From A World To Win News Service
Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932
March 20, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
March 14, 2017. A World to Win News Service. By Sam Albert. How is it that a show of artworks from a century ago is not only so exciting and thought-provoking but so thoroughly fresh? Surely this is because of the exhibition’s subject, the art produced during an unprecedented explosion of creativity following the 1917 Russian revolution, as well as the fact that no recent show has so well reflected the breathtaking variety of styles, techniques, genres and media in the early Soviet visual arts.
Although the arts in Russia had rippled with the same effervescence stirring the rest of Europe in the decade before the revolution, this torrent of path-breaking, high-quality work cannot be separated from the overall revolutionary process and many artists’ fervent desire to contribute to that. Large numbers of them shared the spirit that marked those times, a spirit of dedication to radical change, self-sacrifice even during the most difficult days, the determination to serve the common good and the emancipation of humanity that gripped Soviet society.
This advanced art was all the more remarkable because Russia was an extremely backward country. Until 1861, within living memory, much of the country’s population had been serfs, peasants who were virtually the property of noble landlords. Still kept in brutally enforced ignorance and worn out by the age of 40, the peasants and workers just emerging from the villages were considered dangerous and sometimes subject to arrest simply for knowing how to read.
The revolution lifted the censorship and police supervision of Tsarist rule overnight. Immediately, the revolutionary government’s Ministry of Education and Enlightenment began supporting the arts, commissioning artworks, organizing exhibitions and subsidizing publications as a myriad of competing artistic schools and trends arose. It sent colorfully decorated trains loaded with artworks, films and projectors, photo and graphic arts exhibits, posters and other materials—and artists, educators and political activists—to the most remote and oppressed corners of the former Russian empire. With the support of the new revolutionary state, whose officials included artists themselves, artists gave free rein to their creativity as an essential part of the transformation that turned backward, ultra-reactionary Russia into the world’s most socially advanced country at that time.
All this was part of a massive effort to break down the abyss separating the relatively tiny educated classes and the vast majority of people, who had been cut off from scientific knowledge, culture, politics and the wide world of ideas in general, not only by repression but even more by their place in society as beasts of burden, and their restricted experiences, religious training and customs. As these masses at the base of society were allowed and encouraged to lift their eyes, artists were also encouraged, organized and financed to play a leading role in the extraordinary social ferment. For the first time in history, they were also free to take culture and their own work to the most downtrodden people, join with them, learn from them, and train them as appreciators and makers of art. With the revolution, the whole society escaped from its prison.
What makes the Royal Academy show so special is that it allows visitors to see and feel what this process of revolutionary transformation was like—what made the Soviet Union “the place to be,” looked to by vast millions of people all over the world, and also a place and time that many visitors, perhaps to their surprise, find themselves wishing they could experience today.
The Royal Academy is one of many museums around the world that have chosen to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Russian revolution, including the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). But unlike that and other shows, most of the 200 pieces in the Royal Academy exhibition were drawn from Russian museums and private collections, much of which has never before been seen abroad. In addition to all sorts of paintings, some classical oils on canvas and others on pieces of wood and almost anything else imaginable, it also features sculpture, architecture models and the particular media in which Soviet artists made world breakthroughs, such as photos and photo-montage (a kind of Photoshopping by hand), graphic arts (both high-concept art pieces and humble items like rationing coupons), the design of homes and industrially-made products, typography and film.
