November 7 passed quietly in Moscow: business proceeded as usual in the Kremlin, and a small parade celebrating a World War II military victory was the only public historical commemoration. This near radio silence persisted despite the date’s marked significance, once as a major Soviet holiday and in 2017 as the centenary of the October Revolution that placed the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin at the head of the Russian empire. A long way from a country that has yet to truly reconcile with its Soviet past, the revolution is currently being commemorated here in Chicago by way of a special exhibit at the Art Institute that focuses on the art of the first twenty years of the USSR. Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia!: Putting Soviet Art to the Test runs through January 15 and explores the complete restructuring of Russian society that followed by considering the intersection of art and design with the politics of revolution.
The exhibition places the emphasis on exploring early Soviet art as it modeled communism and a new revolutionary way of life. These models are not always literal, as in the case of a scale model of the unrealized Palace of the Soviets or a full-scale reconstruction of a model workers’ club by Aleksandr Rodchenko that is complete with furniture and even an abstract chess set. They exist also in the advertisements and art seeking to sell ideology. With clean geometric lines and simple color palettes of red, gray, and black as staples, nearly everything is constructed to differentiate the Russia of the Soviets from Russias of the past. The total political revolution was succeeded by an equally total social revolution, necessitating a revolution of all other aspects of society. The very nature of art, among other things, had to be redefined to fit the needs and philosophy of the new society.
The exhibit considers a large range of mediums in utility and type, from avant-garde theater set-pieces to household goods and their advertisements to the model of Rodchenko’s workers’ club. Each of the ten displays into which the exhibit is divided (Battleground, Home, Theater, School, Storefront, Press, Festival, Cinema, Exhibition, and Factory) showcases a different aspect of Soviet life and culture. With the exception of a few sectioned-off displays, the center of the exhibit is cohesive, requiring criss-crossed maps at every display’s explanation. With the addition of spaces like an exhibition hall full of abstract paintings by El Lissitzky, visitors are immersed, surrounded by both smaller household objects and larger displays.
Visitors must walk through the Battleground display before they can reach the rest of the exhibit. This feels especially fitting as it pushes the violent revolution, and the civil war that followed, to the forefront of one’s mind. The beginning of the USSR was not without tumult, and the presentation of the model society within must be tempered with a reminder of the violence that overshadowed the revolution. A little sparse in comparison to the rest of the exhibit, Battleground is lined with traditional propaganda materials, including a multitude of heavily-sloganed lithographic posters and a wall dedicated to images of Lenin. The distinct centerpiece of the room is El Lissitzky's poster “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.” With its abstract geometric shapes, the lithograph stands in stark contrast to the other graphic posters and their cartoon images depicting Russian soldiers. It functions as an entry point for the exploration of Constructivism and other art styles born out of the revolution.
Lissitzky himself was an important influence for the Constructivist art that occupies much of the exhibit. Constructivism, an abstractionist art movement conceived a few years before the Russian Revolution by such artists as Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin, is based around the philosophical view that art should be created for the sake of social utility rather than for its own sake. It thus fit in very nicely with the messaging of the young USSR, and early constructivists were important players in the government-sponsored art scene that sprung up after the October Revolution.
In the building of a new society following the October Revolution, the meaning of what it is to be an artist was also changed in line with Constructivist philosophy. Art was seen in a more utilitarian way, with artists taking roles as the constructors of the new society through design of socially important objects, from architectural projects that defined the spaces people inhabited to the film, press, and other media they consumed. The constructivists were, quite literally, constructing communist society as they went along, recreating every element in an attempt to relate societal values through everyday objects. This is seen through the simple, easily mass-producible nature of much of the art, with its ties to Soviet ideology through its emphasis on the collective rather than individual.
While the exhibit examines the initially close relationship between leftist artists and the Soviet government, it comments little on the crushing government intervention that crept in as time progressed. The period considered in the exhibition ends in 1936 with the beginning of the Great Terror, a period of immense political repression that resulted in the death of millions, yet the exhibit does little to address what followed. It seeks to capture a moment in time rather than consider the consequences as they relate to the following five, ten, or one hundred years in Russian history. Despite the dark underbelly of Soviet rule, the exhibit takes a relatively light-hearted look at the the period, focusing on the excitement and hope in the creation of a society from scratch.
Propaganda is ubiquitous throughout the exhibit. Literary journal covers are decked with images of Stalin’s grim mug, collages and photomontages display romanticized views of collectivized farming, the artistic festival displays function as supports for ideology and leaders. This political intentions of the work are transparently obvious, even embraced. It does, however, bring to the forefront of the mind considerations of art’s ability to sway political allegiances, especially as state-run media has an influence in Russia today. The Press section consisted of Soviet-sanctioned newspapers and journals, all singing praises of the Bolsheviks, prompting comparisons to the press of Putin’s Russia. In many ways, this is where the most retrospective elements of the exhibit lie: in considerations of both the complete upheaval in Russian society in the past one hundred years, and in the elements that have remained unchanged. The Russian government may no longer tout Marxist ideology, but it maintains a tight grip on the country’s organs of influence. The arts and media have a unique ability to shape the culture, and just as they can construct a new consideration of society, they can also control it.
The featured image in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original can be found here.