I loved this exhibition and just want to keep going back again and again. However, for various reasons, I am short of notes so this review is perhaps less factual than I would like.
The exhibition is at the Royal Academy and in the main exhibition space. It is on until 17 April 2017. My recommendation is: Go!
I expect this is not going to be the only exhibition this year about Russia. 1917 is the year of the revolutions, firstly in February the abdication of the Tsar and later in October the revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. The Royal Academy’s take on these events is based on the energetic outburst of art, traditional and modern, that was seen in the first 15 years after the Revolution. Some of the art sprang from the energy of the times of change and the optimism of the first years, from the artists themselves. Some was encouraged by the regime, seeking to use art as propaganda to bring the vast population of Russia onto the side of the Bolsheviks and then lionising the workers building the modern industrial state.
The exhibition is full of interesting and wonderful art. It is a mixture, reflecting the abstract and realist wings of Russian art. It features the arch-abstractor, Kazimir Malevich, the Socialist Realist, Isaak Brodsky and the realist but metaphysical painter, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. There are porcelain pots, films, propaganda posters and even a recreation of an idea for a new dwelling. More than perhaps other art exhibitions, it creates an awareness of historical events, their influence on art and art’s influence on them. This complexity and depth is perhaps why it encourages multiple viewings.
The main exhibition space of the Royal Academy is a suite of smaller square rooms and big rectangular spaces. The high ceilings provide opportunities to hang things and build things up above the viewer. For this exhibition, the curators have created extra wall space by putting partitions into the rooms. This creates a feeling of restriction which is at odds with the idea of artistic freedom.
The walls of the first room are painted red, creating a powerful sense of that exuberance and echoing the colour often featured in the early art that was part of the propaganda effort to sell the Bolshevik vision and to lionise its leaders. Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev’s Bolshevik of 1920 has his giant Bolshevik, wrapped up for the Russian winter, wielding a bright red banner like a rhythmic gymnast’s ribbon. Isaak Brodsky has Lenin, paper and pen to hand, standing in front of a red curtain, almost cutting him off from the demonstration going on outside in V.I.Lenin and Manifestation, 1919.
In one of the pictures featured in the pre-publicity for the exhibition, Lenin is cradled in red wool or felt. This painting of Lenin in his coffin, as he lay in state in 1924, has seldom been seen even in Russia because the state or party preferred to give the impression of Lenin still alive and working! It’s a surprisingly small painting for so much fuss. It has a quite flat affect but is rather moving. It is on the other side of the wall in the middle of the first room so don’t miss it!
As you look at that one, to your left is a large painting of Lenin, alive and sitting working on a speech. This is Lenin in Smolny by Isaak Brodsky, the Soviet Realist, which is perhaps why the red here is muted but it is still there. As the label says, there is a spare seat and you do feel like you could just walk over and sit down next to the great man. I loved this painting.
But, don’t stop in room 1! In interests of brevity, and getting this published before the exhibition closes, here are just a few highlights.
In room 3, there is a lifesize mock-up of a model dwelling for the worker. It’s a little like a modern city studio. I’m sure there are many in this country who wouldn’t mind being able to access something like it to live in. I loved the fact that the curators have put huge photographs of Moscow up on the gallery walls so that they can be seen through the windows of the model flat.
Room 4 is devoted to Kazimir Malevich. He expounded a theory of “Suprematism”, that art should no longer aim to depict reality but create a whole new world of its own. A lot of his art shows different sized rectangles of colour, blues and reds and yellows, on a neutral field, arranged to cross or sit on top of one another. Some of it was even used to decorate porcelain from the factories. I’m not sure. I can’t say it does much for me.
To demonstrate Suprematism, he created Black Square, “the zero of form”, in 1915 and produced others of them, one of which is here. There was also Red Square, a parallelogram of red, not quite a square. I actually liked the red square but I thought it was evoking Red Square in Moscow whereas its subtitle, which I didn’t notice, is Pictorial Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions! You see, sometimes it is good to avoid the labels and form your own impressions.
The next room focuses on the Fate of the Peasants, which wasn’t too good as the state sought to collectivise and improve food production and, of course, created famine and millions of deaths. Malevich painted an image with two recognisably human figures in the foreground with stripped fields in the background but the fields are in a palette of bright colours and the figures have no faces, showing the facelessness of the peasants. This shows how he tried to adapt to the regime’s growing dislike for abstraction. However, it still didn’t do much for me. I was more impressed by the picture of a collective farm team leader directing one of her team. This evidence of the change that happened so quickly was compelling.
The next room is Eternal Russia, more traditional images of birch forests and onion-shaped church domes as it says in the notes, evidence of a sense of nostalgia for a country that no longer existed. This nostalgia is echoed in the coterminous American exhibition in the RA and we can see it in our country too: there was and is a nostalgia for a romantic rural past that may never have really existed or, if it did, it lived alongside poverty, exploitation and lack of opportunity. By the way, the peasants’ room has walls of soft yellow. I couldn’t quite decide if that enhanced the art works or not.
In the hexagonal gallery at the heart of the suite of rooms there is a flying machine! It was quite a surprise to me. It hangs from the ceiling, reproduced from the designs of Vladimi Tatlin. He called the gliders “Letatlin”, a combination of his own name and the Russian word, letat, to fly. The gliders never flew successfully.
There is a room entirely dedicated to Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. He was active from before the revolution and remained successful until he died in 1939 from tuberculosis. He is classed as one of the realists but his art has a metaphysical dimension and seems almost cartoon-like at times. He uses a soft, pastel palette and the walls of the room are blue to enhance that.
He tried to capture the “optical magic” he saw in the world. He created a unique style based on “spherical perspective” where different viewpoints are presented on a curved horizon line and in an elliptical shape on the canvass. The “spherical perspective” is quite intriguing. Noon, 1917, a painting conveying life in the countryside, shows this perspective, allowing lots of aspects of what was happening then to be see in one frame. I liked it.
There is 1918 in Petrograd, known as the Petrograd Madonna, which shows a mother and baby in the foreground and raised above the scenes of people gathering and talking in a city streets. There is also Death of a Commissar 1928, which is one of the more intriguing picture of the Civil War on display. One man holds up the dying commissar. The others walk away or collapse in despair. His style here is almost grotesque.
To reach the last room, you walk through a narrow corridor, the walls covered with images of people in the streets, marching and protesting. This takes you to Stalin’s utopia with images of Amazonian women and Herculean men undertaking sports. There is a video of gymnasts and others in Red Square after competing in international competition which is quite captivating to watch. This is perhaps the start of the aggressive competitiveness that we still see today from Russia.
The exhibition ends on a more sober note. In the middle of this last room is a booth in which you can see a slide show commemorating all the artists and figures of the art world who died in the purges and other traumas following the Revolution.