The great works of Russian artists of the early 20th are among the most thrilling and inspiring in the history of art. But they are also so well known to have become almost a cliché. Any show of revolutionary Russian art has to balance a number of different issues. It has to reveal why the works of art are so thrilling. It has to accommodate many of the different schools and perspectives – from neo-realism to neo-primitivism, from rayonism to futurism, from suprematisism to constructivism – that tumbled out and jostled and competed with each other in the first three decades of the century. It has to show the tragedy of the repression and regression of the art in the late 20s and 30s as the Soviet state began first defining and then policing what art should and could be produced. It has to give a sense of the social tumult within which that art was produced. It has to show, without being too crass, something of the relationship between the social fervour and the artistic dynamism. It has to reveal the Utopian hopes that helped fuelled some of the artistic inspiration, and the consequences – social and artistic – of the dashing of those hopes. It has to unpick the relationship between art and propaganda. And it has to allow us to see the works through new eyes so as to stop them being clichéd.
This is a very long, complex and demanding list. Few exhibitions manage to tick off many of these items. But some, for instance like the Chagall to Malevich: The Russian Avant Gardes exhibition at Vienna’s Albertina Museum last year, capture the spirit of those demands, and allow us to see the art in a new and thrilling way. In other exhibitions, such as the Whitechapel’s Adventures of the Black Square, from 2015, one feels as if one is walking through a curatorial fog, vainly trying to make sense of works that feel randomly picked out of a gallery drawer, disparate and disconnected.
Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, the new blockbuster show at London’s Royal Academy has won rave reviews. Laura Cumming in the Observer described it as ‘a momentous, even historic exhibition’, through which ‘history runs like wind… shaping everything we see’. In the Telegraph, Alistair Sook wrote that the ‘curators do a marvellous job of marshalling their material, presenting the history of the early Soviet era in a lucid and compelling fashion. Stylishly designed, the show proceeds with verve, and has a lovely flow.’ For the Guardian’s Adrain Searle, there is ‘much to surprise’ in a show that finds a way of ‘conveying the clamour, aspirations and contradictions of the times.’ Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the Times found the exhibition ‘viscerally moving’.
Unfortunately I disagree (though in doing so, I appear to be in a minority of one). The show is, in my view, a curatorial mess, haphazardly lumping together works in a way that helps illuminate neither artistic nor political developments in post-revolutionary Russia. It does not provide a proper sense of the development (and regression) or art in the decade and half following the 1917 Revolution. Nor does it help us understand better the relationship between artistic, political and social changes. What is striking about the reviews is that what most extol about the show – that it provides a sense of history, or that it conveys ‘the clamour, aspirations and contradictions of the times’ – is precisely what I find lacking. Relating art to history requires more than constantly reminding us that these artistic works were produced against the background of a revolution that was eating its own. We know that. What we would like to see is how and why that happened in an artistic sense, and its artistic consequences. That, this exhbition signally fails to do. History here does not ‘run like the wind’ but falls like a shroud upon the art.
The exhibition is broadly thematic, exploring in successive rooms ideas such as the cult of the leader, the relationships between workers and machines, the fate of the peasants, the impact of War Communism and the New Economic Policy, and the Stalinist vision of Utopia. It is a good approach. Or, rather, it would have been if the themes had been used as means of exploring issues such as the newness of the art and the techniques, the artistic changes over time, the relationship between the social tumult and artistic expression, and between social repression and artistic endeavour, the relationship between art and propaganda, and so on. But they are not. Certainly many of these issues are mentioned, sometimes obsessively, but rarely does the show help illuminate these changes or these relationships.
Consider, for instance, the second room on ‘Man and Machine’ which deals with how ‘painters, graphic designers, photographers, film-makers, ceramists were all encouraged to promote industry and the heroic worker’. The most striking features of the room are the photographs.
The images by Arkaidy Shaiket, Georgi Zelma, Boris Ignatovich and Alexander Rodchenko are even today stunning. A century ago, not long into the history of photography, they would have been astonishing. Their importance in reframing the way people looked at the world, the recasting of the possibilities of photography, and the continuing influence of these techniques on contemporary vision, is not touched upon. Instead, all become in the exhibition part of the morass of Soviet propaganda. What is new and thrilling becomes lost.
The show reminds us that while ‘workers were seen as the liberated proletariat who no longer had to sell their life and labour for the profit of others’, the reality ‘was strikingly different’: ‘Many workers were effectively slaves, and strikers and slow workers were imprisoned or shot. Thousands died in accidents, of starvation or from freezing temperatures.’
