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Russian Art

A Year of Revolutionary Exhibitions

We are only halfway through 2017, the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, and there has been a seemingly endless stream of exhibitions on the subject which could easily have brought on saturation and deja-vu. Thankfully, this has not happened. There have been fresh perspectives collectively ushering in new ways of understanding the art of this period and showing just how relevant it still is today.

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ROYAL ACADEMY REVOLUTION: RUSSIAN ART 1917-1932 EXHIBITION CATALOGUE COVER

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy in London did away with the usual strict focus on Constructivism and opened the field to a far broader stable of artists, many of whom are little known outside Russia.  In an impressive stroke of curatorial boldness, I was delighted to see a whole room at the RA dedicated to the painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. A complete unknown in the West yet a giant of early 20th century Russian art, perhaps more than any other artist of the period he held a mirror up to the human face of the Revolution and, in its wake, the social upheavals of civil war. 

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LIUBOV POPOVA, SPATIAL FORCE CONSTRUCTION, 1921. OIL ON PLYWOOD. STATE TRETYAKOV GALLERY, RUSSIA

Curated by Dr Natalia Murray, a Russian native who has lived in the UK for several decades, she was perfectly placed to bridge the cultural divide by presenting an insider’s view of Russian art of the period in a way that Western audiences could easily understand and showed a deep and scholarly knowledge of the subject. As I walked around the exhibition rooms I was reminded of just how diverse and fertile this period was on so many fronts. The show breathed life into the dusty clichés of propaganda art culminating in a magnificent reconstruction of Kazimir Malevich’s room at the Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic exhibition in Leningrad in 1932.

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LIUBOV POPOVA, SET FOR FERNAND CROMMELYNCK THE MAGNANIMOUS CUCKOLD, 1922. MAQUETTE CONSTRUCTED IN 1967. WOOD, METAL AND GOUACHE. A.A. BAKHRUSHIN STATE CENTRAL MUSEUM, RUSSIA

Visiting the Venice Biennale this year, I took in a cleverly curated show (still on until mid-August) Space-Force-Construction at V-A-C Foundation’s impressive new premises at the Palazzo delle Zattere. Taking its title from a 1921 work by Liubov Popova on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery, it brings together Russian Revolutionary art and contemporary international art.  I enjoyed seeing familiar icons of the avant-garde hung beside works by international artists such as Barbara Kruger, Wolfgang Tillmans and Abraham Cruzvillegas. The older generation looked wonderfully fresh and contemporary in this context, and their legacy on a global scale is very much in evidence.

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INSTALLATION SHOT, THE FUTURE IS CERTAIN, IMAGE COURTESY OF CALVERT 22 FOUNDATION. DEIMANTAS NARCEVICIUS, ONCE IN THE XXTH CENTURY, 2004. 16MM FILM TRANSFERRED TO VIDEO, COLOUR, SOUND, 8M.

Back in the East End of London at Calvert 22 Foundation, one of my favourite cultural institutions in the city, there is a small but thought-provoking show called The Future is Certain; It’s the Past Which is Unpredictable curated by Lithuanian artist and curator Monika Lipsic. It explores a central message: that history repeats itself unless it can be overcome.

Lithuanian ex-sculptor and video artist Deimantas Narkevicius whose work was recently on view at the Baltic Centre in Newcastle, is represented with a video Once in the XXth Century. In this piece he manipulates documentary film footage from the 1990s which originally showed a monumental public sculpture of Lenin being taken down. Using some clever editing, we watch the sculpture being lifted back onto its pedestal cheered on by a euphoric crowd.  By removing such historical sculptures from the squares and public spaces of ex-Soviet states, Narkevicius suggests we erase history and thus as a society we lose our ability to learn from its lessons.

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ERIK BULATOV, FORWARD, 2016. PAINTED STEEL

Over at Tate Modern, Erik Bulatov’s first-ever monumental sculptural work Forward is on display outside the new Blavatnik building. Revolutionary ideals at the beginning of the 20th century, fired up by a utopian vision, were all about progress and the creation of a better society. Here we are confronted with the slogan ‘Forward’ cast as huge steel letters imitating avant-garde typography and painted in red. Arranged in a circle like an iron henge, as we walk into the space and explore the work we can’t go forwards as we are instructed, we can only go round in circles. Bulatov lived through perestroika and the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the second seismic event of the 20th century which also heralded idealistic promises this time of a new capitalist society. Drawing parallels between the social upheavals of the 1920s and the 1990s, times of social and political promise and disappointment, on one level this work is about history repeating itself. More broadly, though, it is about how easily we are all fooled into believing in progress, an illusion which is hard for us to let go of.

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