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Saturday, 2 September 2017

'REVOLUTION: RUSSIAN ART 1917-1932' 1: THE NEW ICONOGRAPHY

Royal Academy, London
The first of a two-part look at (an inevitably already closed) exhibition, this instalment on what was self-avowedly revolutionary in Russian art of this era



“Like the chewed stump of a fag, we spat their dynasty out”
- Mayakovsky

Art All Anew

They’re strong words in that show title, but accurate ones. The Revolution changed art in Russia. It changed art around completely, and it did it at a stroke. Here’s how...

Check out Camilla Gray’s ’The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922’and the first name mentioned isn’t an artist but a patron, Savva Mamontov. We need to get three pages in, past a few more patrons, to come across the first actual artist. There are patrons who get as much space devoted to them as artists.

And how could it be otherwise? The mind lends itself to images of Modernist artists starving nobly in garrets, while busily being ahead of their time. But back then the only viable alternative to having a wealthy patron was to be wealthy yourself. And we shouldn’t stereotype these collectors as a necessary evil, as moneyed philistines after bling to hang. They could be quite deeply involved in the movements they championed. Another patron, Sergei Shschukin, requested Matisse completely change the colour scheme of what became ‘Harmony in Red’ to better fit his dining room. But he also opened his own house to the public every Saturday, from where he promoted the most advanced forms of Modernism.

Indeed it could be argued that they took to Modernism not despite but because of itself. It more accurately reflected their culture, the dynamic world of the merchant and industrialist over the old certainties of the aristocracy. Mamontov was a railroad magnate, and both the railways and Modernism connected the otherwise isolated mother country to the rest of Europe. Modernism’s growth in Russia merely reflected the growth of the middle class, and it’s a romanticisation of ours to imagine anything further.

Nevertheless the revolution of 1905, if a failure in itself, was a short in the arm to art. And 1917 went on to prove a gamechanger. In that very dawn it was exciting to be alive, but to be an artist was very bliss. Provided you weren’t a heavy eater...

The prognosis might not sound good. Artists were at a stroke deprived of the seeming life blood of their patrons, unable to exhibit privately, officially labelled bourgeois and so given the most meagre of already meagre rations. With art production effectively nationalised, the only thing they had to rely on was the state. And, creatively at least, they flourished.

Mia Lobanov-Rostovsky, a “noted authority on revolutionary ceramics”, commented how porcelain designers would work not only long hours but, due to food and fuel shortages, on empty bellies while in coats and mittens. Yet “they later remembered it as an exciting and exhilarating time... and they managed to express some of that excitement in their work.” (’Royal Academy Magazine’ 134, Spring '17)




Two exhibits exemplify this, a ration card adorned with bright Modernist designs and a still life of a plate of rationed food. Kuzuma Petrov-Vodkin’s Still-Life With a Herring’ (1918, above) is painted as if all he had to eat was all he had to paint. There’s a lot of empty cloth on that table. But rather than a protest against meagre rations, it’s the perspective of a man who has looked forward to this humble repast all day. Which only makes it more poignant. 


Alastair Sooke comments in the Telegraph “the picture is imbued with a fervent, almost luxurious spiritual intensity that is at odds with the austerity of the meal.” You can almost imagine the artist saying a secularised prayer of thanks over it. At the time there wasn’t even enough canvas to go round, so the work was done on oilcloth.

And this was because you got those rations simply by registering as an artist. At this time you were effectively at liberty to do what you wanted. The field was open. Anyone who chose could enrol in art college, while exhibitions were often open access. But there was more than giving everyone a level playing field. New art now went with a new society. Art seemed not just to be changing in synch with society, there was even a positive feedback loop between the two. In April 1918, very soon after the Revolution, Lenin announced his Plan for Monumental Propaganda. Modernists could even hold rank in this brave new world, the same year Tatlin becoming head of the Moscow Department of Fine Arts, and Rodchenko head of the Museum Bureau.

And this sense of your role having a social function is vital. I remember with some fondness the days of using the dole as a social wage, for whatever artistic or political avenues you were minded to pursue. But the act of claiming it always involved the pretence that what you really wanted out of life was wage labour, even when that was mostly lip service. This situation is quite different.

The artists who most readily took up Lenin’s call for monumental propaganda were the Futurists. (Though they weren’t the only group, as we’ll see.) Their heady mix of Italian Futurism, Cubism and Dadaism had led to them being widely seen as wastrels, fantasists and attention-seekers, the antithesis of seriousness. Now, convinced the tomorrow they agitated for was finally emerging, they found in themselves a resourcefulness as endless as their energy. They laboured not just on artworks which spread the revolution but on the means of spreading them, of traversing the huge realm of Russia.

