Monday, 20 March 2017

'Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932' at the Royal Academy

Last week we went to see the new blockbuster exhibition at the Royal Academy, 'Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932'. It shows the art of the revolution and the struggles that followed. There were lots of art movements on the go in those years in Russia with Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich working, the new Soviet Realism being developed as well as traditional arts and crafts continuing and adapting to circumstances. We see paintings, ceramics, a giant mobile, and textiles, all depicting the art of revolution.

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.

There was already a lot of experimental art going on in Russia and the exhibition includes a couple of abstract Kandinsky paintings I haven't seen before. Hanging beside one of them were a few works by an artist I hadn't heard of before, Pavel Filonov. I know nothing about Filonov other than the notes beside his paintings that tell us that he died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad in 1941. The notes didn't say that he was still working up until that time but I like to think that he was.

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.

The 'star' of the show is Kasimir Malevich who gets a room to himself. The room was laid out to resemble the order of paintings Malevich displayed in an exhibition in 1929.  I recognised many of the paintings from the exhibition of his works a few years ago at Tate Modern and it's nice to see them again. I still remember a photo of his funeral procession at that exhibition that showed a stream of people following his coffin all carrying a poster of his 'Black Square'.

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.

There were also some more 'traditional' paintings with some lovely snow scenes and I couldn't help but break out in a smile over 'Carnival' by Boris Kusztodiev from 1919 (one year before he painted 'The Bolshevik' above). It shows a troika in the centre of town with groups of people standing around in the snowy streets. It's a lovely 'chocolate box' type of painting and I quite like the idea that amongst all the artistic experimentation that was going on in Russia at the time, that people still had time for something like this. I think it's lovely.

One of the last artists we're introduced to is Kozma Petrov-Vodkin and his really lovely paintings. He was a great fan of the Italian Renaissance and Fra Angelico and this shows quite clearly in his painting '1918 in Petrograd (Petrograd Madonna)'. Those colours call out to you from across the gallery as being in the wrong time zone and belonging quite clearly to Renaissance frescoes. It's a painting of a worker on a balcony wearing a head-scarf and holding her baby and harks back to so many paintings of the Madonna and Child. It looked really out of place in the exhibition and quite rightly so to represent the full range of art in the revolutionary period. I will have to do some research into Mr Petrov-Vodkin.

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.

No comments: