London’s Royal Academy of Arts recently presented an exhibition of Russian and Soviet art from 1917-1932.
Although some fine works are on display, much of the press around the exhibition has been full of ‘fake art news’ regarding the history of modern Russian art.
This is no surprise seeing as the Royal Academy has its own dubious relationship with one of the Soviet Union’s global antagonists, the CIA. For anyone planning on going to the exhibition, here are some helpful real facts about modern Russian art and culture.
When Ivan IV proclaimed himself Tsar of All the Russians 1547, Russia began to emerge as one of the world’s most powerful states. Some foreign observers characterise pre-Soviet Russia by Nikolai I’s mid-19th century policy of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nation(Правосла́вие, самодержа́вие, наро́дность), but this difficult to translate phrase belies the reality of a Russian society which has always been amongst the most multicultural in the world.
The Russian state has at various times encompassed cultures ranging from the Muslim lands of central Asia to the Roman Catholic and Protestant lands of central and eastern Europe. Russia’s geographic immensity has in turn created a culture that is uniquely Eurasian, blending visual, musical, intellectual and spiritual traditions from the many cultures within the Russian state. At no time in Russian history was this cacophony of cultures more explosive than in the 20th century.
(1) 1900-1917(When Future Met Past)
Prior to the October Revolution of 1917, Russian art was at its most cosmopolitan, but rarely did Russian artists sever ties to their culture which was often far removed from prevailing European trends. In the visual arts, the realism associated with the Peredvizhniki(Передви́жники) group continued to captivate imaginations with scenes portraying a wide array of Russian lifestyles and landscapes.
Simultaneously, many Russians began looking to the future as the turn of the 20th century brought new technological and philosophical ideas into Russian minds.
Composer Alexander Scriabin (Алекса́ндр Скря́бин) typified this new outlook. At the turn of the 20th century, Scriabin became regarded as Russia’s most important composer since Tchaikovsky, combining romantic tendencies with radically new concepts concerning polyphony and dissonance.
Like many of his contemporaries, Scriabin was informed equally by the post-Enlightenment thought of Europeans like Nietzsche and Freud as he was by ancient Russian mysticism. The ecumenical spiritualist Helena Blavatsky(Еле́на Блава́тская) proved to be one of the most lasting influences on Scriabin’s philosophical outlook. Scriabin’s own theory on the relation of colour to sound likewise resonated across the culture.
The age of Scriabin was also the age of Kandinsky (Канди́нский) and the abandonment by Kandinsky of traditional realistic forms paralleled Scriabin’s abandonment of traditional romantic idioms.
(2) 1917-1930 (Innovation And Revolution)
The decade after The October Revolution and subsequent civil and foreign wars, saw Russian culture explode with highly original concepts. Against the backdrop of the abolition of the pre-1917 social order, liberalised laws on birth control and homosexuality, and a new emphasis on mass education, artists from all fields began to experiment. Constructivist architecture emphasised the unity of material and shape whilst experiments with conductorless orchestras spoke to a more egalitarian age.
The technology which had captivated many earlier thinkers was now becoming the reality of everyday life across Russia. Lenin’s GOELRO Plan (план ГОЭЛРО) reflected the Communist leader’s desire to bring electricity to every Soviet street and village. With the gradual growth of electricity came film, a medium embraced both by Russian artists and the Communist Party.
Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov’s use of light and shadow to communicate themes of fraternity and struggles against oppression became the cinematic inspiration for European and American innovators such as Leni Riefenstahl and Orson Welles. Avant-garde painting also reached its zenith after 1917 as artists ranging from Pavel Filonov (Па́вел Фило́нов) to Russian Pole Kazimir Malevich challenged previous conceptions about the nature of painting. Vladimir Mayakovsky (Влади́мир Маяко́вский) became the literary champion of the post-Revolutionary zeitgeist, writing poems that continue to resonate across the Russian speaking world. Not only was art changing rapidly in the 1920s, but so too was the background of artists.
In pre-Soviet times, the fine arts were largely the reserve of the aristocratic whilst after 1917 all Soviet citizens were given increasing opportunities to receive artistic training. Whilst many eyes were on the future in the 1920s, one must remember that even the most futuristic Russian artists retained a measure of influence from Russian spiritual traditions ranging from the mystical to the Orthodox. Thus even in the age where Communism broke Orthodoxy’s union with the state, Russians continued to be deeply informed by prior traditions.
(3) 1930-1947 (The Triumph of Realism and Patriotism).
