This survey of Russian art’s turbulent history between 1917 and 1930 opens an extraordinary range of material, much of it familiar, but it also contains some stunning surprises. I’m fairly used to rubbing shoulders with the works of the Russian avant-garde and I’ve seen enough socialist realist paintings to last me several lifetimes, but some of the stuff on show at the Royal Academy really made me sit up.
Despite the exhibition’s superb breadth and depth and its political honesty in chronicling the dark fate of many artists, there is one crucial question that the curators don’t seem to have asked: how much continuity was there between the utopianism of the avant-garde years that followed 1917 and the Stalinist utopian vision that came later. Were they really poles apart?
It’s a cliché to talk about this period of Russian art as one of extraordinary creativity, but it’s true. As a thought experiment while climbing the stairs at the Academy, try to think of any great works of British art created during the same 17-year period. Then plunge in.
The curators have taken as their starting point a big exhibition in Leningrad in 1932 organised by Nikolai Punin surveying Russian art since the Bolshevik revolution. With the exception of Kasimir Malevich and a few other figures, the avant-garde had already been marginalised and Stalin was shortly to decree socialist realism as the only acceptable style for art and literature.
The exhibition avoids any over-simplified narrative in which a glorious wave of revolutionary avant-garde art was suddenly halted and put into reverse in 1932. It recognises that the real story is a lot more complicated than that. This was a period of internecine warfare between rival artistic factions and individuals, wielding arguments of bewildering complexity in order to put each other out of business and compete for scarce patronage from the state. Some of the great innovators in Russian art, such as Kandinsky and Chagall, were already fully formed before 1917 and owed very little of their creative development to the Revolution. For others there was disillusionment – fast or slow – and exile in Europe. Even for those who embraced the brutal reality of Bolshevik rule, like Vladimir Mayakovsky, time ran out. He shot himself in 1930, by which time the avant-garde’s heyday was long over.
Rightly, the curators have struck a balance in setting the political context without too much bewildering detail, and have done their best to let the art on show speak for itself, while avoiding long explanations of the social differences between Lenin’s ‘War Communism’ and the New Economic Policy that followed for most of the 1920s.
There is no attempt to gloss over the repressive nature of the Bolshevik regime or to pretend that it only went off the rails when Stalin came on the scene. I found it instructive to examine my dusty copy of the catalogue of the pioneering ‘Paris-Moscow’ exhibition of 1979. This historic blockbuster show in Paris and Moscow first revealed the riches of the early Soviet period, but inevitably, coming in the Brezhnev period, fudged the political story in mealymouthed fashion to the extent of never mentioning Stalin at all.
One of the highlights for me is an extraordinary selection of silver gelatine original prints of photographs of artists and writers from the collection of Cologne art dealer Alex Lachmann. These pictures by Moisei Nappelbaum, Arkady Shaikhet and others are mostly new, at least to me. Among the other surprises are Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s rarely shown painting of the dead Lenin in 1924 – of which more later -- and a bizarre portrait of a near-comic Stalin by Georgy Rublev in which the dictator sits in a cane chair reading Pravda, a dog stretched out at his feet.
As in the original 1932 exhibition, Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin get whole rooms to themselves; the work of these artists is pretty familiar by now, though I found several layers of ambiguity and a depth of humanism in Petrov-Vodkin of which I was previously unaware.
One of the most engaging artists in this show is Alexander Deineka, whose work has hidden depths and an acute sense of pathos, with a touch of humour. He escapes the narrow categories of ‘avant-garde’ and ‘socialist realism’ while appearing to pay lip service to both. His ‘Textile Workers’ are vulnerable young women in skimpy cotton shifts rather than burly Stalinist shock workers . Their essential individuality shines through against a harsh factory background in grey black and white. Buried deep in the distance is a tiny scene that reveals Deineka’s true originality. Through the factory window we glimpse two cows driven forward by what appears to be a half-naked Indian in a dhoti. It’s too small to detect in the usual reproductions, but stands out when the original painting is seen close up. The same humanism is evident in Deineka’s ‘Construction of New Workshops’ which pairs another cheerful young woman in a cotton shift with the rear view of a much burlier woman labourer. As with the textile workers, they are both barefoot.
I was also struck by two paintings I had never seen before. The first is Vladimir Kuptsov’s ‘The First of May’ from 1929, a striking diamond-shaped pattern with an awkward-looking Lenin at the centre on a blood red background, surrounded by lines of automaton-like Bolsheviks. The second is ‘The Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat’ by Pavel Filonov, a blend of mystical geometry and blurred movement that seems to return to a medieval two-dimensional world.
If there’s something missing in this exhibition, it’s the perspective of art critic and philosopher Boris Groys, whose 1988 book The Total Art of Stalinism explored the continuity between the two utopias created first by the avant-garde and then by Stalin. Groys’s writing is dense and packed with paradox, but he’s on to something when he writes :
Under Stalin the dream of the avant-garde was in fact fulfilled and the life of society was organised in monolithic artistic forms, though of course not those that the avant-garde itself had favoured.
In other words, we should not be misled by the apparent difference between the styles of avant-garde art, exemplified by Malevich’s ‘Black Square’and socialist realism, which was also a utopian vision disconnected from reality. Groys criticises what he calls the ‘myth of the innocent avant-garde’ and highlights the fact that Malevich, at least, was no champion of diversity and pluralism. His own views on the absence of any creative rights for artists who did not subscribe to Suprematism were fairly totalitarian, with a chilling will to exercise power. Groys’s view challenges the prevailing art history perspective in a way this exhibition does not.
My second beef concerns the superficial way the curators have dealt with Petrov-Vodkin’s portrait of the dead Lenin, telling us that ‘it was unacceptable to show the leader dead’. This is highly misleading; the whole point of displaying the body of the dead leader in Red Square was to show him dead. But the mystique of the body was preserved in a unique way; Walter Benjamin’s ideas about mechanical reproduction were turned on their head and no photographs or paintings of the body in its sarcophagus were allowed, while millions of the faithful queued to see the original. Again I am indebted to Boris Groys for a better explanation of what is going on in Red Square:
The mummies of the pharaohs and other ancient rulers were walled up in pyramids and concealed from mortals – opening such graves was considered sacrilege. Lenin, in contrast, is on public display as a work of art…Lenin was from the outset simultaneously buried and displayed…Lenin’s body is revered precisely because the deceased has irrevocably parted from it.
On the RA website there’s a short clip in which curator Natalya Murray introduces Petrov-Vodkin’s painting and suggests that Lenin’s body was embalmed as part of a widespread hope that one day science would allow him to be brought back to life. It’s true that such ideas were current in Russia at the time, but there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that the Bolsheviks shared them. I have studied in depth the story of the body and how it was embalmed, and there was never any suggestion of Lenin being ever brought back to life. His brain and vital organs were removed before the body went on display. As Groys puts it, the display of the corpse is a way of ensuring that the dead leader’s cause can be incarnated by others. ‘It is meant to offer eternal proof that he really and irrevocably died and will not be resurrected, and that the only appeal that can be made to him is through the heirs who now stand upon his tomb.’