Misrepresenting revolution: Art at the Royal Academy

Issue: 154

Nick Grant

A review of Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London, 11 February-17 April 2017

Little is more contested in art history than works from revolutionary Russia.

The latest show from the Royal Academy (RA) and most of its attendant documentation perfectly illustrate with gloves off historian Paul Wood’s remark that there is a “grand irony” at the heart of attempts to deal with this period: “a love for Bolshevik art jostling with a hatred for Bolshevik politics”.1 So how does this august institution in the grand Burlington House on Piccadilly fare?

The show is itself a remount of Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic originally organised at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad from November 1932 to January 1933. Masha Chlenova gives some fascinating background to the original show in this version’s catalogue.2 The 1932 antecedent was curated by Hungarian-born scholar Ivan Matsa to focus on the fate of competing art collectives that had grown during three differing phases after the 1917 Revolution up to 1933’s second Five Year Plan. But that ran counter to the trajectory of the exhibition committee’s vice-chair Mikhail Arkadiev who also headed the arts section of the People’s Commissariat of the Enlightenment (Narkompros). A government resolution issued in February 1932 dissolving all the groups in favour of a single Union of Soviet Artists was an added pressure to focus just on individuals rather than groups. At the last minute insistence of a sympathetic local Communist Party leader a room dedicated to Kazimir Malevich was included. Vladimir Tatlin and many others never got a look in.

Otherwise that exhibition became the now customary retrospective, pitting the revolution’s fate in direct opposition to the artistic avant-garde who came to be characterised as bourgeois utopians (although a century later they have had the last laugh in terms of subsequent global impact).

So naively you want to shake the RA’s hand for using “Revolution” in its title rather than the “Tragedy” or “Utopia” customarily deployed to shroud its subject and more enticing than the bland original title.3 Could the RA have reverted to Matsa’s original conception? Will they take the Bolshevik revolution seriously?

But then en route to the show you see a tube station hoarding claim that: “The revolution is coming and it’s got chilli prawns in it”. The very idea of revolution is, of course, popularly depoliticised in such ads. This particular food company refers to its grandiose ambition to: “shake up your dinner routine” as a revolution. Perhaps the RA wants it both ways—a frisson of historical authenticity diluted by the wishy-washy sense “revolution” has acquired in marketing speak?

This question was soon answered. A preview lecture on 10 February was presented by Courtauld Institute academic Dr Natalia Murray, born in St Petersburg, one of this show’s curators and a contributor to its accompanying catalogue. Straight off she told the audience: “This is not a celebration of the revolution of 1917. Firstly we Russians don’t believe there is anything to celebrate and secondly it was not a revolution at all but a coup.” When challenged on the second point she shouted the person down repeating, “it was a coup. You should find out your history.” In her catalogue contribution it’s notable though that she does accept the events of February 1917 as a revolution, but not those of October.4

History A-Level textbooks don’t use the term coup. This opinion is usually argued by citing what proportion of the Russian population were Bolshevik members in 1917 as Murray does. But do such thinkers stop to consider how daft this claim is when you consider how few people are members of the current ruling UK Tory party in comparison to the electorate at large?5

In 1917 villages in 482 of 624 Russian national districts (77 percent) were alight with the flames of revolt because the interim bourgeois powers had failed to solve the agrarian question. The Bolsheviks had also won the political support of the empire’s oppressed nations by committing to their post-revolutionary secession and earned hegemony in the network of soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, all to ensure revolutionary success. That’s the history—some coup!6

To present the art of 1917-32 as one “revolutionary art” as the RA does is historical and artistic nonsense. First, it ignores the twists and turns of political events between the two dates. It leaves anyone without a robust understanding of Russian history in a maze with no route map. Any history teacher will worry that students won’t be able to disentangle the artworks here from the historical jumble before them. Events of 1917 are conflated with those of 1921, when starvation caused by civil war, the sheer size of the nation and its backwardness led Lenin reluctantly to take the “one step backward in order to take two step forwards” of the New Economic Policy. This reintroduced some of the hated capitalist relations of production. There’s no acknowledgement that in 1925 Joseph Stalin gave up on the international working class, declaring he was to build “socialism in one country”, or the counter-revolution of 1928-9 that culminated in the 1930s purges.