Soviet society changed profoundly after Stalin consolidated his leadership in the 1930s. Many socially liberal laws of the 1920s were quickly repealed to reflect a new, more centralised leadership.
In architecture, constructivism gave way to what is retrospectively called Stalinist architecture, a uniquely Soviet style which combined neo-classical grandeur with Soviet iconography on an erstwhile unprecedented scale. At this time many so-called avant-garde artists left Soviet soil to continue their work in Europe and North America.
As avant-garde painting declined a new school of art arose which would dominate the Soviet Union till the 1990s. Socialist Realism looked back to previous realistic traditions, whilst making use of contemporary painting techniques. Crucially unlike previous styles of realism, Socialist Realism imparted a clearly defined didacticism.
Socialist Realism ranged from inspirational historical paintings and paintings of Soviet leaders, to scenes from everyday life. In the 1930s Socialist Realist sculptors began pioneering a style of Soviet sculpture that can be seen on monuments and edifices throughout the world to this day.
The sound-films of the 1930s allowed Soviet composers to write scores to films which were increasingly produced during Stalin’s reign. The most prominent Soviet composers Shostakovich (Шостакович), Prokofiev (Прокофьев) and Khachaturian (Хачатурян/ Խաչատրյան) each provided numerous film scores during this time. The outbreak of the Great Patriotic War saw artists contributing greatly to the war effort. Shostakovich’s most enduring orchestral work, his 7th symphony was dedicated to the heroes of the siege of Leningrad.
Socialist realist painters were enlisted to keep moral high by painting triumphalist portraits of soldiers whilst denouncing the fascist enemy. Some of Socialist Realism’s most enduring sculptures were erected after 1945 in the form of war memorials which were erected in the Soviet Union and in countries where the Red Army won decisive battles.
(4) 1947-1964 (From Zhdanov to Khrushchev)
No man shaped post-war cultural policy more than Andrei Zhdanov (Андре́й Жда́нов).
Zhdanov took a hard line against all forms of avant-garde and abstract art. Zhdanov condemned ‘formalism’ in the arts; this is to say, art where the form or methodology is perceived as eclipsing a socially pertinent meaning. Zhdanov’s theories whilst very much a product of Stalin’s age, continue to speak to the controversy over whether highly abstract art possesses the ability to resonate with the masses.
Interestingly, this was a time when the CIA was actively promoting obscure and abstract arts to try and feign a western superiority vis-a-vis the USSR, when in the Soviet Union, art that was considered meaningful and moving to ordinary citizens remained favoured by the artistic establishment.
Even artists who had contributed to the war effort were not immune as the infamous Zhdanov decree of 1947 which simultaneously proscribed Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian, the last of whom was an enthusiastic Communist.
Although Zhdanov died in 1948, his policies remained mostly unchanged until the death of Stalin in 1953.
The post-war era was a fruitful time for architects as mass building projects were inaugurated, particularly in the ‘hero cities’ (город-герой) that bore the brunt of destruction during the war. Whilst Stalinism remained a dominant form of architecture in the late 40s and early 50s, eventually many Soviet architects began pioneering brutalism.
Brutalism became a dominant feature in Soviet cityscapes in the decades after the Great Patriotic War. The so-called ‘Khrushchev Thaw’ reached into the arts as many of the individuals proscribed under Stalin were publically rehabilitated. This included those proscribed in 1947 by Zhdanov.
The thaw saw the emergence of new avant-garde and abstract artists although their numbers were far lower than those working in the area of Socialist Realism. In spite of this, one event from this era remains emblematic of the disconnect between avant-garde artists and the government of the day. The incident took place in 1962 where Khrushchev viewed an exhibition of artists at the Moscow Manege. Upon seeing the avant-garde works, Khrushchev condemned the art as ‘horse shit’.
Just two years later Khrushchev was out of power, but his condemnation relegated much avant-garde art to the periphery of society where it would remain until the mid-1980s.
Today, Russian culture, like Russian society reflects a combination of comfort, curiosity and healthy criticism of the past. Contemporary composers, painters, sculptors and architects in Russia are as comfortable with international styles as they are with paying homage to Russia’s rich cultural heritage.
Whilst the 1990s was a time when Russia’s depressed economy meant that many individuals from outside Russia were able to purchase Russian masterworks for insanely low prices. Today, Russian art collectors are preserving and buying back much of Russia’s cultural heritage.
Russia’s art scene is commercially healthy. One can hope that with all of Russia’s young talent, a new great revolution in art may yet again be born in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.