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On a recent visit to the Royal Academy, I noticed a tall, elegantly dressed man who spent quite some time admiring a square object attached to the wall. I wondered whether to tell him that far from being Russian avant-garde art, which was the theme of the exhibition, it was in fact the temperature and humidity control box.
Many visitors to Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 (until April 17) will recognise world-famous works of art by Soviet artists such as the archetypical red horse in Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Fantasy and Marc Chagall’s romantic couple in Promenade. A hundred years after the Russian Revolution, the exhibition explores the many strands of art that followed in its aftermath.
Avant-garde artists initially embraced the revolution and its creative and experimental potential. Orchestras were led without conductors, clothes were unisex, poems were composed in group settings, line by line. Sergei Eisenstein’s films are on display as well as photographs of Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Blok. In paintings, symbols of old Russia can still be found in Soviet art in the shape of melancholic onion church domes, while icons of Lenin replaced those of Christ.
By the late 1920s, as the Soviet Union became increasingly oppressive, Socialist Realism was promoted to make art easily digestible to the masses and an extension of the regime’s ideology. Groundbreaking artists like Kazimir Malevich, whose Black Square revolutionised the art world, had to paint more figuratively. Malevich did so but with an ironic touch: the people in his paintings don’t have faces.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, you can find Trotsky’s mug and a handkerchief with Lenin’s face on it. A series of propaganda paintings shows English capitalism represented by a man in a top hat standing in front of a factory. Such paintings probably seemed satirical to the Soviet intelligentsia, who would have to wait until the 1980s to be able to read fictional accounts of their lived realities in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and the book it heavily influenced, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Visitors to the RA will find another show dealing with the same era: America after the Fall (the fall being the Depression), including works by Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper. Communist Party members and fellow-travellers are well represented: Phoenix by O. Louis Guglielmi (1935) depicts a wasteland of factories and industrial pollution: a picture of Lenin propped up against a pylon in the foreground seems to advocate him as the saviour who will bring about a Communist solution.
The Russian show on the floor below provides a sobering counterpoint to such naivety or ignorance. A black room shows a series of photographs of artists, intellectuals, peasants and people from all walks of life who were being persecuted and often executed by Stalin’s regime at the same time as Guglielmi was romanticising the architect of the revolution. Still, the RA manages to strike a balance between the devastating oppression and abundance of artistic talent in the USSR.
Artists can shine a light on the truth in times of transient political regimes and economic depression, while art itself remains eternal — especially if kept at the right temperature and humidity.