Revolutionary Red

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 (Royal Academy of Arts, 11 February-17 April 2017)

There were revolutions in Russian art before the turbulent events of 1917. There were artists who painted shape and colour, constructivists, people like Lyubov Popova, who rejected figurative art, and there was Malevich, with his variations on the black square. Revolutionary thinking requires revolutionary representation — except that there’s a line of left wing thinkers who prefer the photographic and the realistic. There’s an argument that realist art — especially in the written form — evolved to document commodities (see the patron and his stuff); soviet socialist realism ended up in a similar place. And the avant garde adapted or died. Or both.

The Royal Academy has brought together a large number of Russian paintings from 1917 to the mid-1930s, tracing some of the routes that artists took over almost two decades, from the October Revolution to the early days of Stalin’s purges. It’s too rich a brew to do full justice to, and I only wish I had my O Level notes on the revolution to hand. There were lots of photos — of workers, of artists, of politicians — and some of them seemed to echo the work of Stieglitz and Strand from about the same time. I’m guessing there’s crossover between the two.

The first room dealt with the image of Vladimir Lenin, the great leader the Germans let through to try and shift the balance on their Eastern Front. The Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government of the February Revolution, nationalised various companies and redistributed land. A massive personality cult clearly developed around cult — suppressing opposition. Isaak Brodsky’s Vladimir Lenin and a Demonstration has the leader in a dark coat, arm stretched out to his right on a sheet of paper, with a crowd behind him, presumably revolting. Behind him is a red sheet, not quite a curtain, too furled to be a flag, red for communism or perhaps red for blood. The same artist’s Lenin in Smolny (1930) is even more realist, depicting Lenin writing in a chair which is covered with a sheet, placed on bare wooden floor boards. The Central Committee of the Soviets was initially located in the Smolny Institute for Young Noble Ladies in Petrograd and this is where a life-size Lenin (dead by 1930, of course) is hard at work he could almost be Thomas Hardy. Kliment Redko’s Insurrection (1925) is an extraordinary image — a rectangular canvas of much darkness, with Lenin in the centre in front of a burning fire, surrounded by soldiers in a diamond shape, with fighting coming from the corners. The painting was hidden until 1980 — Lenin’s icon status forbidden. Georgy Rublev’s Portrait of Joseph Stalin (1930) has the dictator sat in a white, possibly wicker chair, for all the world a Habitat seat, and in a white suit. He is reading a newspaper, I assume Pravda. The background is an orange red, and almost invisible on this is a dog. I’m really not sure how to read this — unsurprisingly the painting was not exhibited whilst Stalin lived.

There was more experimental stuff alongside this realism. Natan Altman’s Russian Labour (1921) is abstract, sculpture as much as painting consisting of paper, enamel and charcoal on mahogany. Several of Popova’s Space-Force Construction (1921) show her stripes and curves of colour. Pavel Filonov’s Formula occurs in several versions, almost superimposed surreal images within images colours, almost like Richard Gadd in their obsessive detail. More experimentation can be found in Ivan Klyun’s Objective Painting According to the Principle of Light-Colour 1921. Then there’s Konstantin Yuon’s extraordinary New Planet (1921): red and yellow planets and moons on a landscape, a group of figures reaching up to a red planet. It is revolution as science fiction.

Of course, Malevich with his black square is one off the most challenging figures — this is a later copy I believe, but we’ve not long seen versions at Tate Modern and The Whitechapel Art Gallery. Malevich is represented from the Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic exhibition, held 1932-33 in what was then Leningrad – a Black Square, Red Square, coloured figures like crash test dummies, small white models, archons, architectural maquettes… remarkably all but one of the paintings survived. In 1932 this was apparently marginalised, but here it is clearly a highlight.

But the avant garde is countered by revolutionary realism and counter revolutionary realism. There are the paintings of peasants and supervisors and the electrification of the Soviet Union — the great shift from feudal society to an attempt at modenrnity, unsurprisingly doomed to failure. And one that led to thousands starving (which was hardly new). Konstantin Rozhdestvensky’s Family in a Field (1932) with spectrum strips of colour blue to red for the fields and horizon and sky, with an impressionist worker with sickle in the foreground. Suprematism meets realism. In a section of Eternal Russia, the art shows nostalgia for the old days and a wish to preserve the old ways, the old religion. We have birch trees by a lake — and I suspect the tree often presents the idea of national identity (see John Dahl and Caspar David Friedrich). Then there’s Marc Chagall’s celebration of his wife, Promenade (1917-18), a flying purple woman levitating above a green self portrait. There’s an almost Cubist green landscape and a pink church.

