Making an Art of Revolution
Monday, 23 October 2017 00:39

Making an Art of Revolution

Published in Festivals/ Events

Mark Perryman invites us to put on our dancing shoes and celebrate the October 1917 centenary.

To coin a phrase ‘How do you solve a problem like VI Lenin?’ As the centenary of the October revolution fast approaches, the interesting if often deeply flawed exhibtions mounted by the Royal Academy, the British Library and the Design Museum will be cleared away and we will see the politics take centre stage. We’ve already had an inkling of what to expect with the aftermath from Charlottesville, which sparked the moral equivalence brigade and their your-communism-was-just-as-bad-as-their-Nazism so yah-boo-sucks efforts at intellectual debate.

Much of this is easy enough to dismiss and oppose. However, if in doing so we tie ourselves up in left-wing hagiography then I’m not sure how far we advance our cause either. Lenin remains, of course, the most superb tactician of revolutionary change, and deserves every credit for that. He was the leader of an insurrectionary mass movement who in the process laid the basis for an entirely new society. There are precious few political figures from the twentieth century who can match Lenin’s achievements.

Except for the most embittered of anti-communists, none of that should be controversial. The difficulties occur on our side when the tactics, leadership, and new society of Lenin are wrenched out of all context, or as theorists prefer, out of the ‘conjuncture’, to propose a politics of mimicry rather than adaptation to the conditions we face. This is hardly a new debate either, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci first raised this precise issue in the 1920s when he made the distinction between the revolution as a war of manoeuvre versus the war of position.

So a century on, how to celebrate 1917? It would be nice to get it right, after all precious few of us are going to be around for the bicentenary! The imperative of revolutionary change, notwithstanding this conjuncture or that, remains unchanged, and thus makes the best starting point. A notion summed up best by the title John Reed’s epic account of October 1917, Ten Days that Shook the World. An ideal so good that neither Hollywood nor Warren Beatty were able to destroy the message and instead produced a rather decent film version, Reds.

1917 served to inspire across the entire spectrum of the arts. Music, poetry, architecture, design, theatre, fashion, literature, film – has there ever been such a moment where such great art was shaped out of revolution? A revolutionary imperative that not only inspired, but recognised that to flourish these artists, writers, designers, poets would need the space to express this imperative in their own terms, not as servants of the revolution but in its service.

This first made sense to me in the mid 1980s, when the Crafts Council hosted a London exhibition ‘ Art into Production: Soviet Textiles, Fashion and Ceramics, 1917-1935’. The vivid colours, the variety of shapes, the ever-presence of a sense of movement with a purpose caught my eye and I’ve never forgotten it.

Shortly after and the era of Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika meant a much wider re-assessment of Soviet power on the world stage, the beginning of the end of what had threatened to become a new cold war. And this was reflected too in a popular appropriation of ‘Bolshevik chic’. Harmless enough in intent, broadly well-meaning but pretty much devoid of political content, there goes that conjuncture again.

And so where do we end up for October 2017? In post-Soviet Russia Putin will seek no doubt to represent 1917 as indicative of the might of his Greater Russia nationalism. This was the era of the USSR after all, a nation on a scale that Putin today can only dream of. Meanwhile across what used to be thought of as the West, parties of social democracy are suffering a phenomenon the writer and activist James Doran has described as Pasokification, a steep decline in support following these parties’ embrace of the neoliberal consensus.

In Greece PASOK has suffered the steepest fall of all but elsewhere in France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the Irish Republic, social-democratic parties have not only declined but faced an insurgent challenge from the Left too. None of this amounts to 1917 revisited, but chimes nonetheless with the inspirational motives of radical change.

In Britain the picture is different. Because the insurgency has come from within the party of social democracy itself, led by a rank outsider and serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour of course is not about to become a revolutionary party. It has never been one and will never turn into one. But the sense that a party set on winning parliamentary power can co-exist with the ambition of reinventing itself as a social movement is increasingly prevalent as the defining characteristic of Corbynism.

Finding a way to mix all this together for a 1917 centenary night out is no mean feat. But Philosophy Football, with the help of the RMT, are doing that at London’s Rich Mix Arts Centre on Saturday 21st October. Described by Time Out as ‘The Sex Pistols of Balkan Brass’, The Trans-Siberian March band headline with a special Shostakovich-inspired set. Michael Rosen reviews how 1917 produced a wave of childrens’ books at the time. Rosy Carrick performs extracts and interpretations of the brand new translation of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin which she recently edited.

And Des Kapital, the surprise hit of the Edinburgh fringe, recalls the events of the Russian Revolution via the songs of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Robbie Williams – a history lesson like none other, complete with audience singalongs! Add author of Landscapes of Communism, Owen Hatherley and Eldina Begic creator of the Comradettes clothing project to Richard Seymour author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics on the spirit of revolution – and be prepared to expect the unexpected.

