thu 25/07/2024

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, Royal Academy | reviews, news & interviews

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, Royal Academy

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, Royal Academy

An exhibition of Russian art purged of the artists who promoted the revolution

'Bolshevik', 1920 by Boris Kustodiev © State Tretyakov Gallery

This must be the most depressing exhibition I have ever seen. Dedicated to the leaders of the Russian Revolution, the first room features official portraits by Isaak Brodsky of Lenin and Stalin plus drawings and models of Lenin’s vast mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square.

Surely, I thought, this dreary stuff must be a preamble to more exciting things to come, especially as the Russian avant-garde included some of the most innovative artists of the 20th century who not only pioneered abstraction, but in the first few years after the Revolution, devoted their energies to promoting the Bolshevik cause.

But no, the second gallery is dedicated to paintings, photographs and film glorifying the workers who sweated blood in factories and fields to bring to fruition the hopelessly unrealistic plans of their successive leaders. This is propaganda at its most leaden; on canvas we see tractors gleaming in anticipation of the difference they will make to agricultural output, while on film we watch steel workers manipulating huge lengths of white hot iron to a sound track of cheering crowds. 

In a painting by Alexander Deineka (pictured right, Textile Workers, 1927) three young women operate the looms in a light and airy textile factory; they look more like healthy athletes than production line drones. The role of tendentious images like these was to divert people’s attention from dismal reality; denied the right to negotiate or strike, workers slaved away for a pittance often in dangerous conditions. Millions had been killed in the civil war and millions more would starve to death in the social and economic chaos that followed, or would be arrested on trumped up charges, tortured and summarily shot or sent to the gulag. In the next room hang photographs of the many cultural luminaries, such as the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who were exiled, murdered or driven to suicide by the regime. 

One of the few uplifting images in the show celebrates the harmony between man and machine. A handsome youth stands atop a giant array of well-oiled cogs. Like the paintings and film, Arkady Shaiket’s photograph delivers a package of subliminal messages. Turning a huge wheel, the heroic lad is the driver of industrial progress – the human element controlling the vast machinery of Russia’s great leap forward. Yet although obviously posed, the photograph is believable enough to transcend its remit as blatant propaganda. 

Under the Tsar, artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Lyubov Popova had already been exploring the language of abstraction and, inspired by political idealism, after the revolution they left their studios to galvanise support for Lenin and the new regime. But the incredible outpouring of creative genius sparked by this revolutionary fervour is scarcely visible in the exhibition. There’s no mention of the agitprop trains that criss-crossed the country bearing artists and actors who promoted the revolution by performing plays and disseminating the banners, posters and pamphlets which they designed and printed in transit.

There’s no mention of the decorations put up in the streets and squares of Kiev and Odessa for subsequent Revolution Festivities by artists like Aleksandra Ekster. There’s no trace of the experimental theatre productions staged by Meyerhold or the costumes and sets designed for them by Popova and Varvara Stepanova, nor the worker’s clothing they designed and the books they illustrated. Precious few of the experimental paintings, graphics, photographs and montages for which El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko are internationally famous are included in the show and, despite being powerful images, Kandinsky and Popova’s paintings seem to be drowning in a sea of mediocrity (pictured above left: Blue Crest, 1917, by Wassily Kandinsky)

On the other hand, Malevich is accorded a room of his own. This ought to redress the balance, yet does exactly the opposite. The isolation makes his dynamic Suprematist abstractions seem totally irrelevant – the product of someone locked away in a studio out of touch with reality. Nothing could be further from the truth; even before the Revolution, he and members of his Supremus group worked closely with a peasant co-operative that was set up to produce carpets, shawls and other functional items in the village of Vitebsk in Belarus, where he later taught. 

Lenin had been notoriously dubious about the value of art. “Art for me is just an appendage”, he once said. “And when its use as propaganda – which we need at the moment – is over, we’ll cut it out as useless: snip, snip.” The backlash against the avant-garde artists who had done so much to further the revolution did not come, though, until after his death in 1924. Malevich, meanwhile, had been appointed director of the Petrograd State Institute of Artistic Culture, but in 1926 the institute was denounced as counter revolutionary and forced to close. By this time, the Socialist Realism that dominates the first two rooms of the exhibition was being heavily promoted; many of Malevich’s paintings were confiscated and, banned from making any further abstractions, he began producing hideously stilted images of peasants with featureless heads and bodies simplified into geometric forms (pictured above: Peasants, 1930)

In 1932 under Stalin, an Artist’s Union was set up to impose Socialist Realism as the only acceptable style, and the repression began in ernest of anyone who did not conform. The last room of the exhibition is dominated by a booth showing mug shots of some of the victims of Stalin’s purges. These silent witnesses give the lie to the utopian propaganda being churned out by the official artists of the regime. And 100 years on, it seems that the contribution made by Russia’s avant-garde artists to the revolutionary cause is still being denied and the deadening mediocrity of Socialist Realism is still being overlooked.


