It was a new dawn. Tractors caused uproar and muscular workers got to the factory on flying bicycles. Then came the purges
Photograph: State Historical Museum
And what do they write? Love letters? shopping lists? To what, in Isaak Brodsky’s paintings, must they put their names? They’re writing the future, one supposes, their speeches and five-year plans, their goodbye signatures for the condemned, dead letters all.
Elsewhere in Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, at the Royal Academy in London, we see Stalin resting in a wicker armchair, a dog outstretched at his feet. The mutt, in Georgy Rublev’s informal 1936 portrait, looks much like a sturgeon. Maybe the leader is thinking of dinner as he glances up from Pravda. Nearby, scenes from Dziga Vertov’s 1920s work Film Truth show footage of Lenin’s state funeral, while Sergei Eisenstein’s October recreates the revolution.
It is all happening. “Salute the Leader!” is stencilled on the gallery wall, in this first section of an episodic, dense and sometimes bewildering show. This is not an exhibition about great art so much as a clamour of ideals and conflict, suppression, subjugation and totalitarianism. It takes us from the October Revolution in 1917 to the gulag, by way of food coupons and propaganda posters, architectural models, film footage, suprematist crockery (one teacup is decorated with cogs and pylons) and thunderingly bad sculpture. There are so many fascinating things here, largely drawn from Russian state collections, that the show might be seen as a corrective to the more narrow focus we often have on avant-garde art in revolutionary Russia.
In a wonderful series of photographs in the next section, Man and Machine, a muscular youth turns a great wheel of industry. Bolts are tightened, cables stretched. Photographs of oily crankshafts and vast generators turn up the tempo. In another of Brodsky’s paintings, sun catches the muscular back of a superhero worker on a hydroelectric dam. We visit tractor plants and textile factories. Women work at the new machines. Outside, a shirtless boy leads sheep along the street. Modernity and the old world are in conflict. Questions about art’s purpose – its freedoms and imposed responsibilities – vie with one another throughout.
That said, this is a fun show, in spite of the density of the arguments that were waged in the new Russia. For every painting of a flag-bearing bearded Bolshevik, striding over onion-domed churches and crowded streets, there are Kandinsky’s abstract explosions and Pavel Filonov’s crazed, teeming cityscapes, a wonderfully frightening world of boggle-eyed heads and tessellated skylines. One, from 1920-21, is called Formula for the Petrograd Proletariat. What’s the formula? The people look scared. Meanwhile, the thrusting, canted colour stripes of Mikhail Matiushin’s 1921 Movement in Space depict pure energy and urgency, irrevocable change. These artists, both the better and lesser known avatars of the Russian avant garde, were really going for it.
At one point, we come to a full-size mock-up of an apartment designed by El Lissitzky in 1932. Its clean, bare, multilevel spaces are a diagram for living. To encourage workers to go out and eat communally, the apartment has no kitchen, just a geometry of planes and steel handrails – a hygienic machine for bare, uncluttered living. Later, I come to a painting of a man reading at his rustic table, a fish on a plate before him, a bottle and pipe at his side, somewhat different bare necessities to those proposed by Lissitzky.
Painting and film extolled collective farm labour and captured the astonishment that greeted the arrival of the first tractor. But modernity would not be bought so easily: there is nostalgia for disappearing ways of life, sentimental paintings of spring in the birch woods, troika rides in the snow, village carnivals and homely pleasures – all contrasted with ration cards, food tax posters, the redolent ephemera of lean times.
Among the technological feats and heroic workers, the shock troopers of industry, the old peasant women and athletes, you find yourself looking for familiar faces in the crowd. They come at you as ghosts: Moisey Nappelbaum’s black and white portraits of the wonderful poet Anna Akhmatova; theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold in his leather coat in 1929, giving the camera a reproachful eye. Maybe he was hamming it up. In 1940, Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and killed. Akhmatova’s first husband was also killed, while her second – Nikolay Punin, the art critic and champion of the avant garde – was sent to the gulag in 1949 after he described portraits of state leaders as “tasteless”. He died there, not long after Stalin’s death.
In 1932, Punin was one of the organisers of a huge exhibition, Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic, filling 33 rooms of the State Museum in Leningrad, as it was then. The exhibition was marked not only by its plurality but by the way the trajectory of art in Soviet Russia was skewed in favour of aesthetic and ideological conservatism. Vladimir Tatlin was excluded, while Kazimir Malevich was marginalised. Even so, the latter mounted an astonishing display of his own work, which has been largely duplicated in one of the high points of the exhibition.
Suprematist crockery … A Cup for Serving Tea, 1931, by Lyudmila Protopopova. Photograph: Petr Aven Collection
Textile Workers, 1927, Alexander Deineka. Photograph: State Russian Museum/DACS
The plurality of Russian art was, by 1932, on the wane. Rather than suprematism, anodyne paintings – of runners, soccer matches, a female shot putter, a girl in a football jersey – became the acceptable face of Stalin’s utopia. Photographs celebrate parades and stadiums. Instead of a clean modernism, a heavy, overblown architecture was on the rise, with a gigantic Lenin towering over a Palace of the Soviets, which was planned to be the tallest building in the world.
