ArtIssue 21

The Skeletons of Birds

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932, Royal Academy, London

11 February 2017 — 17 April 2017

Between 1928–1932, Vladmir Tatlin, the so-called ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ of Russia, designed a flying machine. The glider hangs in the one of the last rooms in this momentous exhibition, rotating slowly, nearly scraping the floor. Inspired by the skeletons of birds, it comprises a beautiful wooden frame decked in canvas, and has giant curving wings. Letatlin was imagined as a kind of ‘worker’s flying bicycle’ that would launch ordinary people into the skies. And it is so un-aerodynamic and poorly designed that it never left the ground. As a metaphor for the Russian revolution, it is apt – initially visionary and exciting, in the end impractical, earthbound, doomed.

This exhibition covers the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power in 1917, which heralded an outpouring of creative fervour among Russian artists; this fervour concluded when Stalin’s Socialist Realism was enforced in 1932 as the only permitted style of production, and as many of the earlier artists wasted away in the gulags – the terrifying forced labour camps that existed in the harsh snows of Siberia.

From the moment you stride into the first room, the walls painted a rampant red, portraits of workers both lusty and faceless spring from the walls as their subjects spring into action with hammers and tools. Amongst them is Isaak Brodsky’s Shock-worker from Denprostoi (1932), posed in the painting like a classical statue. ‘Shock-workers’, preceding Stalin’s veneration of the same ideal as ‘Stakhanovites’, were workers presented with awards for extreme efforts of labour. Aleksandr Deineka – the artist whose style went perhaps most unchanged throughout the period – venerates similarly dull ideals in Textile Workers (1927), where androgynous women handle ghostly ovals and oblongs in a flatly shaded futuristic factory. Through the window, a brightly coloured cow is herded, into the past. “All this steel gives me a hard-on”, my companion remarked; it seems that the sense of energy and optimism stirs the visitor’s blood as much as it did the communists’.

But a hard-on can be hard on its retainer, and from the beginning the strain shows. History is neatly excised from Nikolai Demkov’s 1924 Kerchief with Portrait of Lenin; this large handkerchief has a portrait of Lenin at its centre, and a hole at the bottom left from which Trotsky’s was cut out after he fell from favour. Along with this humble handkerchief this exhibition includes the most fantastic array of humble homeware designed and decorated by artists, from the abstract Suprematist teacups of Kasimir Malevich – made from the seized china of the Tsarist porcelain factory – to the carved Soviet insignia of trinket boxes – replacing the old Russian icons. The debate of what constituted “art for the people” rumbled on. Studded throughout the rooms are also objects offered for more directly political interest: ration tickets; propaganda posters; a photograph of a child in front of the half-loaf of bread that is her only food, when grain quotas led to wide-scale famine. History is allowed, importantly, to intrude into this exhibition. The art and the politics come hand in hand, or hand in glove.

Most surprising is the evidence of the continued flourishing of abstract works well beyond the revolution of 1917, jostling shoulders with Socialist Realism well up until 1932. Here, the room Malevich arranged at the 1932 Soviet art state art fair is lovingly re-created; a famous variant of Black Square is scarcely noticeable when stacked amidst other angular paintings. But it’s hard to square Malevich’s notion of abstract art – ‘Suprematism’ – and its total absence of figuration with other Soviet styles, and this exhibition doesn’t try to offer explanation. Instead, the viewer can compare the faces of his Peasants (1930), that offer shaded black and white ovals with no features or expression, their angular red triangles for bodies, standing stock still in a striped farmed landscape, with the rippling muscles and healthy pink skin of idealised labourers. Although none of that work is shown here, by 1933 Malevich was also forced to migrate to the Soviet Realism style of those healthy hefty happy workers (and as millions of those same peasants were executed or starved to death). His 1933 self-portrait (also absent) is also done in such a figurative style, but signed with a tiny black square as a mark of rebellion. The tragedy of this particular room extends beyond Malevich’s natural death in 1934. After decades of arrests and narrow escapes in 1949 the energetic curator of that state fair exhibition, Nikolay Punin, had been sent to the gulag for calling paintings of Lenin ‘tasteless’. The colossal waste of life and artistic talent that sits behind it gives the whole exhibition a sense of delayed melancholy.

One of the most outstanding artists in this exhibition is Pavel Filonov. In his pulsing, fractal work Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat (1920–21) a sea of figures within figures comprise a swarming city crowd. He believed in a concept called ‘Universal Flowering’, in which objects should be built from small particulars up to the general picture, elaborated with fine paintbrushes. The effect creates an organic, fractured surface, in which individual figures and faces can be seen as parts of an overwhelming whole. A perfect style for Socialism, one would have thought. His Collective Farm Worker (1931) gives you the inevitable disappointment of the revolution – a brooding old peasant; weathered face picked out in blue swirls; eyes sad and vacant. Collective farms were seen as ‘the end of the world’ by peasants, enforced ruthlessly by Stalin, who deported any farmers who resisted off to die in Siberia. The region of Ukraine once called ‘the bread basket of Europe’ produced so little wheat that eleven million people died of famine in 1932–33. In protest Filonov refused to sell his paintings and subsisted only on black bread and tea while working eighteen hours a day; he eventually starved to death in the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1941.

The sickly sweet greeting card sentimentalism of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Boris Kustodiev feels like the off note in this exhibition. It reminds us that no matter the upheaval of the present, there is always the temptation of toxic nostalgia to bury our heads in an idealised past. Here rosy cheeked children fly off snowy sledges, horses canter in harnesses, and onion domes soar next to cobbled streets. Perhaps it is a suitable palate cleanser to prepare us for the sobering ‘Room of Memory’,a darkened chamber within the final gallery showing photographs of those sent to the gulag, who stare out at us across the intervening years. By the end of this exhibition, most artists featured had either fled in fear, or been sent to the gulag,or been murdered.

What stays with me from the final room is the figure of Vsevolod Meyerhold, an experimental theatre director and actor. Early on in the exhibition, he flickers on film, jerkily alive, performing his completely new system for actors to reproduce emotions through gestures and actions, known as Biomechanics. In 1917, he had enthusiastically embraced new Soviet Theatre and joined the Bolshevik Party. By 1930s, his art had been suppressed and named as alien to the Soviet people. By 1941, his wife had been stabbed to death and Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and executed by firing squad. The Soviet Union’s fall echoes his, moving from bold imagination and revolution to a dead land, devoid of experimentalism, crushed under control. This exhibition does a brave job of curating a huge quantity of diverse works and artists across a tumultuous time period, offering a dizzying sweep of Russian art in the time, but the harsh facts of politics and oppression only occasionally break through, when, in reality, they poisoned everything.