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Building the Revolution

Soviet Art and Architecture 1915 – 1935

Written by . Published on November 1st 2011.


Building the Revolution

THIS weekend, the Royal Academy of Arts opened its doors to its newest exhibition, a celebration of Soviet architecture and art during one of the most turbulent periods of modern history. Building the Revolution covers a defining period for the fledgling Soviet Union, encompassing how through art and architecture this once Imperial backwater in the East would eventually come to define and create many of the most significant historical events of the twentieth century.

Once entering the Royal Academy, the gilt and frescoed rooms of the gallery spaces provide an idea of what Imperial Russia may have once been like in the minds of the revolutionaries, in many ways providing the perfect prelude to the more austere and contemporary work the Soviets embraced.

The communist revolution which swept through Russia and much of eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War I bought nearly 150 million people under Soviet leadership. The old bourgeois legacy of the Tsars was to be completely eradicated, whilst every aspect of life from the media right through to what art and architecture was to represent was now closely monitored and influenced by the new progressive left wing leaders, under the close watch of Vladimir Lenin – the young leader of the red revolutionaries.

In many respects, one cannot imagine a less suitable venue for an exhibition of Socialist art and architecture. Walking to the Royal Academy past the Ritz, Bond Street and Fortnum and Mason – nowhere in London could be further removed from the Socialist ideologies and ideas the visitor is about to immerse themselves in. Once entering the Royal Academy, the gilt and frescoed rooms of the gallery spaces provide an idea of what Imperial Russia may have once been like in the minds of the revolutionaries, in many ways providing the perfect prelude to the more austere and contemporary work the Soviets embraced.

The first thing which strikes the visitor is in the grand courtyard which sits in front of the Academy. Rising through the centre of the square, a sculpture of steel and mesh, an introduction to the way in which the Soviets sought to build the revolution and change the face of Russia forever. The sculpture is in fact a 1:40 scale model of Tatlin’s Tower, designed in 1917 to be located in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as the city later became known. The tower would have dwarfed any other building of the day and was designed as a headquarters for the Cominterm. Despite the project never being realised, today it is a Constructivist icon, with its double helix form and suspended geometric shapes defining what Constructivism represents, embodying the way in which the Soviet powers looked to the avant-garde and modern to redefine Russia.

The exhibition is fittingly held in the grey bunker like Sackler Wing of galleries, with simple pared down displays letting the impressive and extremely graphic Richard Pare photographs jump out at you. These incredible images displayed at the exhibition are the culmination of over two decades of work by photographer Pare, and are juxtaposed imaginatively with original drawings and state owned photographs of many of the buildings, with their Cyrillic captions tantalisingly sparking the imagination of the viewer as to what they may mean, adding to the mystique of many of these relatively unknown Russian works.

Tatlin’s Tower- A monument to Socialism bang in the middle of the Royal Academy. John Lenehan.Tatlin’s Tower: A monument to Socialism bang in the middle of the Royal Academy

 The sense of excitement, combined with trepidation for the future, fuelled Russian art and architecture during this period, with giants of the twentieth century art scene such as Kandinsky emerging from this era. Building the Revolution examines this relationship and throughout the gallery early Constructivist pieces adorn the walls complementing the raw graphic qualities much of the architecture displayed also exudes. Constructivism emerged during this period as a direct response to the change in regime in Russia, and embraced the abstract and bizarre, shunning the bourgeois penchant for decoration and embellishment. Many early Constructivist pieces manifested themselves in propaganda material for the new state, and these too had a profound influence on the architectural designs which were being produced in the Soviet Union in the twenties.

Liubov Popova’s ‘Painterly Architonics’, 1918-19 shares many of its strong geometric forms with the Rusakov Workers Club.Liubov Popova’s ‘Painterly Architonics’, 1918-19 shares many of its strong geometric forms with the Rusakov Workers Club

 Many Russian architects now looked west to the exciting and daring work of architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Throughout the exhibition one can see strong influences from the International Style which came to define modernism, though executed often on a much larger, - more proletarian manner. Although many of the designers and artists exhibited within the exhibition may be unknown to many, the pure simplicity and raw quality many of the structures hold is undeniably impressive, showcasing how Soviet design in this experimental architectural period stood up admirably to its western rivals.

As well as showcasing some of the early twentieth century’s most experimental buildings and designs, the exhibition also explores the relationship between art, architecture and the Soviet propaganda machine.  Investigating how the newly formed state made its mark on communication, housing, industry, education and healthcare, Building The Revolution examines the way in which the new leaders sought to infiltrate every aspect of life for those living in the Soviet Union during this chaotic and progressive period.

From designs of exciting new communal housing concepts, (later proven to be fatally flawed)through to Sanitorium for the Soviet elite, the exhibition covers in detail the way in which the Bolshevik regime turned old architectural ideas on their head. Building The Revolution also explores the way in which the efficient designs for many new industrial buildings, schools and hospitals transformed antiquated unindustrialised Russia into the superpower that was the Soviet Union in little more than twenty years.

Richard Pare, 1995, courtesy Kicken Berlin.Photo by Richard Pare, 1995, courtesy Kicken Berlin

Building The Revolution provides not only an amazing journey through some really remarkable works of art and architecture, but also manages to provide a social commentary on the profound changes which were taking place in Eastern Europe at the beginning of last century. Fittingly, the exhibition closes with Lenin’s mausoleum, a final manifestation of Constructivist ideas right in the heart of the Red Square. This exercise in geometric forms though is swathed in opulent marble, holding within its Bolshevik red interior the very man responsible for the revolution, and the tide of change which swept through Russia from thanks to the October Revolution.

Shabolovjka Radio Tower in Moscow, built in 1922 was able to broadcast Soviet propaganda to millions. Richard Pare, 1998, courtesy Kicken Berlin.Shabolovjka Radio Tower in Moscow, built in 1922 was able to broadcast Soviet propaganda to millions, photo by Richard Pare, 1998, courtesy Kicken Berlin

Building the Revolution, Soviet Art and Architecture 1915 – 1935 runs from 29 October – 22 January 2012 at the Royal Academy of Arts. Nearest tube Green Park. £9 Adults, £5 Concessions.


Top photo by John Lenehan

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