Contrary to the nationalist focus this show fosters, the revolution was quintessentially internationalist in conception. The theory of permanent revolution was a vision not limited to one national insurrection. This is as clearly beyond the pale for the RA’s curators and sponsors now as it was for the emboldened Stalinist bosses of 1932.

Murray even used Lenin’s funeral in 1924 against him. She ran film footage of workers going to see his embalmed body, claiming this was planned as part of the cult of personality by Lenin himself. According to Murray, the copying of icon-like images by some of the artists on show was apparently proof of the religious aspect of Bolshevism. The fact that religious iconography was the key component of artistic education under the Tsars and formed the template for many artists of the period was mentioned but no aesthetic or social link was made.

It possibly needs pointing out in today’s semiotic surfeit that Lenin was visually unknown to the masses then. He could walk down any street incognito. The technologies simply weren’t in place to reproduce his voice or image electronically or even in print, let alone Instagram his breakfast or live-stream his afternoon nap. Brief newsreel screenings in village halls or train carriages, leaflets and street posters were where mass iconography was at. This was not a religious crusade!

Secondly, there was great artistic diversity in 1917 within and beyond the avant-garde. Leon Trotsky’s political theory of combined and uneven development, when accounting for the Bolshevik triumph in a relatively backward economy, applies also to its art. Most European phases in modern artistic maturation—romanticism, naturalism, realism—had passed Russia by.7 Art and artists were being born of meagre cultural soils compared to their richer central European contemporaries. But they were making up for lost time.

However, Murray’s take on the vexed question of what this period and its art represented, then and now, is eclipsed by Jonathan Jones’s preview for The Guardian:

The way we glibly admire Russian art from the age of Lenin sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history. If the Royal Academy put on a huge exhibition of art from Hitler’s Germany there would rightly be an outcry. Yet the art of the Russian Revolution is just as mired in the mass slaughters of the 20th century.

Jones specifically maintained that the emblematic 1919 poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky:

is a very explicit propaganda image that urges support for the Bolshevik army in the civil war that lasted from 1917 to 1922. This war eventually secured Lenin’s new state, but at a human cost almost without historical precedent: between 7m and 12m people died. Extreme methods were used by both sides not just in battle but to subdue civilians… The red wedge really was red—with blood.8

From the comfort of Jones’s desk Lissitzky gets it in the neck for mass slaughter, not the invading powers desperate to suppress a global threat to their imperialist interests. Should I now hold Lord Kitchener’s pointed finger responsible for my great-grandfather William Allen’s early death from a sniper’s bullet in 1916?

There’s no appreciation of the stakes the revolution faced in its battle for survival and the vital need for communications with the illiterate masses in their move from despotism to democracy. Nor is there, at a personal level, an appreciation of this designer of Yiddish books’s commitment to burying antisemitism. Lissitzky’s poster design was printed and distributed near the Polish border by the Literary Publications section of the political directorate of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Western Front, an achievement of which he was proud.

Art as propaganda is a much wider and more complex debate than Jones implies. Take a stroll around London’s National Gallery, for example. Its rooms are full of “selfie-landscapes” lorded over by preening British rich blokes with their wealth down the centuries—wives, dogs, horses, cattle and land—as far as the rules of vanishing-point perspective can depict.

Jones could also go to the lakeside town of Como in Italy. He’ll find excellent architecture from the early 1920s. What is now a civic centre was designed and erected as the fascist party headquarters. The nearby social housing, football stadium and swimming pool remain as other elegant exemplars. Turbo-charged modernism was not at all the preferred fascist aesthetic code; unsurprisingly, in the land of ancient architecture and art, something much more sentimental and retrogressive characterised its official taste. However, in that context the Italian avant-garde were labelled futurists, also a term used in the soviet paper Izvestia at first to undermine the Russian self-proclaimed Constructivists as “bourgeois”.9

Thus the fit between aesthetics and politics is nothing like as Lego-snug as Jones implies. He is floating a ridiculous Pavlovian claim that a particular style or genre of art in and of itself has a fixed political value, which was pretty much the point of the 1932 show in Leningrad now critically exposed by Chlenova.

Modernism and revolution

In any discussion of European art of this era the word modernism crops up repeatedly. It can seem a very slippery bar of soap with meanings dependent on who is speaking about what, where and when.

