Down to Green Park tube station and stroll along Piccadilly to get to the Royal Academy where, as I turn into Burlington Gardens, I can see the barricades are up, red flags are flying and the swirling mob of sans-culottes are shouting slogans and trying to topple the elegant statue of El Presidente Joshua Reynolds. Well, maybe one day but not today although there is a great banner unfurled and swaying in the wind announcing Revolution, for the Academy has decided to get radical and celebrate, or perhaps commemorate is a better word, this year’s hundredth anniversary of the start of the Russian Revolution. More specifically the current exhibition is taking a look at that particular period in Soviet art from 1917-1932, the brief window between the bliss and very heaven that seems to mark the start of all revolutions and the equally inevitable time of terror and children-devouring that then follows in their wake.
Fortunately, having paid my annual fee of £97 to become a friend of the Academy, I don’t have to stand in line like the rest of the proletariat to get my ticket for the exhibition, although even for us nomenklatura, there’s still a bit of a queue at the entrance to the show. And once through the mains door it’s horribly dispiriting to find the place bursting at the seams with way too many people milling about and blocking my view. It’s impossible to get a proper look at any of the art, let alone read any of the wall panels explaining what’s meant to be going on and had I paid out the full, single entry fee of £18 I think at this point I’d be severely cheesed off. Pushing my way through the galleries being buffeted by the hoi polloi as I try to get brief of glimpses of the paintings, sculptures, prints and ceramics by peering over people’s shoulders or squinting from a distance is just not really a very satisfactory or pleasant experience.
Clearly, this obstacle course dash method of viewing an exhibition only provides the most generalised of first impressions and is discomfortable enough to tilt one’s opinions towards the negative. And so it is that by the time I’ve exited through the RA shop, gone down the big staircase and returned to the fresh air outside in the courtyard, I’m feeling a little less claustrophobic but also a little more grumpy and left with the feeling that the show I’ve just fought my way through is all a bit of a shambles. Ok, there are one of two good pictures and a couple of walls where things look reasonably interesting and well hung but for the most part there just seems to be a very average selection of works of art displayed in a messy, mish-mash mix of competing styles of abstraction and figuration.
Well, that was what I thought after my preliminary visit early on a Sunday afternoon, which is very definitely not the time to go to try to see the exhibition. Returning on Tuesday around 4.00pm things are much quieter and it’s actually possible to walk calmly round the show and read all the accompanying labels, watch the flickering black and white documentary film extracts and get a good, considered look at all the works. And while this is very definitely a much more acceptable and far less traumatic way of looking at the art, unfortunately it only seeks to confirm my original, hastily formed opinion that the show is all just a bit scrappy. I suppose if one were to be generous it might be possible to argue that the fact that things look somewhat jumbled up is merely a reflection of the chaotic nature of the times the exhibition is trying to portray. Which, of course, maybe the case but, unfortunately, I don’t think it makes for a very attractive set of displays and neither does it offer a very clear narrative to explain the chronology of the competing art historical developments that were taking place at the time.
Broadly speaking, the exhibition tries to make the point that during the specific fifteen year period that immediately followed the takeover of the country by the Bolsheviks, there was a sort of cultural struggle going on between two very different stylistic strands of contemporary art. The prize for the winners of this artistic knock-out competition was to provide the template house style for the revolutionary new world order that was concurrently emerging from its rather painful birth and severely troubled infancy. So, while one set of artists was experimenting with highly original forms of modernist abstraction, another equally fervent bunch of daubers were producing figurative works that were very much more obviously propagandist in content and design. Initially it seems that both styles were allowed to flourish but at some point Stalin, having taken over control after Lenin’s untimely demise, decided to take an interest in matters and the brief exciting spring of pluralistic painterly development turned quickly into a long cold winter of monolithic state sponsored mono-culturalism. And, sadly, I don’t think I need to give a spoiler alert before announcing which side won this particular socio-politico-artistic battle. Suffice to say that subsequent dictators from Mao to Castro and Saddam to Kim Jong-un have similarly tended to distrust forms of abstractionism, much preferring the unreal realism of flattering portraits and fake news fantasies documenting not just their own heroic triumphs and examples of their nations’ glorious technological successes but also the humble appreciation and sycophantic adoration their many grateful subjects. And so it was in Russia that ultimately the experiments of the modernist avant-garde were brutally terminated, subsequently allowing for only the dreary, state sanctioned style of Socialist Realism to be produced, promoted and displayed for the inspiration, instruction, entertainment and education of the masses.
All in all, it’s a pretty depressing story and presents those in charge of directing its narration through a dozen thematic displays, some with slightly enigmatic titles such as Brave New World, Fate of the Peasants and Eternal Russia, with a rather tricky curatorial task. It’s not just the aesthetic awkwardness that arises from having to display the two, chalk and cheese contrasting artistic styles in close proximity, there are other more practical problems. So, while examples of the early revolutionary art, especially the simple geometric abstractions, are still quite radical and dynamic, there just aren’t sufficient numbers of them on show here to make much of an impact. Though it’s not made clear as to whether the absences are because most of the original works were destroyed by their creators, fearful of being thought to be carrying out subversive activities in direct contravention of the will of the Generalissimo, or maybe the RA was just unable to negotiate loans from the relevant Russian collectors and museums. By contrast there’s a wealth of the officially sanctioned figurative works on show but none of it is very impressive. It’s not just that the subject matter is a bit on the dull side – portraits of Lenin sat in a chair scribbling notes; workers in the steel factory ladelling molten ore; a women sitting on a tractor smiling at the harvest – the painterly style seems deliberately soulless and flat, like the packaging design on a tin of soup or a bottle of sauce.
Needless to say, none of the artists producing these latter works are at all familiar in the West and, frankly, it seems highly unlikely that even with the exposure generated by this exhibition there’s going to be a sudden upsurge of interest in paintings with titles like Demonstration on Uritsky Square on the Day of the Opening of the 2nd Comintern Congress in July 1920 (Boris Kystodiev) or The Collective-Farm Team Leader (Grigor Ryazhsky). And it’s not at all clear to me why a distinctly second division painter like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin has been deemed to deserve a whole room to show his very average still lifes, dramas and self-portrait, other than to act as a sort of balance to the similar sized display of works by Kazimir Malevich, inventor of Suprematism and generally acknowledged to be one of the truly innovative founders of 20th century Modern Art. Though while the Malevich selection is good to see, it’s only a couple of years since he had the full retrospective review treatment at Tate Modern and I can’t help thinking that it might have been better to have given this spot over to a display from Popova, Goncharova or one of his other, less well known artistic comrades.
As for the other hidden highlights in the show, there’s an exuberant Chagall that shows the artist clinging to Bella, his wife and muse, as she floats off above his head, and a couple of wonderful Kandinsky freeform exercises where he’s playing with colours and smeary shapes attempting to replicate the synaesthesiastic feelings he apparently experienced when listening to music. But, frankly, there are just too few examples of work of this calibre and far too much of the other silly stuff.
The closing section of the show is titled Stalin’s Utopia which must be hard for today’s audience to read as anything other than a terribly ironic bad taste joke. That the first painting in the section, the very personification of this idyllic state, should appear as a female shot-putter would be almost comical were one not to know just how murderously dystopian was the actual situation in Russia at the time of its creation in 1932.