Conference reports Revolution. Russian Art 1917–1932

In the much visited and favorably reviewed exhibition “Revolution. Russian Art 1917—1932” held at the Royal Academy of Arts in February through April 2017, a large number of works was displayed, borrowed from art museums all over Russia and other countries, as well as from private collections.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3:2017 p 71-73
Published on on November 7, 2017

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In 1917 everything seemed possible in Russia: the Revolution appeared to be on course to take over the whole of Planet Earth, even Mars, and from there to expand all over the universe. The Bolshevik government invited painters, sculptors, graphic designers, poets, critics and theorists, dramatists, photographers, and film-makers to participate in building a “brave new world”.

In 2017 the Russian Revolution reaches its 100th anniversary. Have the Russians honored this event? Have they celebrated at all? During Soviet times, celebrations of revolutionary anniversaries were heavily state-sponsored events. So I travelled to Moscow to look for signs of celebrations. What I found was “The Russian Revolution 1917—1922” in the Museum of Political History. Not large in scope, and not much of an anniversary celebration in comparison.

But what about art and the revolution? To find out, I went to the modern art building of the Tretyakov gallery, the largest museum of Russian art. But there were no posters about the anniversary on the walls. “Well,” said the lady who sold tickets, “we might exhibit some revolutionary art in the autumn, but we don’t expect many visitors. You know, people want to see classical art, not revolutionary or political works”.

Obviously, the revolution is not a hot topic in contemporary Russia, not even when it comes to art. If you google “revolutionary art” in Russian-speaking sites, you end up in the Royal Academy of Arts as the first option. So London turned out be the place to go!

In the much visited and favorably reviewed exhibition “Revolution. Russian Art 1917—1932” held at the Royal Academy of Arts in February through April 2017, a large number of works was displayed, borrowed from art museums all over Russia and other countries, as well as from private collections.

The London curators took their inspiration from the exhibition “Fifteen years of Russian art”, shown in Leningrad in 1932. The enormous Leningrad exhibition reflected virtually every aspect of human life — work, war, everyday life, love, culture, sports and politics — displaying 2,640 pieces of work by painters, graphic artists and sculptors. These were products of a uniquely vivid and creative period in the arts. But the period was also the epoch in which a former landscape of competing and debating groups and associations slowly slid into harsh state control and was amalgamated into one single organization, the Union of Artists. For the first time, the designation Socialist Realism was officially used at a celebratory event to refer to an art style. From then on, figurative art would be the only officially accepted form of expression.

The period of 1917 to 1932 witnessed a changing climate for the arts, with a cooling-off in the late 1920s when the Stalin regime outlined Five Year Plans, renewed centralization, and initiated gigantic engineering projects. Before that, the movements of Constructivists and Suprematists, the association Left Front of the Arts, and others had flourished with participants such as Meyerhold (theatre), Eisenstein (film), and Pasternak (literature), dedicated to collective creative work and politicized aims, and condemning conventional art forms. “Conventional painting,” said the secretary of the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture, “is to productive art what chemistry is to alchemy, or astrology to astronomy.”

Artists of the Russian avant-garde were initially quick to embrace the revolution. Some of them acknowledged the regime’s ideological requirements, including artists such as Klutsis and Deineka, whose works would not make it to the Western world. Others, who felt increasingly ill at ease with the growing totalitarian claims by the state to control the artistic world, such as Malevich, Chagall, and Kandinsky, went abroad or only partly adapted to the changing climate. These artists were all well known in the West since before the First World War.

Still, conventional artistic expression typical of Isaak Brodsky’s realistic portraits of Lenin and Stalin continued to be part of the Russian art scene. Brodsky has in fact been regarded as a “court painter”. In 1932 the realistic style would triumph, supported by the regime. This was the year when Stalin attacked the avant-garde, proclaiming an ideal of figurative art optimistically depicting a bright future of Soviet Russia, the Socialist Realist style. Works of avant-garde, constructivist, leftist artists were transferred to hidden storerooms in the great Russian museums, not to be displayed again in public until the late 1980s onwards.

