Much more than just Kandinsky: ‘Russian Art 1917-32’ at the Royal Academy

Timothy Drummond is impressed with how this new exhibition provides a valuable insight into Russian visual art during the 15 years following the Revolution

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To mark the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, the Royal Academy of Arts has put on an exhibition of Russian art from the years 1917 to 1932. These were the years before Stalin dissolved all artistic organisations and replaced them with the state-controlled Union of Soviet Artists, banning all visual art which did not conform to the style of Socialist Realism. Until then, post-revolutionary Russian visual art saw the emergence of radical avant-garde styles, as well as expansive experimentation with photography and film.

The exhibition begins with the immediate artistic reactions to the success of the Revolution, with paintings like Boris Kustodiev’s Celebration on Uritsky Square, which captures a moment of euphoria for the workers of Petrograd, the square awash with banners representing the city’s individual factories. Yet responses to the political situation were not always this clear-cut, something demonstrated by the inclusion of Kliment Redko’s Insurrection, which uses traditional orthodox iconography to depict a diamond of marching workers inside a burning city, with Lenin painted Christ-like at the centre. The painting could be a portrayal of the awe-inspiring power of the Revolution, yet it could also be a reaction to the terror of violent upheaval.

The next room is entitled ‘Man and Machine’. Here the exhibition details the boom in photography, a new visual medium which was used to great effect to document—and glorify—the industrialisation and mechanisation of the Russian economy. Photographers like Arkady Shaiket produced photographs which made industrial workers seem like classical war heroes, while other artists used photography to create new styles of visual art, including what became known as Constructivist photomontage. Film, too, achieved greater prominence in the 1920s, and film-makers were also fascinated by mechanisation. Parts of Dziga Vertov’s stunning The Man with the Movie Camera suggest the aesthetic appeal of industrial processes and modern city life. Among the paintings in this room, one in particular caught my attention: Alexander Deineka’s 1927 Textile Workers was unlike the other unambiguously positive representations of industrial labour. It seemed eerily sterile, reminiscent, I felt, of scenes from Huxley’s Brave New World.

This turned out to have been a prescient thought, for the next space was called exactly that: ‘Brave New World’. This room contained works of abstract painting by Kandinsky, Filonov, and Popova, and—the most interesting exhibit—a construction of El Lissitzky’s design for an apartment in the Narkomfin Building in Moscow, a renowned example of Constructivist architecture. The painter Kazimir Malevich, to whom an entire room of the exhibition is dedicated, was a pioneer of geometric abstraction, inventing a purely abstract style in 1915 called Suprematism. Yet his style becomes most significant, or poignant, in his paintings of Russian peasants, whose faces have become merely blank ovals, evoking their lost identity under Communism’s agricultural collectivisation.

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The exhibition moves through a collection of war-time documents, film documentaries of the cities and countryside of the 1920s, and the work of artists like Chagall, Shterenberg, and Petrov-Vodkin,  who were troubled by the upheavals in the country they loved. There is also a space in which Vladimir Tatlin’s remarkable flying-mechanism, the Letatlin, is displayed: a giant glider or ‘flying sculpture’, hung from the roof and resembling da Vinci’s bird studies.

Finally, visitors get a glimpse into how art after 1932 was forced to conform to Socialist Realism under Stalin’s repressive regime. Sport became a particularly prevalent theme in paintings and photographs of the 1930s, and the exhibition shows how the State’s encouragement of sport was also aimed at women. The photographs in this final room of women shot-putters and footballers in fact continue a trend that can be seen throughout the exhibition. Women are present in nearly all the representations of Soviet public life: in the films of city life, in the pictures of industrial workers, and in the paintings and photographs of agricultural labourers. In this way, Soviet art and propaganda differs from that of the Nazis in Germany. Yet the exhibition ends with a reminder that the relationship between art and state under the two regimes was otherwise not all that different after 1932. In the final room stand a model of the planned Palace of the Soviets—a terrifying, bombastic piece of architecture—and a booth called the ‘Room of Memory’, in which a slide show is played: photographs of creative figures, taken after their arrest and often not long before their torture and execution.