Revolution; Russian Art 1917 – 1932 – Royal Academy
The centenary of the Russian Revolution this year has been marked by the Royal Academy with a retrospective of revolutionary Russian art. It is an enormous, at times bewildering exhibition but I found it rewarding, dashing some of my preconceptions of Russian art and demonstrating how vibrant the art scene was.
Of course, there are images that we associate with Soviet art – none more so than Kustodiev’s colossal Bolshevik of 1920, an enormous peasant waving a red flag striding onwards, trampling underfoot anything in his way. The certainty in the cause is all apparent. And we have the obligatory pictures of Lenin, the most moving being the leader in his coffin. Lenin couldn’t be portrayed dead and so Petrov-Vodkin’s painting has been condemned to a life in storage. It rarely makes a public appearance and, if for no other reason, this makes a trip to the exhibition worthwhile. The heavy hand of State censorship is wonderfully illustrated by Demkov’s kerchief where the portrait of Trotsky has been cut out from one of the corners.
Artists were dragooned to help the cause and so we have paintings extolling the virtues of labour, Stakhanovite men and women glorying in their liberty, freed from selling their lives and labour for profit. Women workers heave bales around and shock workers perform skyline gymnastics erecting buildings. There is a wonderful and rather unsettling picture of a tram conductor – scary, certainly, and one certain to collect her fares! Artists were deployed to design workers’ uniforms, even dainty porcelain and El Lissitzsky’s plans for a worker’s living capsule is utilitarian to the extreme.
Russian artists were quick to embrace the avant-garde movement that was springing up elsewhere in Europe. The revolution offered a new beginning and why not a new beginning for art? The highlight of the show is the room devoted to Malevich – I came across him a couple of years ago at the Tate Modern. The Black Square, the antidote to art, seems rather lost in the exhibition, being hung a little too high for my taste. Malevich’s abstract paintings are one thing but Popova and Rodchenko eschew any form of symbolism, their works full of geometric shapes and concentric circles.
1932 was the watershed for Russian art. An exhibition entitled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic was held – as here Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin had their own rooms – which was intended to be a proud proclamation of the radicalism and progressiveness of artists operating in the liberty that a communist state provided. Rather, though, it was the beginning of the end. Stalin tightened his grip on the state and abstract art was suppressed. What he wanted was more heroic idealism not nonsensical doodlings.
A revolution of sorts was happening at the same time in the rural county of Sussex, at least if you buy in to the thesis of the curator of Two Temple Place’s latest exhibition, Sussex Modernism – Retreat and Rebellion. Artists fled to the rural idyll to get on with their art and their lives, away from the pressures and prying eyes of London. Drawn from nine museums in the county – I was surprised there were so many – we see examples of the Bloomsbury set’s work, more male nudes than you could shake a stick at, wonderfully decorated boxes and furniture – the show stealer was Duncan Grant’s Leda and the Duck Chest (1917) – beautiful lithographs and the wonderful Edward james and Salvador Dali Mae West Lips sofa. The objets d’art have to fight hard to stand out against the exquisite opulence of the venue but in this instance they just about manage it.