Trains were festooned with revolutionary posters, their insides converted into mobile libraries. The Maxim Gorky plane, the largest of it’s day, contained a rotary press for leaflets to be printed then dropped, a lab to develop photos taken in flight and a cinema screen to be unfolded on landing. Kashican and Kolesnik even designed shells which would unleash not explosives but revolutionary propaganda leaflets.

Yet though their enthusiasm drove such endeavours the truth, inevitably, was shabbier. For a population speaking different languages or simply illiterate, spread over so vast an area, only the image was going to spread the word. Yet there was an irony. They were never truly in favour with the Bolsheviks, who saw their antics as suspiciously bourgeois. At the time Lenin resolved to work with the artists he had rather than the ones he wanted. “Art for me is a just an appendage”, he confessed, “and when its use as propaganda – which we need at the moment – is over, we’ll cut it out as useless: snip, snip!” Arguably, problems were being stored up even from that early point...

The New Icons



Nikolai Terpsikhoron’s ’First Motto’ (1924, above) depicts a darkened grey room, illuminated only by a small window in the upper corner. Yet the banner being painted is vivid scarlet. Similarly, if the high window makes it look more a basement than a garret, the basic stove plonked arbitrarily suggests an artist’s simple hovel. Yet the painter is anonymised, in a hat and coat, his head bowed. The classical statues around him go ignored. Instead he paints letters on a banner, hardly art that needs the hand of an artist.

My Russian is just good enough to tell me the banner says “All Power to the Soviets”. (Oh alright, the show translated it.) It’s a similar effect to Eisenstein’s red flag raised in a black and white film, in ’Battleship Potemkin’ the following year. Or the bright orange of the book on the Spanish Republic in Clive Branson’s ‘Noreen and Rosa’ (1940), as seen in the Pallant House show on the Spanish Civil War. Even as the work’s a painting it’s actually of a banner, and the naturalistic rules of painting become subservient to that banner.




Boris Kustodiev’s ‘The Bolshevik’ (1920, above) recycles the red banner, this time as a perpetually unfurling ribboning flag, taking up the width of the picture. If we were to imagine it realistically we’d have to conceive that it was miles long. Again there picture contains one element jarring against an overall naturalism, this time a giant – taller than many of the buildings – leading the masses. His flowing scarf, though not itself red, further associates him with his banner. This titular titan is placed against the minaret of an orthodox Church, effectively placing a humanised figure against a depersonalised power system. (The Church representing how Tsardom was perpetuated by ideology, superstition and so on.) It’s the Godzilla versus Mecha-Godzilla of revolutionary iconography.

But why have the two things, the giant personification of Bolshevism plus the large crowd around his feet? Why do we need both the masses and their symbolic representative, this team-up of all the Davids with their own Goliath? Delacroix’s pictorial tribute to the uprising French, ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1830) also used a emblematic, flag-waving figure. But he merely centred the figure in a realistic image. Whereas Vladimir Kozlinksy’s propaganda poster ’The World Revolution Proceeds With Gigantic Steps’ (1920) portrays a red giant, but silhouetted and with no attempt at placing him in any kind of setting.

But that rupture is part of the point. It’s that friction which makes the image striking and dramatic. It has the depth of field, the detail of a painting, yet at the same time the impact of a poster. (It’s striking enough today to have been made the poster image of the show, see up top.)

It’s inspiration may have been more local. Peasant and religious art remained influential upon Russian Modernism, something we’ll come onto. And folk art commonly assigned size not by scale but by importance. Yet here it’s not Jesus, not a Patriarch, not a Tzar, not even Lenin but a Bolshevik.

But the combination also suggests that Bolshevism leads the workers, rather than is something of them. While that billowing red flag, contrasted to the blue of the minaret, suggests the man is not so man-like after all and that Bolshevism is one ideology set against another. Over in the Yankee imperialist West, Superman has often been described as a flag with a man attached, due to the fetishisation of his cape. And this brobdignigian Bolshevik seems similar. Delacroix painted his crowd full size partly to convey plurality, an alliance overcoming difference which had swelled the revolutionary’s ranks. Kustodiev’s masses are little more than dots.