If you didn’t have a flying wife, then maybe you could avail yourself of one of Vladimir Tatlin’s worker’s flying bicycles — part glider, part dragonfly, likely as successful as Icarus’ feathers and wax, and tempting to see it as a metaphor for the Russian revolution’s utopian project. The Academy suspends a replica in its octagonal room, where I last saw Rothkos, and I was transfixed by the shadows and its slow rotation.

And then a room devoted to Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, whose Beside Lenin’s Coffin was in the first room. He’s lying in a red orange casket, green plants either side, mourners in the background. It is at his trademark raised angle, looking down forty five degrees. Petrov-Vodkin was inspired by Renaissance art he saw in Italy, notably Giotto and Fra Angelico. His Petrograd Madonna (1918 in Petrograd) balances a blue background and pink foreground, with the peasant in a green dress and a head scarf, clearly and definitely not being Mary. The icon tradition lives on.

His landscape Midday. Summer (1917) shows a fecundity the five year plans were grasping for with apples, a farmer, cattle, and in the middle of the landscape, the funeral of the artist’s father. This breaks chronology, of course.

We end with Stalin’s utopia — images of sports, marches, displays, collages and footage of the destruction of a cathedral, alongside a model of a planned replacement. And a photo of Joseph Stalin. Meanwhile, a booth has names and pictures of the shot, the executed, the exiled and the imprisoned. It is sobering.

This is no straight forward celebration of Soviet art and propaganda. You need a tin ear to hear that. Throughout the exhibition we read of the fate of many figures in the arts — disappeared, starved, sidelined. Life under the tzars had not been great — their overthrow hardly improved much. And as for perestroika…. well, we are where we are.

Because You’re Hepworth It

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (Tate Britain, 24 June-25 October 2015)

I’ve already written a rather grumpy account of this exhibition, which has a few things that annoyed me. I should also add that the plinths bearing the sculptures could do with a second label describing the work, since sod’s law meant that on almost every occasion I would look at the other three sides first. Sometimes, of course, the label turns out to be on the wall. Grr.

I was fairly sure, however, that the work would transcend my caveats — and so, having read the catalogue, I went back for a second look.

WakefieldMeanwhile, up in Wakefield, the Hepworth is showing a film of the 1968 Tate Hepworth retrospective made by Bruce Beresford. What strikes me immediately about this is how many of the works of art are freely visible and not behind glass. I guess that she was still alive then and could have repaired anything that got broken — the insurance is presumably much higher now. It is so frustrating though. We’re told (she tells us? — and I get the sense from this film of Hepworth speaking unlike the bloody awful Dudley Ashton Shaw Sculpture in a Landscape documentary where a highly theatrical Cecil Day-Lewis intones Jacquetta Hawkes’s poetry in an odd example of barking despite having a dog of your own) that she is interested in the oval, the vertical and the human. From my notes — maybe from the film — I’ve written

inner and outer form, nut in shell, child in womb, shell/crystal, puritanical and geometric spiritual

And then I’ve added (and this is me): modern or romantic (and that is a ponder for another post).

So we’ll walk through the rooms again — beginning with the maze of vitrines. This is her early handcarvings, broadly speaking figurative, realist, mimetic. There are animals, torsos, seated figures and a baby. These works are direct carved on various kinds of wood and marble, and the missing name here is Leon Underwood, who seems to have been the master of the technique.

Hepworth’s shown here among her contemporaries, largely — husband John Skeaping, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein and I noted two women, Ursula Edgcumbe and Elsie Henderson for future reference. The cynical side of me wonders if this downplays her — she was not unique. Skeaping’s Buffalo (1930) in lapis lazuli is beautiful and I think her side by side doves (1927) are better than Epstein’s one on top of the other (1914-15), but frankly you want your Picasso for doves and Epstein’s strengths lie elsewhere. The positive side is that she can hold her own in a wider community of sculptors between the wars. Infant (1929) is perhaps the most striking, the narrow Torso (1932), made from African blackwood and more like a totem, is the most Hepworthian.

By this point, of course, she had been born in Wakefield in 1903 and studied art in Leeds (meeting that Henry Moore chappy), moving to London where it was as cheap and as easy to get to Paris and Europe than back to Yorkshire. (There’s your north/south divide in a nutshell.) She was runner up to a prize that took her to Italy and which was to inspire her work and led her to marry the actual winner, John Skeaping.

