Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932

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Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, 'Bolshevik', 1920. © State Tretyakov Gallery.

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Wassily Kandinsky, 'Blue Crest', 1917. © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

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Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 'Fantasy', 1925. © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Here, hung across these walls, is the birth of fake news. Sure, governments lied to their people for millennia before the Russian Revolution in 1917, but none took propaganda, manipulation of the media and suppression of the arts to Soviet levels. 

This sprawling exhibition features work from the first 15 years of Russian communism, taking in the radical avant garde, stoic social realism, stark propaganda posters and even a bit of architecture. 

Depictions of the great leaders – Lenin and Stalin – open the show. Then you’re plunged into the industrialisation of the nation, with images of gigantic ultra-buff workers in enormous factories, taking back the means of production from the bourgeoisie. Alexander Deineka seems to be the real boss here, showing all-powerful Übermensches drilling into rock, or waif-like, futuristically androgynous factory workers. 

The big central gallery is filled with works by avant-garde greats like Vasily Kandinsky, showing how swept up they all were by the possibilities of the revolution. There’s even a full-scale replica of El Lissitzky’s model for an ideal Soviet apartment. But the cracks soon start to appear. Portraits and photographs show artists, composers, poets and intellectuals who were murdered in the gulags or who fled the country: people for whom the dream of communism quickly became a nightmare. 

In the next room, there’s a recreation of Kazimir Malevich’s display in a 1932 show of Soviet painting. A version of the famous ‘Black Square’ hangs in the corner, along with its red sister and a handful of his architekton models for windowless future buildings. It’s a stunning sight, but I thought the Soviets hated the avant garde at this point? Why amid all this hatred of experimentation was Malevich given a whole wall to himself in a state-sponsored exhibition? The RA show completely fails to explain these nuances. 

From there, you’re taken on an ever more convoluted journey through peasant life, tax posters, paintings of religious figures and images of barren kitchen tables. There’s a massive Vladimir Tatlin glider hung from the ceiling and then a whole room of mawkish, forgettable and generally bleurgh spiritual realism by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. 

All of this is fascinating and absorbing, but so confusing and incoherent. Why jump between eras? Where’s the narrative thread? How are we meant to understand all that we’re seeing? This was a difficult time in history, and the show doesn’t make much sense of it. As a catalogue, it’s great; as an exhibition, it’s a struggle. 

Luckily, so much of the art on display is not just beautiful, but essential – so you can put aside curatorial misgivings. What you’re watching unfold across these walls is more than just art, it’s the death of hope. The revolution started with a belief in the power of change and excitement for the future. That was slowly crushed under the weight of civil war, famine and oppression. This, right here, is art losing its beauty and becoming a tool of the state. With the way things are going in the world now, you’d better hope we’ve learned our lesson.

@eddyfrankel

By: Eddy Frankel

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Izzy K
Tastemaker

The exhibition is almost as massive as Russia itself. You need about two hours to see it. And its fantastic and sad like Russia, too. In the first main room we see art showing the spirit of the revolution in the name of a utopia that was supposed the stop the few rich getting richer and richer and promised eternal prosperity to the working class. From praise for Lenin and Stalin (whose portraits replaced the icons of Christ) through posters, paintings and even ceramics we see the propaganda machine at work. The best talents were used to make everyone believe in the new world order.


Very soon, though, we know it went out of hand and this exhibition very much reflects the reality. Collectivisation, famine, eradication of the traditional way of living and suppression of individuality, the show masks none of it. When you look and the paintings, you won’t find a happy face (apart from the lovers in Chagall’s fairy tale painting) or maybe it’s just the always honest Russian face?


With that in mind, seeing the whole corner devoted to Malevich, which is the actual copy of his exhibition from 1932 comes especially surprising. And actually it’s not explained how this abstract painter who opposed the compulsory direction in soviet art manged to survive while other were sentenced to death for “subversive” activities.


And with this sad motif the exhibition ends, with a slide show of many beautiful minds who lost their lives trying to stay true to themselves in the totalitarian regime. This show is a must.

Vera S
tastemaker

This is an essential and excellent collection of works that walks you through the history of the Russian revolution, step by step. The fact that you come away understanding so much more about this period shows alone how well this display is put together.


A massive body of works await, not only painting but kitchenware, architecture, posters, moving images and even a suspended flying structure that sadly never came into mass production (mostly because it didn't work). Taking place in the main gallery, be prepared to give the exhibition a good two hours of your time, especially if you take an audio guide - although this, sadly, is not the strong side of the Royal Academy, as these guides tend to be more descriptive than anything else.


The collection shows the changing perception of the revolution through artists who turned from excited and enthusiastic to bitter or frightened. The changing of their works is easy to trace and gives you a good idea of what choices artists had at the time. Everything reflects the ideology, one way or another, and it is very interesting to dive into these works. Influences from collectivisation, propaganda, famine and oppression all come through these pieces.


One thing to especially save energy for is the Malevich room, displaying a mixture of his works, but overwhelmingly his earlier pieces. Last year, the Tate Modern hosted a fantastic exhibition of these works, and they gain an entirely new meaning in the context of this display. His changing approach to painting is an especially obvious (and sad) one, from the abstract to being forced to return to socialist realism. 


I highly recommend visiting - I had to rush through the last two rooms unfortunately, but am considering going back just to see these as well. A well-curated display that is on the spot with its message, it is not one to miss.