Royal Academy set to storm barricades…

Art and auctions, Exhibitions, Paintings and Sculpture — By on July 14, 2016 at 10:06 PM
Bolshevik, 1920. Oil on canvas. By Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery.

Bolshevik, 1920. Oil on canvas. By Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery.

Royal Academy set to storm barricades with new exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932

By James Brewer

Relations between the UK and Russia are thriving – on the artistic level, in contrast to the political embargoes that have disrupted trade and investment.

The latest example of cultural co-operation to be unveiled is an ambitious exhibition to be staged at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in February 2017.

The academy will present Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, featuring more than 200 works, including a selection that will be seen in the UK for the first time. It will mark the centenary of the February and October revolutions of 1917, but even without this motivation would stand proudly as a celebration of a period of the highest artistic fecundity.

VI Lenin and Manifestation, 1919. Oil on canvas. By Isaak Brodsky.The StateHistorical Museum, and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO.

VI Lenin and Manifestation, 1919. Oil on canvas. By Isaak Brodsky.The State Historical Museum, and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO.

Generous blessing from two of the big lenders – the State Russian Museum of St Petersburg and the State Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow – alongside material from private collections has ensured the show will be a tremendous attraction. “I cannot stress too much how co-operative the two major museums have been, ” said Tim Marlow, artistic director of the Royal Academy.

Despite government-to-government tensions, for cultural institutions there has been a very fruitful period, said Mr Marlow, referring to initiatives such as that of the former British Museum director Neil MacGregor and his Russian counterparts in celebrating British art in St Petersburg,

Natalia Murray, one of three curators of the Revolution exhibition, added: “At a time of political difficulties, cultural diplomacy is very important.” Dr Murray, of the Courtauld Institute in London, is sharing curatorial responsibility for the new exhibition with Royal Academy curator Ann Dumas, and John Milner, professor of the history of Russian art at the Courtauld.

Textile Workers, 1927. Oil on canvas. By Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. (c) DACS 2016.

Textile Workers, 1927. Oil on canvas. By Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. (c) DACS 2016.

Revolution will chronicle the rich flowering of art and experiment that marked 1917 – “the barriers were opened and the possibilities of building a new art for the Soviet state were extensive, ” said Ms Dumas – until the clampdown of 1932 as Stalin launched a reign of terror to persecute and murder independent and even loyal playwrights, musicians, actors and artists.

Art and literary groups were disbanded in favour of rigidly-controlled artists’ unions. Intellectuals conformed or fled, as did their opposite numbers in Germany as the Nazis condemned ‘degenerate art.’

Part of the output of the Soviet post-revolution years is known to aficionados in the West, but the academy says that this will be the first time that the avant-garde and socialist realist movements will be shown together in the UK.  The intent is to “survey the entire artistic landscape of post-Revolutionary Russia, encompassing Kandinsky’s boldly innovative compositions, the dynamic abstractions of Malevich and the Suprematists, and the emergence of Socialist Realism, which would come to define Communist art as the only style accepted by the regime.”

A Cup for Serving Tea, 1931. Porcelain. By Lyudmila Protopopova.The PetrAven Collection.

A Cup for Serving Tea, 1931. Porcelain. By Lyudmila Protopopova.The Petr Aven Collection.

A sub-theme although woven into the general strands of the exhibition will be the frequent depiction of women as strong and capable proletarians, with their nominal rights of equality under the constitution. Among fascinating porcelain pieces is one by Natalia Danko (1892-1942) Woman Worker Making a Speech from 1923.

Ms Dumas said that for the British public there would be a great deal of discovery “of really wonderful artists whose names are not so familiar here. The exhibition is partly modelled on a landmark exhibition put on in Leningrad in 1932 by the prominent art critic and curator Nikolai Punin.  His aim was to show the tremendous diversity of art from the first 15 years after the revolution.” That 1932 exhibition spread through 33 rooms at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad.

Dr Murray said that the first section (under the title Salute the Leader) of the Royal Academy show would examine Lenin’s rise to power and cult status, his death, and the rise of Stalin.  Art and the media had assumed great importance, because in 1917 the communist party had only 350, 000 members and had to use mass propaganda to disseminate and establish its ideas. Film of Lenin’s lying in state will be shown, and a less-than-flattering portrait of Stalin that was hidden until after his death in 1953.

Promenade, 1917-18. Oil on canvas. By Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. (c) DACS 2016.

Promenade, 1917-18. Oil on canvas. By Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. (c) DACS 2016.

Prof Milner said that the avant-garde embraced the 1917 revolution as rapidly as it could.  There were no commercial galleries or small-scale museums, so avant-garde artists broke out of their introspective states and studios and took politics on board.

Personalities lionised today stepped in to help Russia match overseas cultural attainments: it is little known that the pioneer abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a founder-director of the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow, an instigator of museums and a leading light in education generally, although after a while it was clear that his spirit was at odds with trends in the new regime, and in 1921 he left for the Bauhaus in Germany.

