Visitors to the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932’ are greeted by a red banner with emblazoned gold-lettering announcing ‘All power to the Soviets.’ Surrounded by dour images of Lenin and Stalin, the exhibition-goer can be forgiven for initially thinking they have wandered into some nostalgic’s dusty tribute to the once great “Party”.
But the Royal Academy’s presentation defies expectations. Visually stunning, if thematically confused, the sprawling exhibition presents a succession of rooms with no apparent thread between them. Some galleries are organised by theme (production, peasantry), with others by artistic current (for example, the avant-garde). A gallery dedicated to a single artist (Malevich) is followed by galleries that are organised chronologically (War Communism, New Economic Policy).
This curatorial confusion mirrors the contradictions that lie at the heart of the revolutionary period. At once the abolition of a five-hundred-year-old autocratic regime as well as a ruthless party’s rise to power, the tumultuous arc of the revolution is reflected in the art it produced.
In the ‘production’ room, visitors will find works created in the service of the Revolution, and most closely aligned with the Soviet period: happy proletarians building the shiny communist future.
Which is not to say that they are without artistic merit: Boris Ignatovich’s ‘Generator’ (1929) is a striking black-and-white photograph depicting the mechanism of a piece of industrial machinery – a bold departure from portraiture or idyllic scenes of nature. Aleksandr Deyneka’s factory paintings combine realistic figures with near-abstract scaffolding.
The high point of ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932’ is found in the gallery dedicated to the avant-garde. The bold colours of Kandinsky, Chagall, and Matiushin stand in stark contrast to the sombre portraits at the exhibition’s entrance. These works announce the abandonment of figurative art in search of an expressive language that is inspired by the Western cubism, but unique to the Russian climate.
The decomposition of the objective perspective is birthed by a society that has been thrown into political upheaval. But the mood is not decadent – it is utopian. Pavel Filonov’s labyrinthine landscapes — a jumble of fine, coloured lines — resemble the topographic map of a future city.
Kandinsky’s melodic abstractions are an attempt to bypass the object to communicate directly with the viewer. In ‘Blue Crest’, a 1917 piece created on the eve of the revolution, the urban motif recurs. The centre image is of a mishmash of constructions in vivid blue and yellow hues. The night-time darkness in the top left-hand corner contrasts with the light in the opposite right-hand corner.
“A grand transvaluation of values is now taking place as if one of the greatest battles between the spirit and matter were about to begin,” Kandinsky wrote in a 1910 essay echoing the Messianic tones of the revolutionary Marxists who announced the end of the old society and the impending birth of a new global order.
But if Kandisnky’s artistic direction, with its associated spirituality, was ultimately at odds with the materialism espoused by the Communist party, other avant-garde artists aligned themselves more closely with the Bolsheviks.
Matiushin’s ‘Movement in Space’, (1917-18) a prismatic decomposition of colour on canvas in forceful diagonal lines, mediates abstract space with the physical mechanics of optics. Matiushin believed that his style – which he dubbed ‘Rayonism’ – was the extension of Cezanne’s study of light. Through a careful investigation of the way rays reflect off objects, the object itself is obliterated: “Rayonism is the paintings of space revealed not by the contours of objects, not even by their formal colouring, but by the ceaseless and intense drama of the rays that constitute the unity of all things.”
Revolutionary illustrator and poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s ‘Enemies of Socialism’ (1921) figures prominently here. The work – a series of illustrated panels – serves as a kind of futurist comic in verse. The artist depicts the impoverishment of the British people by the tyrannical bourgeoisie, and the subsequent overthrow of the oppressing class by the proletariat: apocalypse and utopia, the guiding drama of Marxism. The figures, rough and angular, are striking. The verse is lively and direct – miles away from the purple prose of traditional propaganda.
Mayakovsky was in some ways is paradigmatic of the avant-gardists. In a programmatic declaration penned in conjunction with a number of his comrades, the poet declared, “A Communist regime demands a Communist consciousness. All forms of life, morality, philosophy and art must be re-created according to communist principles.”
But Mayakovsky was no mere apparatchik. While committed to the party line, he was also formal innovator and renowned poet. Stalin, a lover of more traditional art, conceded that he was “best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch.”
Kazmir Malevich, to whom the exhibition dedicates an entire section, is the most striking example of revolutionary sensitivity in abstract painting. Malevich is able to accomplish an impressive feat: a serious commitment to the study of figures with a flair for the dramatic. It is no coincidence that he developed his signature style when designing the set of a Futurist opera.
