In her exquisitely written review of the current exhibition ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32’, taking place at London’s Royal Academy, Nellie Day invites us to explore the misinterpretations and complexity of work from the likes of Chagall, Malevich, Kandinsky and Rodchenko within this period prior to what Nellie coins as Stalin’s “aggressive suppression of creative freedom”. Whilst she asserts that a fundamental knowledge of the politics of this era is integral to the interpretation of such works of art, she does, however, celebrate this extensive exhibition’s success in its ability to tackle this particular historical era with its acute amalgamation of art and politics. – Lauren Hurrell
FEATURED IMAGE: Konstantin Yuon, New Planet, (1921)
On route to the Royal Academy to see ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32’, I desperately tried to recall any GCSE Russian History that might still be lurking in the dark recesses of my brain. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and other characters from the past floated through my mind as I reached, quite fittingly, the red flags of the RA.
This exhibition focuses on art produced in Russia before Stalin’s clamp-down on artistic practice and the Great Purge of (1936-8). Work from ground-breaking artists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall and Rodchenko, persuasively argue their revolutionary status within art history. From Kandinsky’s strikingly innovative compositions to Malevich’s dynamic abstractions, the period saw the birth of not just Suprematism, but Social Realism as well. The latter would come to define Communist art, being the only acceptable style during the regime.
This exhibition is extensive. Running seamlessly into one another, the rooms are focused around different themes – from the urban and rural experience, to state propaganda and the subversive avant-garde. A basic historical knowledge of the period is almost essential to understanding all these intertwining elements. The art is not at the centre of this exhibition, but, it doesn’t pretend to be. Instead, it simply offers a lens into a complex, intense moment in history.
However, using art as a window into this era is incredibly effective. One room replicates part of the 1932 seminal exhibition ‘Artists of the Russian Federation over 15 Years’, curated by Nikolai Punin, which displayed remarkable avant-garde works before Stalin’s clampdown. In taking us back to this event, the looming horror of Stalin’s aggressive suppression of creative freedom is made starkly apparent. Anticipating the terror and tragedy of what is yet to come, the Russian avant-garde command new levels of respect. Many of the artists exhibited would end up being executed or wasting away in the infamous Soviet Gulags. Although, this exhibition also features artists who worked for the regime, to me, the works from these brave subversives are what make this show.
This exhibition succeeds in combining an art and political approach to history. The 1917 Russian Revolution ended centuries of Tsarist rule and shook Russian society to its foundations. The human experience of this political upheaval is brought to life through the art which was born in its turmoil. The pieces displayed encapsulate both the idealistic aspirations and the harsh reality of the Revolution and its aftermath. Taking on a truly gigantic task, the Royal Academy is the first to tackle the entire artistic landscape of post-Revolutionary Russia. The result is ambitious, placing breadth over depth and giving viewers an unusual take on a defining period in Soviet history. – Nellie Day.