wed 23/04/2014

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture, 1915-1935, Royal Academy | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture, 1915-1935, Royal Academy

Aesthetically mind-blowing. But morally compromised?

Shabolovka Radio Tower, photographed by Richard Pare, 1998Courtesy Kicken Berlin and Richard Pare © Richard Pare

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so ambivalent about a show, and so strongly both pro and con. The pros first, then. This is an astonishing, revelatory exhibition of avant-garde art and architecture in the Soviet Union in the brief but hectic period from the Revolution to the Stalinist crackdown in the 1930s. The show draws on Soviet archival photographs, never before exhibited, architectural photographer Richard Pare's gorgeous contemporary images of the buildings, and art from the extraordinary collection formed by George Costakis in the Soviet Union, when Constructivism and Suprematism were out of fashion.

In the first decades of the 20th century, following the lead of pioneers like Malevich, Suprematist artists set out to free pictorial space from the requirements of the real, using, firstly, a square floating in space, followed by other geometrical shapes. This revolutionary concept was taken up after the actual Revolution, and the Constructivists then began to approach the notion of space itself: what did it mean? How could it be defined? Vladimir Tatlin aimed to create “purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions”, and his planned, but never built, Monument to the Third International (1919), a ziggurat-like steel tower was intended to house the Comintern - each floor was going to revolve separately. (Under the architect Jeremy Dixon, the Royal Academy has erected a replica in their forecourt.)

As Lenin’s New Economic Policy injected capital into the state economy in the early 1920s, a building boom opened up opportunities for architects to work with the theories of these artists and evolve new building types to meet the needs of the new socialist state – communal housing, mass-production factories, workers’ clubs and more. Avant-garde architects, including Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn (later, as a refugee from Nazi Germany, one of the architects of the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea), were invited to contribute and “the heroic years of Soviet architecture” began.

The opening of the exhibition could not be more thrilling if it tried: a fabulous Rodchenko, Linearism, the all-too-overlooked Gustav Klutsis’s Dynamic City, and an amazing Liubov Popova, Spatial Force Construction (pictured above right, State Museum of Contemporary Art/G Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki, Greece), made of oil paint and marble dust, just glow. 

They are, however, almost (almost) cast into the shade by Richard Pare’s vertiginous photograph (main picture, above) of the first permanent industrial structure to be built in Russia after 1917, the Shabolovka Radio Tower, designed in 1922 by Vladimir Shukhov. Its elegant steel trussses floated high over the still low-rise skyline of Moscow, and the archival images (pictured below, Havski-Shabolovskii residential block, with Shabolovka Radio Tower, photographer unknown, 1929, Dept of Photographs, Schusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow) and Pare’s extraordinary interior shot show how stark its modernity must have appeared at the time.

The architectural and artistic responses to the needs of industry, housing, education, propaganda, health and recreation then develop. The Narvski Factory kitchen embodies the new world order where communal feeding enabled women to join the workforce by ensuring that they no longer needed to stay at home to produce meals for their men.

While the politics and pragmatism are on display in the archival material, Richard Pare manages to infuse his photographs with a delicate and touching domestic reality (Rusakov Workers' Club, pictured below, photograph Richard Pare, 1995, courtesy Kicken, Berlin © Richard Pare). The DenproGES hydroelectric dam and power station’s majestic turbine hall has a small clutch of seedlings being grown on a trestle table set out by the starkly modern windows, a worker’s contribution, no doubt, while the railings, which must have appeared astonishingly modern in 1927, today seem quaintly old world with their decorative brackets.

It is further on that doubts begin first to creep, then to gallop in. There is never, at any point, any question of the aesthetic value of what is on show. That is peerless. But when one looks at photographs of mass-production bakeries, and reads the captions stating that in the 1930s these were created to feed the workers, without any mention of the tens of millions of fellow workers who were being starved to death by the very same state that was building these model factories, well, one would wish for more editorial comment from the exhibition’s curators.

And when it comes to admiring the (admittedly wonderful) swooping white stucco curves of Ivan Antonov, Veniamin Sokolov and Arsenii Tumbasov’s housing scheme in Ekaterinburg, I reached my limit. To show the offices of the Cheka – the state security force that tortured and murdered, was