SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 154 - December/January 2011/12


Building the Revolution: Soviet art and architecture 1915-1935

Royal Academy of Arts

To 22 January 2012

Reviewed by Manny Thain

THE EFFECTS of the 1917 Russian revolution in bricks, concrete and design can be seen in this exhibition. On show are some of the most dynamic artists of the time, pouring their creative energy into building the world’s first workers’ state. It was a time of heady optimism at the possibility of participating in the development of a new society based on human solidarity and equality.

The immense influence of the revolution on art, literature, theatre, music, science and architecture is recognised the world over. While capitalist commentators continually heap scorn on ‘the Soviet system’, they are compelled to return to it time and time again. It is an irony, but one based on a fundamental misrepresentation of the revolution and of the bloody divide between it and Stalinist counter-revolution.

This exhibition follows that well-worn path, although it does acknowledge that, immediately after the revolution, the Bolshevik government pulled Russia out of the first world war, abolished private property, distributed land to the peasants, nationalised banks, handed factories over to workers, increased wages and reduced working hours. "The world of visual art, and then architecture, was transformed too… For the constructivists, who were at the forefront of the artistic movement, art was put to the service of the revolution".

What this exhibition does brilliantly is explore the links between art and architecture at this time. Impressive photographs of iconic structures built from 1922-30 dominate the walls. These have been taken by Richard Pare over the last 20 years and are exhibited alongside paintings, drawings and sketches by leading Soviet artists. Complementing these are display boxes with photographs taken when the buildings were under construction or just after they were completed.

Before 1917, Russian artists were already leading the avant-garde. Styles and schools, such as cubo-futurism and suprematicism, were being developed by Kazimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, El Lissiztky and others. It is no coincidence that the most cutting-edge artists embraced the revolution in its dynamic initial period. They discarded traditional subjects and techniques, linking their work with science, industry and mass production.

The Bolshevik revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, opened the creative floodgates. Steps were taken to try to involve the mass of the population in the democratic planning of production and social organisation. The hope was that similar revolutions would follow internationally, leading to the eventual elimination of poverty, inequality and conflict. Of course, that did not transpire and, over time, the workers’ state, isolated in the Soviet Union, degenerated into a totalitarian regime under Stalin.

The Free Art Studios were set up in Moscow in 1918. One of the teachers was Vladimir Tatlin, who then moved to its studios in St Petersburg, where he began working on his famous tower, a model of which stands in the Royal Academy courtyard. It was meant to be 400 metres tall and to house the Third International.

Inside its spiral frame there were to be four structures. The cube at its base was to house an international workers’ government, with space for conferences and lectures. This would complete a rotation once a year. Above it, a pyramid would be for the executive body, and would rotate once a month. Above that, a cylindrical communications centre would rotate daily. At the top, a stationary radio transmitter would be located. It was designed to be transparent so that the workings of socialist democracy could be seen in action. A far less ambitious echo of Tatlin’s tower can be seen in the recently completed Olympic park structure designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond.

Steel shortages and colossal technological problems meant that Tatlin’s tower was not built. But his fusion of art, architecture and engineering was a significant contribution to the emergence of constructivism, productive art. Debates at Moscow’s Institute of Art Culture, a state-sponsored research centre, in the spring of 1921, explored the issues, and constructivism was formally announced in 1922.

Liubov Popova (1889-1924) was one of the foremost avant-garde artists before the revolution and features prominently in this exhibition. It is a rare treat to see her extraordinary work – a tragedy that she died of scarlet fever so young. She painted Spatial Force Construction (1920/21) directly onto cheap wood, distancing the work immediately from customary prepared canvas. Popova incorporated marble dust to add material substance, with red colour as a reference to the revolution. Abstract shapes interlink to give a three-dimensional impression, an illusion of depth different to that achieved by traditional perspective.

It was only after the revolution’s life-or-death struggle over four years of invasion and civil war that construction could begin in the Soviet Union. There were major problems to overcome. Production was on its knees. There was massive social dislocation. The population of the cities exploded as peasants flooded in for work. There was an acute shortage of housing. Food was scarce.