This work is generally well contextualized in its times, without making the show overly historical and textual rather than visual. We see and feel something of the enormous hardships that were, paradoxically, the setting for such sustained creativity. The reasons for these hardships, however, are not always sufficiently spelled out. A complex civil war, starting shortly after the October Revolution and lasting for five years, was fueled by eight invading armies seeking to crush the revolution before it spread, killing and maiming many millions of people, mostly civilians. This destruction and a trade blockade caused an economic collapse that killed many more. The challenges faced by the young socialist state are brought to life by The Defence of Petrograd, by Alexander Deineka, a powerful figural work (stylized and not strictly realistic painting) giving a sense of ordinary men and women in arms defending their revolution, Kazimir Malevich’s even more stylized The Red Calvary, El Lissitzky’s famous geometric Beat the Whites [the counter-revolutionary armies] with the Red Wedge, and the equally abstract work by the pioneering multiple-media artist Alexander Rodchenko. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s realistic Still Life with a Herring, a table neatly set with two small potatoes, a tiny wedge of bread and one thin, very dried fish, conveys a time when hunger was so severe that everything made of paper had to be protected from starving rats.
We also see celebrations of the spirit of the times, like the pure color paintings of Vasily Kandinsky, one of the world’s first abstract painters, who became a Soviet political leader in the arts and a teacher, and the dream-like work of Marc Chagall, also a successful artist, who returned to Russia after the revolution to help lead cultural work and education. His Promenade, a luminous declaration of his love for his wife on the occasion of their marriage, conveys the intoxicating sense of freedom felt by Soviet Jews, liberated from the villages, small towns and professions where they had been confined, their previously repressed culture now receiving state support. Equally powerful are many of the pieces made during the industrialization of the country, beginning in 1928 with the first Five Year Plan. This was the first time in world history that, instead of being ruled by the needs of capitalists who squeezed the life out of their workers and society in a merciless competition for profit, a country’s economy moved forward in a planned way to meet the physical, cultural and other needs of the people.
This section of the exhibition brings out the degree to which the leap in the industrialization of Russia was achieved by men and women breaking their backs. But here, too, this generally excellent exhibition tends to look at that industrialization without seeing the context and content. The Russian revolution came out of a world war, by far the most massive slaughter in human history to that date, carried out by capitalist-imperialist powers in their rivalry to divide the world. Then the new socialist state faced the threat of another world war and an even more devastating invasion.
With Ekaterina Zernova’s graphically stunning Tomato Paste Factory, Deineka’s free spirit young women Textile Workers, and the many pieces honoring the shock brigades of workers who volunteered for the hardest jobs with little rest, you can get a sense of not only the economic transformation of a backward country that was important for the revolution to survive and succeed, but also, in some ways, the transformation of its people. Women and men were working not just to eat, but were beginning to consciously take responsibility for their own emancipation and that of the whole world’s oppressed and exploited. No generation before them was free to dream such dreams and fight for them. Less realistic paintings convey the same idea. Petrov-Vodkin’s Fantasy shows a barefoot peasant riding bareback on a bright red horse, galloping resolutely forward at breakneck speed and at the same time gazing backward, contemplating the village life and the world left behind.
Early Soviet art was very much connected with Western art in general, both influenced by it and strongly influencing it for many decades to come. The Soviet avant-garde art movements were part of the overall rupture with past culture sought by many Western intellectuals—an attempted radical rejection of previous art and literature in the years before World War 1 and especially in its wake. Soviet breakthroughs in new media and art forms gave further impetus to this development everywhere. But content matters—innovation for what goals? For instance, compare the American film pioneer D. W. Griffith, on the one hand, and the Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov on the other. In both cases, they made history-making technically innovative films with political and social agendas, and in both cases received state support (Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was the first movie to be shown at the U.S. White House). But Griffith celebrated and served the stinking persistence of the old world, specifically the rising Ku Klux Klan and its goal of keeping Black people in conditions not so different than Russian serfs, while the Soviet filmmakers wanted to revolutionize the film medium to help overturn the old order and bring about a world freed of exploitation and oppression.