At the very end of the show we come to a black box, a tiny cinema called Room of Memory. Inside is a slideshow projecting official mugshots of the exiled, the starved, the murdered in Stalin’s purges: housewife Olga Pilipenko, a Latvian language teacher, the former chair of the hydrometeorological committee, peasants, short-story writers, poet Osip Mandelstam, Punin the art critic.
It goes on. Beyond, in the gallery’s rotunda, hangs a recreation of one of Vladimir Tatlin’s constructivist gliders, a prototype flying machine he worked on for several years. It circles the white space, part dragonfly, part bat. Tatlin saw it as a flying bicycle for workers, made from steamed, bent ash and fabric. It looks as light as air. It never flew or went anywhere, but turns in a room, endlessly.
• Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is at Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 11 February until 17 April.
and 'silly irrelevance, obsessed with is own importance' Jonathan Jones| We cannot celebrate revolutionary Russian art – it is brutal propaganda Jonathan Jones
It struck me as intellectually lazy for this museum, so remote from everything the Russian revolution stood for, to apolitically celebrate its art, as if constructivism and suprematism were just cool aesthetic discoveries rather than utopian projects from an age of struggle and violence.
The grand galleries of Burlington House in London seem an equally incongrous setting for such relics, but that’s where Tatlin, El Lissitzky and co are about to be venerated in the Royal Academy’s blockbuster Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932. The title of this exhibition that starts the centenary of 1917 goes right for the commercial jugular – every young idealist in the country will be clamouring for a ticket.
If the Royal Academy wanted to be honest they might have called it something more like “Black Square: The Russian Tragedy 1917-1932”. The way we glibly admire Russian art from the age of Lenin sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history. If the Royal Academy put on a huge exhibition of art from Hitler’s Germany there would rightly be an outcry. Yet the art of the Russian revolution is just as mired in the mass slaughters of the 20th century.
The Bolshevik party took power in October 1917 in a coup that replaced a previous democratic revolution with a totalitarian one. From the beginning, and increasingly as they fought a savage civil war against their opponents, Lenin’s Bolsheviks used torture, surveillance and executions to build a one-party state. Rural society was destroyed by the Bolshevik campaign against “kulaks”, meaning so-called capitalist peasants – a war on an unreal social enemy that anticipated nazism by demonising an entire category of people. As agriculture collapsed, as a result first of civil war then forcible collectivisation, millions died in famines in 1921-22 and again in 1932-33.
To see Lenin’s revolution through rosy specacles as a Good Thing, a “utopian” dream that only went wrong because the wicked Stalin spoiled it all, is to believe in fairy tales. Yet catastrophic as it was, artists sought to provide this revolution with bold modernist propaganda.
The avant garde in Russian art predates 1917. In 1915, Malevich painted his Black Square, a masterpiece that takes the idea of abstract art to its pure monochrome conclusion. Tatlin, influenced by Picasso’s cubist assemblages, was already producing Counter Reliefs, abstract constructions that could occupy a corner like a floating city of driftwood.
As the revolution began imposing its ideology, these two great artists gave birth to movements that both claimed to express a utopian vision of a revolutionary future: suprematism, which maps world history and the cosmos as a science fiction geometry of pure forms, and constructivism, which builds the ideal out of the real. The resulting art is undoubtedly some of the most powerful of the 20th century, yet I find the way it is usually exhibited ultimately repellent in its denial of history and glossing-over of violence.
If you think I am exaggerating, consider El Lissitzky’s famous 1919 poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. You don’t need any knowledge of modern art to understand it – a sharp red triangle is being driven into a black mass like a stake into Dracula’s heart. Visual genius, yes, but what is its real historical significance?
It is a very explicit propaganda image that urges support for the Bolshevik army in the civil war that lasted from 1917 to 1922. This war eventually secured Lenin’s new state, but at a human cost almost without historical precedent: between 7m and 12m people died. Extreme methods were used by both sides not just in battle but to subdue civilians. The Cheka, the original Bolshevik secret police that still has offspring in Russia today, played a crucial part. The red wedge really was red – with blood.
Nauseatingly, we forget that reality when we celebrate El Lissitzky’s poster in an apolitical way or, even worse, admire it as radical chic without asking any questions about what it really represents. It is a call to merciless violence. Did Billy Bragg and Paul Weller worry about that when they borrowed its cool title for a 1980s effort to make pop music political? Nah, they didn’t give it a thought.
We will never stop looking at the art of the Russian avant garde, nor should we. Yet we need to place it in its true context. It is a lazy, immoral lie to keep pretending there was anything glorious about the brutal experiment Lenin imposed on Russia – or anything innocent about its all-too-brilliant propaganda art. Perhaps the Royal Academy is about to open that very show, but its shallow title seems all too happy to cash in on revolutionary chic. No doubt the Morning Star’s art critic will be there in a flash. Me, I will be remembering the kulaks.
- Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is at the Royal Academy, London, 11 February-17 April
El Lissitzky’s 1919 poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. Photograph: Peter Cox/Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
‘The ideal out of the real’ ... Tatlin with an assistant, in front of his design for the never-built Monument to the Third International, Petrograd. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images