Russian Art

Russia Lights Up in Red

By Sophia Kishkovsky

Wassily Kandinsky, Overcast (1917). Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery.

Unlike some major Western museums, such as the Royal Academy in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which staged Russian shows in the spring, many Russian institutions have waited for the approach of the 100th anniversary of the October Bolshevik Revolution. The State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the State Russian Museum are all mounting Revolution-related shows this autumn. The Winter Palace, home of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and a former residence of the tsars, is a focal point of 100th anniversary exhibitions with a series of historic and contemporary exhibitions opening towards the end of October.

Many in Russia have mixed feelings about the 1917 Revolution. Alexei Levykin, director of the State Historical Museum on Moscow’s Red Square, says that: “If crimes and terror were committed and we lost millions of people then we must speak of this boldly. But we also must not forget obvious achievements and victories.”

Meanwhile Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is steering an awkward course between recognising the momentous event without condoning revolt. Over the past two decades, the Kremlin has made great effort to merge tsarist and Soviet history into one seamless tapestry. This has culminated in a series of multimedia history museums being opened across Russia by Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, a screenwriter turned priest with a passion for Byzantine history.

Zinaida Serebriakova, Bleaching the Cloth (1917). Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery.

State Tretyakov Gallery

At Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, Irina Vakar has curated an exhibition entitled Somebody Called 1917 which opened in early September. She has been at the Tretyakov since the Soviet era and recalls how the Bolshevik Revolution used to be commemorated with “the iconography of the Revolution”. Amid a frenzied whirl of preparations at the new Tretyakov building for the opening of the 7th International Biennale of Contemporary Art (featuring artists Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson and Björk), she says her goal is to show that the Russian avant-garde was not born
of the Revolution, but encountered it already almost fully formed.

“In the West the idea spread widely that the political revolution and the revolution in art went hand-in- hand,” she says. “The artistic avant-garde formed between the 1905–1907 and 1917 revolutions. It was a very free time... There was almost no censorship... Kandinsky’s non-figurative art had already appeared in 1910 or 1911 and Malevich’s in 1915, for example.”

She says the show asks questions such as: “Were artists ready for the Revolution? Did they expect it? What did they think about it? It turns out that few were able to foresee the catastrophe and tragedy of these events. People were floating around in their fantasies, or building some utopian projects.”

Boris Kustodiev, Boshevik (1920). Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery.

Somebody Called 1917 includes paintings, posters and a specially commissioned documentary by filmmaker Elena Yakovich. Works in the exhibition include Bleaching the Cloth, a painting of peasant women in Kursk by Zinaida Serebriakova. It was created in the spring of 1917, just months before the artist’s family estate there was torched and she had to flee. Konstantin Korovin withdrew to his dacha and painted beautiful women in Empire-style interiors. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin was sympathetic to the revolutionaries. Works such as 1918 in Petrograd (1920), usually
called “the Petrograd Madonna”, were admired in Soviet times despite their iconography and his religious faith. The Tretyakov exhibition will also include Konstantin Yuon’s New Planet (1921), loaned to the Royal Academy of Arts earlier this year.

“In 100 years everything has changed,” Vakar says. “The leaders have died... Their dreams didn’t come true... But the art remains, and it is magnificent, manifold and in some cases simply brilliant.”

Cai Guo-Qiang, Ignition at the VDNKh, Moscow (2017). Photo courtesy of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Tatiana Vladimir.

State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Director Marina Loshak toyed with traditional ideas to mark the Revolution, but decided to “go deeper” and hand the space over to Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang for his exhibition October (until 12 November). An installation of cribs, pushchairs and birch trees obscures the classical columned façade of the Pushkin, and his works made of gunpowder line the main halls. He reflects on both the Bolshevik and Cultural Revolutions and his love of Russian art.

2nd Moscow Women's Battalion of Death defending the Winter Palace, 7 November 1917.

State Hermitage Museum

Big shows about the Romanovs’ fall and the palace’s transformation from residence to museum open on 25 October. Hermitage Museum Director Mikhail Piotrovsky has said that the palace would be immersed in red light. The museum’s contemporary art department is deconstructing the myth of the “storming of the Winter Palace” from Sergei Eisenstein’s scenes in the 1927 film October.

Pavel Filonov, Banquet of Kings (1912-13). State Russian Museum.

State Russian Museum

Dreams of Universal Flowering (until 20 November) at the State Russian Museum shows the move towards revolution through the prism of art and literature, noting that realist artists such as Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov were often more attuned to social issues than avant-garde artists. The exhibition starts with the 1905 Revolution and runs through to the 1920s. Its title is based on Pavel Filonov’s painting Flowers of the Universal Flowering (1915).

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