Visual Arts

EXHIBITION REVIEW: ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932’ – letting the Soviet artists off the hook

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April 4, 2017

Boris Kustodiev, The Bolshevik, 1920.

Boris Kustodiev,
The Bolshevik, 1920.

Any attempt to tell the story of the October Revolution is inevitably going to be controversial, showing the author’s own political views and laying them to open to accusations of personal bias. For this reason, the revolution is rarely engaged with in everyday culture outside the realm of post-Marxist academic debate or historical fiction. The centenary of these events thus gives us a chance to initiate this discussion once again – without needing any other particular excuse for it.

To this anniversary the Royal Academy has dedicated their blockbuster exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, on view till 17 April. The curators, including in-house specialist Ann Dumas and the Courtauld Institute-affiliated John Milner and Natalia Murray, have managed to amass a storehouse of works from Moscow (including from the  Tretyakov Art Gallery and The State Historical Museum), Saint Petersburg (State Russian Museum), Russian regional museums, the Tate, and some private collections too.

The exhibition thus introduces us to major works by (among others) Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Chagall and Boris Kustodiev. The general purpose here has been to “explore the rich diversity of art made in Russia during one of the most turbulent periods in modern history”, and the curators have (impressively) given us not only works of art, but also examples of photography, cinema, ceramics, textiles and even the visual design of propaganda posters, rationing cards and street signs.

The first room of the exhibition resembles installations by classic, if unofficial Soviet artist Ilya Kabakov (whose major retrospective is coming later this year to Tate Modern), in which he recreates the aspects of the communal living of an average Soviet man: walls are painted red, and a contemporary replica of a generic Soviet banner with the slogan ‘All power to the soviets’ is on show, supposedly to evoke the atmosphere of the first Soviet years with their revolutionary zeal.

Kazimir Malevich, Peasants, c. 1930.

Kazimir Malevich,
Peasants, c. 1930.

Thematic rooms follow: dedicated to the relationship between the labourers and the machines, to the avant-garde, to the works of Malevich, to the destiny of the Russian countryside, to nostalgia for lost Russia, and so on. All this creates a slight feeling of historical disconnection: while Stalin sacrificed the Russian village in to pay for intensive industrialisation, curators present these two sides of Soviet reality as quite independent processes – both with their aesthetic appeal and atrocious policies.

The attempt thus to delineate art and life is the exhibition’s most dubious feature. Curators try their best to show artists’ lack of responsibility for politicians’ actions, that rules and regulations were imposed on them not from within the artistic community but from outside agencies: in a way that at times sugars over their involvement.

Thus the portrait of Maxim Gorky, one of the founders of Socialist Realism in literature, is accompanied by a text that reads: “He was a prominent figure in the Revolution but had a difficult relationship with Lenin’s Bolsheviks: they publicly acclaimed him but he privately loathed their brutality” – a slippery evasion of Gorky’s support for the Bolsheviks, and the perks he accepted from them. Similarly, they try to explain Malevich’s abstract depictions of peasants with his attempt to conform and – anodyne phrase – ‘come to terms with the demands of the State’. They refuse him his own search for the new truth, however violent this truth could be.

In the spirit of contemporary neoliberalism, the curators regard culture as one of the branches of public sphere, detached from all the rest: politics, economics, social development and so on. But the utopian, controversial continuity between art and everyday life is something the Revolution can teach us, helping us to question the very principles of how we see ourselves and our society. Russian artists dedicated their lives to creating a new world, designing brand-new perceptions of time, space and progress. Here, they seem at times demoted to harmless, exotic curiosities. It’s a pity that the exhibition doesn’t offer the visitors the mere idea of an alternative (if illusory) system to existing neoliberalism. Instead, it dumps revolutionary art into a sterile archive, with a museum shop attached to it – full of playful memorabilia.

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Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932 continues at the Royal Academy of Art until 17 April 2017.

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