St Petersburg, 1917 – following the February Revolution, Nicholas II is forced to abdicate and the Tsarist monarchy is finally abolished. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, take over the Winter Palace and seize control of Russia.
Many of us are at least vaguely familiar with the advent of Communism and the men who terrorised their country in the name of it, but Margy Kinmonth presents this tumultuous period from the perspective of the artists who lived, and worked, through it. The rise of Lenin was initially welcomed by many artists, who were encouraged to do away with the restrictive religious art of the monarchy and embrace the Avant-Garde. As Dostoevsky boldly asserted – ‘You can do everything if there is no God.’ And they did. Artists such as Kandinsky and Filonov flourished in the abstract, yet probably the most famous work from this era of creative freedom was Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ – widely seen as a symbol of the new beginning.
This ‘new beginning’ imbued all art forms, including theatre and film, with the creation of the New Soviet Theatre – a biomechanical way of training actors which is still used today. It was also an exciting time for female artists, such as Vavara Stepanova, who believed, alongside her husband, Alexander Rodchenko, in creating art for the betterment of revolutionary society. They created propaganda posters, assisting Lenin’s aim to keep the people subservient.
The initial relief that followed the end of Tsarism was to be short-lived and Civil War broke out in September 1918, followed by the Red Terror – a period of sustained mass killings and systematic oppression which led to a cultural exodus of artists to Europe. The death of Lenin in 1924 offered no reprieve – the succession of Joseph Stalin only brought more death and brutality, and the forced artistic shift from the Avant-Garde to Socialist Realism.
A seamless blending of interviews and dramatic reconstructions, Kinmonth delivers a fascinating and multi-layered film which allows us a view of the artistic triumphs and failures during the most intense revolutionary period in Russia’s history. It deftly treads the line between the political and the personal, weaving the voiceovers of central figures such as Lenin (voiced by Matthew MacFadyen) and Malevich (Tom Hollander) into the documentary’s narrative. The paranoia of Stalin is shown in all its murderous absurdity through the labelling of these Avant-Garde artists as ‘political criminals’ and the further injustices inflicted upon them.
Whether you are a Russian history expert, or have little knowledge of the period, you cannot fail to be gripped by this illuminating documentary. Wonderfully constructed and accompanied by Edmund Jolliffe’s rousing score, this is a perfect way to spend a wintry afternoon in London.
Revolution: New Art for a New World will be showing at the Curzon Bloomsbury from November 10th. Student tickets from £8.50.