Isaac Brodsky’s ’Vladimir Lenin and a Demonstration’ (1919, above) again shows a giant figure alongside the masses. Though this time we’ve moved from the big Bolshevik to his boss, Rook to King. And Lenin sits calmly, looking statesmanlike, a contrast to that mighty striding Bolshevik. But his outstretched hand is near the opening in the red (yes, again) curtain, and so near the amassed masses. This could fairly easily have combined into a naturalist scene. Just paint a window and the masses passing outside it. But the extent of that ruffled curtain seems there to obscure that possibility. Which throws the emphasis still more onto the proximity of arm and masses, as if they move at his command.



‘Beside Lenin’s Coffin’ by Kuzma Pretov-Vodkin (1924, above) was painted shortly after Lenin’s death. Again the work is ostensibly realist even as it pushes one element to the foreground, again it finds an area to give a generous application of red. This time it could, with some violence, be subject to naturalistic perspective. Though Lenin’s head looks about the same size as the nearest man’s torso, leaving him looking more like a horizontal statue than a dead man. Overall, the composition looks naive and slightly awkward. The plant given such a central position, part obscuring the funeral crowds, is particularly odd.

Lenin’s body was put on display in a mausoleum, and is there to this day. People talk about the iconography of Lenin secularising religion rather than abolishing it, and no doubt rightly. While significantly Petrov-Vodkin had previously studied Russian icon painting. But this work has a strange relationship to that tendency. While mourners could go and look at Lenin’s body, and did so in their thousands, painting it was a different matter. In fact, this work was not publicly shown in it’s day.



Then in contrast to all of that we have another work by Isaak Brodsky - ’Lenin in Smolny’ (1930). Despite being an official portrait it uses none of the elements previously described. It shows a humanised Lenin in a casual pose, not at the centre of the composition, his face semi-shadowed in such soft lighting that it recalls the Flemish Renaissance. The show talks of it giving the viewer the sense they could walk up and sit alongside him. It’s a humanised Lenin not a titan or icon, depicted more in the way you might expect Tolstoy, a major break with the way we imagine revolutionary iconography to have portrayed him.




‘Demonstration on Uritsky Square’ (1921, above) is again by Boris Kustodiev. It’s of a May Day parade but unlike ’The Bolshevik’ the only giants are the buildings. The base of an unseen statue is cropped by the framing, giving the composition a sense of verite. There’s red flags again. But the crowd spills around the base, not arranged into ranks or types. Several are close enough to be individuated. Every work up to now I related to the art history or politics of the Russian revolution. While this reminded me of actual demos I’ve attended in London, sometimes passing close by the Royal Academy, that feeling of masses teeming beneath monumental architecture.

”Let’s Mechanise”

Russian revolutionary art is of course well known for making the factory into a subject, just as the peasants at their labours had been. Russia’s rush to industrialise was so acute that working in a factory was almost seen as a revolutionary activity in itself, and came to be celebrated in art.

In fact the striking thing about Ekaterina Zernova’s ’Tomato Paste Factory’ 
(1929) is how similar it is to the direct revolutionary art of above – an arrangement of figures around a central red block. True it it doesn’t really have naturalistic elements, to the point its whole colour scheme is blocks. But that virtually glowing red still dominates. Only one worker is given a face, which is impassive – they’re effective ancillary. This factory makes tomato paste and revolution.

But there was an important new element to factory art. The Russian Futurists disdained previous Modernist movements as unworthy of the name, as never having really broken with Romanticism. To them, nature was now out, mysticism was now out. Theirs was a machine age and they were to make the art of the machine. Their art championed and reproduced mechanisation, not only of the factory but the newly collectivised farms. The title to this section is stolen from Alexander Deineka’s painting ’Let’s Mechanise Dombass’ (c. 1930).


You can see the trajectory they took through two works. Natan Altman’s ’Russia. Labour’ (1921, above), an assemblage of geometric abstract objects on a mahogany panel, seems typical of the transitional stage from painting. It looks back to Cubism, but instead of fractured it’s neat and smooth. It’s not of a machine but it could be some kind of a blueprint. Works of this era often have dynamic and semi-mechanistic names, such as Popova’s ’Space-Force Construction’ (1921).


As painting came to be abandoned, this led to works such as Rodchenko’s photo ’Steering Wheels’ (1929, above) with it’s slightly fetishistic close-up of machine parts. Human figures tend to be ancillary to the machines, less workmen than onlookers, or even absent. (More was said on this transition after the Academy’s earlier ‘Building The Revolution’ show.)


