A new exhibition opens at the Royal Academy this week marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution by exploring the art made in that country in the 15 years after 1917, the period until Stalin began his violent suppression of the avant-garde. Jewish artists are, unsurprisingly, well represented in this exhibition as, following years of antisemitism and oppression under the Tsars, Jews embraced the revolutionary ideals and became involved with the government, in the hope that the new social order with new rules would improve their lives.
One such artist was Marc Chagall, who exhibition curator Dr Natalia Murray tells me was “one of the most important artists for the formation of not only 20th century Russian art but European modernism.” Chagall wrote of his enthusiasm for the Revolution, saying it “shook me with a full force that overpowered the individual, his essence, pouring across the borders of imagination and bursting into the most intimate world of images that turn themselves into part of the Revolution.” Something of this sentiment can be found in his 1917 painting Promenade which shows Chagall taking a walk in his home town of Vitebsk with his beloved wife Bella, who flies up above him, waving like a flag, suggesting something of the freedom, exuberance and excitement of the time. Chagall served as Comissar of Arts in Vitebsk where he organised revolutionary street decorations and was Director of the People’s Art School. However, his enthusiasm for the Revolution did not last. At one point Party officials asked him what his flying animals had to do with Marx and Lenin. In 1922, Chagall obtained permission to leave the country and the couple settled in Paris.
Also on show at the RA will be works by Isaak Brodsky, another Jewish artist, much less well-known in the west, who, however, is renowned in Russia as a forefather of socialist realism in particular for his portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Born in Sofievka in the Ukraine in 1884, he studied first at the Odessa School of Arts and then received one of the few places reserved for Jews at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. Briefly involved in the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of Arts in 1916, he always acknowledged his Jewish heritage and wrote in his memoirs of the antisemitism he experienced prior to the Revolution. He was one of a number of young artists who became involved in the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR), a neo-Realist group created in 1922. Its declaration ambitiously announced: “Our civic duty before mankind is to set down, artistically or documentarily, the revolutionary impulse of this great moment in history.”
Recognisable portraits of the Bolshevik leaders were important as there was a huge problem with illiteracy at the time and Brodsky’s portraits certainly make it easy to recognise Lenin. Natalia Murray explains the importance of these portraits: “As early as 1917 Brodsky started attending political meetings in order to sketch Lenin writing, speaking and smiling. He created the whole gallery of portraits of Lenin, striving to humanise rather than monumentalise the leader.” Two of these portraits are included in the exhibition. In one, the Bolshevik leader is depicted standing against a red flag-like drapery, a workers’ demonstration taking place behind him. However, as Murray points out, the portrait of him in the Smolny Institute, headquarters of the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, was the best known. “Although an official portrait, it is an intimate depiction of Lenin contemplating a letter which is still waiting to be written. A chair opposite him is inviting the viewer to join him and an electric socket on the wall reminds one of electrification of Russia. Reproduced thousands of times in all school text books, this painting became the most iconic depiction of Lenin in the Soviet Union.” Brodsky remained popular throughout his life and painted Stalin as well as Lenin. The exhibition also includes his painting celebrating the daring and commitment of an anonymous worker who is precariously balanced on scaffolding on the construction site of the Dneiper River dam.
Brodsky had a very successful career in Russia culminating with his appointment as Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in Leningrad. He built up an important collection of Russian art and after his death, his apartment on Arts Square in St. Petersburg was declared a national museum and can still be visited today.
Another Jew well known for his portraits was Moisei Nappelbaum who became the leading Soviet photographer. “He took numerous well known portraits of prominent revolutionaries, cultural figures and scientists,” says Murray. “In January of 1918, Nappelbaum created a number of portraits of Lenin. He was the only Soviet photographer to receive the title Honoured Artist of the Republic. Six of his portraits of Soviet cultural heroes will be included in our exhibition.”
Whilst Brodsky’s style of painting was conventional and academic, the Revolution was also marked by the work of a number of avant-garde artists led by Kasimir Malevich who produced abstract works often based on geometric shapes, a style they termed as Constructivism. A number of Jews were prominent in this group, among them El (Eliezer) Lissitzky, Nathan Altman and David Shterenberg, the latter was Head of the Visual Arts Department of People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment. Murray particularly draws attention to Nathan Altman’s contribution. For the first anniversary of the Revolution he was entrusted with the most important task — decorations of the very heart of the Petrograd Palace Square (re-named after the October Revolution, Uritky Square) transforming this epitomy of classical architecture with cubist forms.
The exhibition also includes recreations of El Lissitzky’s architectural designs as well as a variety of other objects including photography, sculpture, film, posters and porcelain featured alongside paintings. With more than 200 works included from Russian private and public collections, this is a rare opportunity to study the art made to celebrate the Revolution a hundred years ago, much of which still looks fresh and avant-garde today.
Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 11 February to 17 April 2017.