Revolution: Russian art 1917-1932 review: A dense and difficult exhibition that rewards those who look beyond the red flags
Revolution: Russian Art marks the centenary of the momentous turning point in Russian history, the October Revolution of 1917, with a monumentally packed survey of the complicated, politically charged visual art up to the suppression of the Avante-Garde by Stalin in 1932.
The bright red first room, filled with propaganda and state-sanctioned Social Realist painting, will bring back memories of history lessons on Lenin and the Bolshevik party.
Artworks with Lenin as a cult figure looming above the masses are rarely cited for their inspiring technical quality, but they provide a fascinating exploration of the intricately complex relationship between politics and art, adding colour to a period that can often be dry and impenetrable.
Clever curation shows the artistic challenges of this period go far beyond the broad lines of Social Realism vs Avante Garde. Usually seen in exhibitions concerning themes of pure art – as opposed to history – it’s a revelation to view Kandinsky, Malevich and Chagall in this context, their works displayed alongside Supremacist ceramics (check out the teacup decorated with cogs), food coupons and architectural models (there is even a mock-up of an apartment for ideal living designed by El Lissitzky in 1932). The overriding impression is of the density of conflicting ideals and purposes of the time.
Monumental, extraordinary imaginings of industrial prowess and future prosperity contrast with nostalgic remembrance of the domes of traditional churches, or rural themes of village life. The state-sponsored ceramics such as twee sculptures of agricultural workers, contrast with sombre, folkloric paintings of the hardships faced by the peasantry, which illustrate the grim reality of Bolshevik agricultural policy and Stalin’s Five Year Plan. Following this, the hallucinatory works such as Chagall’s Promenade of 1918, which celebrated his delight following the Revolution, appear thoroughly moving.
The centrepiece is undoubtedly the recreation of Vladimir Tatlin’s constructivist glider, here twirling softly in the central room. Highlights also include the reconstruction of a display of 30 paintings by Malevich, originally shown in the state-sponsored Leningrad exhibition of 1930, a powerful alternative view to the purely academic hang by the Tate Modern in 2014, and an entire room devoted to little known Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, whose magical red horse in 1925’s Fantasy is a curious yet compelling piece. It is a dense exhibition, but necessarily so for so complex a subject, and one that will reward those taking their time to absorb.