The Russian Revolution as seen through the history of its paintings and artefacts has delighted and confused visitors to London’s Royal Academy this early Spring. Despite many works by the much loved and admired Kazimir Malevich, and magnificent photographs by Alexander Rodchenko and others, what made the February 2017 show gripping was the historical moment, revealed in everything from apartment design to porcelain. Here, suddenly, in October 1917, was a modernist blueprint to change Russia, and indeed, the world.
Modernism expressed the rationalist impulse behind the revolution, to drive out the old myths and make life more efficient with new technology. The Marxist view of industrial capitalism as precisely what gave the new broom its power to sweep led to an exhilerating and gritty partnership between art and technology, poetry and the factory-floor. These unlikely partnerships reflected a total rethink. Magnificent in their intellectual and artistic scope, they divided the dynamic twentieth century from the feudal (in Russia) nineteenth.
Just for a moment imagine yourself living through the revolution as a purely aesthetic experience. In a different arrangement of the RA’s marvellous assembly of artefacts you might have hung Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Dynamic Suprematist Supremus’ (1915) on the wall of your functionalist apartment designed by El Lissitsky (1922), with curtains made of Andrey Golubev’s intricate red and white ‘Spinner’ fabric (1930).
Such a scenario reminds us that the applied modernist revolution begun a century ago has stayed with us ever since, consistently in Continental Europe since the sister-age of Bauhaus in Germany, and intermittently in Britain, whenever native tradition has not been resurgent. The globalism of the last quarter-century has cleared a bigger space for modernism in the UK than ever before and maybe it accounts for the crowds surging into the RA to inspect its Russian beginnings. Many Londoners, indeed many urban-dwellers anywhere, would be delighted to live in an El Lissitsky-style flat today: the horizontal space beautifully organized, the furniture fitted to the flow of the room, with grand views of the city from generous double-aspect windows. They might be gratified too, to learn that in the grand scheme of modernist design history English socialism and American industrialism complemented that Russian impulse that became Soviet. Just look at that ‘Spinner’ pattern of Golubev’s. The repeating production line celebrated Fordism, or how to extract maximum efficiency from worker and machine. The basic motif, a woman seated in front of the four spindles of a ring spinning machine, was an industrial icon given an art nouveau styling. The English socialist and designer William Morris would have admired Golubev’s achievement, had he lived to see art move from nature to industry to derive its furnishing patterns.
The Russian revolutionary moment looks so impressive and so intense to us because its artists were combining European modernism and remnants of Symbolism, while reacting to the scientific revolutions after Darwin and Einstein, and the leap forward in technological capacity, and doing it all with that totalizing passion. The impact of Russia’s long delayed industrialization, packing into thirty-forty years what in Britain had taken a hundred to do, was a shocking stimulus. Add to that the removal of censorship from the arts after the first revolution of 1905, fruitful enough to generate Russia’s ‘Silver Age’ in painting, and poetry, and philosophy. It was no longer the heyday of the novel. Painting that was an imitation of nature or a direct reflection of society was outmoded not only by aesthetic fashion. Social realism had sat comfortably within tsarist and Russian Orthodox tradition. All the while Art in the grandest sense went on mattering immensely in Russian society. And so began the experiments with language and film, amongst other media, that you can see reflected at various points in the RA exhibition, albeit in an unfocused way that leaves you piecing together the significance yourself.
The art was total but if anything the politics was more dazzling, because, the devil take the hindmost, chort vosmi, it was direct and highly organised and ferociously fixed on its goal. The revolution axed the tsarist Russian past almost at one swipe. Bolshevik rule meant a radically different iconography and ethos, such that today, contemplating porcelain left over from tsarist factories, but now decorated with Suprematist motifs in place of the Romanovs, we can almost feel that transformative breeze, and be grateful for it, as well as apprehensive that so much happened so fast, and, as we know, not with a humane outcome. The Bolshevik Revolution was so dangerous, and so ruthless, because ties with the past were completely severed. Just those old stocks of china clay could be carried over into the new world. Despite the irresistible enthusiasm and the tantalizing theory behind the artistic side of the story, once called, by the Futurist poet linguist Roman Jakobson ‘aesthetic Bolshevism’, moreover, there were already hints, visible to the writer Maxim Gorky and others, that the people would be kept in order, just as they had been by the tsars. Artists were people too, and the art an artist made was his or her political ‘position’ and could be life-threatening. It’s significant that in the RA’s extensive show of social and domestic and political tools and celebrations, there is pride, and bravado, and humanist ambition, but nothing suggests peaceful, egalitarian coexistence. There is a kind of democracy, symbolized by the crowd; but the crowd is watched over by the Leader.