It is interesting to note that when avant-garde and “leftist” art was marginalized and banned from the Russian public scene, it travelled west, such as Malevich’s “White Square on White” from 1918 that was exhibited in New York in 1935.

The scope of the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition could not possibly be as vast as that of the 1932 Leningrad exhibition. Instead, in displaying around 200 works the curators’ aim was to present a wider dimension of the art forms of the period by putting photography, film and posters, and a large display of revolutionary ceramics into the framework of painting, graphic art and sculpture.

Photographic art underwent an explosive development in the years after the revolution. The importance of communicating messages that were easy to read, such as photos and posters, cannot be overrated for the leaders of a country with a high illiteracy rate. This is one of the reasons why experimental non-figurative painting by the Russian avant-garde was out-maneuvered, it was not considered appropriate for ordinary people.

Russian film making of the 1920s, with leading figures such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, would later gain a worldwide reputation. At the London exhibition, The Battleship Potemkin, Film-Truth, and other films with a highly dramatic form of expression were displayed in a way that captured the eye of the spectator, giving the sense that the images have an eternal

The section of revolutionary ceramics was, to my mind, one of the best at the exhibition. Absolutely lovely! Plates, cups, and figurines were displayed — painted by avant-garde artists such as Malevich, Danko, Chekhonin and Altman, depicting Suprematist abstract patterns or vivid proletarian and peasant figures. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, they nationalized the Imperial Porcelain Factory that had many thousands of porcelain pieces available, ready to be designed before they were finally glazed.

Many of the artists in the 1932 anniversary exhibition have scarcely been seen in the West, and The Royal Academy of Arts exhibition made a point of highlighting a few painters well known and loved by the Russians but much less known in the West, such as Alexander Deineka and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. The works of Petrov-Vodkin in particular will come as a revelation to many, as the exhibition catalogue states. He was represented in a separate hall, at both the Leningrad and the London exhibition.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, born in 1878 in a small village by the Volga River, learned to paint icons early in his life. The iconic style prevails in many of his paintings all through his life, and in this he differed from many of his colleagues after the revolution. He also developed a unique style of depicting landscape from a spherical cosmic perspective. The painting illustrating my article is called Petrograd Madonna from 1918; it depicts a highly political motif in a religious iconographic style.

Alexander Deineka is better known outside Russia than Petrov-Vodkin but might still be seen as undervalued in relation to his talent. Born in 1899, after the revolution he developed a monumental art style with elements of photomontage technique. He frequently depicted men and women at work and in sports. Construction of New Workshops from 1926 conveys a strongly physical image of working women characterized by male features of strength and purposefulness. The painting can be positioned in the context of the public aim of liberating women from an outdated femininity.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts ends in an almost shocking way. In a room displaying police photos taken of a painfully large number of Russian artists of various branches who were arrested and executed or sent to camps, we find a photo of Nikolai Punin, with the conventional en face and profile picture of a prisoner. Punin, a well-known art critic, editor of various journals and the curator of many art exhibitions in the twenties and thirties, was the curator of the great Leningrad exhibition “Fifteen years of Russian art” that inspired the London exhibition. He was sent to the GULAG camp system in 1949 on accusations of “Anti-Soviet activity” and died there in 1953. He is also represented at the exhibition by a portrait painted by Konstantin Malevich.

The way the Russian revolution developed — into a system of terror, bloodshed and totalitarian claims to control free arts — might of course be a reason why Russians of today show little interest in celebrating the centenary of the Revolution. The fact that there is still very little consensus among history writers about how to treat the state socialist period, beginning with the Revolution and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union, also contributes to a sense of floundering, of not knowing how to evaluate Russia’s part in Europe’s “short 1900s — the age of extremes”. ≈

Note: The main source for my article is “Revolution. Russian Art 1917–1932”, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK, 2017. This catalogue contains images of a rich collection of Russian art and ten chapters by specialists on Russian revolutionary art.