Pavel Filonov’s ’Tractor Workshop at the Putilov Factory’ (1931/2, above) again recycles the circular motif of wheels and gears, but more bizarrely. Particularly in the lower part of the picture the workers’ heads jut out between the tractor parts. With their impassive, virtually interchangeable faces beneath identical caps, they look like they have become parts themselves. Yet the image is otherwise realist, with perspective and naturalistic lighting.


Alexander Deinka’s 'Textile Workers' (1927, above) perhaps pushes the bar still further with mechanisation. Here the human figure is dominant, but it’s not life as we know it. To our modern eyes with those whites and neatly gradated greys, it doesn’t look like a painting so much as a piece of vector art, somehow transported back in time. While distant cows moo past the window, the women look less workers in a factory than aliens from a passing UFO. The image looks strangely weightless, as if taking the sweat out of labour. The central, barefooted figure could almost be floating. It, if inadvertently, conveys the sterility of seeming utopias in a way much Seventies science fiction would do. (To the point where whiteness would become a shorthand for it.)


And if it feels the worker is either a subsidiary figure or semi-mechanised themselves, later images would show more of a partnership between man and machine. But not, alas, for the best of reasons. Arkandy Shaiket’s photo ‘Komsomol at the Wheel’(1929, above) recycles Rodchenko’s wheel motif, but with an important distinction. Instead of focusing on the machine he places an idealised worker at the highest point in the composition, biceps flexed as he gazing boldly into the distance. While Isaak Brodsky’s ‘Shock-Worker from Dneprostroi’ (1932, below), though a painting, is similar in composition and effect – the worker stripped manfully to the waist, raised on a platform.


As Brodsky’s title makes clear these are ‘shock worker’ images, themselves associated with the Five Year Plans which had begun a year before Shaiket. Sometimes called Stakhanovites, after one of their more famous brethren, they were held up as model workers who laboured hard to raise production.

Moving from the streets to workplace, the brobdignigian Bolshevik became replaced as the icon of the revolution. It was now the muscled man in a cap, preferably brandishing a lump hammer. He represented a new race of super-workers, almost synthesised with the machine. (“We grow out of iron” Alexsey Gastev asserted in 1923.)

And they go alongside images of the greater militarisation of labour, such as Georgi Zelma’s photo ’Red Army Soldiers By Power Cable’ (1931), with it’s comparison of bayonets to power lines. Now you were expected not just to follow in his mighty footsteps but work as hard as him. The shock workers were the school prefects of counter-revolution. It’s underlined by the ceramic plate from the State Porcelain Factory, decorously adorned with the slogan ”he who doesn’t work doesn’t eat”.

Overall, and inevitably enough, hindsight makes clear that the Futurists never really broke with the Romanticism they disdained. Artists such as Turner had already depicted an ‘industrial sublime’, which perceived the new machines precisely as though they were not social products but outside forces rearing up at you – trains flying towards you through the mist.

And we see all that here. Things had moved from Altman’s machine aesthetic to Rodchenko’s aestheticisation of the machine. Like the gestures of a stage magician, the gears and pistons of the machine are merely showy accompaniments to the central act of magic. The viewer is not unlike the peasants, show in Eisenstein’s ’Old And New’, 1929, (clip below), an awed audience in euphoric wonder at the workings of the machine. It’s just become the new mysticism.



And arguably that’s inevitable. Art aestheticises by definition, so in many ways taking an anti-aesthetic direction was just self-confounding. But then, as said many times before, Modernism can be seen as a series of fascinating failures.




Another related direction is what could be called ‘meta productivism’ - works which do not metafictionally draw attention to their form, such as a picture pointedly being enclosed by it’s frame, but to their production. For example Andrey Golubev’s textile design ’Red Spinner’ (1930, above), features as its the design the textile machines which made it.

Similarly the films of Dziga Vertov often made their subject their own making, sometimes starting with their budget money being counted out, even featuring their being shown to an audience. His ’Man With a Movie Camera’ (1929, still below) stated in it’s opening credits it’s intention as “the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature." (Compare to the f/64 photography group from the ‘Radical Eye’ exhibition.)



Here the mechanistic fetishism jumps from the machines to their society. Walter Benjamin embodies this attitude in his famous 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction’: “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie.”

This is materialism, but a crude deterministic materialism - in fact, a mechanistic materialism. The cinema turns out a different audience to the theatre or the art gallery, just like the factory turns out different products to the artisan’s workshop. Technology changes and in turn this changes us. Technology, in short has an a priori relationship to humans – it makes us. The main role of human agency in this story is either to pervert or to go along with what would otherwise be a linear development, Soviet Russia sailing the wind while Fascist Germany strives to row against it.