Three startling paintings tell the story of where Russia stands in the time of revolution, and as much as eight years after. Isaak Brodsky’s ‘Lenin and Manifestation’ (1919) shows the Bolshevik leader like God presiding from above, in what would otherwise be clouds, but is here more like a vast red flag or a theatre curtain, pulled back to reveal a crowd of demonstrators below. Its title is singularly ineptly translated, but the relationship with the people is clear. Lenin, an avuncular, lower-middle-class figure in his Sunday best, sits before an empty sheet of paper as the people gather, full of expectation. Their ranks include military figures to the fore and Breughelesque peasants towards the centre who seem more intent on having a good time. In the background rises a solitary factory chimney, token of the enormous work ahead still to industrialize Russia. From Lenin’s hand will issue an idea to guide the people and their new system. But nothing yet has been written on the paper.
Boris Kustodiev’s ‘Bolshevik’ (1920), used as the RA show’s lead image, sets up the same dramatic contrast between the people and their fate, this time under the boots of a fanatical giant, the bogatyr of Russian fairy stories, marching through the city with his red flag. This Bolshevik is at once a folk hero and a terrorist.
Kliment Redko’s ‘Revolt’ (1925) was one of those works which, no sooner painted, found its way into a cupboard of prohibited art, but, in this case, more fortunately, soon moved on into the safekeeping of collector George Costakis. Costakis was a Greek born in Moscow who, while he lived there and worked as a Canadian diplomat, assembled a marvellous collection of avant-garde art, half of which he was forced to give to the Soviet state when he left Russia in 1977. That is the year that Moscow’s Tretyakov State Russian gallery acquired the Redko. ‘Revolt’ imposed on a grid of Moscow streets a red star of fire, with roadblocks off-centre and violent incidents taking place in their murky light. The inclusion of later outcasts of the revolution like Trotsky meant it could never be shown in public in Soviet times, but surely that was not its only negative message. Except for the leader, surrounded by a white aura, and his henchmen, in various and diminishing sizes, the Russian people are tiny in this large and dramatic painting. They are almost stick figures, as they perform a kind of military drill while making music and showing off their industries. The light catches the brass instruments and the bayonets and the leader’s halo. Less well drilled, likely to cause random violence, are the armed citizens off-centre. Hundreds of anonymous unlit windows stare blindly out on to the proceedings.
The Russian Revolution was, in the philosophy driving it from various angles, in the spiritual hopes it drew together, and in the art that exploded with it at first almost coincidentally, and then, for a time, sympathetically, a fabulous combination of Enlightenment and Romanticism. The effect was to make the literal nuts and bolts and generators of Rodchenko’s industrial photographs as affecting as love stories.
You could feel that love too in Malevich’s cubo-futurist paintings of peasants binding their sheaves of corn, and his famous woman with pales, although these works from 1912 are not in this show.
The same artist’s ‘Black Square’ however immediately inspired aversion on the Bolshevik side, and has been equated by critics ever since with a spiritual point zero. As if the artist, who painted the first version in 1915, were issuing a warning to Russia, or falling victim to his own utopian doubts, or both. The art critic Jonathan Jones once compared this painting to a moment of utter nihilism in Dostoevsky (The Guardian, 28 August, 2013.) It was ‘an icon of emptiness’ that could destroy a person’s ‘faith in history, progress and art.’
It didn’t help inject sense and meaning into this exhibition to hang a late version of ‘Black Square’ high above the heads of visitors, alongside the much more wittily intended ‘Red Square’, in a room crammed with Malevich works just as they were shown in the Revolution’s art show tolerant of modernism, in 1932. That imitation of history told no story at all.
The story was, nevertheless, that as Soviet totalitarianism was consolidated under Stalin this was a deliberate political shutting-down of an unwanted, historically uncertain future as it had been reflected in avant-garde Russian art. Instead a protected present was invented on the basis of the safely contained past, and with it returned to state-sponsored prominence, perforce, a safe low-brow taste, of the kind Lenin’s Petrograd henchman Grigory Zinoviev, loathed by Gorky, had been insisting on since 1918. Lenin himself was thoroughly implicated in the rejection that year of a cubo-futurist statue of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, created in response to his call for pieces of Monumental Art to decorate the new state, and then thrown out. (It’s shown here, right, with Boris Korolev’s partnering cubofuturist Karl Marx on the left.) Another work submitted for that call, Vera Muchina’s projected machine-gun like sculpture of the Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov, is included in the present London exhibition. All this was far too formalist to be the new normal.