Well, this is one way of looking at it, but in itself it's depressing: is Sarah Kent an art critic or an historian? There is tremendous energy here, reams of superb paintings as well as questionable ones. And how does she manage not to mention the room devoted to Petrov-Vodkin? Some superb stuff in there. Disappointing to read. Of course, you could question the marriage of autocracy and wealth which has given us this exhibition, but that's another story.

I'm glad you found something to like in the exhibition; unfortunately, I didn't but that's not the point. What angers me so much is the way history has been rewritten by the omission of the artists who did so much to further the cause of the revolution in its early years. I'm an art historian as well as a critic and wrote my thesis on Kandinsky, which is why I am so aware of the things that were left out of the show in much the same way that Trotsky was airbrushed out of official photographs after he had fallen from grace.

Thank you artsdesk! Once again I'm so grateful for the articles and the writers. The writers on artsdesk always give us so much to think about. Those of us who are not knowledgeable or intellectual can learn so much! This carries on the tradition of Ismene Brown who always writes such informative articles. I'm tempted NOT to go and see the exhibition in protest for the terrible time that all this ant-humanity gave this country. Could you tell me who curates the content? Is it the Russians or The RA? Sorry if this is an ignoramus' question but is it in itself a propaganda exercise or an art exhibition? Thank you again for your insight into the artists lives during this period.

Thank you for your kind words. The exhibition was curated by Ann Dumas of the Royal Academy along with John Milner and Natalia Murray from the Courtauld Institute. Their selection was based largely on an exhibition held at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad in 1932, which purported to offer an overview of art since the Revolution, but actually sought to marginalise the avant garde whom they considered a bourgeois irrelevance. You'd have to ask the curators why they chose to follow this model.

I share your thoughts entirely Sarah!!

At last I've seen a review which reflects the exhibition I saw yesterday. Thank you Sarah.

I'm glad you found something to enjoy; unfortunately I didn't, but that's not the point. What angers me about the exhibition is the way it rewrites history by omitting so many of the artists who dedicated themselves to the revolution during its early years. I'm an art historian as well as a critic and I wrote my thesis on Kandinsky which is why I'm so aware of the things that have been excluded from the show.

Sarah, I would be interested to know what you thought of the film "Revolution: New Art for a New World". Have you seen it? Have you reviewed it, or are you planning to?

I haven't seen the film yet and I can't find a release date for it in the U.K. But the trailer looks really good, and hopefully TAD will be reviewing it very soon.

I saw it and felt about it pretty much the same as you felt about the exhibition, alas. The common denominator is Natalia Murray, who is credited as consultant on the film, but you might come away with a much more favourable view. It did have agit trains but nothing of the excitement you write of nor anything of the application of their avant-garde ideas in clothing, fabrics, graphics, El Lissitszky, theatre designs, VKHUTEMAS and the spread of the avant-garde outside Moscow and Petrograd.

Best were Kandinsky and Chagall. The rest were socialist mediocrity - I agree with Sarah.

Surely not the Maleviches of the 1920s? The Kuzma-Vodkins? Many of the portraits?

The Malevich's were one dimensional. The Kuzma Vodkins were a revelation!

I was so relieved to read your article having been to see the RA Revolution exhibition today. I was really sorry that this exhibition seemed to me to totally miss the point of the huge part the Avant Garde artists played in promoting the Revolution in the early years and the international influences introduced to them especially by Shchukin which were then lost to them resulting in a flowering of their own Russian Avant Garde as they turned their attention to agit- prop. The exhibition as you say had nothing of this excitement which I was so hoping to see. Thank you for so elegantly expressing what I felt - I wish the curators had explained that this was mostly an exhibition about Stalinist propaganda built on the 1932 exhibition.

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