Building the Revolution: Soviet art and architecture 1915-1935

imageThe Royal Academy’s current exhibition is reviewed by Terry Conway

As you approach the Royal Academy – the somewhat incongruous host to this exhibition, there is a replica of what the Tatlin tower would have looked like had i been built in the courtyard outside. I hadn’t previously appreciated how complex its structure was planned to be as the drawings that I had previously seen only show the double helix – impressive enough – but not the fact that within that there are other geometric shapes; a cube, a pyramid a cylinder and a hemisphere. Each would have fulfilled a different function and would have rotated at a different speed. Very impressive = shame it was never realised.

Inside the exhibition consisted of works in a number of different media – a substantial number of photographs of different types of constructions which had actually been built, a fairly extensive collection of drawings and a small number of paintings. 

The photographs are mainly of buildings that are still standing and of how they look today rather than when they were built. Of course most of the buildings are currently in a bad state of disrepair – especially those built in concrete as much constructivist work was.  Most of the photographs are by a man called Richard Pare who the catalogue says “has spent the last 15 years of his life documenting the current state of these iconic structures”.

It’s true that in general I don’t like concrete – it’s rather unremitting especially when the buildings are enormous as some of those on display were but I would think it’s useful in building things quickly. It wasn’t a material that people had seen the effects of weathering on almost a century ago – and I can’t see the RA displaying photos of the decay on flats across the world built in it to make the parallel point about capitalism…

This seemed like an unspoken political intervention by the Academy to imply the (inevitable) decay of the ideas behind the construction. .This is particularly underlined by the presence of one structure that doesn’t decay – the ghastly mausoleum of Lenin with all its echoes of princes and generals bursting through the red marble laurel leaves (ugh)- and not a word about the fact that even the first lower key version was politically controversial with many in the Soviet Union and beyond.

One thing that was frustrating was that most of the photographs were of the outside of buildings so their social use was not fully transparent. There were several examples of collective housing which listed various collective facilities – laundries, dining halls, nurseries cinemas, and theatres. I wanted to know more – how big were these in relation to individual apartments – how much space did families or individuals have to live alone and how much to share – how many people shared a dining hall etc. etc. – but from the outside they looked in general like any other block of flats built in a similar style.

There were two exceptions – one a beautiful block of flats which I think was in Kiev but I might be wrong – built in red brick and with lots of curves which was in is home to a doctor’s co-operative – which stood out not only because of the building material but also because it had lots and lots of plants on the balconies making it feel like a really treasured building. The other was a building from Moscow which was home to the (part of maybe) KGB which had the most extraordinary dome roofed theatre at the top of the building which was supposed to retract to make an open air amphitheatre…

In terms of the paintings and drawings I encountered a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar artists, but all working in a genre with which I am familiar but which still catches my breathe for reasons I find hard to articulate. 

One piece in particular drew me in (I don’t remember the artist). A small drawing in black, white and red, the usual geometric shapes but with pointillism for the red giving a powerful sense of three -D in a way I don’t remember seeing before – but which seemed completely appropriate for an exhibition on the intersection of art and architecture. One of the many reminders of the internationalism of art as pointillism was being explored mainly in France at the end of the 19th century.

Then there was another – a black background dense with layers of oil paint with delicate spirals in brilliant red and vibrant yellow. Simplicity and complexity intertwined. I could have looked at it for ever except that my stomach was starting to demand lunch.

El Lissitsky was the most prolific of the apparently unfamiliar ones though afterwards I discovered that he created the famous “beat the whites” with a red wedge.  Popova on the other hand I had heard of – but had not as far as I know seen any of her work. I was particularly fascinated to see the pieces here because they were designs for theatre sets – so yet another medium and one that I’m interested in anyway. Malevich and Rodchenko I was more familiar with put pleased to explore at more length

So while the Royal Academy might have wanted to or even tried to depoliticise this exhibition, and while I certainly regret that somehow I managed to miss the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at the Tate in 2009 – which seems to have been much better contextualised – I came away invigorated – as well as making a not yet New Year’s resolution to get to more galleries in 2012.

  1. I read a comment in a review of this exhibition which suggested the the photographs by Richard Pare were meant to be documenting buildings that are currently neglected and under threat, due to the rapacious nature of the oligarchy. So I don’think it is clear that the RA is trying to say that they used poor quality materials because they were built by “socialists”. Concrete, if it is looked after, can be an attractive building material and has freed up design.

  2. I personally cannot see this as an attack on the revolutionary period, by the Academy. There is some ignorance i.e. the drawings etc. were mostly from the early 20s, but the buildings were from the late 20s to the early 30s. A huge political jump, so most residences were for the priviledged, new bureaucracy. The incredible health spa, for example, for officers of the Red Army, mentions that the architect ended up in a Gulag (and still worked on)but didn’t mention that most of those officers would have been shot in the purges.
    With the ideas of communal bakeries, creches, restaurants etc. one sees a great vision. This is why so many artists, not just Russian were attracted to this first period, they took from what went before, and then carried on in to Bauhaus etc.
    The catalogue has a wonderful quote from Trotsky that captures this vision.
    This is agreat exhibition, and complements other recent ones including that at the Academy that showed the influence of French Artists on the Russians, and helps greatly in understanding Trotskys “Art and Revolution”, and other writings.

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