Friday 8 September 2017


Royal Academy, London
(A sequel to something started here)

“The Bolsheviks could not have retained power for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years, without the most rigorous and truly iron discipline”
- Lenin

The Peasants Are Not Gruntled

On reaching this show’s ’Fate of the Peasants’ section, smartly hung so it’s the first work you encounter, Boris Grigoriev’s ’Land of Peasants’ (1917, below) gives the most guarded of welcomes. There’s the golden corn fields, stretching over the horizon, which would later become a staple of socialist realist kitsch. Yet they’re placed to the back of an elongated frame, with a whole lot of figures arranged between us and them. Three adult faces, abetted by two children, push themselves to the front of the composition, not in bright peasant colours but black, white and brown. Hands clutch implements tightly enough to make fists.

While his ’Old Dairy Woman’ of the same year abets the title character with the large horned head of a bull, one lot of leathered skin not looking dissimilar to the other. In their slightly reserved welcome, the images aren’t unlike Grant Wood’s ’American Gothic’ (1930), simultaneously shown in the Academy’s other gallery as part of ‘America After The Fall’.

And how could it be otherwise? Despite the Bolsheviks’ reassuring symbol of the Hammer and Sickle, promising the peasants partnership, it was the factory worker who was considered the revolutionary subject. The peasant was an unfortunate necessity, often seen as suspect if not an active obstruction. Ideology was so strong people would dismiss the peasants even as their bellies rumbled.

This relationship is accurately if inadvertently summed up by a dish of a peasant girl, designed by Elizaveta Rozendorf in 1920. The head of it’s nominal subject is caught in the side dip, semi-obscuring it and instead throwing the focus on the pumpkin she carries. It’s oversized, almost as wide as her arm is long.

At best the revolution would be brought to the peasants, intact and fully formed, allowing them to climb aboard. Check out the clip below of Dovzhenko's ‘Earth’ (1930). They’re almost unmoving before the tractor arrives, as if the country was some pre-revolutionary purgatory and all that was good and new came from the city.

While Grigory Ryazhsky’s ’The Collective Farm Team Leader’ (1932, above) portrays that tractor-based collectivism once in place. As with the revolutionary images we saw last time, it’s centred round a central block of red. But this time it’s not only naturalised but has softer oranges and yellows radiating around it. This probably stems from being painted date, actually the final date in the show’s span, when the anti-formalism of socialist realism was ascendant. But it was anti-formalism only of a sort. There’s something almost heraldic about the tractor at her shoulder, and the labouring peasants arranged around her.

But not only was Russia primarily agricultural, the combination of revolution and war with the Whites had increased the rural population, as many fled the impoverished cities to go back to the land. And the peasants, meeting mistrust with mistrust, would often resist the enforced collectivisation and “requisitioning” of their grain by hiding or even destroying their crops. This only increased after June 1918, where conscription to fight the Whites was enforced on pain of death.

But once things had been very different. It wouldn’t be too much of a generalisation to say that Russian art had divided between those who wanted to take up an international Modernism versus those who wanted to immerse themselves in an indigenous folk art. Seen one way, that distance to Paris was vast. Seen another, that space was actually a treasure trove brimming with unique art history. (Older readers may remember my waxing more about this after the ‘From Russia’ exhibition, staged at the Academy almost a decade ago.) Things had begun to change only in the years leading up to the revolution. And much of the old attitudes remained.

Certainly Symbolist painter Mikhail Nesterov painted ’Philosophers’ (above) during 1917, as if none of the events going on about him had registered. The two philosophers stand, sombre and static, clearly intended as metonyms of Russia. They don’t seem to look at the landscape. Cut off at the knees by the framing, they seem more plantedin it – as much as the trees behind them. The wooden walking stick aids the comparison.

It’s quite likely the Futurist artists would glower to be hung in the same space as this. Yet in it’s stillness it’s a companion piece to those industrial Futurist works – the way an opposite bookend can be seen as a companion piece. And besides, it’s simply a great painting, in that it not only conveys all that it intends but seemingly without even trying.

Marc Chagall, meanwhile, makes for a good example of the fusion of these approaches. Though Belarus born, he had moved to Paris and only been back in Russia after the First World War had made a trip home permanent. His ’Promenade’ (1917/18, above) is not sombre or ordered, assuming some eternalised tradition, but possessed of great vivacity and abandon. He was recently married and the two figures are believed to be the happy couple. The male figure clutches a bird in one hand while the woman flies in another, suggesting the symbolism of folk magic. The dome of the Orthodox Church behind them completes the picture of the idyllic Russian village.

Similarly, the prologue to Grigory Kzointsev and Leonid Truberg’s film ’The Youth of Maxim’ (1935, above) is not of a static peasant past like Dovzhenko but captures the wild rush of a sleigh ride. After an initial blur of lights the camera settles aboard the sleighs themselves, cutting sharply from one to the other.Mixing it up, a car can be seen among them. The music, though based on polkas, is by Shostakovich.

