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Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935

5 January, 2012

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Yesterday, a good friend and I went to the Royal Academy of Art to view the exhibition ‘Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935’. This exhibition ends on 22 January 2012.  If you have the opportunity, do go along and catch this.

What made this visit especially interesting was my friend’s personal experiences.  He has been living and working in Eastern Europe for over 35 years.  He traveled throughout the Soviet Union in the bad, old, dark days of the 70s and 80s — sometimes with James Bond-like experiences with the KGB.  After the fall of the Soviet Empire he and his family lived in a former Soviet-block country.  All this to say, as we looked at architecture he would frequently comment from his own visits to the sites in Moscow.  I had a tour guide with me.

 

 

 

What especially struck us was the irony of the exhibition.  An irony ignored by the audio guide and the curators’ comments.

After the Russian Revolution, with the encouragement of Lenin and the new Bolshevik regime, Russian, Ukranian, Georgian and other artists sought to promote a radical ‘constructivist’ style.  In opposition to the former European belle epoche contructivists aimed for a number of features: the so-called avant garde along with what one commentator identifies as ‘abstraction, pop art, op art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk, to brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism.’ (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/nov/04/russian-avant-garde-constructivists).  They also sought to promote art as an instrument of construction: namely, to assist in the building/construction of a worldview experiment.  Art would not be an expression of the natural or the real.  Art would be the construction of an ideal: social equality, the excellence of the worker and the supremacy of the Revolution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Without doubt, some of the photographs of buildings, paintings and drawings are fascinating, intriguing and communicative.  The curators and commentator on the audio guide were, in one sense, right to wax lyrical about this era.  A fascinating experiment did truly take place.  But, in my opinion, there is a huge irony to all of this.

First, to call this Soviet or even Russian art is somewhat misleading. Those at the forefront of this movement(s) were not yet Soviets (for they preceded the Revolution).  Equally, they weren’t only from Russia.  More significantly, the movement (so the curators point out) were indebted to other European influences — notably the French architect Le Corbusier. At various points along the way, I couldn’t help but think the so-called Russian avant-garde was neither fully Russian nor avant-garde.

 

 

Second, one example leaped out to me in particular.  It was a radio tower meant to express the new State’s abilities and resources.  The original plan was to build the tower taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris (some 350 metres tall).  Yet this radio tower in Moscow: had no actual foundation and ran out of material at around 150 metres.  In short, the tower came short of its’ goal.  Yet no mention of this ‘failure’ or incompleteness was made!

 

 

Third, and most striking of all to my friend and me, was the undeniable state of rot and disintegration of the buildings as seen in the many photographs!  Every building was clearly crumbling and in poor condition.  Yes, Stalin eventually crushed the experiments and commanded a return to neo-classical architecture.  He put a stop to the constructivists.  But, equally, time alone and the end of the Soviet Empire has reduced things to an ironic deconstruction.  One former building, originally intended for a workers’ co-operative headquarters is currently being converted to become ’boutique apartments’ for the wealthier Muscovites.

What troubled me is that at no point in the audio guide did any commentator point out the failure of this movement.  The movement may well have been experimental, radical and impressive.  Yet there was in all of this a sense (as my friend aptly put it) of a dehumanisation of space and perspective on the basis of what was an anti-human ideology.

I don’t mean my comments to tout some ‘triumph of the West’.  I certainly don’t prize today’s styles of narcissistic and consumerist expression.  I do commend the RA for putting on this exhibition.  I only wish greater attention was given to the ironic failure.

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