Or, take the role and portrayal of women. Here there is a stark contrast between Soviet artists and their Western avant-garde contemporaries. For one thing, many women artists are represented in this show, at a time when very few women were able to become professional artists in the capitalist countries. Even those few were more known, at least in their own times, as “the mistress of so and so” than for their work. Unlike in the USSR, Western women were denied the right to divorce, abortion, the vote, political life, an independent social life, careers in most professions and even their own checkbooks until decades later. In late 19th- and most 20th-century European art, the artists most radical in their formal and stylistic experimentation still did not break with the age-old patriarchal outlook in the content of their work. Their paintings and photos consider women’s bodies as objects of men’s desire, erotic commodities, not the bodies of actual people. Even when these artists sympathized with revolution, they did not generally link their art to a project to develop a liberating revolutionary culture as part of revolutionizing human relations and people’s thinking.
The work on view in the exhibition does not adequately reflect the way that the Russian revolution consciously grappled with the question of overcoming patriarchy, even if the communist movement did not yet fully grasp the potential of the struggle for women’s liberation in propelling total social change. But these Soviet paintings of women workers, peasants, agitators and athletes are a breath of fresh air. Alexander Samokhvalov’s Sportswoman with a shot-put, a strong, independent, vibrant individual, represented an important step forward out of the pre-revolutionary era where sports were restricted to the upper classes and women athletes were inconceivable.
The Royal Academy show cannot, of course, escape the anti-communism so pervasive today, although its mainly objective presentation of Soviet art has earned it the wrath of some reviewers. The wall texts and especially the visitor’s guide contain some unmerited, knee-jerk swipes at Soviet society and art that stand out all the more because the show itself provides so much visual evidence to the contrary. After proclaiming, “A revolution that changed everything. A time when the possibilities seemed endless and art thrived across every medium,” the show’s Website headline warns, “But that optimism was not to last.”
The show concludes that the lights went out on the Soviet visual arts scene in 1932, when the Communist Party adopted the line that the style of art it called Socialist Realism should prevail in the visual arts. While this cut-off date seems arbitrarily early and too absolute, the lights did definitely dim during that decade. We are led to believe that this was just a caprice by a too powerful leader, Stalin. The unspoken but unmistakable implication is that darkness is the ineluctable result of any revolutionary change in state power, and especially socialism. Although an art exhibition may not be suited to thoroughly explore the issues involved, which have to be examined in their own right and in depth, still, because of the prejudices and misknowledge visitors inevitably bring with them, this is very misleading. The effect is to throw cold water on many visitors’ excitement about this art and the experience it represented.
The show itself demonstrates that socialism and artistic ferment and greatness are not incompatible. In fact, the establishment of the revolutionary socialist state was the precondition for the art it celebrates. It’s not logically consistent to blame the socialist state’s policies for the negative turn in the arts starting in the mid-1930s without giving it credit for the blossoming of Soviet arts before then. In particular, it’s not true, as a catalogue text explicitly argues, that art flourished in the Soviet Union in the early years because the revolution was so much under attack that its communist leadership was too busy to interfere in the arts. This view is undercut by evidence in the show itself. The new revolutionary state devoted enormous importance and resources to the arts as part of emancipating a population in sore need of it, even when resources were most scarce. And not just Soviet art—the Museum of Modern Western Art in Moscow that opened in 1923 was the world’s first museum of twentieth century art, long before the “advanced” capitalist countries.
Yet there’s more to it than that. Without socialism and moving toward the abolition of classes, it’s impossible for human beings to fully flourish, either individually or collectively. At the same time, this cannot happen without broad social discussions, debate, dissent, etc., which presupposes individual rights and freedom of expression, including artistic freedom.
In developing what has been called the “new communism” today, Bob Avakian has deeply studied and analyzed the socialist experience in the USSR and Mao’s China. He concludes that the kind of diversity, ferment and debate that makes this show so dazzling, as well as dissent and more general contention about outlook and values, are indispensable for the process through which people change themselves and the world. Without that approach to politics, culture, the sciences and other areas of human knowledge and thinking, it’s not possible to fully investigate and increasingly understand reality, and change it, including transforming people’s thinking. All art, no matter what style or genre, from the most realistic to the most purely abstract, is a way of engaging with reality.
