Running from 11 February to 17 April, the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition ‘Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932’ houses a collection of beautiful, inspiring and varied art works produced in Russia during this momentous period of world history, with many of the pieces being on show in Britain for the first time.
Awe-inspiring images of revolution, such as Boris Kustodiev’s The Bolshevik (1920), depicting a gargantuan worker carrying the red banner aloft above crowds of armed proletarians, and Konstantin Yuon’s New Planet (1921), which evokes a scene of celestial bodies in upheaval, reminiscent of John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings of the 19th century, are present here, alongside examples of product advertising for the state-owned department store Mosselprom from the period of the NEP (New Economic Policy), produced by Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Whilst the artistic content of this exhibition undoubtedly has relevance today, in the year marking the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution, we find that, unsurprisingly, its curators have used the opportunity to obscure the messages contained in much of the art, and to divert the viewer from following the thought processes that many of the featured pieces might naturally direct one towards.
If we compare the treatment given to this subject by the artistic community to that afforded by the scientific community in ‘Cosmonauts – the Birth of the Space Age’ (curated by the Science Museum in 2015), the amount of anti-communist and anti-socialist vitriol put forth was considerably less in the latter, leading one to suspect that the chief aim of negotiating the loan of the paintings, posters and sculptures for the Royal Academy’s show was simply to have an excuse to attack and denigrate the historical achievements of the Soviet people during the period of socialist construction – albeit under the guise of providing a ‘critical appreciation’ of the art created during that period.
One of the most noticeable positions put across by the curators, which serves as the central ideological plank on which their opinions are presented, is that the flourishing of different styles and approaches to artistic expression, which were in large part inspired, and encouraged by, the Bolshevik party following the October Revolution, was effectively cut short and extinguished by Stalin in 1932, with the style known as socialist realism being enforced as the only medium through which to produce ‘official’, state-sanctioned art.
Leaving aside the simplistic and misleading nature of this assertion, it seems strange that the grand intellects of the art world, aware as they surely must be of the multitude of trends and fashions that have risen and fallen to make way for the new throughout all the years of European capitalist development, should be so affronted by a concept that reflects the ‘changing of the guard’ in a cultural sense; in response to new social conditions.
In some sense, it would seem that the art critics involved are simply incapable of grasping the meaning and value of the arts in general, when considered as existing in a society working to build socialism. This is perthaps understandable, being, as they are, separated from the specific period in question by over half a century in time, by barriers of bourgeois prejudice and by a wide gulf of ignorance.
However, if we were to assume that the curators do indeed possess the ability to comprehend the significance of the situation in which the art displayed was actually made – that of masses of workers, engaging collectively to effect a fundamental transition from one form of society to another, with urgency and force – then we must consider that the approach taken with the presentation of the art works has been contrived to present a very negative and gloomy portrait of socialism indeed, with an added emphasis on its supposed incompatibility with artistic expression.
What this makes glaringly obvious is the artistic establishment’s unwillingness to confront the fundamental differences between artistic works produced for a capitalist market, the producers of which are influenced in what they create by the trends and fashions in ascendancy at any given point, and the concept of artworks produced for mass consumption, and with the aim of both educating a vast population still in the tumult of revolutionary fervour and upheaval while also celebrating the bounding gains being made throughout this period in all spheres of life. The contents of this exhibition would serve very well to demonstrate these points, were they presented in a less hostile environment to the values and ideas they actually represent.
Take, for example, the following excerpt from one of the information panels featured in the exhibition:
“Stalin ruled by terror and millions of Russians died during his brutal reign. The photographs shown here document some of those who were persecuted during his so-called purges. Taken after the victims were arrested, the images are testimony to the horror that emerged under the Soviet regime and lasted until Stalin’s death in 1953. To crush any alleged anti-Soviet elements in society, he expanded the powers of the secret police, encouraged citizens to spy on one another and sent many innocent people to the gulag – forced-labour prison camps, mostly in Siberia … The victims included engineers, economists, politicians, scholars, writers, composers and artists, as well as thousands of ordinary citizens. Vsevolod Meyerhold, the great theatre director, was tortured and shot.”
This text adorns the outside of a large black box structure, situated in the last room of the exhibition before the exit into the gift shop, inside which is projected onto the wall in a video-loop assorted mugshots of people who were arrested on suspicion of counter-revolutionary activity during the 1930s … Which must rank as a particularly blatant, ham-fisted and shallow piece of anti-socialist propaganda, even by bourgeois standards.
What is really on display, of course, is the affronted privilege of an artistic establishment presently very comfortable in its well respected position within the existing social order, which shudders at the thought of being held responsible for effecting some degree of actual cultural and social development in society for the better, and would sooner weep tears for Caligula, had he allowed them to curate an exhibition of erotic sculptures, than submit their talents and expertise to the service and strengthening of socialism.
The theatre director Meyerhold, for instance, for whom their crocodile tears are shed in the tissue of lies reproduced above, had been aligned with the Trotskyist counter-revolutionary group of Bukharin and Rykov (exposed, with Bukharin, Rykov and others executed for treason, in March 1938), and was implicated in having forged links between Rykov and an English journalist from the Daily Mail, Fred Grey, who had been expelled from the Soviet Union in 1935 on espionage charges. Of course, Meyerhold’s counter-revolutionary activities are not mentioned, leaving visitors to draw the conclusion that he and others were executed simply for producing pretentious plays!
Likewise there lacks reference to the imperialist intervention in the civil war that followed the Russian revolution, despite the subject of the civil war being a key element to understanding the context in which some of the art was produced, not to mention the fact that the policies of the period were influenced greatly by such a hostile international situation.
Ultimately, what this exhibition actually showcases very well is the incapability of the arts in Britain to appreciate the great importance and value that was attributed to the arts in the Soviet Union during the period, and as such, does a great disservice to the memory and legacy of the artists whose work is contained therein.