The Royal Academy has rolled out the red carpet to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution. You ascend its grand staircase toward Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32, with its marble clad in scarlet. Portraits of Lenin and Stalin kick proceedings off, most are of the usual head and shoulders kind, but I was taken with this kaleidoscopic vision of Lenin marching.
Then the workers take over. We see outsize peasants striding out through Russian cities and workers striding purposefully toward a bright new socialist future.
Where will the workers live? In new modern flats with sleek lines. One of these efficient living spaces designed by El Lissitzky is on display. No kitchen, because eating should be a communal and not a solitary occupation. I wonder if people smuggled in paraffin stoves?
Immediately after the revolution all sorts of art flourished which were celebrated in 1932 with an exhibition at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad (as it was then called). Abstract artist Kazimir Malevich was honoured with a whole room, which is recreated at the Royal Academy.
Almost immediately after the exhibition Stalin began to clamp down on the types of art that were allowed. Abstraction was out and social realism was in. Lots of strapping healthy workers, like this young girl in what looks like a Newcastle United football strip.
When Stalin changed his mind about the kind of art that he wanted produced he didn’t simply get new artists in. He sent the old ones to gulags. Right at the end of the exhibition is a room with a slide show of the mug shots of those that were sent into internal exile many of them never to return. Sober thoughts to take back down those red stairs.
REVOLUTION: RUSSIAN ART 1917-32
11 February 2017 – 17 April 2017
Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London
Open: Daily 10am – 6pm (Fridays 10pm)
Admission: Adults £16, concessions available