Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Not all revolutionary art inspires

Vladimir Lenin in Smolny
Picasso famously declared that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”.

And that is certainly one of the things that art can do, but if that’s the sort of artistic experience you’re looking for, then don’t look toward the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932.

For this centenary year of the revolution itself, the RA got in quick. And while there is much to recommend a visit, there are also flaws and clunky curation to contend with.

It would help, for instance, if there was some context provided for the events of October 1917: even a meagre note that Czarist Russia was no paradise on Earth would be useful, if only to remind visitors that the revolution did not come out of some sort of vacuum.

Instead, we begin with a room dedicated to visions of Lenin and Stalin – as though the roots of the revolution itself are in the cults of the leaders alone.

The defence of Petrograd
Actually, set aside whatever your political and philosophical views of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union are, and there are some fine paintings here: Issak Brodsky’s Lenin and Demonstration from 1919 is very good: the eyes give you a sense of a powerful and charismatic character, a real human being, in marked contrast to other more iconised portrayals.

It’s light years away from the later ‘socialist realism’. And much better. Indeed, the later, idealised socialist realist paintings of agricultural workers are profound only in their blandness.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s painting of Lenin in his coffin (hidden from the world for decades because it was considered so controversial) inhabits the same world as other death paintings. Vladimir Lenin in Smolny, again by Brodsky but this time from 1930, is also excellent with its extraordinary sense of simplicity and lack of pomp.

Space Force Construction
The next room gives us works that seek to make industrialisation and industrial work heroic. It includes some brilliant photography – not least, Arkady Shaiket’s Construction of the Moscow Telegraphic Centre from 1928 – but also paintings that make workers look like robots. That might – or might not – have been deliberate, but it’s what we have in front of us.

One large canvas portrays three women in a cotton mill: not one of them has a facial expression or characteristic that marks her from the others. If this was supposed to convince people of the wonderfulness of the Soviet Union and industry, then it's difficult to see how it would.

There is some Kandinsky here and some Chagall – both of whose work is always worth seeing – and plenty of Malevich (I had enough at the Tate Modern’s 2014 exhibition, frankly, but this was new for the OH), although Landscape With Five Houses (1932) is worth seeing again.

Works like Space Force Construction (1921) by Lyubov Popova make you think positively of Constructivism.

There is an extraordinary design for a worker’s flat that has been recreated here – it still feels modern in the minimalist way that design TV shows love.

Construction of the Moscow Telegraphic Centre
However, it’s slightly surreal to view the displayed figurines in porcelain – revolutionary versions of Royal Doulton shepherdesses. The printed fabrics one does expect – but not these.

A wall in one room displays a series of portraits of cultural giants such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who pushed the boundaries of their art forms – yet there is with no real suggestion as to how we should view these in the wider context of the exhibition.

Given some of the mutterings on social media, by the sort of people who declare themselves experts on something without having actually seen it, it’s possible that the curators simply felt too wary of any backlash if they penned something that looked overtly positive, and have left such sections almost blank in terms of explanations. 

We have adverts, food coupons that are designed way beyond the strictly utilitarian and examples of works that celebrate the pre-revolutionary ‘Mother Russia’.

The final room is a disaster: there are some interesting works, but we end up with a logjam of viewers because there is (yet more) film to watch and the only way to see it is from a narrow passageway.

Adjoining this is the almost-final exhibit – a black box where you can sit and watch pictures flash by of people killed by the Soviet regime. Its black boxness seems to invoke the religious nature of Mecca. 

Tatlin's glider
Before this, though, Tatlin’s glider rises above much else on display – perhaps because one can view it without trying to understand or impose onto it anything overtly political. Displayed beautifully, on it’s own and turning gently beneath a dome, it conveys a sense of hope.

The Russian Revolution offered hope to many – including to artists. But the hope died as time passed: as counter-revolution caused war and suffering, and as the regime responded with a clamping-down on creative thinking and anything that might be consider individual.

The Defence of Petrograd, by Alexander Deineka (1928) is an epic canvas that sees blank-faced men head to the front to defend the new Russia. Above, on a gantry, wounded men return.

Alexander Samokhvalovs painting of a shot putter has a sense of being extraordinarily modern, though painted in 1933.

The Shot Putter
Much is pure propaganda, but its also evidence that propaganda can be good art.

Film footage throughout includes Eisentein’s October. We face the question of whether the Odessa steps is propaganda? Well, yes. But  is it good art too? Absolutely! Just as Leni Riefenstahl’s films are. Will seeing works by such artists ‘convert’ you? That’s up to you and you alone.

Just as you can appreciate great Western religious art without becoming religious, so you can see this exhibition without taking on a specific political view (pro or anti).

However, theres an extraordinary sense of modernity and vision throughout the exhibition that would make it difficult not to mourn the betrayal of the spirit of the revolution.

Its a fascinating view – albeit a flawed one. Inevitably, it’s hard to see it through anything other than the prism of one’s own political leanings, popular perception and history books, but if you can manage to push beyond, there are rewards here – as well as things to deeply irritate.

Some of what is on view is poor. But some is very good indeed.

You have until 17 April to decide whether for not you wish to see it.

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