Art out of Revolution is at Rich Mix, East London Saturday 21st October. Tickets from Philosophy Football.

MP 2 TSMB Promo Pics 300DPI

Monday, 23 October 2017 00:39

Art and the Bolshevik Revolution

Published in Visual Arts

How did the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 affect art and artists? It did so at every level: art education, production, patronage, distribution and reception were all transformed. Fierce debates about the form and function of art in the new worker state raised fundamental issues; from these stemmed so rich a flowering of the visual arts that its influence is still alive.

The revolution was itself partly the work of artists. Some had worked towards social and/or political change since Russian artists had taken the role of social critic in the nineteenth century. In the 1870s the Wanderers’ paintings had exposed social injustice in daily life. By the early twentieth century a well-informed Russian avant-garde was in touch with Paris and Munich, the epicentres of innovatory art. Embracing modernism, it debated how to transform and modernise Tsarist Russia. Some, like Goncharova, adopted the vivid colour and formal simplifications of ‘primitive’ Russian peasant art, rather than those of African art favoured by the French and Germans.

By 1913 Malevich had rejected all representation as antiquated, arguing that his revolutionary abstraction equated better to modern times. October 1917 brought radical cultural change. No longer for bourgeois and aristocrat, art would now be for the people. The art market was abolished and museums nationalised; the worker state became art’s patron.

Initially, most avant-garde artists welcomed the revolution because Lenin’s idea of a political avant-garde as an agent for social change legitimised their own calls for radical action to combat conservative attitudes to art and society. For Marxists like Tatlin, here was an opportunity to make real and meaningful change. He recalled: 'To Accept (sic) or not accept the October Revolution. There was no such question for me. I organically merged into active creative, social and pedagogical life’.

Others, like Kandinsky, were not sympathetic to Bolshevik politics, but welcomed the artistic freedom which it brought, while aesthetically or/and politically conservative artists feared a loss of private patronage and critical status. Contrary to western propaganda, no artist was sent to the salt mines: Lenin and Lunacharsky, (Commissar of Enlightenment 1917-1929) pursued a pluralist arts policy.

Nevertheless, for the first time in the world, the avant-garde was appointed to positions of power. Despite the material hardships and shortages of War Communism (1917-1922) it launched into a dynamic transformation of art and its institutions. Tatlin headed IZO, the visual arts section of Lunacharsky’s commissariat. Recognising Kandinsky’s international status as an innovator, IZO gave him the important role of reorganising art education and museums. Together with the younger Rodchenko he founded 22 provincial museums and acquired the important collections of Russian avant-garde art which now grace museums in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics.

Tatlin, Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Popova, Stepanova , Rodchenko, Lissitzky and others taught at the newly created art schools where they pioneered innovatory teaching methods, which were later to influence the Bauhaus.

The debates about the role of art and artists raged on. Malevich and his group argued that the researches of innovatory artists would act as prototypes for practical application in architecture and design. Others took a less social view: Chagall continued his poetic depictions of his personal response to life, while Kandinsky pursued his investigations into the communication of heightened spiritual states of mind via colour, line and form.

Viewing such work as bourgeois self-indulgence, the politically engaged left heeded Mayakovsky’s dictum: 'the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes'. They created 'agit-prop' (agitation and propaganda) using their talents to decorate propaganda trains and boats, make Rosta street posters and organise public pageants and events. For example, in 1920 Altman and other artists involved 2,000 members of the Petrograd proletariat in the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace which included decorating buildings with gigantic abstract banners, and using factory sirens and arc lights.

Some Marxists, led by Tatlin and Rodchenko, called for the abolition of the art object which they saw as an exchangeable commodity belonging to the bourgeois past. Artists must leave their ivory towers and construct the new Socialist state alongside other workers by putting art at the service of the revolution. They became known as the Constructivists, and put the experiments conducted in the new art schools to practical use by designing posters, books, ceramics, theatre sets, etc. for the masses.

Under the slogan ‘Art into Production’ artists were to go into the factories to create modernist, mass produced designs because the new social order demanded new materials and new forms. For example, Popova and Stepanova designed textiles printed with the abstracted motifs of modernity: the zigzag of electricity, the whirl of aeroplane propellors, the cogs and wheels of trains and tractors.

Popova, who had begun her life as a painter is reputed to have said: ‘No artistic success has given me such satisfaction as the sight of a peasant or a worker buying a length of material designed by me.’ Meanwhile, artists such as Deineka argued that modernism was inaccessible to the masses. This was indeed often true. Abstract street decorations were said to frighten the horses. No less committed to the revolution, they argued for a representational art which would carry revolutionary messages. Seen as reactionary by the Constructivists, they were the forerunners of Socialist Realism.

The dilemma of creating innovatory art which is also accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved.

This is a version of an article published in the Digest of the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies. The society's library and archive includes a comprehensive collection of books and pictures about Soviet art and design.