The Royal Academy exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32 is a brilliant but tragic exhibition rather like the Russian Revolution itself. The exhibition tells the story through art of how a tremendous experiment to try and improve humanity went horribly wrong. The beginning of the exhibition is colour, excitement, and optimism; the end is a roll call of artists and intellectuals murdered by the state.
As everybody knows, the revolution began in 1917, and 1932 is significant both because of the of the exhibition Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russia Soviet Republic, which inspired the present exhibition, and because that was the year that Stalin declared that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable form of art, so ending the creativity that had burgeoned since 1917.
The exhibition begins with Lenin, portraits showing the intellectual he was, designs for his mausoleum in Red Square, and film and a painting of his embalmed body. I’ve been reading about the Immortalisation Commission, which had the job of preserving his body forever, and I learnt, which the exhibition didn’t make clear, that the Bolsheviks were not just about changing Russia but about changing humanity and defeating death. With such an ambitious aim millions of deaths didn’t matter, could be easily justified.
Lenin, in contrast to Stalin, was interested in art only as propaganda: “I’m no good at art. Art for me is a just an appendage, and when its use as propaganda – which we need at the moment – is over, we’ll cut it out as useless: snip, snip!”
The second room, Man and Machine, shows how the Bolsheviks needed to ramp up industry to make Russia a world power, celebrating the muscular power of workers as they did so. One picture shows workers defending Petrograd against the White Russians under the command of Trotsky, being sent to the front line and then returning with their injuries.
The avant garde flourished in the early years of the Revolution and the 1932 exhibition devoted a whole room to the paintings of Malevich, the Suprematist, and one of the best known Russian painters. The Royal Academy has recreated that room in the exhibition, and it’s bright with colour and geometric designs.
Almost three quarters of Russians were peasants in 1917, and the Bolsheviks didn’t have the same support among them that they had among industrial workers. After the revolution agriculture fell apart, and people starved. Stalin introduced Collectivisation, causing the deaths of millions. Again there is the gap between the heroic pictures of workers and the awful reality, but Malevich, trying to reinvent himself, painted the anonymity of the peasants.
The next room celebrates Eternal Russia, the Russia of sleigh rides, onion shaped domes, samovars, and singing and dancing peasants. In this context is painfully ironic.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is the recreation of Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, a flying machine whose name combines the artist’s name and the Russian word for flight. Tatlin, fitting with the spirit of the times, believed that people would soon be able to fly, and he built his machine after dissecting many large birds. It never flew, but it shows the spirit of the times—imagination was set free, everything was possible.
During the Civil War, which lasted three years, Lenin introduced War Communism, outlawing private enterprise. It collapsed, and Lenin then allowed a period of some private enterprise, which led to a temporary reappearance of cafes and city life. But then Stalin shut it down. A divided room in the exhibition shows the art of the two periods.
A whole room is devoted to the works of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, as was the case in the 1932 exhibition. The curators of the exhibition feel that he is not as well known outside Russia as he should be and hope that he might be a “discovery” for us. His paintings were appealing but not arresting. Perhaps one of the reasons that he is not well known outside Russia is that he went along with Stalin. Did he, like Shostakovich, have to sacrifice his self-respect?
The last room shows Stalin’s Utopia with pictures of great sporting achievements, but in the middle of the room is a huge black box which contains a cinema showing an endlessly roll call of those Stalin murdered. Stalin did care about art: he looked at the paintings, read the poems, and listened to the music. It was he who declared Shostakovich’s music “noise” and who rang him later and asked him to represent Russia in the US, debasing himself when he did so by having to condemn Stravinsky, his musical hero. Stalin knew that in the end he could not defeat art, and that it would define his legacy.
I came away from the exhibition inspired but sad, hoping that neither me nor my children and grandchildren would be caught up in a hubristic attempt to recreate humanity, establish Utopia.