Our third nomination for best writer (and article) is from Frances Salter. This has been published in Issue III (March 2012).
“If revolution can give art a sword, art must give revolution its service.”
Anatoly Lunacharsky, 1920.
In 1915, Kasimir Malevich exhibited his painting, Black Square, as the centrepiece of an exhibition of radical paintings. It was placed in what is referred to as the red/beautiful corner in Russian Orthodox tradition – the place in the house in which the main religious icon is displayed – the painting provided a powerful image of a new language of shape and form, free from traditional, religious or bourgeois associations. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 brought about a surge of extraordinary creativity within Russia; artists worked intensively to create a new artistic and architectural style, in a simple and revolutionary visual language. In this new state, art had a new meaning and a new purpose: to serve Russia and the Communist revolution.
The Royal Academy of Arts’ exhibition of Russian avant-garde architecture documented the radical relationship between art and architecture during the years 1915-1935. Richard Pare’s photographs of the iconic buildings of the former Soviet Socialist state provide a vivid and sympathetic picture of artistic ideas that are strange, and strangely refreshing, from a modern-day Western perspective: art with a necessary social purpose, rather than art for art’s sake. The buildings pictured – worker’s clubs, communal housing – were designed without aesthetic beauty in mind, stripped down to the purity of function and form: this was art for the people, no longer revered for its sophistication but instead used as a necessary social mechanism. This artistic perspective seems alien nowadays; in a culture in which art is arguably highly individualised, the architecture remains radical.
The reconstruction of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, which stood in the RA’s courtyard, serves as a particularly clear and striking symbol of art as a servant of the state. The tower (though it remained unconstructed) was designed to house various functions of the Third International headquarters. The structures within the tower were designed to rotate at different speeds as a vibrant commemoration to the vigour of the Revolution, uniting function and symbolism.
Other Constructivist works made between 1915 and 1930 were on display to compliment Pare’s photographs. Though it was not implied the paintings, sketches and photo-montages would have been direct influences on the construction of any specific building, they share a similar manner of creative expression. Particularly engaging were the sketches displaying the debate among Communist artists over where the line could be drawn between composition and construction. Artists such as Stenburg and Medunetskii completed pairs of complimentary sketches – one of ‘composition’ and one of ‘construction’ – in order to picture where they personally considered the line to be drawn. The sets of completed sketches were exhibited side-by-side, giving conflicting and subtle artistic perspectives on a debate that was interesting artistically yet primarily political – in the early years of the Soviet Socialist state, artists worked to redefine themselves, and to redefine what was meant by ‘art’, in order to fit into a radical new state, in which art must serve the people.
Across the former Soviet Union, buildings such as the ones which were displayed in the RA are falling into decrepitude. Their original purpose – functionality – is now the reason for their deterioration, as in a new political landscape they are no longer useful. However, the function of the architecture having decayed, the photographs show the art that is left. That the art has been exhibited at all perhaps would have seemed contrary and strange to the original artists and architects, but the exhibition provided a timely picture of a unique moment in art history, the physical record of which may soon disappear.
Building the Revolution ran from 29th October – 22nd January 2012.