All of which is true, but a show about artistic changes requires a bit more nuance. The new techniques developed by photographers, artists, architects, designers, were driven not a desire, still less a demand, to create propaganda. Rather they emerged first out of Utopian hopes and ideals. They then evolved into a desire to create the ‘New Man’, partly by transforming the way people related to their world. ‘In order to educate man to a new vision’, wrote Rodchenko, ‘everyday familiar objects must be shown to him with totally unexpected perspectives and in unexpected situations. New objects should be depicted from different sides in order to provide a complete impression of the object.’ What photography allowed was ‘Contradictions of perspective. Contrasts of light. Contrasts of form. Points of view impossible to achieve in drawing and painting. Foreshortenings with a strong distortion of the objects, with a crude handling of matter. Moments altogether new, never seen before… Compositions whose boldness outstrips the imagination of painters.’
The desire to create ‘new Man’ (problematic and contradictory in itself) gave way to a desire to propagandise for the Revolution, which transmuted into becoming part of the propaganda arm of the state, and finally led to the destruction, of the artistic spirit and often artist himself or herself, by that state. The revolution that the artist sought to serve disavowed their revolutionary spirit and trampled all over their modernist aesthetic and what Stalin denounced as ‘bourgeois formalism’ that possessed ‘no ideological content’. Rodchenko himself was forced eventually to ‘confess’ his artistic crimes, telling the magazine Soviet Photo in 1935 that ‘I want to decisively reject putting formal solutions to a theme in the first place and ideological ones in second place’ and ‘to create works that will stand on a high political and artistic level, works in which the photographic language will fully serve Socialist Realism’.
Little of this is thought through properly in the RA show. It does not even raise the most basic of questions, such as: ‘What is the relationship between art and propaganda? Can an artist also be a propagandist without also losing his or her artistic spirit?’ I am not suggesting that an art exhibition should answer such questions. It should however, raise these questions in the minds of visitors, and curate the works in a way that allows us to think more deeply about them. This, the ‘Man and Machine’ room signally fails to do. Much the same is true of the other thematic rooms, too.
The three best rooms are, in fact, ones that break with the thematic flow of the show. The first is the room dedicated to Kazimir Malevich, based on a room of Malevich works that the artist himself curated at a seminal exhibition in Leningrad in 1932. The aim of that exhibition was to institutionalize the new art as decreed by Stalin. Malevich was one of only two so-called ‘left’ artists invited to show their works. Their works were presented primarily as an expression of artistic deviation, of the bourgeois degeneration which Stalin had swept away in the Soviet Union. Of course, we, like many of those who visited the 1932 exhibition, see something very different.
Malevich’s original 1913 ‘Black square’ is perhaps the most iconic work of early modernist abstract art, and symbolic of the desire in Russia, from well before the 1917 revolution, to overthrow the old, a work that Malevich described as representing the ‘zero of form’. In the Malevich room we see a painter moving from geometric abstraction to complex Suprematism to more figurative art in the late 1920s, under pressure from the Soviet authorities. These later depictions of peasants are probably the most haunting of all Malevich’s work; figures with blank faces representing a people, and an artist, deprived of a sense of self, of their soul, of their agency.
The second room that breaks with the thematic scheme exhibits just one work: Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin. This is an extraordinary giant mobile that looks as if it could be the remains of a winged dinosaur. In the 1920s, Tatlin worked on a series of gliders, prototype flying machines for a new era, a kind of ‘worker’s flying bicycle’, as he put it. They were designed to fly not in a practical but in a poetic sense. Each is a wondrous metaphor for an imagination set free, for the human aspirations that took flight in the years after the Russian Revolution. Tatlin’s vision is beautifully conceived in the RA exhibition. Set by itself in a white, octagonal gallery, constantly moving in suspension, and lit so that the constantly moving shadows become part of the work. It is worth visiting the show just for that one room.
At the very end of the show comes the Room of Memory, a black box in which runs a slideshow of those arrested, and of those murdered, in Stalin’s purges. The exiled, the starved the destitute. Peasants and coal miners, teachers and office clerks. And artists and sculptures and poets. Among them was Nikolai Punin, one of the organizers of the 1932 Leningrad exhibition that forms the starting point for the RA show. It is a moving counterpoint to the soaring optimism of Tatlin’s glider.
I came out of the room deeply moved. What a pity the rest of the show could not engage with emotion and thought in a similar fashion.