Revolution, Russian Art 1917-32 at The Royal Academy

The “Petrograd Madonna”, 1920, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.

In one part of the Royal Academy was can see the artistic response to Great Depression in America and the mixed emotions with which American artists depicted their country at a time of great trouble (see here). In another part we see the equivalent response of Russian artists to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Formula of the Proletariat of Petrograd, 1920-21, Pavel Filonov. Like Petrov-Vodkin, Filinov is largely unknown in the west. There are several of these strange almost hallucinatory pictures in the exhibition.

Revolution, Russian Art 1917-32 charts the extraordinary creativity and modernism of Russian artists as they responded to the revolution of 1917 and the subsequent constraining of that art as Stalin demanded that sole purpose of the art was to act as a propaganda vehicle for the state. The last gasp of creative individualism was, surprisingly, a state exhibition celebrating ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, after which all avant-garde art was suppressed. The sole arbiter of artistic taste and values was the Union of Soviet Artists that shaped art into a narrow, conforming school called Soviet Realism.

Blue Crest, 1917, Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky and Chagal were amongst the first to realise that the revolution would suppress not encourage artistic freedom. They rapidly made their way abroad.

Between 1917 and 1932 was a period of remarkable exuberant creativity as artists generally celebrated the revolution and what they wrongly saw as an opportunity to create a new, modern and artistic culture. The exhibition features both the well-known artists of the period like Malevich (well exhibited in London recently, see here), Kandinsky and Chagall. But I was most interested by an artist I had not previously known, Kuzma Petrov-Wodkin. Like artists of the period he was able to travel to Europe and absorbed not just the modern Impressionists but also early Renaissance painting. His painting the Petrograd Madonna is heavily influenced by Giotto and others and is to me one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Peasants, 1930, Kazimir Malevich. This image of faceless peasants on a collective farm was a quiet protest of the sort that would quickly become impossible. Malevich’s reputation was such that he warranted a room of his own in the 1932 Exhibition but this was the end of his dissent.

It is a large exhibition, and the exhibits are of uneven quality. But the story it tells is an interesting as it depressing.