The Royal Academy exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 coincides with the centenary of the Bolshevik led uprising. The 1932 date relates to a particular exhibition held in Leningrad during that year: Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic. This brought together, for the last time under Stalin, both the avant-garde and Socialist Realism, which had coexisted since the 1920s (the RA aims to reflect this inclusive agenda). Following the Leningrad exhibition, Stalin decreed Socialist Realism as the only acceptable style for the Soviet Union, ending an era of vibrant creative activity.
The RA exhibition is comprehensive in its approach, and the visual arts it covers are painting, photography, film, graphics, ceramics and textiles. There is even a full-scale model of El Lissitzky’s 1932 Design for an Apartment for Narkomfin (People’s Commissariat of Finance), and a small room devoted to a reconstruction of one of Tatlin’s eccentric gliders.
Two Russian avant-garde isms —Futurism and Suprematism— predated the Revolution by a few years, but their leading artists shared its ideals and contributed to its causes of equality and justice. Early on, some of these avant-garde artists painted bright colours to decorate trains taking the optimistic messages of the Revolution to small towns and the countryside. This is a revolution we might still believe in, and I feel the RA exhibition could have shown more of what must have been genuinely exciting times. I remember once seeing and entering a mock-up of a carriage of one of those agitprop trains, and the colours and designs of the propaganda posters communicated the sheer energy and enthusiasm of those first revolutionary years in a way the RA exhibition fails to achieve. By perhaps not wanting to be too starry-eyed about a revolution that brought much cruelty and suffering, the RA misses showing the exhilaration also present, and a more complete representation of the time is lacking.
The exhibition of course has star names: Malevich, Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Popova, Tatlin, Rodchenko, and the Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky. Both experimental poet and graphic artist with his own bold and powerful style, his 1921 poster series Enemies Surround Us is exhibited. As satirical cartoons on the oppression of English workers, they have at last found their way home. In the same room, Rodchenko’s photograph of Mayakovsky presents him with eyes, one in half shadow, which continue to stare at us with an almost frightening intensity of vision and commitment. In 1930 he shot himself, at a time when he was disillusioned with turns the Revolution had taken. The 150,000 who attended his funeral are evidence of his popularity. To others, like the painter Marc Chagall, the revolution had become sour much earlier than 1930. He had founded an art school at his home city of Vitebsk, and was also its Commissar of Arts. Nevertheless, disappointed, he left Russia for France in 1922.
In the late 1920s, the authorities were denouncing Malevich’s work for not showing social realities. Despite this, he was given a room of his own in the 1932 Leningrad exhibition. This is also the case at the RA, and they have included those works exhibited 80+ years ago: Suprematist abstractions alongside representational work attempting to conform. His paintings of peasants, though, show blank faces, commenting, it seems, on loss of identity under the communist system.
The RA’s Malevich room also includes work by one of his Suprematist followers, Nikolai Suetin. His designs on coffee pot, cup, saucer, plate, inkwell and vase, manufactured by the State Porcelain Factory in Petrograd, are one of the exhibition’s highlights. Still looking fresh and wonderful, they could also be labelled Constructivist, as might El Lissitzky’s apartment design. Constructivism was the only avant-garde ism developed in the Revolution. It is basically an extension into areas of design and production of Suprematist painting’s use of visual fundamentals.
Aesthetically, some of the very best exhibits are graphics. The Stenberg Brothers, Vladimir and Georgi, produced stunning theatre and film posters using photomontage in Constructivist compositions with dynamic angles, and space as an active element of the designs. The colours are also tremendous. On a personal note, after completing a design degree I studied at a teacher training college in 1981/82, and on a wall of my hall of residence room I placed a few postcards of images that were touchstones for my own creative aspirations. They included Russian Revolution film posters by the Stenberg Brothers. I valued their work highly, and still do.
The final rooms are profoundly depressing. Stalin’s centrally planned drive to industrialisation demanded images of heroic workers, especially the ‘shock workers’ who were promoted as examples of those whose productivity exceeded the official targets. The grim reality behind this propaganda included strikers and slow workers being imprisoned or executed. The Union of Soviet Artists suppressed the avant-garde, leaving only the dirge of Socialist Realism. Artworks from one of the twentieth century’s greatest times for artistic innovation were locked away in storerooms and cupboards. State terror claimed victims from all walks of life, including the brilliant avant-garde theatre director Meyerhold, who was tortured and shot. The exhibition ends with the emergence of this ruthless and brutal tyranny.
About the reviewerRobert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He has recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).