The centenary of the Russian Revolution is an opportune time to reassess the diverse products of the Soviet Union’s 15 years of artistic freedom.
In Memoirs of a Revolutionary, the imprisoned and exiled Russian author Victor Serge writes, “Early on, I learnt from the Russian intelligentsia that the only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history. The more I think of that, the more deeply true it seems to be. It follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him. This categorical imperative is by no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error: it is a worse error merely to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity.” Art, arguably, enlarges and liberates man, and so its place in the Russian Revolution, which sought to lift up and liberate people through shared labor, ownership, and ideology, was central. Immediately, however, the tension is apparent, the freedom of art butting up against the propagandistic and technological concerns of a newly born society seeking practical, efficient and effective ways to unite people and disseminate ideas.
Lenin’s obsession with cinema and the mechanistic futurism of Russian graphic art reflected and reinforced the government’s program of industrialization and education. The “categorical imperative” Serge writes of is caught up in this problematic confluence of personal artistic expression and sociopolitical utility. Swept up in the Revolution, human efforts, no matter how altruistic, risked being “soiled by error.” This is perhaps why the “Soviet experiment” is such a fascinating one —history’s largest-scale expression of the dance between idea and reality in which toes are crushed in the pursuit of a graceful ballet of purpose and action, a dance that art microcosmically dramatizes. Tragically, the horrors of Stalinism have soiled the legacy of the Revolution with the nightmarish memory of violent totalitarian repression, but in the period between 1917 and 1932 there was a Russian art that provided a visual language for the Revolution, a new art for a new world.
The Royal Academy of Arts in London commemorates the centenary of the Russian Revolution with its new exhibition, “Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932.” The show, which runs from February 11 through April 17, focuses on the period that begins after the October Revolution and ends with Stalin’s repression of the avant-garde. What makes this exhibition special is the presence of both avant-garde works and works of Socialist Realism in multiple mediums—painting, photography, film, sculpture, posters, and porcelain. With loans from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow, along with international loans from private collections, the 200 works on display recreate the 15-year period after the Revolution and before the Stalinist terror, in which socialist realism and visionary abstraction evolved symbiotically with the new Soviet state.
Most exhibitions, historically, have separated Russian avant-garde works from Socialist Realism, but in the Royal Academy’s new show, the mingling of the two makes a compelling argument—that the aesthetics and tendencies of both strains serve and reflect the newly emerging state in ways that share ideological similarities and purposes. “Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932” takes inspiration from the 1932 exhibition orchestrated by art critic and curator Nikolai Punin that utilized 33 rooms in the State Russian Museum of Leningrad to present a large cross-section of Russian art from the 15 years following the Revolution. The vision of Russian art when seen in full reflects the critical years following the Revolution in all their complexity, passion, mythic grandeur and hope.
The Royal Academy exhibition’s organization explores the connection between art and politics—no easy task when approaching modern Russian history, with its multiple dimensions, narratives, and tensions between appearance and reality. Propaganda was one of the main tools of the Soviet state and approaching the art of the proletariat inevitably creates implicit dialogues between image and meaning. The thematic sections of the exhibition present and, in their very organization, deconstruct the image/political molecule which constitutes the works on display. Sections such as “Salute the Leader” and “Man and Machine” address the myths that were central to the Soviet state—Lenin the superhero and technological production as liberator, respectively.
Isaak Brodsky’s 1919 oil on canvas V.I. Lenin and Manifestation serves as portrait and ideological visual text. Lenin sits in the manner of any stately portrait, but his extended arm frames an open red curtain beyond which a large crowd is visible, seemingly in the midst of revolution; by his hand are paper and pen. The symbolism of the painting can be quickly read: Lenin, the father of the Revolution, has created, through writing, the new world of which the proletariat mass forms the body; beyond the written words and the red curtain, there is a living reality of people. Lenin’s expression conveys a calm certainty, a peaceful confidence that seems to flow out onto the action beyond him. The painting, aside from its propagandistic imagery is a dark and cozy work, with depth and feeling but also familiarity. Brodsky produced numerous portraits of Lenin and was the first painter to receive the Order of Lenin (possibly because the ease with which his work fit into the state-mandated style). He laid the groundwork for Socialist Realism, along with the Wanderers, a pre-Revolutionary group of Russian painters committed to representational art that addressed social realities. With their detailed style depicting Soviet leaders and events oozing with newly mythic majesty, Brodsky’s paintings appear to be works of what one might call intimate faith, made at a time shortly before Socialist Realism was practiced not out of passion but by command.
In the “Man and Machine” section, one of modern art’s major themes finds its expression in Russian art. The relationship between the worker and the technology of industry was represented poetically in photographs and paintings that glorify the humanity of their subjects while using them as formal elements represented in symbiotic harmony with machines. Arkadii Shaiket’s 1928 photograph Construction of the Moscow Telegraphic Centre depicts two workers inside a globe-like sphere. The silhouette created by the backlighting transforms their bodies into part of the geometry of the image, their humanity preserved but in smooth harmony with the steel surrounding them. Images like these helped to defuse the fraught relationship industrialization would present more and more throughout the century.
