Revolution: The Art of Politics

Originally published in Frieze Masters magazine, September 2017.

‘Forward’: it’s a strange choice of word with which to mark an anniversary, but in this case an apt and potent one. A hundred years on from Russia’s twin revolutions of 1917 – which saw nearly four centuries of feudal rule replaced by the promise of a supposedly bright, new, Communist future – Russian artist Erik Bulatov has installed this charged term, spelled in Cyrillic, on Tate Modern’s south terrace. Each letter in Forward (2016) is three-metres high and made of steel; its facade is painted bright red – the colour of the Bolsheviks and of blood. Such work has been widespread this year. Two further exhibitions at Tate Modern, ‘Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’ and ‘Red Star Over Russia’, open in Autumn. Earlier this year, at the British Library, ‘Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ explored the relationship between art and politics through archival materials and both ‘A Revolutionary Impulse’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and ‘Revolution’ at London’s Royal Academy, focused on the pioneering artists of the avant-garde.

1917 was a year of radical upheaval, which saw Vladimir Lenin become leader of a country of 185 million people. Eighty percent of Russia’s population were peasants, most of whom knew nothing of Karl Marx. So, as the country descended into civil war, the Communists embarked upon a huge art and propaganda programme: they held demonstrations, built monuments, commissioned films and photography, and sent brightly painted propaganda trains out into the countryside. Many artists enthusiastically embraced the ideals of Communism. As the private sector was closed down and major collections nationalized, they had little choice.

The Royal Academy exhibition was especially successful in showcasing the diversity of artistic output in these early years. Across traditional forms – painting, drawing and sculpture – but also architecture, ceramics and the fast-developing media of film, photography and graphic design, Russia was a whirl of complex, often competing creativity. ‘For the first few years after 1917, all forms of art flourished in Russia,’ says co-curator Dr Natalia Murray. ‘It was clear that revolution had bred innovation and, for a time at least, all barriers were opened, anything was possible.’

But not for long: as Stalin tightened his grip on power, abstraction was deemed ‘bourgeois’ and ‘decadent’ and eventually banned altogether. Today, as Putin revives the reputation of the Soviet dictator (in part through grand parades to celebrate Russia’s victory in World War II), celebrating the radical art of the Lenin era has become more complicated. This, in part, is why such activity has been muted within Russia. St Petersburg-based curator Marina Maraeva has expressed surprise at the comparative lack of anniversary-related programming at Russia’s major institutions. Instead, she told me, it is under the radar that such events and exhibitions are taking place, as artist-run spaces and other DIY initiatives look to explore the ideas of 1917.

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