Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London - on our doorstep

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 - Credit: Archant

The Royal Academy does big exhibitions so well. Not satisfied with just hanging art on the walls, they take the trouble to paint the walls themselves.

In Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 the walls are a deep red, creating an arresting backdrop for this visually powerful exhibition which marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

Its focus is on an important period in Russian history between October 1917, the year of the October Revolution, and 1932 when Stalin began his violent oppression of the Avant-Garde. With over 200 works including paintings, posters, film, ceramics and porcelain, it presents a time in Russian art when, for 15 years, barriers were opened and there was great optimism for new proletarian art.

However the RA’s Ann Dumas, who has curated the exhibition with Prof John Milner and Dr Natalia Murray from the Courtauld Institute of Art, stresses that this period can be ‘over simplified’ and says, “This was a time of artistic freedom, but it was short-lived. By 1921, innovative thinking was restrained by an increasingly repressive state. Much of the work shown here is bold and exciting, but for many it came at a price and the initial optimism was soon quashed.”

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is divided into themed rooms which nicely tie in the historical context as each explores the complex interaction between art and politics in turbulent times. In Room 1, titled Salute the Leader, a large red/white banner launches us straight into this complex and moving era. The banner translates - ‘All Power to the Soviets’ and the room examines Lenin’s rise to power, his cult status after his death and the consequent leadership of Stalin. Here we see painting of Vladimir Lenin by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who was one of the very few artists permitted to make sketches of Lenin in his coffin, as the Bolshevik leader lay in state in 1924. The painting he made afterwards has rarely been exhibited and as it is held in storage at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Hence, it is fascinating to see this work on display at the RA.

On a nearby wall, a glorious painting by Boris Kusztodiev depicts a demonstration in 1920 where a mixed crowd proudly carries revolutionary banners through the main square of St Petersburg. The huge red banners from the various factories sway in the breeze while star-shaped signs bear the hammer and sickle, a Soviet symbol of the unity between industrial workers and peasants. Large scale demonstrations such as these were an important part of Communist political expression and with this, and the aforementioned banner, we know from the very first room that we are about explore an era full of passion, hope and artistic exploration - but also the eventual collapse as the Soviet world which became darker under Stalin.

The ensuing rooms cover Man and the Machine, Brave New World, and a room devoted to the artist Kasimir Malevich whose work shows a new move towards graphic and geometric purity. Striking images and his daring ‘Red Square’ reveal a change in artistic direction. And it was not just paintings that took a new direction, art was spilling into all forms of expression. A short film by director Sergei Eisenstein is beautifully choreographed and moving in its simple, optimistic way. Experimenting further, Dziga Vertov’s documentary on soviet life ‘Man with a Move Camera’ (1929) uses double exposure, fast motion and split screen.

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In the room, Man and the Machine, the walls are bursting with strong images of industry and hearty, strong Soviet workers. Stalin wanted to turn the Soviet Union into a world power through its industry, and these images show both men and women working on large machinery and tackling heavy labour. Isaac Brodsky’s ‘Shock-Worker from Dnieprostroi’ and Andrey Golubev’s wonderful fabric depicting cotton mill workers show how industry was thrust into all areas of art to promote Stalin’s message.

But by the mid-1920s, the regime was looking disapprovingly at the radicalism and the abstraction. On 23 April 1932, the Central Committee announced the formation of the Artists’ Union of the USSR, tasked with imposing Socialist Realism as the only acceptable form of artistic expression. From now on, it decreed, art must depict man’s struggle for socialist progress towards a better life. The experimentalism that had flourished since the revolution was now deemed un-Soviet and art must now serve the proletariat by being realistic, optimistic and heroic.To further the cause of the revolution, culture must be comprehensible by the masses and anything innovative or original was considered useless and potentially dangerous. The era of freedom for the avant-garde was over.

A final room contains a rolling reel of those who’s creative expression lead to imprisonment at the ‘gulag’ where many writers, poets and artists were sent. They were charged with ludicrous offences such as spying for foreign powers, but in reality their “crimes” were artistic. The work of the great theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold was experimental and avant-garde and he was executed in February 1940, reportedly shouting “Long live Stalin”, believing, like many others, that the Father of the Nation could not possibly be aware of the crimes being committed in his name. But the Bolshevik dictators were very aware, their only interest in art was for its use as propaganda, and when that use was over they had no further interest in it or its creators.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is a rich, complex and moving exhibition. It includes works by renowned artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall, Petro-Vodkin, Deineka and Rodchenko along with less well know but important designers, film makers, ceramicists etc who lived through the fateful events of 1917 that shook Russian society to its core. Amidst the tumult, the arts thrived for a while as debates took place about what form a new “people’s” art should take. A seemingly glorious time of expression ensued, but, by the end of 1932, Stalin’s brutal suppression had stamped out all creative freedom and artists became disillusioned and creatively stifled.

• Revolution:Russian Art 1917-1932 is at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London, W1 until Monday April 17. Tickets from or 0207 300 8027