The centenary of the Russian Revolution will be commemorated by a plethora of exhibitions large and small in London during 2017. Among them will be two undoubted blockbusters. In November Tate Modern will launch ‘Red Star over Russia’, a survey of over fifty years of Soviet visual culture; first off, though, is the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art, 1917-32’.
Although inevitably there will be some overlap between the two shows, the one at the RA is more narrowly focused on the period from the revolution itself to Stalin’s brutal suppression of the avant-garde in 1932, which also saw the beginning of state-sponsored Socialist Realism. Occupying the main galleries at Burlington House, ‘Revolution’ features over 200 works, the majority either from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg or the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
The exhibition is organised thematically, rooms being labelled ‘Brave New World’, ‘The Fate of the Peasants’, ‘Eternal Russia’ and so on, and you get a good idea of the sheer diversity of artistic output before Stalin’s clampdown. Painting enjoys the lion’s share of the space, but there are newsreel clips, ceramics, posters and architectural models, too, even a full-sized reconstruction of an ‘ideal’ apartment (eerily reminiscent of my student digs in the ’70s) by EL Lissitzky. It’s all rather didactic and worthy, but there’s no denying that the organisers have done an efficient curatorial job.
A word of warning at this point: if you come expecting wall-to-wall knockouts from the likes of Kandinsky and Chagall, you’ll be disappointed. Both artists were in Russia in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution but had left by the end of 1922, never to return. From St. Petersburg there is Kandinsky’s fabulously expressive ‘Blue Crest’ of 1917, whilst Chagall is represented by ‘Promenade’ (1917-18), showing him out walking with his first wife Bella, who flies above him like a kite. The illusion of flight is echoed in another jeu d’esprit, the curious “worker’s flying bicycle” by the Constructivist architect Vladimir Tatlin, suspended from the ceiling of the nearby central octagonal gallery.
Of the other big names, Kasimir Malevich, already the subject of a show at Tate Modern in 2014, gets a room of his own here, featuring some 30 paintings, including one of his trademark Black Squares. It’s a faithful reconstruction of the room he had in an exhibition staged in the State Russian Museum in Leningrad in 1932, ‘Artists of the Russian Federation over Fifteen Years’. This show, organised by Nicholai Punin (husband of the poet Anna Akhmatova), is often seen as the high-water mark of progressive art in Soviet Russia.
Otherwise, it’s more traditional fare that takes centre stage. There’s some perfectly agreeable stuff from artists barely known in the West like Alexander Deinecka, Isaak Brodsky and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Stylistically, I found their work remarkably similar to the likes of Stanley Spencer and Laura Knight, or American Scene painters such as Grant Wood. There are one or two gems: I particularly liked Petrov-Vodkin’s still lives, Konstantin Yuon’s rather trippy ‘New Planet’ (1921) and, in the first room, Georgy Rublev’s totally unofficial portrait of an off-duty ‘Uncle Joe’ relaxing in a wicker chair reading Pravda, with his dog curled round his feet.
‘Stalin’s Utopia’, the final room, provides a foretaste of the officially-approved Soviet art of the 1930s, which, like much of Nazi art, seems to have consisted largely of wholesome-looking young people running around with few, or even no, clothes on. Artists like Deinecka, the Soviet Norman Rockwell, continued to churn out reassuring pap like this long after Stalin’s death in 1953. Even today, Deinecka is rated by the Artists Trade Union of Russia in its highest category: ‘1A – a world famous artist’. I don’t think so…
The last room also features the rather grandiloquently labelled ‘Room of Memory’, which in reality is a photo booth where you can watch slides showing mugshots of artists, intellectuals and ordinary Russians, with descriptions of their grisly fates during the Great Purge. It’s a dispiriting experience, if a necessary one, and I for one exited through the gift shop with a heavy heart.