One of the first paintings that grabbed my attention was 'The Defence of Petrograd' by Alexander Deimeke. It's a monumental painting, almost life size and incredibly powerful - this reproduction doesn't do it justice at all. We see men and women marching to the front while the wounded and exhausted trudge home on the walkway above. The workers were given rifles to defend their home city led by Leon Trotsky, an untrained army prepared to die to defend their homes from the White Army. It's a very simple painting with a powerful story of workers rising up to fight their class and political enemy. I'm sure there are other versions of the tale behind the battles at Petrograd but I can only think of bravery and death and revolution.
Another stirring painting of revolution is 'The Bolshevik' by Boris Kustodiev, which is also the poster for the exhibition. A giant walking through a snowy St Petersburg carrying a huge red flag with hordes of workers following in his steps. Again, a simple image that can stir the blood. That's one of the gifts of political artists, narrowing the scope of works down to the key image or images, being very on-message in designs meant to raise the passions. Play on the archetypes and present a simple message.
I was fascinated by his endless tiny paint marks on the canvas to create his images, a strange mosaic style of different shapes, colours and patterns. I need to know more about Mr Filonov.
I like his simple, geometric paintings of peasants and sports people, broken down into a basic shape and distinct colours, such as his 'Peasant With A Rake'. We have a solid worker with an impossibly thin rake standing in a field with a village in the background. He was a theoretician but, even so, I wonder how he came to see in those terms?
As well as the paintings there was also a nice selection of ceramics with some wonderfully colourful designs and one of my favourites was a big painted vase labelled as 'Large Vase with Peasant Dance' by Ivan Ivanovich Riznich. I couldn't find a picture of it but it was covered all over with colourful scenes of happy peasants dancing, no doubt enhanced by vodka. I'd happily have that in my living room.
The exhibition ended with examples of Soviet Realism and a small booth in which photos were projected of people arrested in the 1930s and sent to the gulags where many of them died or were killed. The hopes and dreams of the revolution didn't last long and soon degenerated into the purges and mass slaughter. It was so sad to see photos of ordinary people and a few words about their stories - teachers, accountants, farmers, Soviet officials, translators, academics - projected on a screen, the photos from when they were first arrested. I sat there to see them all, to witness their lives, as one by one their photos were projected in front of us, until they started to repeat. It was the least I could do.
It's well worth seeing this exhibition. I won't say that I enjoyed it since there was little joy, but it is powerful and made me think and ponder and made me want to know more. That's a good thing.