Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, 'Bolshevik', 1920. © State Tretyakov Gallery.
Wassily Kandinsky, 'Blue Crest', 1917. © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
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.