Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1922 Royal Academy of Arts



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If you need a demonstration of how similar visual tropes are adapted for varying political purposes and results, go no further than Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1922, the current exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. The curators take us on a journey through the first five years following the revolution, showing how the new state engaged with art and artists to create the imagery of, well, a new state. The opening salon, Salute the Leader, is predictably hung with images of Lenin and Stalin. Included here is the photograph Beside Lenin’s Coffin (Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1924) and Joseph Stalin, a portrait in oils by Isaak Brodsky (1927). So far, so iconic – but we can’t blame artists and photographers for wanting to portray their leaders, whether dead or alive. One look into the vitrine of stiff, quasi-classical porcelain pieces proclaiming “State Porcelain Factory” indicates what said leaders really had in mind.

Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927 Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 185 cm State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo (c) 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg (c) DACS 2016

Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927
Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 185 cm
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Photo (c) 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
(c) DACS 2016

Man and Machine

In the Man and Machine salon, the journey continues. Textile Workers (Alexander Deineka, 1927) depicts archetypal muscular blonds, male and female, at work in a textile factory.  It is an archetype of humanity, uber-regimented ubermensch prefiguring Adolph Hitler’s Aryan race. The Brave New World salon is almost schizoid, with another tranche of “official” images of regimented humanity alongside the abstractions of Vladimir Kandinsky and Lyubov Popova, and Pavel Filinov’s Formula of Spring (1920), sending up the notion that life can be reduced to a formula. Included in this salon is a life-sized reconstruction of a “typical worker’s flat” in the new-fangled International Style. The title is anomalous because in front of us is the sort of ritzy, modernist pad that the typical worker today can only dream of renting or buying. Its only drawback, as the average estate agent would point out, is the lack of a kitchen. This is because it was built in a block with a “collective” canteen for cooking and eating, an alien notion in today’s individualist world.

 

The Faceless Peasants

By the 1930s, fine artists had begun debunking the totalitarian state in which they found themselves. The name of the Kasimir Malevich salon adequately advertises the creator of the majority of the works on display here, an artist who had been arrested several times for criticising the political regime. Suprematism, in art, reduces the visible world to its geometric essence, and the artist repainted his Black Square and painted Red Square as metaphors of the new regime, that is, the ideal and the irreducible. Among the paintings on display is Peasants (1930), a pair of humanoid figures with blank faces, his suggestion of what was happening to the people. In spite of this “progress”, the majority of the Russian population were agrarian workers, religious and superstitious in their outlook. In the Fate of the Peasants salon, we encounter yet another vitrine of plates and statuettes, one a figurine of a happy, merry “ideal” worker. In the background, Grigory Ryazhsky’s painting The Collective Farm Team Leader (1832) is a chilling reminder of what agrarian life really was like, its two, sturdy and muscular women with kerchiefed heads, one with a clipboard proclaiming that day’s productivity, while the labourers work like serfs behind them. Once more, it is prescient of Hitler’s National Socialism. Present also is Sergei Eisenstein’s Old and New, a rolling film montage of the effect of the advent of the new-fangled tractor into collective farming.

Laughing all the Way

In the Eternal Russia salon, the propaganda spreads. Carnival (Boris Kustodiev, 1919) is cartoon-bright and rather resembles an animation still from the burgeoning movies industry. On the surface, it is an enchanting scene of happy people enjoying life in a snow-bound village. The church sits in the centre and is slightly elevated over the town, a reminder of the role religion played in the lives of the people before political hero-worship displaced it. Without exception, everyone is rosy-cheeked, rotund and clad in furs,  a condition that extends to the prosperous grocer, the crowd awaiting entrance to the theatre, and even the street vendor in the foreground of the image. In the background, a team of horses harnessed in a myriad of bells pull a sleigh of laughing subjects, obviously up for a good time. Methinks: do you want to build a snowman, anybody?

Kazimir Malevich, Peasants, c. 1930 Oil on canvas, 53 x 70 cm State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo (c) 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Kazimir Malevich, Peasants, c. 1930
Oil on canvas, 53 x 70 cm
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Photo (c) 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Biblical Soundbites

A soundtrack of “carnival” music plays in another quarter of the exhibition salon, actually an accompaniment to “The Youth of Maxim” (Grigory Leonid Trauberg), a film montage of a party of happy sledders, the animated equivalent of the painted subjects I describe above. This montage is juxtaposed with “Women of Ryazan” (Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov, 1927), which shows poor women struggling to wash clothes at a riverside – a film sequence that makes its own point. In the New City, New Society, War, Communism salon, we encounter that obtrusive vitrine again and this time, the piece du jour is a statuette Bourgeois Woman Selling her Possessions (Alisa Brusketti-Mitrokhina). I wondered what point the display was making until I read the inscriptions upon them; the one: “He who will not work shall not eat” (1921) and the other: “He who works shall eat”…hmmm!

Everyday Life

Fearing I have wandered into a Tory party jamboree, I leave that salon and find myself in Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, a collection of stunning and simple images of day-to-day life in post-Revolution Russia, by the eponymous painter. But beautiful as several of them are, it did not feel free of the taint of propaganda. 1918 in Petrograd (Petrograd Madonna, 1920) depicts a woman holding a baby against the backdrop of  town centre. With its flat perspective and pastel colour, it appears like a section of fifteenth-century altarpiece and indeed, the accompanying text describes it as “reminiscent of Giotto and Fra Angelico”. All very lovely, but I’m not sure if the artist isn’t pushing the Trotskyist trope of the “ideal” woman. On leaving this salon, we march through the “peoples’ tunnel” – a montage of humanoid figures lining the walls – and arrive in Stalin’s Utopia. The journey from Revolution to the peoples’ state is complete and we encounter Race (Alexander Deinaka, 1932), a painting title with a definite double meaning. Once more, this image of fit and trim male bodies running competitively in race-track gear, could easily pass as a poster for a Third Reich rally – blond ambition, indeed. And yes, the ubiquitous vitrine is present, this time with a Grecian-style vase, entitled Commemoration of the flight of a Russian Dirigible from Moscow to New York Piloted by Three Soviet Airmen, (1932) and emblazoned red on black with classical festoons – and the faces of the three airmen. Its comrade (sic) is a plate lacquered in the same vein. Once more, I stress that this exhibition will be of interest to everyone who wants to see how various political regimes pulled identical visual tropes into use for very different ends. And it is also an interesting excursion into twentieth-century Russian art. It is open until April 17.

 

(Mary Phelan, 2017)

 

About Mary Phelan

I am an art historian, magazine editor and design philosopher. In addition to editing Artyonline, I have my own website, http://www.maryphelan.info/ and write a blog, Design Victim, on the pain and pleasure of encountering designed objects in modern life. http://maryphelan.blogspot.com/ Readers can also follow my latest Hub Pages article that provides directions on how to create Ray Lichtenstein-type images using computer drawing software. http://hubpages.com/hub/Draw-Like-Lichtenstein-Using-Computer-Graphic-Software