For example, Malevich, whose monochromatic geometric paintings are a key element of the RA exhibition, is often seen as a key figure in modernism. Like most non-figurative visual art the obvious question on viewers’ lips is the of question—what are these paintings of?10 They are often interpreted as the height of formalistic, non-representational objectivity. The artist himself, however, conceived and executed them as the last word in liberated self-expression. In his 1919 essay “Non-Objective Art and Suprematism” he concluded: “I have overcome the lining of the coloured sky, torn it down and into the bag thus formed, put colour, tying it up with a knot. Swim in the white free abyss, infinity is before you”.11 This example problematises the general question of artistic intent in relation to social perception. What is the artist referring to, saying, meaning? It also raises specific questions of how any artist working against the prevailing academic and popular grain orientates within their historical time? The term “avant-garde” has military origins describing the deployment of advanced forces in battle. Getting inside the head of such edgy cultural pioneers and embedding their work in the social and political interstices of their era is roughly what one kind of study of modernism attempts.12 (Please excuse a didactic interlude at this point to set out some assumptions about modernism as we proceed.)

There can be no speaker without a listener, no text without its context, no art without its audience. The same text can potentially signify different things in different contexts.

Natural language is obviously the everyday mode of human social discourse. Factored in with historical, political, philosophical, mathematical and ­scientific dimensions, analogous artistic language(s) can be identified in space, plotted in time and observed to change in dialectical relation to them.

Literature and drama, visual and cinematic arts, music and dance are all much more concentrated and deliberate exertions of mental and physical labour offering intense mediations between people about how we experience our lives in those moments. Metaphors and idioms derived from natural language and its sciences pepper the resulting narratives of description and evaluation; vocabulary, syntax, grammar and so on.

At the textual level of particular painting, sculpture, photography, film, theatre production or novel, building or furniture design, modernism involves logging the deployment of an array of expressive or technical tropes—distinctive sorts of figures of speech or accents—that technically differentiate between individuals or groups. So early cubism had its shattered mirror appearance, surrealism its unearthly landscapes, constructivism its photo collages and suprematism had its minimalism.

So at a general sociological level modernism is more about process than things, more dynamic than any singular event can be, attempting to express a universally shared understanding of life’s ups and downs as they may be found in capitalist-era culture generally and art specifically. It can be a very broad sweep, identifying the constellation of our feelings about what it means to be alive at certain historical moments and how these are culturally traceable especially during great change.

A notably ambitious and effervescent engagement with modernism in Western culture is New Yorker Marshall Berman’s 1981 book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.13 Berman takes his titular metaphor deliberately from the Communist Manifesto wherein Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were attempting to illustrate capitalism’s impact on the inherited beliefs and habits of previous epochs that were radically being transformed by the industrial revolution and imperial capitalism. Berman says that Marx, while agitating for communist organisation, forensically toiled to make sense of common experiences and ought, therefore, to be understood as a seminal modernist thinker:

to bring out the vividness and richness of his language, the depth and complexity of his imagery—clothes and nakedness, veils, haloes, heat, cold—and to show how brilliantly he develops the themes by which modernism will come to define itself: the glory of modern energy and dynamism, the ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them; the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed, recombined; a basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real; a flaring up of the most radical hopes in the midst of their radical negations.14

However, in an important essay, “Modernity and Revolution”, reviewing Berman’s book as a “classic in its field”, Perry Anderson nevertheless challenges Berman’s underplaying of a class dimension in the life-cycle of capitalist modernisation as if it were an all-conquering relentless development avoiding decay.15 Anderson also questioned Berman’s assertion of a concurrent, holistic cultural modernism in spirit without accounting for its generic variations in artistic practice, all the different aesthetic –isms with their identifiable geographical and stylistic traits.

Anderson goes on to mention a different temporal framing of modernism, considering Georg Lukács’s assertion that the bourgeoisie ended its progressive era with the European revolutions of 1848, turning away from its hostility to the nobility to prioritise control of the proletariat. The resultant culturally decadent challenge from below could be said to conclude 80 years later with Nazism.

