Вся власть советам! (All power to the Soviets) declares the revolutionary banner that greets visitors to the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition. Starting immediately as it means to go on, the collection attempts to tell the story of Russian art in the transformative 15 years following the Bolshevik revolution.
Largely inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Exhibition, this show attempts to go further than just collecting works for their artistic merit. Instead the show focuses heavily on the historical and social context around Soviet aesthetics that defined their national culture.
Each room at the show explores a new theme, from the glorification of Russian leaders, to the emergence and decline of the Soviet avant garde. These compartmentalised themes help separate out the important contexts that influenced Soviet aesthetics, giving meaningful time and space to the shared aspects that many of these works hold.
Individual showstoppers are unfortunately few and far between, and there are no real singular pieces that stand out above all else. One surprising highlight, for its size as much as anything, is Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, an impossible dystopian flying machine (the vehicle of the people) that is at the same time hopefully idealist and laughably tragic. Another is the collection of propaganda films, projected as installation pieces. Sitting high above the heads of the shuffling weekend crowd, people cluster, craning their necks upwards to see these imposing presentations – the visitors themselves taking on a form reminiscent of the Russian commoner, embodying a sense of smallness in the face of these Soviet works.
This attempt to make visitors ‘live’ the works is highly effective at times – especially so in part where the exhibition veers more towards installation art than traditional gallery presentation. Overall the feeling of moving through an important historical decision is well executed and helps give a sense of place for individuals within the 15 years this show spans.
This time period was a moment of great upheaval and change for Russia, a time when the ‘cultural infrastructure of Russia collapsed’ in favour of a new regime. This was a time also when the culture of Russia was driven almost solely by its own people. The state of global politics and a closed economy impacted on Russia’s national culture, forcing Russians to look inwards to the state-defined zeitgeist in search of inspiration. Soviet culture from this time was perhaps more purely national than any other art movements of the era – a culture formed completely anew that was above all else defined by the nation of its birth.
The show years presents a powerful opportunity to walk through the emergence of an entirely new epoch. From embodying some aspects of the Russian commoner, to admiring the unrealised idealistic visions of a Soviet utopia, this show is more than anything a wonderful example of exploring historic and cultural change through a brilliantly crafted timeline of art.
Russian Art (1917-1932) runs until April 2017. Tickets for the show are on sale now.