Salute the leader – mask the masses?

Sally Marlow and Mike Thompson collaborate at an exhibition of monumental change.

What better way both to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and to offer an insight into how revolution changes countries, lives and cultures, than to look at the art of the period? Revolution also changes art and artists as they look towards the Brave New World, or try to find new ways to interpret the past. Many have argued that periods of intense and monumental social change can also bring unprecedented creativity, as all the rules are broken, and the radical and previously unimagined is embraced. The old ways of doing things are no longer any good.

Indeed, thinking about this period, the word revolution hardly does justice to 1917–1932. The revolution (two revolutions, if we’re to be accurate) may have started the ball rolling in 1917, but hot on the heels of the revolution came civil war, Lenin’s death, Trotsky’s exile, the New Economic Policy, the rise of Stalin, and his Five-year Plans, all of which impacted the lives of the Russians in different ways.  

One hundred years later, and in the spirit of collectivism, two comrades from The Psychologist visited the exhibition together: Dr Sally Marlow, Associate Editor of Culture, and Mike Thompson, Psychologist Sub-Editor/ DTP Designer, to see how Russian artists of that time interpreted and presented these monumental changes. We wanted to know what the art selected as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ by Russia herself could tell us about the nation at that time. What is more, would this exhibition in the Royal Academy reflect and illuminate Russia, her politics, her upheavals and her art, in terms of the pieces on display, but also in terms of its narrative?   

It’s important to declare our subjective interests here. It’s fair to say Sally is a naif when it comes to both the history and the art of this period, whereas Mike has more than a passing interest in both. Sally’s politics are left of centre, and Mike’s are left of Jeremy Corbyn. There was another question for us: Would the exhibition speak to us in different ways based on our preconceived ideas? And what, if any, would be the common ground between us?  

Certainly we agreed that there is little sign of revolutionary art in the first room ‘Salute the Leader’, where rather predictably red walls provide the setting for a series of portraits of mainly Lenin, and several of dead Lenin at that. Forgive us if we’re wrong, but didn’t Lenin die in 1924, seven years after 1917? Trotsky was notable by his absence, his image literally cut out of the corner of a handkerchief in one exhibit. Some of the paintings had hints of religious iconography about them; others were decorated porcelain with an almost folksy feel to them, following in the footsteps of long-held Russian artistic traditions, but not exactly revolutionary. In fact, the art in this room was more reminiscent of the type of work that tends to spring up around dictators – the Cult of Lenin, if you will.

Whereas no one would deny that Lenin was absolutely pivotal in this period, it seems strange to enter an exhibition that takes as its starting point a revolution, yet it doesn’t begin with art reflecting that revolution, or even art that sets the context for that revolution – Mike pointed out there was nothing of ‘land, bread and peace’, and the mass involvement in the ‘festival of the oppressed and the exploited’. Mike also placed a nagging thought in Sally’s head… the Russians were well-known for their use of art as propaganda, but could the curation of this exhibition itself also be a form of propaganda?  

We moved on. It was clear that in the early years after the revolution there was no single state-imposed acceptable art. Debates raged between various schools and styles of art – from the relatively conventional figurative painting of Brodsky, to the demands by Constructivists, such as Lyubov Popova, that easel paintings be abandoned. Mayakovsky’s 1921 stencil ‘Blacksmith’ showed us literally how the leadership of the Bolsheviks urged artists to use their art as a hammer to shape the new world. Alexander Deineka’s ‘Textile Workers’, 1927, is in direct contradiction to the images of iconified leaders, depicting superhumans with steely determination to fulfil this month’s production quota. This painting is almost futuristic, with its android-like women and its spotlessly clean factory. In yet another contrast, Mike noted the complex and innovative formation of Pavel Filonov’s 1920–1921 oil painting ‘Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat’, which is much more open to interpretation. He read it as showing the process of individual interest and concerns beginning to come together into a collective, moving from being a class in itself, to being a class for itself.