But Anderson then rejects both Berman’s “perennialism” and Lukács’s “evolutionism” to posit what he himself calls a “conjunctural” temporal triangulation, three intersecting coordinates that explain the emergence of modernism: one is institutional; another technological; the third political.16

The institutional feature preceding 1914 was a lingering dominance of agrarian and/or aristocratic control of a codified academicism in artistic practice. These conservative norms became a negative measure against which insurgent forms sought to articulate themselves. Disparate new aesthetic practices gained a unity in their opposition to lingering academies who, paradoxically, were not yet subject to recent harsh market forces. (Though this particular Royal Academy’s present revenge on Bolshevism might be turning Anderson’s stomach somewhat.)

The technological feature was the exciting new machine age, an imaginative stimulus motivating art in Paris, Milan, St Petersburg and elsewhere. An abstraction of forms, techniques and artefacts from their social relations of production meant that despite their appreciation for new technology the artists remained critical of the capitalist system itself. Rather the challenges of merely representing new experiences of speed well beyond customary horse power, of rendering that and other multiple angles of viewing the world on an immobile flat canvas or page, absorbing the perceptual manipulations of natural fields and depths of vision from optics developed for scientific instruments and cameras, the advent of photography and cinema themselves, all focused young artists’ minds and provided their motifs. These formal concerns leapfrogged national and political boundaries. As noted above, architectural developments in Como were in advance of designs mooted in revolutionary Russia. In literature, the writings of Filippo Marinetti and Vladimir Mayakovsky in those same countries also shared similar imagery.

The political feature of this new avant-garde for Anderson was the incidence of social protest and revolutions, increased class struggle, the growth of trade unions and colonial unrest as the centuries changed.

Thus for Anderson: “European modernism in the first years of this century thus flowered in the space between a still usable classical past, a still indeterminate technical present, and a still unpredictable political future…it arose at the intersection between a semi-aristocratic ruling order, a semi-industrialised capitalist economy and a semi-emergent, or—insurgent, labour movement”.17 Anderson goes on to insist that this triangulation survived the First World War and was only ended by the Second, and that the works of high modernism were consolidated in the inter-war years—with Pablo Picasso and Bertolt Brecht explicitly and I guess the Bauhaus movement—ending with abstract expressionism in the mid-1950s Unites States. Since then there has been no significant advance, apart from the descriptive emergence of the term modernism itself. I suppose any flick through an IKEA catalogue proves his point.

I think Anderson omitted other factors here though. For example, rapid developments within the human and physical sciences were revolutionary in and of themselves. Surrealism, and arguably Dadaism, would not have grown without the 1899 publication of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, albeit after a slow-burning germination.18 Russian Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo left home in his 20s to enrol at Munich University and study physics along with 552 other Jewish students seeking access denied them in Russia. In Germany he attended lectures by the x-ray pioneer Wilhelm Röntgen. Gabo’s works are a direct response to Röntgen’s; he sought a kind of x-rayed depiction of human and natural forms in modern materials until his death in 1977. More generally he noted that:

A new feeling was already going through the universities and among the intellectuals. There was a feeling of time and space, a movement in men’s minds. For instance, I will never forget when I was present at a gathering of scientists and students, in, well, about 1911 or 1912—one of the professors was talking of Einstein’s theory.19

Gabo also attended many philosophy classes that shaped The Realistic Manifesto he published in 1920 when he had returned from Norway to embrace the revolution in his native country.20

The other omission by Anderson is some recognition of artists’ experience or awareness of “otherness”.21 Gabo’s escape from a Tsarist antisemitic hell to study in Germany was typical of modernist artists of this era. Lissitzky did likewise, graduating in Darmstadt in 1912. The experiences of sexual, gender and national minorities as peoples from within and beyond Europe’s borders or empires were also sources for new art. A modernist milestone, Picasso’s 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was inspired by African sculpture—though normally pitched in terms of a penchant for prostitutes. Although to be fair to Anderson he does go on to acknowledge Berman’s delight in more recent literary classics by south Asians such as Salman Rushdie and south Americans like Gabriel García Márquez.

But what of revolution?