In spite of this, incredible feats of engineering were achieved, testament to the superiority of a nationalised, planned economy, even one hampered by so many difficulties. For instance, the first major industrial structure built after the revolution, the Shabolovka radio tower (1922), was over 150 metres tall and made of telescoping sections. This was designed by Vladimir Shukhov so that it could be assembled with the use of hoists, as there were no cranes available to do the job. It is still in use today.

Among the most famous of the workers’ clubs was the Rusakov in Moscow, designed by Konstantin Melnikov. Its upper space could be used as a single auditorium for 1,200 people, or split into three medium-sized halls, or into individual rooms. Melnikov would later resist Stalin’s suffocating directives and was effectively barred from practising as an architect from the mid-1930s, after which he designed domestic heating systems. The sports facilities based in Kiev, out of which grew the famous Dinamo Kiev football club, are also noteworthy.

Another early project was for Izvestia and Pravda, the official newspapers of the Soviet government and Communist Party respectively. Their constructivist buildings housed offices and printing presses. Borrowing from Tatlin, the concept was that they should be open to the masses. To quote the exhibition guide: "The buildings themselves were thus part of the strategy of propaganda, and their modern innovative designs helped transmit the new visual language with which Soviet society was to be constructed".

As the bureaucratic elite tightened its grip on power, the role of these and other institutions changed. Where they had been designed originally to spread propaganda about workers’ democratic control, international solidarity and socialism, they eventually became instruments of Stalinist repression. It is important, moreover, to recognise that no state is a neutral entity. Of whatever political or economic characterisation, all engage in self-promoting propaganda.

Attempts were made to provide workers with more than just basic accommodation. Highly innovative housing solutions were encouraged. Residential buildings combining facilities for communal eating and recreation were common, often including kindergarten, shops, libraries, medical services, even hairdressers. One of the central aims was to free women from domestic burdens so that they could participate as equal members of society, economically independent and fully involved politically and creatively.

Under the Stalinist bureaucracy, however, more conservative modes of living were increasingly imposed to stifle and control society. This meant that plans to make residential areas increasingly social and open were suppressed. In all fields, the revolution was being thrown into reverse. This is where the exhibition falls down. Although it is full of interesting material, it takes a one-sided view of Russian society after the revolution. It does not recognise any difference between the ideals and original aims of the revolution and its eventual degeneration.

The final room of the exhibition deals with the aftermath of Lenin’s death, on 24 January 1924. Aleksai Shchusev was commissioned to design a temporary, wooden mausoleum which was erected in Red Square, Moscow. He then designed a larger wooden structure to cope with the hundreds of thousands of people coming to pay their respects. The exhibition notes that "as the cult of Lenin grew, it was decided in 1929 to replace this structure with a permanent building". But the ‘cult of Lenin’ did not grow organically, it was force-fed by Stalin to bolster his own authority, to strengthen his counter-revolution.

The glaring omission of the exhibition is the lack of the voice of the workers. Nowhere is there any mention of what they thought of the housing schemes, clubs and facilities. There is no mention of the struggle against rising bureaucratic power. In this exhibition, the workers are passive, manipulated by dictatorial rulers. And, according to this schema, there is a straight line from Lenin to Stalin.

This approach reveals other flaws. We read, for example: "This exhibition showcases a range of the extraordinary buildings mostly constructed during the brief period between 1922 and 1930 when the Soviet authorities not only tolerated but embraced avant-garde art forms".

But why and how could artistic freedom be embraced initially then subsequently repressed if the regime had not changed in some way? Neither Lenin nor Trotsky ever dictated that cubo-futurism or constructivism, or any other kind of artistic -ism, had to be adhered to. Why were avant-garde artists only repressed under Stalin? After all, the Royal Academy states that Lenin held a totalitarian, one-party grip on power.

When dealing with Stalin’s clampdown on artistic expression, the Royal Academy unwittingly hits the nail squarely on the head: "Constructivist art and architecture had not been universally admired. Some saw the incorporation of influences from European modernist art and architecture as betraying its national revolutionary ideals". The socialist revolution of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was international. Those who spoke of a betrayal of "national revolutionary ideals", on the other hand, were those advocating ‘socialism in one country’, Stalin’s grotesque distortion of socialist revolution.

Despite these important political criticisms, this exhibition is a rare opportunity to glimpse some of the great achievements of Russia’s planned economy in its early days, its drive and optimism. It is also a sober reminder that the light shone brightly but all too briefly.


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