But perhaps the most telling way the peasants were depicted were the two runs by Malevich. As recounted after the Tate show dedicated to himMalevich originally evoked the peasant as a symbol of the Russian soul. However by the time of his (not entirely voluntary) return from abstraction the type had become a contentless form. In ’Peasants’ (1930, above) faceless faces peer back at you, the plain behind them featureless save for bands of colour.

Notably, the show comes up against the same problem as I did after that Tate show, in working out the balance between intent and forced circumstance at work. It states “blank faces hauntingly evoke lost identity on the collective farm”, as if the work’s a quiet protest. But then adds “these were Malevich’s attempt to conform to the Soviet dogma that required art to be representational.” Whichever, perhaps the two were snapshots taken of a work in regress.

And speaking of Malevich...

Permission to Deviate

One nice feature of making an exhibition so all-embracing, so concerned with spanning the breadth rather than searching for the through-line, is that it captures works which would have passed through the clutches of more focused fingers. This next section’s on the mavericks – the artists who saw their activity as enabled by the Revolution, and may even have cheered it on, but without the same sense of being in service to it. To them, it just gave them permission to pursue their own path as far as it went.

Malevich is a classic example of an artist who would have been horrified to hear he’d been consigned to maverick status. Not only did he see his art as very much in step with the Revolution, in his teachings he persuaded many to agree with him. (In contrast to the ostensibly similar abstraction of Kandinsky, who was back in Russia-revolution but often had his teachings dismissed as irrelevant and “bourgeois”.)

You might think that after being the subject of an entire Tate show, Malevich was a done subject. Not so. Like the Tate show, duplicating one of his contemporary exhibitions proves a masterstroke, this time the 1932 retrospective ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’. (They did love their catchy titles.) A photo of the original exhibition is below.

Malevich’s work doesn’t just seem to benefit from being shown as a group, it even starts to look like one great meta-work just made up of individual components. With the Suprematist works arranged symmetrically behind some of his architectrons (which impressed me little when seen in isolation), the whole thing does look remarkably like an altar. And the three central Suprematist paintings look designed to be shown in this arrangement, one aligning right and the other left.

Malevich claimed he was painting in his Suprematist style two years before he’d exhibit anything, which given the speed of change at the time seems bizarre. The most likely answer is this, he understood this need for them to not be seen singly but as a group.

It was common for artists of the era to either design for, or have their works copied onto, everyday objects such as plates or teapots. This was seen as one way to bring art to the masses, and perhaps was more effective in the days before the exit-through-gift-shop was doing a roaring trade in such things.

However, perhaps as proof of Malevich’s maverick status, when the State Porcelain Factory put his work on plates the result is merely jarring and ineffective. His art aimed at the ineffable, and became trapped when pinned to objects in this world. The Design Museum’s ’Imagine Moscow’ exhibition (coming up, honest) commented that Malevich was influenced by his contemporary Pavel Ouspensky, who propounded esoteric theories of a fourth dimension beyond our perceptions.

Pavel Filonov (who briefly appeared in the previous instalment) may have been something of a fellow traveller to Malevich. Both actively supported the Revolution, even though their own art was essentially mystic in nature. Except where Malevich envisaged other dimensions, Filonov saw our reality as one level in a picture simultaneously bigger and smaller.

We tend to think of the human head, representing both individual identity while forming one of the most basic shapes, as one of the those irreducible ‘building block’ of art. Yet with Filonov’s ’Heads (Human in the World)’ (1925/6, above), we can only show a detail for the whole thing is remarkably intricate. (A larger, complete version of it lies here.) The heads, though never realist, vary in detail - some are completely cartoony. At first glance they seem to be arising out of a geometric lattice. Yet the points where the lines bisect often become frames for still-smaller images, as though the heads are themselves a mass of tattoos. While at one point the background shows quite a naturalist scene, of a red-roofed shack out in the woods.

Some reviewers compared Filonov’s works to fractals, yet no elements really recur. Filonov himself called it “universal flowering” or “anti-Cubism” - a form of Cubism uninterested in surface features but inner elements. The show suggests a metaphor for time, saying “his images seem to emerge from the flow of memory, representing ancestors, folklore and urban groups”. Certainly the emphasis on heads suggests Filonov is talking about what constitutes us. But the notion’s probably too narrow. Instead we need the shamanic conception of ‘the web without a weaver’, where time, space and scale are assumed to be not just interconnected, influencing one another, but indivisible parts of one integral tapestry.

Unlike the always accomplished Malevich, Filonov was closer to an outsider artist. Remarkably he manages to keep ’Heads’ explicable by reducing the colour scheme and pushing some elements so boldly into the foreground. There’s a kind of tipping point, where we only recognise the work’s complexity at the moment we find ourselves getting lost in it. However, at other times he simply indulged his obsessions without such consideration for the viewer. ’Formula of Spring’ (1927/9) offers no way in to it whatsoever.

