Review: Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, Royal Academy ‘Interesting, if Disjointed’

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Hmmm, I’m writing this a few days after I visited this new show at the RA and, yet, I’m still not 100% sure what my opinion on it is. Perhaps my hopes were too high; perhaps that is why I remain uncertain. For sure, a show that looks to platform and investigate the wide variety of artistic styles that flourished, and died, during these first few years after the Communist Revolution sets its ambitions high. And that is to be applauded. So perhaps my concerns, therefore, are that those lofty ambitions are not quite met, leaving a show that spreads itself rather thin, and, in places, feels a bit uneven.

But tonally, this show is spot on. In complete contrast with the fears articulated by Jonathan Jones in an article published in the run-up to this exhibition – a rather hysterical and pompous (not to add, self-serving) article, I might add – this is a show where the suffering of the masses is front and centre. It’s the reality gap between the glorifying art and the situation for the ordinary woman and man that holds this show together.

There is a sombre feel to the galleries, even before you get to the black box finale where the grim roll-call of Stalin’s victims in the Arts is captured in a powerful silent video. For all the positivity and pro-revolutionary passion in works such as Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev’s flag-bearing Bolshevik, (see below) and Brodsky’s Worker of Dnieprostroi, which has the Russian steelworker as a perfect machine of muscles, the extensive contextual wall text in each gallery reminds us that the situation for the ordinary Russian was of massive upheaval, suffering and starvation.

The exhibition is hung thematically e.g. Man and Machine, Fate of the Peasants, which enables a compare and contrast across artists and styles. And there is such a wide spectrum in approach – from Malevich’s suprematism and Kandinsky’s abstraction, to Brodsky’s deferential portraits of Stalin and Lenin, and the birth of socialist realism.

Malevich has a gallery of his own, obviously, in a recreation of an exhibition from when he was alive. Towards the ceiling hang versions of his instantly familiar Black Square and Red Square – the suprematism replacing religion as the source of spirituality for the people.

However, Malevich quickly had concerns with the ruling Communist party, even before Stalinist oppression became fully formed. There was a sense of silent tolerance for a period, which can be picked up in pieces such as Head of a Peasant, 1928-29, where the bright geometric forms faintly disguise his implicit criticism of the regime through its depiction of an anonymous, almost faceless, peasant. Individuality crushed in favour of total submission to the will of the totalitarian state.

Yet it’s the only other gallery dedicated to a single artist that is more of a surprise. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin is not a familiar name to many in the UK, and it’s not immediately clear why his works are worthy of such a dedication. His still-life and rather simplistic compositions seem quaintly out-of-touch with the revolutionary styles elsewhere, most notably in the avant-garde. (Though there is a lovely portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova).

In a show that wants to explore the full scope of artistic creativity emanating out of Russia at the time, a largely thematic hanging seems logical, but conversely this does make it a hard exhibition to walk through and absorb.

There isn’t a flow which makes this exhibition straight-forward to follow. It is constantly jarring – one second you’re admiring the semi-abstract Walk by Izrail Lizak, which seems to revel in the relative urban prosperity of the years of the New Economic Policy, the next you’re looking at a literal restaurant menu. And none of this is congruent with the rather romantic, serene still life from Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Which doesn’t flow into the Cubism and Futurism of Malevich’s Desk and Room, 1913, particularly well. Which, in turn, doesn’t effortlessly link with the syrupy sentimentality of the snowy scene in Boris Kustodiev’s Carnival, 1919.

So, for all the ambition and impressive scope of this show, it does feel a bit disjointed. The diversity of artists, artistic styles and subject matter may be the point of the show, but these are also the source of what pulls at its cohesion. It’s not one that will reward a quick flit through the galleries. And it has all the feel of a history exhibition with paintings, rather than an art exhibition in itself.

Nevertheless, it’s a genuinely interesting show. It’s good to see a variety of artists, even if the less familiar names are less familiar for a reason (their works would not exactly be classified as great art). But, importantly, a sober reminder that dictators and demagogues will always have art and artists, and the dissent they can ferment or the propaganda they can promote, firmly in their sights.  

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to April 17, 2017
Admission: £18 (concessions available)

Image credits:

1. Kazimir Malevich, Peasants, c. 1930 Oil on canvas, 53 x 70 cm State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

2. Marc Chagall, Promenade, 1917-18 Oil on canvas, 175.2 x 168.4 cm State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927 Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 185 cm State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

4. Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik, 1920 Oil on canvas, 101 x 140.5 cm State Tretyakov Gallery Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

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