The artists of the avant-garde exploited this diversity and lack of prescribed structure, and this exhibition tries to capture that by dedicating a room to a recreation of a 1932 government-sponsored hang of 30 works by Malevich. It includes a version of his famous ‘Black Square’ (first shown in wartime Petrograd in 1915, but little mention that this work was created pre-revolution). The Malevich room is impressive in its scope, but hard to fathom. Malevich had been denounced by the Soviet authorities in the late 1920s, as in their view his abstract work failed to express social realities, however by 1932 he was back in the fold. Some have explained this by pointing to his later paintings of farm workers with blank faces as being more representational, but their interpretation is open to question – lost identity, or symbolic of unity?

More avant-garde comes in the shape of the recreation of a Tatlin bike/plane. This work hangs alone, suspended from the ceiling like an enormous prehistoric bird of prey, and the irony of what was a prototype of a worker’s vehicle suspended in the semi-darkness in a room sponsored by Maurice Wohl (British businessman and philanthropist, born co-incidentally in 1917…) is lost.

Other works of note include Boris Kusotdiev’s 1920 oil painting ‘The Bolshevik’, used as the image to market the exhibition overall, and which has been described variously as comic, lumpen, treading on the workers, emerging from the workers, and as the workers. Konstantin Yuon’s 1921 tempera painting ‘New Planet’ creates a sense of empowerment, continued through to Alexander Samokhvalov’s 1928 ‘Tram Conductor,’ showing each trolley worker, man or woman, could be a superhero. If you go to this exhibition looking for the big names advertised though, be warned – Chagall is there, but with only two works, and Kandinsky with one.  

The revolution pushed the idea of making art accessible to the masses into a reality. Vladimir Mayakovsky urged artists, ‘Art must not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere – on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops, and in the workers’ homes.’ Mike felt the curation seeks to return the vibrant living art of the Russian Revolution back into a dead shrine – and to seek to ensure it does not spread, gives it an entrance fee of £18!

For Sally there was one work that above all else shows the confusion of this exhibition. The Room of Memory is a perfectly good installation, a box inviting visitors to sit inside it and see photos of some of the victims of Stalin during his purges. The audio guide talks about how these images are testimony to the horror of Stalin’s regime, and it is a moving display of human lives destroyed, lost and wasted. However, it felt out of place here. It is not an installation that was created during the period. Nor does it focus exclusively on the persecution of artists or those in the art world – we saw nurses, engineers, economists and ordinary citizens. Plus we are back again to problems in the timeline of this exhibition – the Great Purge, the most extreme of Stalins’ purges, was 1936–1938. It begs the question, what was the Room of Memory there to do? Educate? Inform? Manipulate? Whatever the answer, it perhaps belonged in another exhibition, not this one.  

This exhibition not only took as its starting point the Revolution, and the period of 1917–1932, but also looked for inspiration to an enormous exhibition of revolutionary art held in Leningrad in 1932, where 2640 works of art were displayed. The RA has tried to capture some of that size and scope, but we are left with something that didn’t feel cohesive. Admittedly, Mike as an admirer of much of this period, by his own admission may have been unable to look at the exhibition objectively: for him the sense of continuity the curators tried to impose on the exhibition undermined the sense of liberation of the period. Sally on the other hand came to the exhibition as a veritable tabula rasa, but left confused. Following a linear narrative is often frowned upon in curation – it’s seen as the safe option, and somehow lazy, or as not properly engaging with materials and context. However, a themed exhibition spanning a period where many extraordinary things happened surely demands a coherent narrative.  

We left feeling we had seen some outstanding works of art, but that our appreciation was despite the curation, not because of it. Go to see those works, but take your time, don’t be led by the curation. It might be unusual to end with a quote from someone else’s review, but in the Winter 2016 Art Quarterly Professor John Milner wrote ‘Artists including Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, Rodchenko and Popova seized power, turning the storm of the revolution into Europe’s most radical experiment in art and society.’ This may be true, but somehow this exhibition doesn’t quite capture it.
 
The exhibition runs until 17 April. See www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/revolution-russian-art

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