After the ‘From Russia’ exhibition, I’d dismissed Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin as a mere copyist. And it’s true that, though they gain more attention, his ‘revolutionary’ works such as 'Fantasy' (1925) or ‘Death of A Commissar’ (1927) just look odd and off. His influences were more Russian icon painting, Western Renaissance and Post-Impressionism than the seemingly de rigeur Russian Futurism. As the show says “ultimately his art is metaphysical rather than political, a reflection of the human spirit and the cycle of life”. It's Petrov-Vodkin’s portraits and still lifes which sing.

We effectively saw this last time with the contrast between ’Still Life With a Herring’ (1918) and ’Beside Lenin’s Coffin’ (1924). But let’s add to the mix ’1918 In Petrograd (Petrograd Madonna)’ (1920, above). Ironically, conditions in Petrograd were probably at their worst in the year between when the work was labelled and painted, when the city was besieged by the Whites. But they were not a picnic at any point.

There’s a strange dichotomy between the work’s apparent subject and where your attention goes, like one of those family snapshots which just happens to catch the Twin Towers being hit in the background. Those amassed and yet strangely isolated figures at ground level pull at your attention, but Petrov-Vodkin is all about the saintly figure on the balcony. The blue of the building which frames her is a very Renaissance touch.

Ironically it may be Petrov-Vodkin’s lackings as a political artist which saved him when the shutters came down in the Thirties. In 1932, as Malevich and Filonov languished in official disapproval, he was appointed President of the Leningrad Regional Union of Soviet Artists. There was simply no sinning Russian Futurism to beat out of him.

Konstantin Yuon had once been an Impressionist artist, which seems a long way from ’New Planet’ (1921, above). You could match this work to the regular Revolutionary iconography examined last time, with Kustodiev’s brobdignigian Bolshevik and the minaret replaced by planet-sized symbols. We see the red planet coming in towards the earth, the masses flocking to it, as the yellow one recedes. (Blue and gold are the standard colours of Russian Orthodoxy, so maybe yellow could be made a stand-in.)

Yet those rays of light seem introduced precisely to screw with the simplicities of the colour scheme. And more importantly, with so vast a scale, that reading would seem reductive - as well as blind to the work’s tone. Kustodiev's Bolshevik is raised into a giant, but remains human against the minaret. There’s nothing human level here. It could be described as cosmic but there’s also something eschatological to it, as if the historical forces of the time were as remote but as powerful in their effects as the gravitational pull of nearby planets. The Royal Academy magazine refers to it’s “euphoric energy”, (no. 133) but “convulsive” would seem closer. The figures mill this way and that, in some combination of hope and fear. Many raise their hands as if hoping to climb aboard, others simply run away.

Time To Stop Play

With both the Russian Futurists and the mavericks, when they thought they finally tasted freedom it was in fact their last gulp of air. But perhaps it was always the crisotunity of Modernism to live the most in the most interesting times. There’s only one other place which can rival Russia in the whole history of modern art. (Let alone Modernism.) And that’s Germany from the same era. And the people there didn’t have much of an easy time of it either.

Alas, times managed to become uninteresting without getting easier, and they did it fairly soon. The show separates the Revolutionary days from the Stalinist era via an appropriately long corridor. As we’ve seen, the 1932 exhibition ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’ still included Modernist work. But in April of the same year the Union of Soviet Artists formed, to enforce Socialist Realism. The Great Purges of 1936/8 saw no reason to exclude artists from their ranks of those they imprisoned, exiled and killed. Nikolai Punin, who curated the ’Fifteen Years’ exhibition, was among them. Filonov became so marginalised that he simply starved to death.

To say art was censored in Stalinist Russia is perhaps too feeble. It wasn’t about a list of things you couldn’t say, because instead there was a list of things you should say, that you were obligated to say and with instructions on how to say them. The resultant Socialist Realist kitsch was a glut of bad taste. It reeks of that fake pine freshness smell they put in cleaning products, the better to mask the smell of the gulags.

The way everything is so overwhelmingly jumbled together in such a cacophony is at once the success and the failure of the show. There’s perhaps too much of an emphasis on painting over posters and films, with the latter displayed as something of an afterthought – the films in particular were often hard to see. But this also means you can catch a little... a very little... of the heady feeling of the days it depicts. You'd stand in front of something like a classic Kandinsky, then think “must press on, more to see”.

Which means no review can possibly be comprehensive, but must inevitably settle for scattershot. Like the recent Abstract Expressionism show, only more so, everything is thrown in rather than reduced to a neat narrative. Like that show, it often throws up names brand new to me, and this time from an era I fancied I knew something about. The Russian Revolution will stay with us for a long time yet.

Coming soon! Meanwhile back in Soviet Moscow…
Coming sooner! Probably something else...

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