She split from Skeaping in 1933 — the catalogue suggests in part that he was not sympathetic to her Christian Science — and had already met Ben Nicholson who at that point (1931) was married to the artist Winifred Nicholson. The two became lovers and moved in together. So in the second room we have the fruits of their lives together, with artists of different ages inspiring each other. The cynical reading is he helped her, the radical reading is she helped her. I write as a fan of Ben Nicholson — who triangulated romantic landscape, still life, abstraction and the faux naïf. His landscapes flatten into abstraction, and through the 1920s and 1930s the shapes became simplified into squares and rectangles — in time he met with Mondrian, although I think the link was more through Winifred. In time he removed colour, to produce a kind of white, almost flat, sculpture. His art seems to be an exploration of how much can be removed from an image and remain something you can see.

It has to be said that the influence of Hepworth on Nicholson is more obvious than the reverse — I’d be clearer in seeing her as a muse to him than vice versa. Throughout his pictures there are a series of double faces in profile, reduced to lines, intersecting, overlapping, Mr and Mrs. We see this motif in her self portrait in sonogram, and perhaps in one of the sculptures where the face appears to be two intersecting faces. It wasn’t immediately clear what else aesthetically she was getting out of the deal, beyond shifting to a point when she gave more abstract descriptive names for her work. Perhaps he gave her a scratchier sensibility. He was apparently more sympathetic to her religious beliefs than Skeaping had been.

With Nicholson she travelled again in mainland Europe, meeting Hans Arp, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. She contributed photos of her work to art journals such as Circle and Abstraction-Création (which included Marlow Moss, I see, and had odd ideas about alphabetical order). Mondrian was later to live downstairs from them in London, before his final move to New York. A lot of her pieces of the later 1930s seem to be two smooth pieces — often discs, placed together on a plinth. Apparently both pieces weren’t necessarily fixed, so a degree of adjustment could then be made. Among these pieces were works called Mother and Child — the Madonna and Child trope being oddly missing from the first room — although apparently she broke from tradition by having these as distinct rather than single pieces.


In 1943, she seems to have started adding string to her work. I seem to recall Moore did something similar, but I don’t know who got there first. Sculpture and Colour (Oval Form) Pale Blue and Red (see what I mean about those titles?) is white, almost eye shaped, but hollowed out with two holes. In one you can see the blue interior, and red strings from the edge of the hole to a single, vanishing, point. It is as if goes to infinity. Through the other, side, hole, you can see the strings from a different angle.

By the fourth room we’re up to the Second World War. One side has some of the drawings and paintings she did in a hospital of various operations, after her daughter was ill, apparently intrigued by the similarities between doctors’ and artists’ hands — and I think I saw more of these at Mascalls Gallery once. You need a strong nerve. Another wall has more abstract pieces — the exegetical text tells us she didn’t have time or space for more during the war, but the Hepworth in Wakefield notes the way that she used two dimensional work as a way into sculpture as well as on its own merits. But central to the room are four pieces of carved wood, Pendour (1947), Pelagos (1946), Wave (1943-44) and Oval Sculpture (1943), some plane, some elm, all but hollowed out and curled. They perhaps have the look of hazelnuts nibbled by squirrels, but are beautiful and the best pieces in the exhibition.


By the fifth room time begins to trip over itself. At some point she’s moved to St Ives and has a studio where she lives with a garden space and has rented the Palais de Danse as a second studio. She has become more ambitious, wanting to make bigger pieces; the catalogue notes her wish to crack America. Around three walls we see photos of some of her works in the studio and in situ, her big pieces for Mullard electronics (1956), John Lewis (1963) and the United Nations (1961-64), and we also see her montages imagining sculpture in rural or modernist locations. This is also the room with the ropey documentary.

Behind it, the exhibition redeems itself — four pieces made from a heavy African wood called guarer. The catalogue explains there is a mystery as to who got the wood for her and who paid for it, and what happened to the parts left over. They are larger cousins to the wooden pieces in the previous room; they seem to be experiments in how much you can take away from a form and still have some form.

Ah, you can look, but you mustn’t touch…

Finally, there’s the recreation of the Rietveld Pavilion (1956); concrete air bricks for a wall, partly filled in, some kind of wooden roof, and (here) an end wall purporting to be forest. Hepworth’s work was shown here in 1965 and since. It doesn’t fool us we’re outside, but there are five or so bronze pieces. Some have forms within forms, are twisted, some might be weathered anvils. These are clearly not mimetic, but nor do they feel organic — they are their own thing. Their sublime beauty is enough to make you forget that it’s not until 1975 that Hepworth died, in a fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Hepworth is at her best in St Ives and Wakefield and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and at the front of Tate Britain and in a garden on Attebury Street.