Russian Revolutionary Art

Occasionally, with very good films, you come away stunned.  On Saturday, I saw “Loving Vincent” and was affected – similarly with today’s viewing of a memorable documentary on Soviet revolutionary art.  I saw a whole range of arts took on vital new forms – as the film tells us the gripping, memorable and mostly tragic tale of what happened next in Russia.

I knew a little about Russian art around 1917, and less about the history, but I now know far more.  “Revolution: new art for a new world” is made by Margy Kinmonth.  I hadn’t seen her work before, but will need to rectify this, as the list of her art documentaries is long and distinguished.  The range of resources and research in this film are vast: previously unseen paintings, artworks which are too precious to leave the country, and interviews with the children and grandchildren of the featured artists.

Keep an eye out for the documentary appearing on schedules near you – and it will appear, it has such quality and moreover, it does that favourite media thing of commemorating an event 50 or 100 years ago: 1917, the time of the Russian Revolution.

Here in the UK, if you have a TV licence, you can watch it on the BBC catchup service here.

The art gets entwined with the politics.  Just as the Socialist revolution was happening, there were many avant-garde artists in their twenties, wanting to break through traditional art boundaries.  Their names are still synonymous with breakthroughs in a whole range of arts:

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Kandinsky, painting
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Photographer, Bulla, reportage
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the successful design for the Russian Pavilion at 1937 World Fair of Arts in Paris by Klutsis
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Chagall, self-portrait
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Rodchenko graphic design in literacy campaign

Cinema: Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein

Theatre: Mayakovsky (the Method Acting founded on his technique)

Art: Kandinsky (father of abstract art), Chagall

Graphic Design: Alexandr Rodchenko (he made the poster featured at the top of this post)

Right after the Bolsheviks seized power, Lenin decided that the artists could communicate the story of what had happened in the country via artworks, since most of the country’s citizens were peasants, many illiterate. Accordingly, a train carrying artworks was sent throughout the vast country.

The next step was to require the artists to make statuary glorifying the heroes of the Revolution – at this time, the artists, like everyone else, were starving and didn’t have enough to eat, never mind produce longlasting art.  They did the best they could, but inevitably their materials didn’t last long.

Then artists were told to make the State approved “Socialist Realism” – paintings of rosy cheeked peasants and strong labouring muscular men, all flourishing in the new USSR. This was propaganda – the reality was that the country was starving.  Artists had little choice: a few managed to leave the country, most stayed.

The situation grew worse under Stalin – free-thinkers would be arrested, and savagely beaten in interrogation until they signed a confession to crimes against the state – after which they would be taken to the Labour Camps or shot.  One artist did not even make it to the firing squad because he died from injuries in his interrogation.  It is heart-breaking to hear.

Along the way, we also hear the good news of the artists’ achievements – the amazing photo-journalism, films, paintings they made.  But the film is a game of two halves – firstly energy and enthusiastic youth; the second half is a desperate struggle for survival.  In ‘extra time’ so to speak, the titles at the end tell the story of what happened, finally, to the artists whose work we have admired.  Also, it lists their effect on later art – and it is huge and significant.

The art made with enthusiasm and genuine heart has remained – and is there to see – it has outlasted the Communist state, the purges, the political upheaval, and the chocolate box pretty “Socialist Realism” portrayals.



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