BY Tom Jeffreys in Opinion | 25 SEP 17
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Issue 6

The Art of Politics

A slew of exhibitions commemorates the centenary of the Russian Revolution 

BY Tom Jeffreys in Opinion | 25 SEP 17

‘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.

Alexander Rodchenko, Kino Glaz (Cine-Eye), 1924, lithograph, 92 x 69 cm. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Scala, Florence  

These ideas were often in conflict. One of the most intriguing pieces in the Royal Academy exhibition was Nikolai Terpsikhorov’s First Motto (1924). The painting is a piece of conventional Realism, depicting an artist in his studio. But he is not shown working on an easel; instead, he is daubing revolutionary slogans onto a large red banner. The disconnect between form and content in Terpsikhorov’s painting, between Realism and activism, takes us to the heart of the (occasionally violent) artistic battles of the era. Championing the Realist tradition established by Ilya Repin were the likes of Alexander Deineka and one-time icon painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin – artists who sought to document the events unfolding around them. On the other hand was the avant-garde, which included artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin, who believed that art ought not only to depict the world but to change it.

A century later, many artists still have the same view. This year, frieze’s April art and protest issue showcased the sheer range within this kind of approach. So, too, does Christine Macel’s ‘Viva Arte Viva’ exhibition for the 57th Venice Biennale, which features numerous artists with a social or political agenda. Other prominent examples include Theaster Gates, who repurposes Chicago’s derelict buildings as arts and community venues, and Jeremy Deller, who co-ordinated a street-art campaign against the Conservative party’s ‘strong and stable’ slogan repeated throughout the UK general election by Theresa May. Assemble won the 2015 Turner Prize for a social housing project; Cornelia Parker has encouraged children to tweet to Donald Trump about climate change. Bulatov’s Forward was unveiled just days after May launched the Conservative manifesto, under the Soviet-sounding banner ‘Forward, Together’. Tate Modern, where Bulatov’s work is displayed, has been a target as well as a champion of such politically motivated gestures. The gallery’s controversial sponsorship by BP has come to an end this year, following an extensive campaign of performance art by groups such as Liberate Tate.

As the Moscow-based curator Katerina Chuchalina argues: ‘Early Soviet practices, their after-effects, resources and ideals are being refunctioned and reworked by contemporary art practices.’ Chuchalina co-curated ‘Space Force Construction’, which was organized with the Art Institute of Chicago for the May launch of the Venice headquarters of V-A-C Foundation, owned by Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson. The exhibition included works by contemporary artists including Abraham Cruzvillegas, Janice Kerbel and Wolfgang Tillmans, alongside pieces from the early years of Communist Russia.

As such exhibitions suggest, great art is not always the best activism: art often revels in a multiplicity of meanings while activism relies on the clarity of the message. We may celebrate Tatlin’s ingenuity today or wonder at Malevich’s strangely faceless peasants but, eventually, it was to Socialist Realism that the Soviets turned to sing their gospel to the rural peasantry.

Under Communism, art that sought tangible political change acted from the centre. Today’s artist activists often see themselves as marginal voices speaking up against Capitalism’s iniquities. But when they profit from sales of their work, it’s easy to recast them as members of the ‘liberal elite’. Has the market blunted art’s political power? When does activism become propaganda?

In 1917, avant-garde artists believed that art ought not only to depict the world but to change it. A century later, many artists still have the same view. 

Navigating these contradictions at this year’s Venice Biennale are artists such as Nika Autor and Mark Bradford. Los Angeles-based Bradford, primarily known for his abstract paintings, also runs Art + Practice in his home city to support a local foster-care provider and encourage education and culture. In addition to his installation in the US Pavilion, Bradford helped a Venice-based co-operative group that works with prisoners to enable them to set up a shop in the city. Autor, meanwhile, draws upon 1960s newsreel activism and earlier pioneers such as Dziga Vertov, whose 1929 documentary of urban life, Man with a Movie Camera, is one of the seminal pieces of early Soviet cinema. For Autor, film offers a way beyond the opposition between showing and doing: to bear witness is both to speak and to act. But where Vertov’s work served the desires of the Soviet state, Autor’s bites the hand that feeds her. For Slovenia’s contribution to the biennale, she showed Newsreel 63 (2017), a moving-image collage that not only examines early photography and agitprop film footage but also draws attention to the plight of refugees on the Belgrade–Ljubljana rail line. In the richly fascinating accompanying catalogue, Thomas Waugh describes Autor’s works as ‘eloquent state-funded denunciations of the Slovenian state that Autor is both representing and “representing”’.

A hundred years on, parallels between 2017 and 1917 are inescapable. Now, as then, much of the world seems to tremble on the cusp of great change. There are many differences: the UK is no longer a major world power; Trump’s belief in ‘America First’ is in marked contrast to US President Woodrow Wilson’s interventionism between 1913 and 1921; and, in Russia, it is the authoritarian, retrogressive Right rather than a utopian Left that holds the reins of power. Should we look to learn the lessons of history or dream up visions of a better future? Can art change the world once more? That remains to be seen. Incidentally, the four sculptures that comprise Bulatov’s Forward form a circle. Revolution comes right round again. 

Main image: Nikolaj Terpsikhorov, First Motto, 1924, oil on canvas, 88 x 103 cm. Courtesy: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).