In celebration of the centenary of the October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks swept to power and ended the autocratic rule of the Tsars overnight, the Royal Academy are hosting Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932. This exhibition presents the variety and vibrancy of early Soviet art across this period ending in 1932, which at first appears a little arbitrary, but in fact has been chose to mirror the centenary of Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic, originally exhibited in November 1932 at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and curated by Nikolai Punin. A few months prior to this date, all artistic organisations were dissolved and replaced by the state-controlled Union of Soviet Artists while Stalin simultaneously oversaw the repression of previously celebrated artists. Revolution allows us to glimpse into this era as if we too were reflecting on fifteen of the most turbulent, dynamic, and politically influential years in history.
Artists, arguably more so than any other social group at the time, were caught up in the revolutionary spirit of the early twentieth century, and the multiplicity of works on display at the Royal Academy depicts a nation where any number of futures seemed possible. The Bolshevik government rallied its painters, poets, sculptors, photographers, film-makers, and creatives to imbue public significance into their work and assist in the transference of ideas to a predominantly illiterate mass population. From singing peasants to saintly leaders, ceramics to handkerchiefs, this is an expansive exhibition that covers a lot of ground. Upon first entering Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, one is struck by the stark red of the walls paired with Nikolai Tepsikhorov’s First Motto (1924) whereupon a grey and dreary backdrop in contrasted with a solitary comrade painting with a similar, vivid red on the famous “All power to the Soviets” banner (a reconstruction of which is draped on top). The sense of excitement for a new movement and a brightness against the bleak is really captured at the beginning of the exhibition: the revolution is new, fresh, full of optimism.
While the Bolsheviks managed to transform Russia’s future almost overnight they were still a minority within a country whose total population exceeded 140 million. The importance of visual ideological propaganda is at the core of the first room of Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, entitled “Salute the Leader”. The transition from Orthodoxy is demonstrated visually as icons of Lenin (and later Stalin) replace those of Christ. Another crucial aspect was the creation of consistency, forming a recognisable image of its leaders in order to consolidate the foundation myths from which the Soviet state could be constructed. Isaak Brodsky’s Vladimir Lenin and a Demonstration (1919) is a perfect example where the Bolshevik leader (a bit of an oxymoron but certainly a reality) is crafted to appear every part the leader presiding from a great height over the demonstrations taking place below. The most breathtaking image is a slightly more negative one than those that surround it: Kliment Redko’s Insurrection (1925), (see below). A diamond of fire similar to the mandorla that circles Christ in depictions of his ascension burns brightly at the centre. The picture thus takes on elements of a Christ in Majesty icon, where in traditional imagery Christ sits within a radiating oval shape on his ascension to the heavens. Lenin like Christ has his disciples – Trotsky and Stalin both made the cut – and the marching bands act as heralds. This divisive painting points at the thrill and triumph of the revolution, its awe-inspiring power at the tempestuous centre of an empowered movement, but also the terror and violence of shrinking, shadowy corners.
Behind the “All power to the Soviets” banner that greets each entrant, the reverse wall displaysa piece that depicts an artist in the process of a mourning-worship of Lenin after his death, namely Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Beside Lenin’s Coffin (1924). Salutation is now manipulated into devotion and worship as depicted in the cinema reels playing above. The combined use of cinema further adds to this atmosphere of devotion and worship as the intense sorrow of the mourners on mass emphasises an incredibly human response. Models alongside depict the grand mausoleum that would house Lenin (and still does) symbolising that despite the mortality of leaders, communism will be eternal.
As Russian art progressed towards Socialist Realism, many artists produced works in which citizens of the new state could see themselves mirrored as heroic workers, athletes, dedicated revolutionaries, or farmers, all working for the state. This transition is a feature of the exhibition’s movement from the first to second gallery. The celebrated individualism in the iconography of Lenin and Stalin unfolds when moving into the next gallery, “Man and Machine”, into uniform images of the wider population. Depictions of the healthy labourer combine with the power of machinery to create a superheroic façade (Stakhanovites of the world unite). This new ideal is not gender specific and in many ways celebrates femininity, as men and women are given equal representation within the factory setting. For example in Alexander Deineka’s Construction of New Workshops (1926) and Textile Workers (1927) female workers labour barefoot in neutral but effeminate dresses. While the title for this gallery might be “Man and Machine” there is certainly a new egalitarian approach towards depictions of the workforce as they are united through labour.
Progressing from depictions of a mobilised workforce, ideas are set out for a “Brave New World” where communist ideology not only governs this world, but other undiscovered and faraway worlds. Konstantin Yuon’s symbolic-allegorical painting New Planet (1921) highlights the socialist movement as unconstrained presenting an understanding of revolution on a universal scale. Other pieces of the Russian Avant-Garde, with influences from movements like Abstract Expressionism, mirror this image of the removal of boundaries for the inevitable revolutions. This is a search for a new progression into the future with art at the forefront. El Lissitzky’s life scaled model of an apartment for the Narkomfin (People’s Commissariat of Finance) Building from 1932 mimics this sentiment in it’s beautiful simplicity and modernity and, alongside New Planet, displays the internal optimism for creating a new world and a new way of living that pushes against the constrictions of the past.
Ceramics play a large part in Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932. These objects would have been far more fMILIr in the everyday lives of those living in Russia during this period and offer a somewhat alternative perspective on some of the artistic concepts portrayed in the grand sculptures and scaled paintings that dominate this exhibition. A tea set by Mikhail Mokh (State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, 1930) is embossed so as to depict metal workers in the process of heating steel, which it does with stunning clarity. A personal favourite is a large vase depicting a peasant dance by Ivan Ivanovich Riznich (State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad,1929), which captures on a larger scale the importance of community and tradition that still stood resolute in rural communities. It celebrates farmers and food production as workers dance to the sounds of an accordion. The real power in these objects come from their assumed simplicity, but their ability to translate important ideological statements into the everyday is a significant part of Russian art under the Bolsheviks.
Moving through the final phases of the exhibition, tensions become more and more apparent between the visions of optimism on display and the concrete facts and hardships of daily life. A reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s haunting glider prototype Letatlin dangles silently from the gallery dome surrounded by curved white walls. This piece is a stunning representation of aspiration and conquering the previously undiscovered, and as such it stands to demonstrate the extraordinary ambition of the revolutionaries of this period. The adjacent galleries however, “The Fate of the Peasants” and “New City, New Society: War Communism”, portray the reality of food tokens, starvation, and disease behind the propaganda posters, of an optimism fading in the face of constant hardship.
The last video that plays on the wall next to the exit is Destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow (1931) by esteemed war photographer and film-maker Vladislav Mikosha. The ornate cathedral consecrated in 1883 as a memorial to the defeat of Napoleon in 1812 is demolished before your eyes with explosives after being stripped of its old dome. As icons within churches had previously conveyed greater religious meanings, they were now made redundant. Banners, such as the one at the entrance to Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932, were intended to communicate these new revolutionary messages with decisiveness and strength. The once great church, now replaced by a humble indoctrinatory banner, is a powerful leaving message with links to the first room’s subversion of religious iconography. Now crushed like so many of the other pieces of the Russian avant-garde artwork within the gallery, the juggernaut of Socialist Realism starts to gather pace.
Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932 is on display at the Royal Academy until the 17th of April. More information can be found here.
 RA Catalogue, “Introduction”, John Milner, 15.