FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Art and architecture beyond the revolution

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 19, 2017

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has seen the opening of a couple of new exhibitions in London – Imagine Moscow at the Design Museum (15th March – 4th June 2017) and Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 at the Royal Academy (11th February — 17th April 2017) which both explore the seemingly limitless boundaries in both art and architecture during the early years of the new state. Over the past two weekends I enjoyed visits to both and came away with some surprising highlights.

The Design Museum in Kensington, London

I have long been astounded by some of the imaginative buildings proposed for Moscow so the new exhibition “Imagine moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution” at the Design Museum was always going to fascinate me.

A full size 4 metre long reconstruction of Lenin’s index finger, which was intended to point from the top of the Palace of the Soviets towards his mausoleum, makes you appreciate the vast scale of the unrealised plans of Boris Iofan and his contemporaries. It’s hard to appreciate just how much Moscow would have been altered by all of these vast schemes, but the footage on a loop from Aleksandr Medvedkin’s 1938 film “New Moscow” gives you a good idea. No room for cathedral spires or ancient towers in this vision!

As astonishing as these designs were, it was a couple of the smaller exhibits that intrigued me the most. The first was a copy of “About Two Squares” (1922), a suprematist childrens book authored by El Lissitzky telling the story of a black and red square that come to earth from space. It’s a strikingly bold approach to teaching children about the new Soviet order, but it’s hard to imagine this being a tale that would have won many hearts and minds.

The second exhibit that caught my eye was a Ne Boltai poster from the new state’s drive to improve the literacy of the population. The poster by M. M. Litzvak (1925) is a call to all citizens to take note that a library was being installed in the restaurant wagon of every train – with an image of a trio of ordinary workers engrossed in books to re-inforce the point.

On top of all this, it’s terrific to explore the interior of the relatively recently re-opened design museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute building) now that the crowds have eased a little and neighbouring Holland Park is a delight at this time of year with its vast swathes of daffodils.

The astonishing roof of the Design Museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute building)

There are some pleasing overlaps between the two exhibitions. Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 includes a rather marvellous urn “Commemoration of the Flight of a Russian Dirigible from Moscow to New York Piloted by Three Soviet Airmen” (c. 1932) shows the Palace of the Soviets on one side and the Empire State Building on the other (if the Palace had been completed these would have been the two tallest buildings in the world).

The two exhibitions complement each other quite nicely in other ways too – for example, you get a full-scale recreation of an apartment designed for communal living at the Royal Academy and then at the Design Museum see some of the imaginative buildings devised to create communal spaces that would break the mould of family life.

The highlights of the exhibition at the Royal Academy for me were some of the hidden treasures of the twentieth century – such as Kliment Redko’s painting “Insurrection” (1925) and Georgy Rublev’s “Portrait of Joseph Stalin” (. 1930) which are both on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. These two paintings were hidden from view for entirely different reasons.

As his view of the revolution soured Kliment Redko drew upon his early years as an icon painter and in “Insurrection” created a striking image of Lenin at the heart of a city ablaze – it’s a quite extrordinary painting with incredible detail, from the workers on the march to the disciples surrounding him. It’s hard to imagine that Lenin’s displacement of Christ was meant to be viewed as a positive development.

In contrast, Georgy Rublev gives us an informal painting of Stalin quite unlike anything that I have seen before. Stalin looks decidely relaxed as he sits cross-legged, reading Pravda, in a rattan chair with a dog curled at his feet. It clearly sprang from a far less critical place than Redko’s work but was no less unshowable, only emerging after his death.

The sheer variety of exhibits in the Royal Academy exhibition makes it a pleasure to wander. I can’t say that all of the artworks appealed to me but they certainly captured my interest for an hour or so.

If this wasn’t enough, there is another exhibition of Soviet art coming along later this year. Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern (8th November 2017 – 18th February 2018) looks set to show us the development of Russian and Soviet art from the 1905 revolution to the death of Stalin in 1953. I’m certainly happy to see some more!

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