Friday, 17 February 2017

Revolution: Russian art 1917 – 1932

A landmark exhibition charting the influence of the Bolshevik regime is breathtaking and thought provoking

Written by Thomas Blaikie

‘Why are we being asked to admire art that celebrates genocidal tyrants?’ The Royal Academy has already had stick for mounting this ambitious exhibition of more than 200 paintings, photographs, sculptures and porcelain pieces to mark 100 years since the October Revolution of 1917. The accusations are absurd. With great clarity, the show places what is on view very firmly in its context of terror, starvation and suppression. Lenin didn’t like art: it made him soft, he announced chillingly. Like many brutes, he was given to appalling sentimentality, but his calling was to beat the ideals of Communism into the people – this was how he put it. The Russian Revolution was never anything of theThomas-Blaikie-colour-176 kind. It simply replaced one tyranny with another, far worse.

Compared to the Bolsheviks, the Tsars look charming. This ruthlessness is reflected even in art that is supposed to celebrate the brilliant new dawn, such as Kustodiev’s Bolshevik, where a giant worker strides, monstrous, over a town, trampling the blob-like masses in the streets below. Portraits of Lenin, conventional in manner, falsely suggest an avuncular figure, but the one of Stalin is terrifying, maybe because of what we now know.

The avant-garde style was tolerated up to a point, but finally stamped out in 1932. Only what the illiterate workers could understand was permitted thereafter. Superb artists such as Kandinsky and Chagall had left Russia, in despair, by 1921. Chagall’s The Promenade of 1917 in which his wife flies through the air is one of the highlights of the show, but it has to be seen with that knowledge. Kandinsky was more prescient: his troubled of 1917 has a burst of light and energy at the centre, but darkness all around the edges. Deineka somehow managed to continue in a powerful Modernist style, with distorted perspectives and out of scale human figures, but his paintings are propaganda all the same for Stalin’s murderous industrial schemes.

Only Kazimir Malevich seems to have survived in a regime where the state owned everything including the soul of the artist. A group of his works is hung in the same configuration as it was in a massive retrospective of Soviet art in Leningrad in 1932. This is another highlight. How did he get away with it? I can only imagine that with his skittish, almost child- like version of the avant-garde, old Stalin didn’t notice. But those faceless, collectivised ‘Peasants’ are saying something, as are the ‘sportsmen’ who look comical, like figures on playing cards.

Lack of chronology in the hanging can be disconcerting, but the show is presented in an illuminating and unobtrusive fashion, with rooms devoted to topics such as peasants, factory work, eternal Russia (nostalgia essentially to escape the present horror) and sport (more Deineka: sporty men in chiffon shorts displaying Soviet heroism – odd). This is not an art show so much as an insight into history. For once, the audio-guide is essential.

Until 17 April at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1: 020-7300 8090, 

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