Royal Academy of Arts, April 2017. 320 p. ill. ISBN 9781910350430 (h/c), $65.00

Reviewed September 2017
Stephen J. Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, Frick Art Reference Library, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

milnerThere have been studies and exhibitions of either Russian avant-garde art or Soviet art, but not usually together. This publication, which accompanies an exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, fills this gap. Its trajectory begins with the October Revolution in 1917, which avant-garde artists enthusiastically embraced, and concludes with the exhibition, Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic during 15 Years, 1917-1932 (Khudozhniki RSFSR za XV let (1917-1932) at the State Russian Museum, Leningrad. Among the 423 artists represented with 1,050 paintings, 1,500 graphic works and ninety sculptures in this exhibition, the only avant-garde exhibitors were Pavel Filonov and Kazimir Malevich. Their inclusion came about through the support of the State Russian Museum Director, Iosif Gurvich, backed by the Leningrad Communist Party leader, Sergei Kirov. Nonetheless, their spaces were located off-the-beaten track, and neither artist had reproductions in the catalog. However the 2017 exhibition restores some of the 1917 avant-garde – Natan Altman, Vasily Kandinsky, Ivan Klyun, El Lissitsky, Lyubov Popova, Ivan Puni, Alexander Rodchenko, Nikolai Suetin, Vladimir Tatlin, etc., and adds sections on film, photography and ceramics, all of which were excluded in the 1932 exhibition.

What is fascinating is how (or whether) artists adjusted to the changing times. Around 1930 the painter Georgy Rublev (1902-1975) painted a portrait of Stalin, who sits slightly off center in a cane chair, roughly painted in white, and reading a copy of the newspaper Pravda (Truth) against – even floating over - a red background, suggestive of a Matisse, with a dog curved at his feet. Throughout his career, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939) preserved his idiosyncratic mixture of realism and fantasy - the title of a wonderful 1925 painting of a rider on a red horse against a landscape that seems to have a miniature Cézanne in the center.

The text contributors are a combination of recognized experts – John E. Bowlt on Petrov-Vodkin, Ian Christie on Soviet film, Christine Lodder on building for socialism, and John Milner on man and machine as well as Malevich – and new and interesting writers such as Masha Chlenova on the 1932 exhibition and Mike O’Mahony on Soviet sport as propaganda. There is a useful chronology by Natalia and Nicholas Murray that parallels events in the political sphere with events in the visual arts, and an excellent index that innovatively incorporates biographies of the artists – I have never seen this before and it is very helpful. There are 216 plates, the majority in color, as well as 113 figures within the text.

This is a landmark exhibition and publication and it should form an essential part of any art library that serves the general public as well as academic audiences.