Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 at The Royal Academy of Arts

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932

The Royal Academy of Arts, London /// 11 February — 17 April 2017

Renowned artists including Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall and Rodchenko were among those to live through the fateful events of 1917, which ended centuries of Tsarist rule and shook Russian society to its foundations. Amidst the tumult, the arts thrived as debates swirled over what form a new “people’s” art should take. But the optimism was not to last: by the end of 1932, Stalin’s brutal suppression had drawn the curtain down on creative freedom.

Taking inspiration from a remarkable exhibition shown in Russia just before Stalin’s clampdown, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 marks the historic centenary by focusing on the 15-year period between 1917 and 1932 when possibilities initially seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium.

This far-ranging exhibition surveys the entire artistic landscape of post-Revolutionary Russia, encompassing Kandinsky’s boldly innovative compositions, the dynamic abstractions of Malevich and the Suprematists, and the emergence of Socialist Realism, which would come to define Communist art as the only style accepted by the regime.

Kazimir Malevich,
Dynamic Suprematism Supremus, c. 1915.

The exhibition includes photography, sculpture, filmmaking by pioneers such as Eisenstein, and evocative propaganda posters from what was a golden era for graphic design. The human experience is brought to life with a full-scale recreation of an apartment designed for communal living, and with everyday objects ranging from ration coupons and textiles to brilliantly original Soviet porcelain.

Revolutionary in their own right, together these works capture both the idealistic aspirations and the harsh reality of the Revolution and its aftermath.

Yet, one must not forget that the art of the Russian revolution is just as mired in the mass slaughters of the 20th century as the art from Hitler’s Germany.

‘The ideal out of the real’ … Tatlin with an assistant, in front of his design for the never-built Monument to the Third International, Petrograd. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Bolshevik party took power in October 1917 in a coup that replaced a previous democratic revolution with a totalitarian one. From the beginning, and increasingly as they fought a savage civil war against their opponents, Lenin’s Bolsheviks used torture, surveillance and executions to build a one-party state. Rural society was destroyed by the Bolshevik campaign against “kulaks”, meaning so-called capitalist peasants – a war on an unreal social enemy that anticipated nazism by demonising an entire category of people. As agriculture collapsed, as a result first of civil war then forcible collectivisation, millions died in famines in 1921-22 and again in 1932-33.

The avant-garde in Russian art predates 1917. In 1915, Malevich painted his Black Square, a masterpiece that takes the idea of abstract art to its pure monochrome conclusion. Tatlin, influenced by Picasso’s cubist assemblages, was already producing Counter Reliefs, abstract constructions that could occupy a corner like a floating city of driftwood.

As we stop to admire the art of the Russian avant-garde at the RA, we must place it in its true context. There was anything glorious about the brutal experiment Lenin imposed on Russia – or anything innocent about its all-too-brilliant propaganda art.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932

The Royal Academy of Arts, London /// 11 February — 17 April 2017

Main Galleries, Burlington House


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