir Tatlin’s worker’s flying bicycles — part glider, part dragonfly, likely as successful as Icarus’ feathers and wax, and tempting to see it as a metaphor for the Russian revolution’s utopian project. The Academy suspends a replica in its octagonal room, where I last saw Rothkos, and I was transfixed by the shadows and its slow rotation.

And then a room devoted to Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, whose Beside Lenin’s Coffin was in the first room. He’s lying in a red orange casket, green plants either side, mourners in the background. It is at his trademark raised angle, looking down forty five degrees. Petrov-Vodkin was inspired by Renaissance art he saw in Italy, notably Giotto and Fra Angelico. His Petrograd Madonna (1918 in Petrograd) balances a blue background and pink foreground, with the peasant in a green dress and a head scarf, clearly and definitely not being Mary. The icon tradition lives on.

His landscape Midday. Summer (1917) shows a fecundity the five year plans were grasping for with apples, a farmer, cattle, and in the middle of the landscape, the funeral of the artist’s father. This breaks chronology, of course.

We end with Stalin’s utopia — images of sports, marches, displays, collages and footage of the destruction of a cathedral, alongside a model of a planned replacement. And a photo of Joseph Stalin. Meanwhile, a booth has names and pictures of the shot, the executed, the exiled and the imprisoned. It is sobering.

This is no straight forward celebration of Soviet art and propaganda. You need a tin ear to hear that. Throughout the exhibition we read of the fate of many figures in the arts — disappeared, starved, sidelined. Life under the tzars had not been great — their overthrow hardly improved much. And as for perestroika…. well, we are where we are.

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