Anderson’s conclusion is dramatic. Using well-worn quotes from Marx’s Grundrisse and The German Ideology he damns Berman’s mistaken emphasis on the continual potential release of a core human cultural self as a “culture of narcissism”. Like Marx, Anderson insists that the free development of each individual is contingent on the free development of all: “Revolution is a punctual process not a permanent process”:

What would be distinctive about a socialist revolution that created a genuine post-capitalist democracy is that the new state would be truly transitional towards the practicable limits of its own self-dissolution into the associated life of society as a whole.22

Faced in the 1980s with—to paraphrase Antonio Gramsci—the morbid symptoms of an old world dying while another cannot be born, he in turn damns the vacuousness of his very topic of modernism:

There is no other aesthetic marker so vacant or vitiated. For what once was modern is soon obsolete. The futility of the term, and its attendant ideology, can be seen all too clearly from current attempts to cling to its wreckage and yet swim with the tide still further beyond it, in the coinage “postmodernism”: one void chasing another, in a serial regression of self-congratulatory chronology. If we ask ourselves, what would revolution…have to do with modernism…the answer is: it would surely end it.23

He then adds that:

the axes of aesthetic life would…run horizontally, not vertically. The calendar would cease to tyrannise, or organise, consciousness of art. The vocation of a socialist revolution, in that sense, would be neither to prolong nor to fulfil modernity, but to abolish it.24

This extended focus on Anderson’s essay is pertinent because it suggests a kind of resolution to the anger generated for many of us by the RA’s particular representation of Russian art and says so much about how it could have been otherwise presented by avoiding a vertical, calendared organising plan.

In a book consisting of a series of minute examinations of key works from six historic modernist junctures between 1793 and 1954, Bristolian art history professor Timothy J Clark includes a chapter on Lissitzky, his mentor Malevich and the UNOVIS collective in Vitebsk (present day Belarus). UNOVIS usually translates as Affirmers of New Forms In Art. Although its director Marc Chagall is known for folkloric dreamscapes and gravity-defying figuration his pedagogy was inclusive. He brought the much travelled Kiev-born Malevich to Vitebsk to lead this hothouse close to the Civil War fronts knowing all about his austere minimalism and terse rhetoric. Indeed Malevich did little painting in these few years.

Clark notes that: “artists rarely live through moments when their kind of esotericism seems really to duplicate that of the people in power. Best seize the moment while it lasts”.25 Clark was juxtaposing the resolutions of the ninth Bolshevik Party Congress in 1920 with Malevich’s thesis “God Is Not Cast Down” and noting that there are similar rhetorical passages. My hunch is that both Clark and Anderson would have at least honoured Ivan Matsa’s thwarted design for the 1932 show were they to have curated this show.

Unfortunately there isn’t room here to set out the specific geographical, institutional, theoretical and stylistic camps that contested allegiance to the red flag during the War Communism period that UNOVIS itself was born in. The best place to find such a description is Paul Wood’s excellent 1992 book chapter and his 1985 essay “Art And Politics In A Workers’ State”.26 Another exemplary if more circumscribed presentation was Tate Modern’s 2009 show and catalogue Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism which had the virtue of being curated explicitly to showcase the gender equality of these two pioneers.27

Suffice it to say that Bolshevik insurrection itself did not magically spark an eruption of novel artistic achievement in the visual and other arts. The very worst deduction from such a mistaken analysis would be to insist that artistic quality can only blossom after revolution and should await that dawn forever. While still a student Lissitzky for one spent the summer of 1912, his 22nd year, walking over 1,000 miles through Germany, Italy and France drawing as he went—he had paid some dues.28

But clearly most of the active or mature Russian artistic avant-garde from a broad spectrum of practices and beliefs recognised their liberties and obligations in the new political situation. Far from eventually being forced down personally fatal or artistically compromising roads as Stalinism took hold, there was in those days a cherishable opportunity to enact Anderson’s entreaty to ditch modernism altogether.

But instead of tolerating a plethora of artistic activity as a good thing in itself a straitjacket of socialist realism was imposed by 1932 that was in fact as arbitrary and confused in its manifestations as whichever apparatchik cared to promote, permit or simply ignore art. If we learn nothing else from this show it is that it is not the job of a revolutionary socialist party to prescribe artistic practice.

Remake everything

Broadcaster Alastair Sooke had the grace to say in The Telegraph of one of the RA exhibits, that: “as a poignant and poetic symbol, providing a sense of the soaring human aspiration that took off in the years after the Russian Revolution, Tatlin’s beautiful glider could hardly be bettered”.29

There is indeed some great art here, even if the most talented were apparently only useful because they could be dragooned as crude propagandists for the Bolsheviks in their dastardly attempt to stay in power. For example, an impressively huge model of a Lissitzky living space design shows how influential the avant-garde has been on today’s architects and interior designers. Alexander Rodchenko’s posters and many others’ photos look boldly contemporary too—courtesy, of course, of many copycats. Where would Reid Miles’s wonderful Blue Note record label cover designs have got without them? Many domestic artefacts like ration cards and textiles, teapots and teacloths, suggest an era desperately poor but desperate for change.