And its materialism isn’t Marx’s. Indeed, Marx had said: “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself needs educating.”

But just to make the machine the new subject of painting, or even to make art with the new equipment such as photography or film, seemed to many to be inadequate. Constructivism arose, seeing itself as a terminus station in the journey of Russian Futurism. It traded in all the flamboyant costumes, shock events and general weaponised outrage. Its new and more sober mission was to reverse the modern separation between art and science. Artists were now designers, inventors and engineers. They were now to wear overalls, not smocks.




And perhaps the leading Constructivist was Vladimir Tatlin. The show recreates one of his gliders, ’Letatlin’ (1932, above), punning on his name and the Russian word for ‘fly’. Tatlin intended this as a serious project, calling it “a worker’s flying bicycle”. Most commentators go with the line that, as it never actually flew, it acts as a symbol for a revolution which never truly flew either. And indeed projects of the time were often more imaginative than practical. The Maxim Gorky plane mentioned above crashed during its demonstration flight.

On the other hand, when Da Vinci’s blueprints never reached fruition he’s just described as ahead of his time. And the show even suggests the glider was influenced by him, which is perhaps most telling of all. Constructivism was the strand of Russian Futurism which saw technology not as a given, but as something created by the wit of man. But it saw that man as the genius inventor, who was merely sublimating his genius for the good of his fellows.

But there’s a reason why Renaissance men happened in the Renaissance. Technology had already moved on from that stage. Innovation now required consolidated work, building on the back of prior innovation. And Tatlin if anything jealously guarded his projects, rather than throwing them open to groupthink. He was an artist who fancied himself as an inventor.

And yet, what an artist he was! ’Letalin’ is well displayed, in an otherwise crowded show given it’s own room to spin in, where it casts shadows like a giant Calder mobile. 

But perhaps what’s remarkable about it is how machine-like it isn’t. It’s made not from metal but ash wood and is quite biomorphic, based on studies of bird and insect skeletons. If anything it looks back to the way flight was conceived before the engine. And in contravention to every received image we have of this era it’s individualised, imagining private transport taking to the skies in flurries, not public air buses. This elegant glider seems a world away from Filonov’s factory of human parts, while it’s likely they were actually worked on concurrently.

If it never fulfilled the function it was intended for, then it’s a superlative work of art. And perhaps it even needed that strange genesis to be what it is. It hits you with such a powerful aesthetic sense in and of itself, yet seems to have no interest in anything but function.

”Enemies Surround Us”

Reader, please note this next part is the political bit with strives to put the art into context, and so will lack the benefit of pictures or conversation. You can skip it if you like, but citizen if as a result you later end up before a People's Tribunal you can't claim I didn’t warn you. (The section title this time is Mayaokvsky’s, from a 1921 propaganda poster.)

Let’s lay some cards on the table. It seems evident enough that the Bolsheviks hijacked a revolution they had little part in creating. Lenin’s return to Russia did not precipitate events, it was in response to something which had taken the Bolsheviks by surprise. They’d previously theorised that ‘undeveloped’ Russia was unready for revolution. And despite this jolt to their vanguard mindset when they did take control they still wanted things done their way.

As early as 1921 Alexander Blok had died, heartbroken by the failure of the revolution, an event the exhibition pinpoints as the turning point. And arguably that was the year any genuinely revolutionary hope went, with the brutal suppression of the Kronstadt revolt. Or perhaps we might pick the year before, when, after allowing the Black army (also known as the less catchy Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine) to fight the Whites, the Reds turned on them when they won. Both significant events but both, alas, too late.

The true turning point was the Spring of 1918, with the introduction of “one-man management”. The party who had rallied under the slogan “all power to the Soviets” now unceremoniously stripped that power away. From that point factories were taken out of the control of workers’ Soviets and handed to Bolshevik appointees, often the pre-revolutionary managers returned.

As Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit put it: “the Russian Revolution had triumphed over the forces of external reaction only to succumb to the bureaucracy the Revolution itself had engendered… while the revolutionary party retained power, the working class itself lost it; that it was their own Party that defeated the workers, and not the classical forces of the counter-revolution.”

It’s often been observed that the Bolsheviks would justify their rule by claiming the workers lacked true revolutionary consciousness, while the truth was almost precisely the reverse. Turns out, it was the people going round shouting “counter-revolutionary” at everyone else who were the real counter-revolutionaries. Who’d a-thunk it?

