ART OF THE REVOLUTION

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The Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, showcases great works from this turbulent, yet dynamic period in Russia’s history.

In an age when mass demonstrations and slogans prevail, it’s rather fitting that an exhibition showcasing early Soviet art should march boldly into town. Such is the case of the Royal Academy’s latest exhibit; Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932

The show commemorates the centenary of the Russian Revolution and is arranged thematically, beginning with the revolutionaries. Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik, 1920 for instance depicts a giant figure of a freedom fighter holding a red banner and striding high above the spires of a town. Fantasy, 1925 by the celebrated Soviet painter and poet Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin meanwhile, shows a man astride a red-coloured horse – its coat the colour of the revolution, its message one of hope, of galloping into the future.

Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927
Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 185 cm
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
© DACS 2016

Marc Chagall, Promenade, 1917-18
Oil on canvas, 175.2 x 168.4 cm
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
© DACS 2016

Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik, 1920
Oil on canvas, 101 x 140.5 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Russia’s proletarian worker heroes are celebrated in a section labelled ‘Man and Machine’. This series of posters, paintings, films and textiles boast of industrial strength and prowess. Textile Workers, 1927 by Alexander Deineka shows women in simple slip dresses going about their business in a bobbin factory. I’m struck by the way in which this scene has been painted, the stark interior and the women’s understated clothes looks almost of the now. Elsewhere, Lyudmila Protopopova’s A Cup for Serving Tea carries a jaunty cogwheel print that you can imagine finding at Heals.

Paintings in the designated peasant category are also sublimely minimal and abstract. Here, farmworkers as exemplified by the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, lack facial features to symbolise a sense a loss of identity. Malevich was himself an early pioneer of geometric abstract art. There are also works by more familiar heavyweight artists dotted around the rooms. These include Marc Chagall’s Promenade 1917-18 and Wassily Kandinsky’s famous Blue Crest painted in 1917.

Lyudmila Protopopova, A Cup for Serving Tea, 1931
Porcelain, height 6.4 cm
The Petr Aven Collection
Photo © The Petr Aven Collection

For me though, the ultimate jaw-dropping moment occurs in one of the gallery’s smaller rooms – home to Vladimir Tatlin’s glider. Suspended from the ceiling and crafted from steamed and bent ash wood, it plays to the artist’s fascination with bird skeletons and insect wings. As the piece gently revolved around the room casting ethereal shadows onto a white canvas backdrop, I was utterly transfixed; so much so, I could have watched it silently rotate for hours. Instead, I drift back out into the real world intent on keeping this newfound sense of calm for as long as possible.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 runs until Monday 17th April at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House Piccadilly.

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