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Russia – a history of art in 15 years

The RA commemorates the centenary of the Russian Revolution with its tour de force exhibition

20 February, 2017 — By John Evans

Alexander Labas, Red Army Soldier in the Russian Far East, 1928, oil on canvas, 98 x 78cm, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg. Photo © 2017, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

STANDING in front of Marc Chagall’s 1917-18 oil, Promenade, from the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, there is no doubting it is “among the outstanding paintings” in the Royal Academy’s new show.

But then Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, has many others, including Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Crest from 1917, Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev’s The Bolshevik from 1920, and Kazimir Malevich’s Peasants, about 1930.

In fact the show curators, the RA’s Dr Ann Dumas and the Courtauld’s Professor John Milner and Dr Natalia Murray, offer us more than 200 works, ranging from early portraits of Lenin, through supremacist-style cups and saucers, to a photomontage of a saluting Stalin complete with tractors and attendant “five-year-plan” imagery from 1932.

The wide scope of the show is both its strength and weakness and rarely has an accompanying catalogue been more welcome or useful as a guide to the various themes.

The RA’s focus is on “…a momentous period of Russian history between 1917, the year of the October Revolution and 1932 when Stalin began his violent suppression of the avant-garde”.

Significant loans have been secured from the State Russian Museum and the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, in addition to those from international private collections and more. It takes as its starting point a show at the State Museum in Leningrad in 1932 which itself presented a wide sweep of art from these first 15 frenetic post-revolutionary years, and explores “the complex interaction between art and politics in the turbulent yet dynamic period of Russian history”. One gallery is dedicated to 30 works by Malevich gathered together for the first time since 1932 in a reconstruction of the original show

Marc Chagall, Promenade, 1917-18 oil on canvas, 175.2 x 168.4cm State Russian Museum, St Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg © DACS 2016

Alongside the work of the avant-garde artists such as Chagall and Kandinsky, can be seen the socialist realism of Isaak Brodsky, Alexander Deineka, Alexander Samokhvalov and others, but also themed sections with photography, sculpture, film, posters and the porcelain.

Among these themes are: Salute the Leader, looking at Lenin’s rise to power; Man and Machine, on the proletarian worker heroes; Eternal Russia, with echoes of the old national identity persisting; Fate of the Peasants; and Stalin’s Utopia with everything from a straightforward heroic photograph of the leader, to a view of May Day in Red Square in 1927, of over 250 men parading in an arena for “morning gymnastics” from the same year, and even a 1932 aerial shot of the Dinamo stadium, Moscow.

Some striking imagery of footballers and, notably from Samokhvalov, Girl in a Football Jersey and Sportswoman with a Shot-put have a particular poignancy given Russia’s subsequent troubles with the international sporting authorities.

There are some lighter moments, such as a Deineka watercolour of a game of Ping-Pong from 1929, but more typical are starker images, whether military – a Red Army Soldier in the Russian Far East, and Death of a Commissar – or those of the meagre fare on the plates of ordinary folk.

Dr Murray notes in a catalogue essay: “A totally new society could hardly be offered ‘old’ art. This, and the fact that most established, figurative artists would be seen to belong to the bourgeois intelligentsia, allowed the avant-garde… free rein after the October Revolution. For the first few years after 1917 all forms of art flourished in Russia; it was clear that Revolution had bred innovation, and for a time at least, all barriers were opened, anything was possible. The breaking of rules became the rule.”

She also quotes the view of art historian Igor Golomstock from his 1990 book Totalitarian Art: “In a totalitarian system art performs the function of transforming the raw material of dry ideology into the fuel of images and myths intended for general consumption.”

This show illustrates the problem, with examples of good and bad art and some propaganda that’s really not deserving of either description. Yet the greatest pieces remind one that their likes would not be seen elsewhere until the 1950s.

• Revolution: Russian Art 1917- 1932, supported by LetterOne and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, runs at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly W1J 0BD until April 17, £18 concessions available. www.royal academy.org.uk/exhibition/revolution-russian-art

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