The perma-sunlit oil-painted naturalistic vistas of proud agricultural and industrial workers make fascinating comparisons with similarly themed contemporary art in the US by the likes of Paul Strand or Charles Sheeler. Indeed Isaak Brodsky’s impressive techniques displayed here would have been familiar to Sheeler, though he probably never saw them.

Women artists are a distinct minority in this show. Yet one aspect that clearly escaped Murray’s and Jones’s bitter remarks is that the many representations of women are positive and active. There’s a distinct lack of passivity or objectification in their representation. No doting wives or mothers, no nudes. This should not be at all surprising if we recognise that 1917’s initial February insurrection occurred on International Women’s Day.

Try not to fume at the deep hypocrisy of the closing carousel of portraits of Stalin’s apparent victims which absolutely do fulfil Anderson’s tyranny of the calendar.

A differently annoying element is how the RA has arranged its examples of film and cinema, although this is an understandable attempt to present the significance of these media for the Bolsheviks which did not figure in the 1932 show. The problem partly stems from the fault identified above, that no recognition is afforded the differences between the artists’ views though Ian Christie’s excellent film notes in the catalogue compensate. Heterogeneous snippets are thrown together as dogmatic illustration without an analysis of their cinematic language or clarity about their authorship or use.

The period’s most radical constructivist film work was produced by Denis Kaufman. In the spirit of the times he chose the dynamic pseudonym Dziga Vertov (spinning top in Ukrainian). He argued against the great revolutionary director Sergei Eisenstein’s reliance on theatre: “The cinema that is based on organisation of camera-recorded actors’ play we decided to consider second-rate and theatrical”.30 Vertov’s 1929 film Man With A Movie Camera embodies the modernist stylistic credo that could be summed up for extreme brevity as “It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it.” This is an hour-long documentary about making and showing a documentary, the product of many years producing short agit-prop films and writing many trenchant theses. Contemporary footage from various cities is shot and edited using time-lapse, double-exposure, aerial and ground-level points of view, fast-travelling shots, excessive close-ups, angular framing, witty and metaphorical juxtapositions, rapid cutting and mainly natural lighting. Performers were not actors.

However, viewing film in any art exhibition is unsatisfactory for the very practical reasons that you need a certain level of comfort and quiet to concentrate over extended time—unlike experiencing objects in a busy, confined space.

So although this event is not a complete replica of the 1932 show because it has a Tatlin, some Rodchenko and Popova, and other elements to relish, it is ideologically worse. It is infuriating and duplicitous to find the enticing notion of revolution abused as a narrative about a religious coup. It is also supremely ironic that multiple Russian oligarchs and government agencies get sponsoring credit for this story—which even in its bastardised form Vladimir Putin is unlikely to want told at home this year.

This show is quite symptomatic of the late Mark Fisher’s general thesis on Capitalist Realism, his useful term for a mode that has gone way beyond Anderson’s 1984 bête noire of post-modernism and any explication Fredric Jameson simultaneously sketched of it as the cultural logic of late capitalism: “on the contrary, it takes the vanquishing of modernism for granted: modernism is now something that can periodically return, but only as a frozen aesthetic style, never as an ideal for living”.31

So, while we obsess about cultural affairs in the era of Donald Trump, do go to the Royal Academy. Avoid the audio guide commentary, the drivel introducing each room and the way the captions are phrased. Look between the lines of the RA’s lies. Conduct your own autopsy. Look clinically with your own eyes at the body of work; see for yourselves. And bear in mind these words from poet Alexander Blok: “Remake everything. Organise it so as to make everything new, so that our false, dirty, boring, ugly life becomes just, clean, happy and beautiful”.32

Nick Grant is a retired teacher of secondary school expressive arts and a former national executive committee member of the National Union of Teachers.


1 Wood, 1985, p105. At this time Wood was writing from within this journal’s political tradition, citing familiar sources by Leon Trotsky, Tony Cliff and others in a review of Christina Lodder’s highly authoritative book—Lodder, 1983.

