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Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932

Royal Academy of Arts, 11 February – 17 April, £16

(Gallery guide £2.50)

Designated ‘a thrilling, chilling show’ by the Financial Times, the gallery guide to Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 correctly notes:

‘The freedom and euphoria of the Revolution produced some of the most remarkable talents in art, theatre, music literature and architecture.’

The next sentence, however, is a clue to the politics of the exhibition:

‘But as early as 1921, their innovations were constrained by an increasingly repressive state.’

Oddly enough, the exhibition itself gives the lie to this claim, since it shows that, for the first 15 years after the revolution, all approaches to art flourished, even when inspired by mysticism.

On display are real realism (for example, the painting, Lenin at the Smolny); several varieties of first-year art school fancies; and, most tolerantly of all, abstraction, in the work of Malevich. A pioneer of geometric abstraction, Malevich’s Black Square is apparently ‘… a masterpiece that takes the idea of abstract art to its pure monochrome conclusion’ (The Guardian, 1 February 2017). His contribution to the Soviet housing programme, ‘… on an altar-like table he assembled prototypes of buildings without doors or windows’ is recreated at the exhibition.

The most disappointing feature of the exhibition is that most of the work shown is second rate. Typically a whole room is given to a minor figure, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. By now the reader should know what to expect: ‘... his art is metaphysical rather than political, a reflection of the human spirit and the cycle of life.’ There is little reference to the peaks of Soviet achievement: the great film makers and photographers (Dovzhenko, Eis­en­stein, Pudovkin); Soviet poster art or communal art.

The only previous exhibition in London which dealt with this period of Soviet art (Art in Revolution, Hayward Gallery 1971) dealt with the subject quite fairly and objectively. This exhibition is very different and its commentaries include:

‘Many workers were effectively slaves … Thousands died in accidents, of starvation or from freezing temperatures.’

and

‘… the beauty and charm of the old Russia [was] rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses’.

The effects of the Civil War (1918-22), in which millions died in the struggle to prevent reactionaries and the armies of eight imperialist countries including Britain overthrowing the revolution, are hardly mentioned. Why the stupefying ignorance?

Follow the money, dear reader. Two of the three exhibition sponsors are: Letter One (owned by the founder of the Alfa Bank Russia) and the Blavatnik family foundations (found­ed in 2015 by Britain’s richest man who moved into Russian investment in 1990). 70 years of toil by Soviet workers has been grabbed by Russian oligarchs – the sponsors are, paradoxically, the direct beneficiaries. If you have the opportunity to go to this exhibition, prepare to be disappointed.

Patrick Newman


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