There’s nothing like a revolution to reorganise one’s wartime priorities. In 1918, Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers signed a treaty extricating themselves from WWI, at the cost of a great deal of territory (irrelevant, presumably, since communism’s triumph would soon put paid to national boundaries of all kinds). Russia’s war became a shameful episode, relegated to the shadows, and this, plus the turbulence of the twentieth century, means that very little art or photography from the period survives.
Which is, as this exhibition shows, a terrible shame. The propaganda posters (in which the Cossacks, naturally, triumph) are riotously colourful; the photographs, taken by a young pilot, of airplanes as flimsy and delicate (and as young, technologically) as photography itself are desperately poignant. There are prescient lithographs from Natalia Goncharova and Olga Rozanova and lubki (popular prints), of plump-cheeked, cheery allies and their foolishly inept enemies, some of them created by the great suprematist painter Malevich and entertainingly captioned by the writer Mayakovsky.
This fragment of Old Russia tells us a great deal – about creaking absolutism, gender politics and the struggles of intelligent Russians to free themselves from the strictures of a tired and ancient regime. Malevich came to suprematism in 1915; Lenin came to St Petersburg in 1917. Watching frail footage of Tsar Nicholas inspecting his inadequately provisioned troops in the snow, it isn’t hard to glimpse the causes of a revolution – backlit by hindsight – that would make such footage a precious rarity.