Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 – An exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London 11 February —17 April 2017 (£16, £12 concessions)
It’s one of history’s ironies writes Andy Stowe that the Royal Academy of Arts is hosting an exhibition of the art created in the aftermath of the first successful working class revolution. That may partially explain why the whole show is permeated with a disdain for the very idea of monarchs being deposed and reactionary governments overthrown. The notes accompanying the exhibits are either deliberately misleading or just written by someone who is unfamiliar with the detail of the politics of the period.
So, the casual visitor – if there is such a thing for a show costing £16 – would not have learned that in addition to a Civil War, the early revolutionary government had to deal with military interventions from Britain, France, the USA, Japan and several other hostile states. This international hostility to the new state is just not mentioned as a factor in the privations that are described.
While the exhibition does show how Soviet art largely became unadventurous kitsch from the mid 1920s, it does not explain what readers of this site would be expected to know but might be forgotten information for the average art lover. The reason all those photos and paintings of Stalin started appearing was that he had murdered or exiled the entire Bolshevik leadership. His regime’s enforcement of a grotesque personality cult and an insistence that all artistic endeavour had to conform to his notion of “socialist realism” meant that room for the exhilarating creativity of the first seven years of the post-revolutionary period had no place in his state.
Some reviewers have suggested that the evolution from the revolutionary (in both senses) work of Kandinsky, Malevich and the Suprematists to the approved images of ultra-healthy worker athletes or Stakhanovite welders was a nuanced affair. It’s true that some artists did push up against the limits of what was permissible, but in some cases the offending works were not seen in public until the Gorbachev era. The viewer is left with a feeling that an artistic culture which was engaging with the European avant-garde during the Lenin / Trotsky period was being suffocated as Stalin’s bureaucrats imposed their orthodoxy.
One exhibit that particularly tickled me was a 1920 series of cartoons by Mayakovsky which continues to form the basis of regular articles in some lefty papers: times are hard; capitalists are bad; people are angry; the revolution is just around the corner. Here indeed is proof of the ongoing debt much of the far left owes the Bolsheviks.
Naturally it’s the paintings and posters which get most of the attention in this massive exhibition. You should allow about ninety minutes for it. However the post-revolutionary artists were also using textiles, crockery and, more innovatively cinema to get their message across to a society with tens of millions of illiterate peasants. These film clips are some of the most arresting exhibits because they still convey how desperately backward Russian society was when the workers seized power.
It’s the final exhibit which packs most punch. A silent video with the photos, names and short biographies of a tiny selection of Stalin’s innocent victims. He didn’t just kill creativity, he murdered millions.