In ‘Dynamic Suprematism Supremus’ (c.1915) many elementary shapes – squares, rectangles, and semicircles – are overlaid on a pastel blue triangle. The effect is one of dynamic suspension; the scene is at once fixed yet in movement. Trapped in the gravitational pull of the large triangle, the shapes express harmony through asymmetry. Malevich understood the geometry of cosmic space before the first satellite entered the Earth’s orbit (a feat accomplished by the Soviets with Sputnik).
Malevich’s signature piece, ‘Black Square’, also features in the exhibition. Critic Alexandre Benois was merciless in his attack: “It is an act of self-affirmation – of the principle of vile desolation. Through its aloofness, arrogance, and desecration of all that is beloved and cherished, it flaunts its desire to lead everything to destruction.”
Benois’s quote is prophetic: like Malevich’s art, the revolution was an act of self-affirmation. It did turn its back on the cherished values of the Tsarist order. And it did lead a great many people to ruin.
The total effect of Malevich’s wall is arresting. Any remaining doubts that visitors have regarding the talent of the Russian avant-garde are dispelled in front of this monumental display. These artists were neither arcane academics wedded to dry formalism nor scandal-seekers that sought to outrage the public – they were consummate experimental artists.
Several themes recur throughout the Russian avant-garde: formal rupture through abstraction, a preoccupation with colour and geometric shapes, a sense of historicity exhibited by their own theoretical production. The abandonment of objectivity should not be thought of as a turn inwards, as a kind of romanticism, but as a search for representation of a higher reality. It is no coincidence that both Matiushin and Malevich described their art as a form of super-realism.
It is unavoidable that artists with a keen sense of their place in history, and who are born in a time of exasperated social tensions, develop a political consciousness.
But one is reminded of the bloody consequences of revolution in the hall dedicated to the peasantry. Serving as the seeming conscience here, the inscriptions on the wall recount the bloody price of Stalinist forced collectivisation, of the anti-kulak drive, and of the political purges.
The Russian avant-garde, like early Bolsheviks themselves, were marginalised the revolution they helped usher. With the ascendency of Stalinism, socialist realism was instituted as the official art form of the regime. Avant-garde artists were pushed out of the public light.
By 1926, the State Institute of Artistic Culture- an art school headed by luminaries like Malevich, Tatlin, and Matiushin – was shut down by the authorities. They would go on to die forgotten by the society they championed.
Kandinsky was luckier. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, the artist left for Germany. Mayakovsky, through a combination of romantic disappointment and devastation by the direction that the Soviet Union was taking, took his own life in 1930.
Radical art is no defence against bad politics. This is a lesson that the Russian avant-garde should have known – after all, the Italian futurist movement allied itself with Mussolini’s fascist regime. And it a lesson for the contemporary audience as well. Our own cultural production is not immune to the flames of reactionary populism fanned by economic malaise and by refugee crises caused by wars that the West started.
The difference between a white-supremacist Pepe meme and a futurist vignette is one of political orientation. But the propagandistic form, seeking to shock and mobilise the viewer, is similar. Mayakovsky said that the streets were the revolutionary artists’ canvas. This is a lesson that the modern day right-wing has taken to heart. His canvas is the wall of Facebook groups and threads on internet message boards.
The Russian avant-garde conforms with many of the tenants of German philosopher Theodore Adorno’s aesthetic theory. Art in the true sense of the word both stands in historical continuity with what preceded while breaking with it formally.
But Adorno was an eternal pessimist and he believed that art should always maintain a critical stance towards the political status-quo. Perhaps the avant-gardists were too enamoured with the possibilities of their new art, and with the revolutionary politics that accompanied it, to maintain a critical perspective. But maybe this is too pat a lesson. The art could not have been born outside that special climate of rupture that was present in the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution.
In the end, ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932’ is an ambitious survey of state of Russian art from the early revolutionary period to the rise of Stalin. The exhibition serves as a reminder that political art is at once necessary and dangerous. And it is a monument to the men and women who gave their lives to bring it into the world.
Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, through April 17.
Carlo Martuscelli is a reporter and a freelance writer. He is a University College of London graduate with a degree in Russian and Philosophy. His interests lie in art, culture, and politics. Currently, he resides in London.
 Content and Form. 1910. Vassily Kandinsky
 Pictorial Rayonism, 1914. Mikhail Larionov
 Program Declaration. 1919. KOMFUT
 Evgenii Kovtun. “Kazmir Malevich: His Creative Path.” The Russian Avant-Garde and Radical Modernism: An Introductory Reader. Ed. Dennis G. Ioffe and Fredrick H. White