Both photography and cinema struggled for artistic legitimacy in their infancy, but in both mediums modern art found the paintbrush of the machine age and the Soviet state found the means for ideological education. Lenin believed that “of all arts, for us the cinema is most important.” The ideological importance of cinema’s reach in the Soviet Union superseded Walter Benjamin’s concerns about authenticity and mass image reproduction—the edifying power being a much more valuable commodity. The technology of photography and cinema were at once practically and spiritually in harmony with the aims of the Revolution. A work like Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera is both celebration and experiment in the potential of cinema, taking the medium and its unique immediacy and presence (the quality of “being there”) as form and subject. The great theorist and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein made works which celebrated and mythologized the Revolution (October, Battleship Potemkin) while simultaneously exploring a new means of communication through the power of montage —the heart of Soviet cinema. Speed was the essence of the new industrializing state, as well as the essence of montage and cinema. The evolution of the technology and the form of cinema parallels the establishment of the Soviet state, documenting and informing its politics and constructing the image of its ideology in action through the poetics and structures of film, creating, arguably, the most enduring and far-reaching artistic contribution to come from Russian art during the period.
Some of the work on view is less explicitly political and more a romantic vision of the Russian socialist world. The past of the Russian peasantry, their folk customs and connection to the land, were essential to the organic historical connection and sense of essential “Russianness” the Revolution sought to create, basing its legitimacy on an extension on the collective farming communities of the previous century. Marc Chagall drew inspiration from folk culture, and his work brought these ideas into modernist art in a specifically Russian context. In Promenade (1917–18), Chagall uses the flatness of folk imagery to create a fairy tale scene of a woman (most likely Bella Chagall) gleefully floating in the air, hand in hand with a man below, a picnic at his feet. The painting is uninhibited happiness distilled, and the setting with its geometrically curious, cupola-topped buildings makes it both Russian and modern. The kind of unbridled joy Chagall depicts was, more than any political aim of industrialization or efficiency, the promise of the Revolution.
Vasily Kandinsky had returned to Russia from Germany three years before the Revolution and helped to organize the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow, devoting himself to teaching. Kandinsky’s oil on canvas Blue Crest, (1917) embodies the excitement of the revolutionary moment with its vibrant newness. The work, however, defies referent; it is energy and beauty, the world shaken up and reconfigured. Rather than being populated with symbols, Blue Crest is itself a symbol of freedom and hope. Abstract works like this, however, would begin to fall out of favor; their esoteric visionary passion would be deemed elitist and their usefulness called into question. Kandinsky’s departure from Russia in 1922 was part of a move away from easel art and abstraction, deemed too bourgeois by the state.
Avant-garde artists were encouraged to work with new technologies of printmaking and household objects and move away from what were perceived as more decadent mediums that focused on individualist fantasies rather than collective struggle and socialist “reality.” Some artists, however, rejected more traditional fine art mediums of their own volition, calling the concept of art for art’s sake into question. Avant-garde innovations were instead applied to utilitarian objects such as Lyudmila Protopopova’s 1931 porcelain, A Cup for Serving Tea, which is adorned with gears and intersecting blocks of color—the fine art innovations of the avant-garde finding their home on a simple household tea cup.
On the centenary of the Revolution, it’s no surprise that more than one institution is taking a look at these radical images and the ideology and politics which informed them. The Museum of Modern Art’s “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde” (through March 12) focuses on the years 1912–35. MoMA’s show digs deeply into the radical newness of the Revolution and Russian art through 260 works from its own collection representing the various movements within the Russian avant-garde: Constructivism, Suprematism, and Rayonism, among others. The work by artists such as Alexandra Exter, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Alexandr Rodchenko contributed to a new way of seeing and constructing reality which would eventually find its way into propaganda and utilitarian objects but which stems from a radical revolutionary impulse. Both exhibitions end their focus in the mid-1930s, however, when the openness of ideas and philosophy began to cool as political and bureaucratic realities began to set in, and the glorious moment of Russian art, a nearly unparalleled expression of idea and form with harmonious purpose, began to dim.
The place of art in an ideologically based state is a precarious one, and as Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in his Stalinist era masterpiece, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, “A genius doesn’t adjust his treatment of a theme to a tyrant’s taste.” Kandinsky, Chagall, and others departures from Russia appears to be a symptom of this impasse. The struggle between personal vision and propaganda is what we see at stake in the 15 years following the Revolution, even behind all the friendly Lenins and robust sun-kissed workers. This relationship between ideals, propaganda, and reality is a fascinating and edifying one and still shapes our contemporary world. Media and meaning in our post-ideological world become, seemingly, more and more benign, but there is a danger when the ideas shaping our world of images and sound bites descend into obscurity, the effects outreaching the agenda. Looking at the works of Russian art with their ideological clarity and aspiration toward precise utility of effect could be a key to unscrambling the signals we wade through every day.
By Chris Shields