Artists were keen to be identified as workers, partly for personal advantage, for when food rationing was introduced, this entitled them to twice as many coupons as they would be entitled to as a so-called member of the bourgeoisie.

Symbolic of the new status of women was a 1927 oil painting Textile Workers by the prolific Alexander Deineka (1899-1969) who went through several stylistic changes in his career. His juxtapositions of humans and machines are stark and powerful. In The Defence of Petrograd,  painted in 1928 by Deineka we see the comings and goings of an operation that salvaged what would have been a lost cause but for the intervention of the Red Army chief Trotsky, whose role was blanked out by his nemesis Stalin.

Blue Crest, 1917. Oil on canvas. By Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Blue Crest, 1917. Oil on canvas. By Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum,
St. Petersburg.

The exhibition section Man and Machine will focus on proletarian worker heroes – both women and men whose physical effort revived industry ravaged by civil war and who harnessed technology – triumphantly recorded in painting, photography and film.

Poster boy for the entire exhibition is the giant commissar who strides among the people who are about to storm the capitalist state, as depicted by the 1920 oil painting Bolshevik, by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev (1878-1927).

Kustodiev had before the revolution been a star pupil in the studio of the famed Ilya Repin at the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, studying sculpture and etching with other masters. He was steeped in Western European genres, from his time in Paris, Spain, Italy, Austria and Germany. He took inspiration from the failed St Petersburg uprising of 1905, and despite illness which partially paralysed him, his themes are forward-looking and optimistic. The versatile artist stamped his imprint too in the fields of stage design and book illustration.

The Royal Academy will dedicate one of its galleries to more than 30 paintings and architectural models by Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935).These works will be seen together for the first time since 1932 in an exact reconstruction of the original hang designed by the artist for the Leningrad exhibition.

Malevich, who earned international renown for his simple Black Square symbolising one side of the new art, had deep concern about his fellow man, in particular the fate of the peasants.

Ann Dumas (left) and Natalia Murray.

Ann Dumas (left) and Natalia Murray.

This latter aspect is addressed in the exhibition section Brave New World which treats of the shocks to centuries-old rural ways of life. At the time of the revolution, 80% of the population of Russia had been peasants, and the party was always suspicious of them. Stalin subjected them to brutal collectivisation of their holdings, with accompanying chaos, famine and reprisals. A 1930 work by Malevich is dominated by images of two peasants whose faces are blanks.

On the other hand, farm life was idealised in such works as Chairmen women of the Kolkhoz in 1932 by Grigory Riazmskii, another tribute to purported emancipation and which emphasised the conflict between the old and the new.

Malevich called his abstract compositions with their distinctive colouration Suprematism. Among some marvellous ceramics will be a coffee pot and inkwell decorated in this style, from 1923 by Nikolai Suetin (1897-1954), a graphic artist at the state porcelain factory and a disciple of Malevich.

Chagall (1887-1985) was comfortably into his stride, and in The Promenade from 1917-18 he celebrates the joy of marriage, his feet firmly on the ground and holding on to his wife Bella floating gently above his head.

John Milner.

John Milner.

The exhibition section Eternal Russia will show the persistence of images of traditional Russia persisted and were appropriated for revolutionary purposes, exemplified by the painting Petrograd Madonna by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939). He will have a room dedicated to his work.

The section New City, New Society will concentrate on changing life-styles, and the diversity of social impacts of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, an emergency reversion to some capitalist norms, in the 1920s.

The final section is described as Stalin’s Utopia, based on his grandiose projects and vision of progress, a grim counterpoint to his 1m-plus victims executed or sent to the Gulag. Illusions fed to the outside world are represented by images such as the oil painting Girl in a T-shirt, 1932, from Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971), the gaze of the subject, who wears a boldly striped shirt, set firmly beyond the frame. There are illustrations for what was at 415 m to have been the world’s tallest building, the Palace of the Soviets topped by a statue of Lenin, from designs of the winner of a competition, Odessa-born Boris Iofan (1891-1976). Work was begun on the skyscraper, but the outbreak of World War II meant that the steel foundations were torn out and diverted to military efforts.

The academy says that a representation of the human experience of the time will include a full-scale re-creation of an apartment designed for communal living; and everyday objects such as ration coupons, textiles and porcelain.

November 10 2016 will see the premiere of the film Revolution, New Art for a New World,  a documentary drawing on the collections of Russian institutions, testimony of descendants of Soviet artists, and contributions from contemporary artists and performers relating stories of Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich and others. It has been made with the support of Russian businessman and philanthropist Alisher Usmanov, founder of the Arts Science and Sport Charity Foundation.

The exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32 at the Royal Academy will be open from February 11-April 17 2017, from 10am – 6pm, except Fridays when it will be open until 10pm.

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