I went to see the Russian Art exhibition that is on at the Royal Academy.
It’s quite a large exhibition. It describes a fifteen-year period following the Russian Revolution when artists working in many different media (painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics), representing various different schools, including a new avant-garde movement, made art for a new Russia. A post-revolutionary Russia where the old, imperialist ideas and religion were dispensed with in favour of industry, collectivism and the state. Interestingly, it seems that Stalin took art much more seriously than Lenin. He knew that, under his reign of terror, he could make individual artists disappear if they said counter-revolutionary things, but he could not reduce the impact of their work. And that is why Stalin eventually decreed that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable art form and the avant-garde was suppressed.
I was very interested indeed to see the painted cups and plates. An Imperial Porcelain Factory was founded in St Petersburg in 1744. For 150 years it produced ceramics of the highest quality which were hand-painted. These items were for the use of the monarchy and the imperial court. After the revolution the factory was seized and renamed the State Porcelain Factory and artists began to paint the plates and cups with propaganda images that would suit the new regime.
I was particularly taken with this plate, painted by Mikhail Adamovich in 1924. It shows Lenin’s mausoleum (Lenin died in 1924 which is when Stalin took over). I had never seen ceramics painted in that style before. It uses enamel paint and gilding. The exhibition features quite a lot of these ceramics and now I want to get some plain, white plates and paint them.
A section of the exhibition focuses on Symbolism, a romantic and idealistic style of painting that was left over from the 19th century and threatened by the new Soviet politics. It regularly focused on religious subjects and argued for the preservation of churches and the Christian faith. While I personally disapprove of Christianity, there is no denying the beauty of Russian Symbolist paintings.
Mikhail Nesterov, Philosophers, 1917 (the philosophers are Russian orthodox theologians Pavel Florensky, in white, and Sergei Bulgakov, in black).
Konstantin Yuon, The Day of Annunciation, 1922
Finally, a little sport. Both these paintings are by Alexander Samokhvalov, 1932 (Girl in a Football Jersey, right) and 1933 (Sportswoman with a Shot-put, left). Before the revolution, sport was for wealthy, leisured men. After the revolution, efforts were made to extend sport to everyone, especially women. Physical education of the young was regarded as very important for producing fit and healthy Communist citizens and future soldiers.
Annual sports parades were held in Moscow’s Red Square during this period. Here’s a video of one such parade in the 1930s. The film is edited so that Stalin regularly appears, looking approving.
The exhibition continues until 17 April.