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In praise of Russian revolutionary art

Tate Modern’s exhibition of art from the Russian Revolution has received ecstatic critical acclaim. And rightly so. The two artists in the spotlight, Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova, made paintings and art works which retain their excitement nearly 100 years later.

By limiting the scope of the display to the years 1917-1929 and to the contribution of only two artists, we can appreciate their particular contribution – their freedom and breadth of vision. Initially inspired by Picasso and Braque’s Cubist revolution (in painting), Russian artists took up the baton of abstraction and ran with it. They were lifted up and borne by the triumph of the October socialist revolution of 1917.

Rodchenko and Popova and their fellow artists saw even greater possibilities in something that had been confined to artistic creation, and made it part of a social political transformation. The scale of this movement was vast, encompassing all the arts. It became part of a cultural sea change which swept through the young Soviet Union.

A major difference between Paris and what was happening in Russia was the involvement of women artists at the highest level. In this show, Popova is revealed as temporarily greater than Rodchenko in her abilities, although he outlived her by 32 years. And, how unprecedented that of the five artists in the famous 5 x 5 = 25 exhibitions held in Moscow in 1921, three were women.

“The Bolshevik Revolution aimed to transform an entire civilisation, and artists were among the first to show their support,” says the Tate’s handy guide. Contrary to the often churned out prejudice that “revolutions suppress creativity”, here we can see the imagination take off. And from abstract art, Rodchenko and Popova and their colleagues Exter, Vesnin and Stepanova moved seamlessly to designs for textiles, theatre, posters and as well as making photographs and films as they sought to use their talents to transform every day life.

This was not some fantasy world but part of state-sponsored initiatives to lift the country out of back-breaking primitivism. Rodchenko’s design for the cover of Leon Trotsky’s Questions of Everyday Life is on view in Room 9. In this book, the co-leader of the Russian Revolution argued for the emancipation of women from domestic slavery and the introduction of socialised childcare.

The Bolshevik government under Lenin and Trotsky appointed Anatoly Lunacharsky as the first Soviet People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, Narkompros. The aim was to encourage artistic diversity and to avoid endorsing any single artistic current or style however “left” it might be. Talented artists such as Kandinsky, Chagall, Tatlin and El Lissitsky were appointed directors of art training in colleges around the country.

In the closing section of the show, the curators note Constructivism was “marginalised” as the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism became the sole approved artistic style of the Soviet Union. One poignant vintage photograph shows Rodchenko together with the young composer Dmitri Shostakovich seated at his piano alongside theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

All four were to have grievous relations with Stalinism in times to come. Their subsequent fate and that of the revolution as a whole does not come within the scope of the exhibition’s timeframe. But those events, terrible as they were, do not detract from the brilliance and glory of that moment after the revolution that was to change the world artistically speaking, as well as socially. The need for contemporary creative and political revolutionary vision, in the spirit of Rodchenko and Popova, goes without saying.

Corinna Lotz
Secretary, A World to Win
16 February 2009

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