Phil Brett enjoys the art at the RA exhibition, but not the simplistic and misleading commentary.
Remember the fuss over the art of Hans Holbein the Younger because he painted during the time of an autocratic ruler who had a fondness for decapitating his wives? No, of course not, there wasn’t any. But there have been such murmurings about the Royal Academy’s exhibition on the art of the 1917 Russian Revolution, in The Guardian amongst other places. With liberals tut-tutting, I was intrigued as to what the Royal Academy itself would make of it.
Tyshler: Formal Construction of Red
The Russian Revolution was a moment in history when working people seized power in attempt to end oppression and exploitation. In doing so, a wealth of artistic creativity - visual, ceramic, musical and cinematic - was unleashed. The RA has included a lot of it here: there are masterpieces from amongst others, Kandinsky, Malevich and Chagall, as well as films from Eisenstein and designs for workers’ homes in the exhibition. It shows the breadth of the art produced, whether it is the abstractions of Alexander Tyshel or the more figurative paintings of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin or art designed for everyday use.
At the heart of the exhibition are two rooms, ‘Brave New World’ being the first, which vibrate with energy, with artists such as Lyubov Popova, whose Space-Force Construction (1921), swirls like a cyclone around the centre and almost appears to escape the canvas and whirl you around. It is a piece which you can stand in front of and lose yourself. It is stunning. Similarly, Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Crest (detail) (1917) takes your breath away. Energy combines with freedom to involve you emotionally. For me, I look at it and my brain tries to identify literal images, are there buildings, figures or faces? But as I look, I’m drawn in and simply enjoy the spectacle.
Malevich: Woman with a Rake
This and the next room, devoted to Kazimir Malevich, are a reflection of the revolution at its high point. The air is one of optimism and euphoria. The world was theirs to win. Previous to the revolution Malevich had been experimenting with geometric shapes, the revolution gave him fresh impetus. Even later his shift to figurative based painting, such as Woman with a Rake (1932) has shape at its heart. She looks like a jigsaw, an essential part of the world which she lives in. Likewise, Torso (Prototype of a New Image) (1929-32) isn’t in the tradition of figural representation, it is an attempt to create a new one. A direction he took further with his peasants’ series of paintings.
Marc Chagall was for a time Commissar for the arts in Vitebsk and has two fantastic paintings here. The largest is Prominade (1917-1918) which is a huge canvas with the artist holding hands with his wife Bella, who is floating in the air. Ostensibly about their love but it also captures the freedom that the revolution promised.
There is no doubt that the art exhibited is absolutely fantastic, you can’t help but wonder at the amazing imagination on show. The problem lies in the commentary which accompanies it.
Popova: Space-Force Construction
In the first room you are not introduced to the autocratic horror or Tsarism, or the hopes of the revolutionary masses but to the theme of ‘Salute the Leader’ where we are told, the “icons of Lenin replaced those of Christ”.
Rooms follow called ‘Man and Machine’ and the aforementioned, ‘Brave New World’, repeating the clichéd narrative arc of the dictator Lenin leading inevitably to the dictator Stalin, with his gulags. The historical context given is not much deeper than that. There is only passing mention of the massive, devastating, Civil War, let alone the invading western armies, which are never mentioned!
The exhibition blames the famine and poverty of those years on the Bolsheviks, not the attempts of the ruling classes of France and Britain to destabilise the fledgling workers’ state. We are told in ‘The Fate of the Peasants’ room that the peasants were “robbed of individuality” by the Bolsheviks. Presumably, the curators believe that the life of the peasant in Tsarist Russia was one of idyllic charm: writing poetry, whilst painting the fine countryside which they were of course not forced to work on, ploughing the fields just for the utter joy of it.
This narrative does have a problem though of trying to explain why so many artists, many of whom are now seen as giants of the arts, were drawn to the revolution, producing works of brilliance. Especially as we are repeatedly told that Lenin was not that interested in art and that at best, art was “tolerated” by the Bolsheviks.
This is nonsense, as Christine Lindey in Art and the Bolshevik Revolution writes on this site. Anatoliy Lunacharsky for example, was a poet and an art critic and became the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, responsible for education and culture. Leon Trotsky, leader of the Red Army, was so interested in art that not only did he write about it extensively but included artists on the civil war trains. (Which is perhaps why he barely gets a mention, except for appearing on a rather fine cup by Mikhail Adamovich).
Trotsky’s view that “art must make its own way and by its own means” is ignored because it does not fit the view that the Bolsheviks considered art as being purely for propaganda – so Martin Sixsmith tells us on the audio tape. Yes, the very Martin Sixsmith who was Tony Blair’s Director of Communication and who suggested ‘burying bad news’ on September 11th. I wasn’t sure whether the RA was enjoying some ironic humour here. I’m guessing not. The whole tone of the commentary throughout the exhibition programme is simplistic, misleading or simply wrong, viewing the artists as being at best skilled but naive dreamers who eventually see the error of their ways.
The exhibition ends with images of some of the many who died in the purges. The only explanation offered here for their deaths is that it was destined to be like that. Revealingly, there was no equivalent in the first room concerning the slaughter of the First World War, or of the Tsarist pogroms. As a socialist from the Trotskyist tradition, I believe that the Russian Revolution was attacked, isolated, subverted and besieged by Western capitalist powers, with the finest cadre killed in the Civil War, which led to a counter-revolution.
Now, I did not particularly expect that view to be expressed here, but I think it is fair enough to have expected some well-informed commentary and debate, as to what drew so many artists to the cause and what made many grow disillusioned. There should be a more fair-minded presentation of the different accounts of what happened to alter the trajectory of the revolution – and if the RA want to raise the gulags, then the reasons for their appearance should be presented. I was prepared to cut the Royal Academy some slack and not expect a detailed discussion of the workers’ revolution from a socialist perspective – it is after all, the Royal Academy, a bastion of the art establishment - but I did expect a somewhat more sophisticated take on what inspired so many great artists, than the banal line promoted here.
The sheer exuberance and optimism of people fighting for a new world can be clearly be seen in the art on display, but is ignored by the gallery. Also ignored is the interesting questions of the place of art in a society in crisis, its duty – or otherwise – to play a role in it and how the avant-garde can connect with the masses. Questions which could have easily fallen into the remit of the RA, without the need for the curators to be card-carrying Marxists.
So with all those reservations, is it worth a trip? Yes, the art is magnificent – rich in ideas, vibrancy and beauty. I would give the audio commentary a miss and ignore the curatorship of the exhibition. The art stands out as a beacon of hope, with rooms alive with young artists, giddy with the freedom that October 1917 created. That it was created in a cauldron of revolution is a fact that the RA cannot understand. Like many liberal critics, it can see the greatness of the art but not the politics behind it. In the final room, we are told that Stalin took great interest in literature and art, because it was an area where he could not suppress the ideas contained within. Whatever the Royal Academy might think or attempt, they cannot either.
Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is on the at the Royal Academy until 17th April
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher who has written a future fiction/crime novel, Comrades Come Rally, and is at this moment writing a sequel. He lives in London.