And in this struggle art was essentially weaponised. The red flag in the grey environment, the giant Bolshevik leading the masses, both juxtapositionally shoehorned into an otherwise natural picture, are potent visual metaphors for ideology, ideas untrammelled by mere actuality. Some outside ingredient needed inserting into the picture to galvanise the revolution and that ingredient was Bolshevism.

But we need to face something less palatable. The Kronstadt uprising was not a solitary event, but neither was it a microcosm of the general situation. Mostly, it was an exception to the rule. It was the workers’ Soviets who were the backbone of the revolution. And mostly they simply surrendered control when told. As a tiny group in a vast country, barely present at the outset of events, the Bolsheviks could scarcely have seized power. Mostly, they were handed it.

Though when saying this we should be wary of over-ascribing credulousness to the workers. And besides, how did the Bolsheviks themselves come up with their ideology? To suggest they were merely scheming and evil is the stuff of melodrama, not history. (Anarchist accounts of the revolution often suffer from this.) ‘The Bolsheviks betrayed the revolution’ may be accurate as a statement, but it’s incomplete as an explanation unless you then go on to ask ‘what made the Bolsheviks Bolsheviks?’

What needs considering is the specifics of the situation. Firstly the Soviets had not, for the most part, been built at the behest of any political group, but had arisen organically when needed. (Sometimes you can’t help but feel that the Revolution took everyone by surprise, even those most actively involved in it.) Which can have an up, but also a downside. It meant that when the Bolsheviks showed up with their rehearsed narrative any response needed making up on the fly.

It’s even possible the Bolsheviks were, in their own narrow sense, right. You don’t need to read too much history to discover that nation states dislike revolutions happening in their neighbours, to the extent they’ll go all out to prevent them. Most countries had seen uprisings after the First World War, and most saw them suppressed. The prospect of widespread if not global revolution, then that prospect being snatched away, is the most central issue in Russian revolutionary history. Revolution being overturned became a likely, perhaps the most likely, scenario at the time. While, particularly with the war with the Whites, death stalked the streets through disease, cold and hunger. Things needed stabilising and quickly.

The only way to ensure the Revolution remained successful was to redefine success. Like the American Major in the Vietnam war who helpfully explained “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it”, the Bolsheviks saved the Revolution. But revolution being undermined from within had become the only alternative to it being destroyed from without.

More widely, the Bolsheviks’ overly schematic conception of history came to look like an advantage, as it seemed to offer an explanation of and route map out of the problems faced. In Russia the inevitable revolution had arrived early, when industrialisation was only beginning, and so faced much the same problems as a premature birth. It needed incubating, it needed special doctors. True emancipation would come later.

All of which meant the workers themselves were no longer the subject of the Revolution. It was now all about the plan. The Party was there to tell them the plan, and they were there to implement it. It didn’t matter much whether they fully comprehended it or not, they just need to know it was there. And if that seems reassuringly familiar it’s because that’s the relationship a wage labourer has to a capitalist under capitalism.

The notion that capitalism ended when planning began was then widespread. So the plan itself seemed interchangeable with communism, an ordering of things in opposition to the free-for-all ‘anarchy’ of the market. Lenin, later followed by Stalin, became the proverbial Man With the Plan. Like the Bible to an orthodox Christian, the Plan became the book of answers which could not be questioned, the book so important as to require guarding by the clergy.

And the art reflects all that, the confusion and the grasping at seeming certainty, like a barometer responding with volatility to volatile weather conditions. Life is never neat and you might not expect it to divide easily into Bolshevik and libertarian factions. But it’s beyond that, everything is hopelessly entangled. Ideological and aesthetic systems collide as often as they align. Kustodiev painted both the obediently led workers of ‘The Bolshevik’ and the unruly mob of ‘Demonstration on Trotsky Square’. Lenin is both trans-humanly powerful, unsmitten even by death, and a simple man sitting on a simple chair.

But above all, with the fetishisation of the machine comes the fetishisation of the plan. Art gives you a choice how you work on it. You can make extensive preparatory drawings, which then get executed in the realised work. Or you can splash paint on a canvas and wait for something to emerge. A machine allows for no such choice. It must follow its blueprint if it’s to function. Yet at the same time the machine doesn’t have to be understood by it’s operators, just attended to. They know there was a blueprint, even if they don’t know what it is. And in this way the machine becomes a kind of synecdoche of the plan. The icon which replaced Russian Orthodoxy was less Lenin’s face, however often that was reproduced, it was more the plan.

Coming soon! 
Well, that was the front line. But what was going on at the fringes..?

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