During the early Soviet years there was confusion about “proletarian art.” Lenin, who died in 1924, opposed the idea that one or another particular form or style of art could be inherently revolutionary. He argued against the contention that there could be an entirely new culture particular to the workers, just as he argued against the view that there is no knowable reality independent of how it’s looked at. Many people—including not just political leaders but both the Suprematists and Constructivists, the main radical trends among the artists themselves—wrongly argued that art should serve purely political and utilitarian purposes. Identifying “proletarian” art as art mainly about workers and peasants, these positions wrongly pushed for a totally instrumentalized art, and at the same time tended to limit the goal of proletarian revolution.
That goal is not to narrowly serve “the workers” or “the workers and peasants” but to abolish all classes, the exploitative economic relations that characterize classes, the oppressive social relations prevailing on that basis, and the backward and oppressive ideas that arise from and help perpetuate societies based on exploitation and oppression. That means communism, the emancipation of all humanity. The common, stubborn claim that certain forms of art were inherently revolutionary, and the confusion about the need for real revolutionary change in the content of both art and overall social relations and not just changes in their forms, was a problem also shared by avant-garde artistic movements in the capitalist countries.
This was not well enough understood by the communist movement under Stalin’s leadership. This show misses an obvious point, that its cut-off period marked the coming to power of the Nazis, whose program called for invading the USSR and grabbing its resources in a bid for dominance among the imperialist powers, and the dashing of Soviet hopes that a revolution in Germany would come to their aid. This was a situation that had to be faced. Stalin led in defending the revolution, as he was to continue to do until his death in 1953. But there were important problems in general, and not just the arts, in the way the communists led by Stalin understood these challenges and consequently the way he dealt with them.
In an interview about this question, Avakian said, “The more that Stalin felt that they had to go through a breakneck pace to industrialize and arm themselves in a heavy way to be able to deal with this military threat, the more there wasn’t any air to breathe or room allowed for experimentation, for criticism, for dissent, for people trying to strike out in different directions and see how that could all be part of the process, and for the masses to get involved in struggling out what really is the way forward out of all this. And not just THE WAY (with a capital T, capital W), as if there’s only one way, but many different pathways which all ultimately have to be directed toward, or have to find their way toward and be led toward the goal you have, but [people] may find a lot of different pathways there. I don’t think that you can advance through those processes that I’m talking about by one straight, narrow highway. I think that was an understanding that Stalin didn’t have or increasingly lost sight of.”
The draft proposal for a Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, written by Avakian, is a proposed concrete blueprint for a new kind of state and a society where today’s people would want to live. Especially relevant to this review is the section on “solid core with lots of elasticity” on page 5, and the specific policies about the arts laid out on pp. 40-43.
Even the most rabid anti-communists would find it difficult to plausibly argue that the capitalism prevailing in Russia for many decades now has solved the problems the country’s peoples set out to solve a century ago, for themselves and humanity. The contrast between the great advances toward the liberation of humanity represented by socialism, so powerfully visible in this fascinating, rich and lively art, and the world we live in today, seems to be what most impresses visitors about this show. In conversations as they left, many revealed a head full of questions about art, society and the experience and possibility of revolution in today’s cynical, fearful and dark times.
Many can’t help thinking about “the right to the future,” as it has been called by artists today who refuse to accept the oppression and destruction of people and the Earth, and dare to consider the possibility of what Soviet artists called “a new planet.” These artists—and many, many others—are rebelling against today’s dominant culture and working to produce something very different. One reason for this show’s impact is that the role played by art and artists in the world’s first successful socialist revolution seems very relevant today. And Avakian’s re-envisioning of socialism and communism provides unprecedented scope for understanding and acting upon the importance of freeing the realms of arts and culture and the reciprocal relationship between that and liberating humanity.
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