2 Royal Academy, 2017, p27.

3 Stites, 1989; Wood, 1992; Margolin, 1997.

4 I am indebted to comrade Phil Allsopp for his report on this lecture and a number of salient comments and research that follow.

5 The Conservative Party membership is claimed at 149,800 in 2013—the latest year for which statistics are available—Keen and Audickas, 2016. According to the Office for National Statistics the UK electorate in 2015 was 44,722,000 (www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/elections/electoralregistration/bulletins/electoralstatisticsforuk/2015). This means that 0.331 percent of the electorate are estimated members of the ruling party in the UK, a significantly smaller proportion than the Bolsheviks of 1917.

6 Trotsky, 1971, p16.

7 Gray, 2012 [1962]. Until Glasnost allowed the likes of Lodder to interrogate sources first-hand Camilla Gray’s was the only reliable work on Russian art in English.

8 Jones, 2017.

9 Wood, 1985, p109.

10 See Art & Language, 1984, for an intensive meditation on what the “of” can mean in debates about representation in art.

11 Quoted in Harrison and Wood, 2003, p293.

12 Clark, 1999, p225. In spite of its overall political scepticism this book’s chapter on constructivism is excellent.

13 The 2010 edition has a fascinating afterword about the book’s impact over 20 years—Berman, 2010. But also see also Fisher, 2009, p39, for a short coruscating updating of Berman under the chapter heading: “All That is Solid Melts into PR: Market Stalinism and Bureaucratic Anti-production”.

14 Berman, 2010, p121.

15 Anderson, 1984, pp96-97.

16 Anderson, 1984, p104.

17 Anderson, 1984, p105.

18 Indeed Clark, 1999, makes a case that Paul Cézanne was also influenced by Freud.

19 Hammer and Lodder, 2000, p21.

20 Gabo was fond of Trotsky who, in the severe winter 1918-19 deprivations and demands of organising the Red Army, found time to grant him a firewood concession to heat his Moscow studio in their shared building.

21 Berman makes the same point in a tetchy rejoinder to Anderson in his chapter: “The Signs In The Streets”—Berman, 1999.

22 Anderson, 1984, p112.

23 Anderson, 1984, p113. See Anderson 1998 for a more detailed exposition of his thoughts on postmodernism.

24 Anderson, 1984, p113.

25 Clark, 1999, p237.

26 Wood, 1985; Wood, 1992.

27 Tupitsyn, 2009.

28 Tupitsyn, 1999, p225.

29 Sooke, 2017.

30 See Taylor and Christie, 1988. Readers are better served getting hold of the most recent British Film Institute DVD/BluRay edition of Dziga Vertov’s classic Man with a Movie Camera as it also includes much more of his Kino Pravda and Kino-Eye work, snippets of which are used in this RA show. It also contains a useful booklet of background documents including the quote used here.

31 Fisher, 2009, p8.

32 Alexander Blok, 1918, “The Intelligentsia and the Revolution”, quoted in RA, 2017, p101.


Anderson, Perry, 1984, “Modernity and Revolution”, New Left Review, I/144, https://newleftreview.org/I/144/perry-anderson-modernity-and-revolution

Anderson, Perry, 1998, The Origins of Postmodernity (Verso).

Art & Language, 1984, “Portrait of V I Lenin”, in Charles Harrison and Fred Orton (eds), Modernism. Criticism. Realism: Alternative Contexts for Art (Harper and Row).

Berman, Marshall, 1999, Adventures In Marxism (Verso).

Berman, Marshall, 2010 [1981], All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Verso).

Clark, T J, 1999, Farewell To An Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale University Press).

Fisher, Mark, 2009, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books).

Gray, Camilla, 2012 [1962], The Russian Experiment In Art 1863-1922 (Thames and Hudson).

Hammer, Martin, and Christina Lodder, 2000, Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo (Yale University Press).

Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, 2003, Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Blackwell).

Jones, Jonathan, 2017, “We Cannot Celebrate Revolutionary Russian Art—It is Brutal Propaganda”, Guardian (1 February), http://tinyurl.com/gtzdw4v

Keen, Richard, and Lukas Audickas, 2016, “Membership of UK Political Parties”, House of Commons Library briefing paper No. SN05125 (5 August), http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN05125/SN05125.pdf

Lodder, Christina, 1983, Russian Constructivism (Yale University Press).

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