Mikhail Nesterov’s double portrait of ‘The Philosophers’ (1917) was something else. It was a token of the kind of symbolic Russian realism that would be welcomed back, if not with a religious content in future. At least Nesterov’s Russian intellectuals were old-fashioned human beings depicted in three dimensions. Nesterov would go on to a successful though tortured career as a Soviet painter, required to paint portraits of heroes. The deliberate switch as Stalin tightened his grip on Russia meant that the only modestly distinguished painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin could be give a whole room of his own at the 1932 show. This wasn’t politically engaged pro-Communist work, but at least it wasn’t harmful. Petrov-Vodkin’s boy on a horse soaring agonizingly skywards was indeed beautiful, the stuff of children’s stories and folk dreams, but it was rightly called ‘The Fantasy’ (1925). Perhaps it was already a symbol of what had already been lost.
I would have liked to know more about that 1932 show, ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’ and I think some more ample explanation of its ethos would have given the present London show the coherence it was left chasing after in the eyes of critics. Here is what Vassily Rakitin has to say in ‘The Avant-Garde and the Art of the Stalinist Era’ (in The Culture of the Stalin Period, ed. Hans Gunther, Hamburg, 1990, pp.178 ff.): ‘The decisive turning point in the attitude to the avant-garde had already occurred in 1933. The anniversary art exhibition “Artists of the RSFSR: 15 Years” first opened not in Moscow but in Leningrad on 17 November 1932. Its layout – its curator was N.Punin – was organised by groupings and directions. That is, it tried to give a realistic picture of artistic life. In 1933 the exhibition travelled to Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, where it opened on 27 June, and here the entire exhibit was markedly and fundamentally changed. It was no longer an objective showing of what had been done in 15 years. Its subject became the battle for the establishment of the new thematic realism. The space allotted to ‘left’ art was sharply reduced, and it was displayed as a negative example in a separate hall. According to one of the curators, G. Kaganskaya, this hall was immediately dubbed ‘the black room’. I remember that at that time ‘left’ works were usually hung in museums with negative explanatory plaques of the type: An Example of Art in the Age of Imperialism.’ It was this show, together with a book On Formalism in Painting, published by art criticism’s Generalissimo of the day, Osip Beskin, in 1934, that, by outlawing so-called formalism in art, ‘determined the selection of works for exhibitions, the system of government orders and prizes, and the character of museum expositions’ henceforth. Rakitin added: ‘In 1936 all “left” art was taken from the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum and put into reserves.’
How much one needed to have this spelled out. The London 2017 show confirmed that anarchist-modernist spirit that set the Revolution ablaze artistically was abruptly extinguished, but we needed to know how, and in what larger context. A couple of sentences in the accompanying booklet were not enough.
In one way the 1932 show was eerily prescient of the Nazis’ Decadent Art Show of 1937. It laid down a political marker for art in a totalitarian society. In another it was uniquely Russian. The Russians always did (and do) things there own way, however superficially tempting it is to compare the two abyssmal totalitarian systems of the first half of the twentieth century. Though in both cases murderous consequences might follow, the Nazis first chased modernist painters underground with thuggish laughter, while Stalin, the latest Russian autocrat, forged a series of new official definitions as a warning. I think the difference comes down to the fact that the twentieth-century Russian autocrats did think of themselves, however warped that seems to us, as democrats, albeit of a devastatingly cruel Russian kind. Their task was to serve the people and warn it against itself, when political order risked getting out of hand. Just like the banished philosophers of 1922, who were warned by Lenin personally to leave the country rather than remain in a country where they would have no place, so the last remaining modernist, Malevich, was warned that the 1932 show at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad would be his last exhibition. He knew what was coming. He had been revisiting his cubo-futurist peasants and painting them with blank faces for some years now. When he magnificently reimagined Nikolai Punin, curator of the 1932 show, as a Renaissance maecenas, after himself being advised to return to portrait painting, he showed how a persecuted modernist artist might find a new home in historicism with a subtle message.
This RA exhibition assembled such interesting artefacts, but more attention to the ideas that drove these artists’s ambitions, and fates, and the fate of their country would have given us a better idea of what the Revolution was. It was far more complex than its chronology.