London’s Russian Season
Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 | The Royal Academy of Art, 11 February–17 April 2017
Imagine Moscow | Design Museum, 14 March–4 June 2017
Russian Revolution: Hope Tragedy and Myth | The British Library, 28 April–29 August 2017
Silk scarves adorned with portraits of revolutionary leaders, Suprematist teapots, paintings of peasants and factory workers, private letters, food stamps, homemade revolutionary banners, Soviet periodicals extoling the successes of industrialisation and collectivisation, and gravity defying architectural designs are but a few of the objects on view in three recent London exhibitions that commemorate the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 at the Royal Academy, Imagine Moscow at the Design Museum, and Russian Revolution: Hope Tragedy and Myth at the British Library revisit this period of dramatic social, political and cultural change, seeking to shed new light on one of the most turbulent historical events of the twentieth century while highlighting the creative bounty it spawned.
The Royal Academy exhibition contained a dazzling array of works of art and objects created in the years between the Revolution and the imposition of socialist realism in 1932. Individual rooms were organised around themes such as Salute the Leader, Brave New World, and Fate of the Peasants, and each one emphasised the many distinct strands of artistic production that coexisted and competed during this brief period to define a new art for a new proletarian society. For example, Isaak Brodsky’s early socialist realist painting Lenin in Smolny from 1930 sits a few meters away from Greorgy Rublev’s controversial expressionist Portrait of Joseph Stalin from the same year, and both paintings share space with propaganda posters and porcelain plates decorated with Lenin’s face and traditional Russian folk patterns. This strategy of mixing objects and works of art that represent different strands of creative output provided a wonderful opportunity to move beyond the work of the more familiar avant-garde groups such as the Constructivists, to showcase lesser known artists who worked contemporaneously with them. These artists include Aleksandr Deineka whose large-scale, graphically composed, paintings Construction of a New Workshop (1926) and Textile Workers (1927), and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s still lives, and romantic portraits such as the Petrograd Madonna (1920) are beloved in Russia, and important in the story of Russian revolutionary art, but are less well known abroad.
That is not to say that the avant-garde were excluded. One room was devoted to Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism. The room, featuring a late version of the Black Square, Arkhitektons and later figurative paintings, recreated almost in its entirety the display Malevich assembled for the 1932 St Petersburg exhibition Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic and it served to highlight his importance in the overall trajectory of the art of this period.
The combination of artistic masterpieces, mass media, and objects of the everyday, alongside full scale reconstructions of a one bedroom flat designed by El Lisstizky (1932) and a fantastical flying apparatus by Vladimir Taltin (1932) gave a sense of not only the utopian dimension of artistic production in this period, but also its all encompassing nature as artists sought to not only reflect, but also shape their new world.
While showcasing the breadth and depth of creative output from this period, the exhibition sticks closely to the now familiar, but increasingly challenged, narrative that all creative activity came to a grinding halt in 1932 as a direct result of Joseph Stalin’s implementation of socialist realism as the only acceptable form of artistic production. For an exhibition that does so much to introduce new artists, works of art, and ideas about artistic plurality in this period, it stops short of providing a sense of a more nuanced shift in creative production into the 1930s that is reflected in current scholarship.
Imagine Moscow took a similarly multi-media approach to convey the immense creative overhaul that occurred in the architectural profession after the Revolution. It promised to present visitors an ‘idealistic vision of the Soviet capital that was never realised’, by focussing on six unbuilt architectural projects that express the important themes of collectivisation, urban planning, aviation, communication, industrialisation, communal living and recreation. However, rather than a focussed look at Moscow in the context of the revolution, visitors were presented with an assembly of, admittedly, wonderful objects that included architectural drawings, photographs, models and periodicals, that are only loosely related to an imagined socialist Moscow. Unfortunately, the exhibition left out the many imagined urban planning and architectural schemes for Moscow that were proposed and circulated widely in the 1920s and early 1930s and instead focussed on buildings that represent typologies, such as worker’s clubs, health resorts, and communal dwellings, that were planned, and indeed built, across the Soviet Union. The shaky narrative framing of the exhibition made the selection of projects appears random and it smacks a little of a desire to jump on the bandwagon to commemorate the centenary rather than to present a coherent new story about the architecture and urban planning of Moscow after the Revolution.
The exhibition was enhanced by bold graphic design that included reproduction marble wall paper from the Lenin Mausoleum by Aleksei Shchusev (1924) and simplified graphic outlines of each of the featured projects which served to reinforce their formal uniqueness. A highlight was a tongue-in-cheek full-scale reproduction of Lenin’s finger measuring about 1.5m high. This was to demonstrate the colossal scale of the proposed statue of Lenin that would crown the Palace of the Soviets, an unbuilt architectural fantasy that loomed large in Soviet visual culture from the 1930s until the project was scrapped in 1940s as a result of the Second World War.
While the exhibition’s narrative was disappointing, it nonetheless provided a good opportunity to showcase some rarely seen objects from private collections. It also introduced buildings that are very familiar to scholars of Soviet architecture to a wider public audience, and for that the curators should be applauded.
While the Royal Academy and Design Museum exhibitions emphasised the creative production that resulted from the Revolution, the British Library exhibition traced the utopian ideals that inspired it, along with the struggles that both revolutionary leaders and ordinary citizens faced on the path to communism. The exhibition showcased objects and personal accounts from the perspective of both the Bolsheviks (Reds) and the Tsarists (Whites) during and after the October Revolution. Through the presentation of unique artefacts such as Lenin’s application for a reader’s pass (under the pseudonym of Jacob Richter), alongside a first edition of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto (1848) and propaganda posters for both the Reds and Whites, one is reminded that this was more than a moment of great creative energy. As the exhibition title suggests, it was also one of hope, tragedy and myth that has had a lasting impact on the lives of Russians and Eastern Europeans for generations.
All three exhibitions and their accompanying publications have helped to renew and enrich discussions of Russia in 1917 to the present day. The centenary of the Revolution is scarcely being acknowledged in Russia, and it is therefore all the more important that a city such as London, that hosted Communist Party leaders prior to the Revolution, and showed support for the Soviet Union in its early formation, revisit the subject and share new developments in research on the art and culture from this period.