‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32’ – an ambitious exhibition at the Royal Academy- is a paradoxical show that places the everyday at the centre of how the Soviet Union understood the place of art in society. A hundred years after the October Revolution, this show aims at showcasing the visual paradoxes of what might be called ‘the art of the Revolution’ which is usually mistaken as the feud between avant-garde versus social realism. By avant garde, the show understands ‘the new painting’ of Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin who, more or less, asserted that art had no function but to think anew its relationship with itself. On the other hand, photographers such as Alexander Rodchenko aimed at creating new visual tools to upset the bourgeois way of seeing which was organised around the centralisation of the visual experience since the Renaissance. Optimism, energy and creativity were inherent to a project that, at times, was cruel and delusional. Although, the Soviet Union firstly embraced the avant garde, it rapidly grew averse to its lack of clarity and ended up endorsing social realism. This show focusses on the period in which the avant garde and social realism coexisted as valid Soviet artistic practices and dialogues with a show that took place in Moscow in 1932 called ‘Fifteen Years of Art of the Soviet Republic’.
The Russian Revolution brought about photography as a medium that could alter the bourgeois order of things which had been represented (and reinforced) through the painting of exceptional events of the past since the Renaissance. Photography allowed the Communists to focus on the prosaic aspects of the everyday. This is why it makes sense that the show begins with a photo, a portrait of Lenin by Nappelbaum hung beside an horizontal portrait of Lenin by Isaac Brodsky who, in Michael Fried’s terms, is represented ‘theatralising’ its own absorption. It is literally an inversion of royal portraiture with a brushwork that consciously avoids virtuosity. In front of this piece, there is Nikolai Trepsikhorov’s ‘The first Motto’ where the painter is not painting on canvas but on banners that are going to be used by the proletariat when they protest. The banner that is being painted inside the painting is placed as an object in itself on top of the painting. It says: ‘All Power To The Soviets’.
I really enjoyed the curators’ decision to include ceramic objects that were used as propaganda in everyday life such as Mikhail Adamovich’s pieces and those by the Petrograd’s State Porcelain Factory. Structured upon the relationship between Lenin’s personalism and the objects of the everyday, this introduction to the show ends up transforming the mass as a collective monad into ‘the new sitter’. This is the case in Boris Kustodiev’s ‘Demonstration on the Ulitsky Square’ (1921).
The second half of that room starts with Kliment Redko’s Uprising which is a wonderful choice because it opposes everything shown till now. Presented as a conflation of a cartographic representation of the city during an uprising against the Soviets, the overall piece comes across as abstract and rhomboid.
In front of this piece, there is a projection of Dziga Vertov’s Kino Pravda which reinforces the way the curators decided to show the importance that the Soviets gave to altering the linearity of times through montage or in the case of Kino Pravda, simultaneity.
I found it amusing how Martin Gayford with The Spectator has completely missed the point of this show when saying: ‘Revolution (the name of the show) starts with a survey of Soviet art held in Leningrad/ St Petersburg in 1932, a point when the avant-garde ferment was being suppressed and the era o fsoviet realism was beginning. Consequently, a lot of what can be seen on the walls of Burlington House is disappointing. The good paintings dotted through the show are by familiar giants of modernism –Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall. A room devoted to a figurative artist, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin who is little known in the West only half convinces; on this evidence he was an interestingly idiosyncratic painter of still life, but feeble when it came to people’.
The comparison is quite unfair because the aims of both ‘modernism’ and Kuzma Petrov were different. The latter, famously, entered into conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church, which discarded his work on a chapel in Samara and ultimately destroyed it as unacceptable. His works were also accused of being too erotic. His first well-known work was The Dream (1910), which sparked a discussion among contemporary Russian artists. The main defender of the painting was Alexandre Benois; his main detractor was Ilya Repin (hence, Petrov-Vodkin was discussed by two of the major Russian painters of the time). His Boys at play, and, notably, Bathing of a Red Horse, (1912) his most iconic work – a symbol of the coming social changes were not included in the show. The latter became an instant classic, and, in a sense, trademark for the artist. During this stage in his artistic development, Petrov-Vodkin extensively used an aesthetic of Orthodox icon together with brighter colours and unusual compositions to depict the new communist reality.
The confusion might derive from the three rooms dedicated to the avant garde which are spectacular but confusing because their iconicity is so monumentalised that they end up dwarfing the rest as ‘popular’. From that point of view, Martin Gayford’s critique is socially biased for he does not seem to like ‘the popular’ or ‘the everyday’ which, in a way, is the exact point of the show.
This misunderstanding might make us overlook the consequences for eroticism that the exclusion of the human body by the avant garde entailed. This is very clear in the following room when the peasants are depicted glorified but homoerotically by Alexei Pakhomov. Boris Gregoriev’s paintings are hung beside Pakhomov and display a brushwork that seems to emulate the plowing of its peasants. Chagall and Aristarkh Lentulov are also included and the wonderful Philosophers by Mikhail Nesterov. The conflation of eroticism and beauty to dignify the proletariat evidences an effort to find a place for painting where it had lost is burgeoise (in the sense of something to be own) place. A wonderful show not only because of its historicism but also because it poses very relevant questions for today’s contemporary art. If these days we are asking ourselves why to paint if we have I-Phones with cameras, they used to asked themselves an analogous question. How to find any relevance to painting beyond mere ornamentalism or distinction construction in a status obsessed society. J A T