Soviet art and architecture, London exhibition

This video is about the exhibition Building The Revolution – Soviet Art And Architecture 1915-1935.

By Christine Lindey in London:

Building The Revolution – Soviet Art And Architecture 1915-1935

Royal Academy, London W1

Friday 04 November 2011

In the early 20th century progressive Russian artists and architects hotly debated how to modernise their society.

Socialists such as Kazimir Malevich, Liubov Popova and Moisei Ginzburg argued that cultural change could not be divorced from political and social change.

Welcoming the 1917 revolution, they joined other workers in building the new workers’ state.

During the hardships and shortages of war communism from 1917 to 1922 artists focused on speculative research and revolutionary art education where they forged Modernist theories of form following function.

Declaring that photography had made painted representations of the visible world redundant, in 1915 Malevich had already exhibited paintings consisting of pure geometric squares, oblongs and circles.

In 1919 he gave up painting to create futuristic architectural models and drawings which explored the essence of form and volume.

As head of Vitebsk art school he spread these ideas via his Unovis group which inspired designers, engineers and architects including El Lissitsky and Nikolai Suetin.

Meanwhile Vladimir Tatlin, Alexandr Rodchenko, Popova and other artists teaching in Moscow’s innovatory art schools formed the equally influential Constructivist group.

Renouncing the bourgeois concept of the artist as individual genius they saw themselves as artist-engineers exploring the bare bones of visual phenomena as a basis for modern, efficient designs. By taking art into production they would improve the material, cultural and spiritual life of workers and peasants.

Popova’s Spatial Force Construction (1920-1) crackles and buzzes with the dynamism of modern radio waves, with its boldly defined diagonal graininess reminiscent of poured concrete.

All movement and energy, her painting evokes industrial processes and materials rather than the sable-brushed canvases favoured by the bourgeoisie. Photographs and photomontage designs of her portable stage sets show how she developed practical designs from her investigations into materials and form.

The circles and triangular lattice of Valdimir Shukov‘s 1922 steel Radio Tower, which still operates, perfectly echo the forms in Popova’s Constructivist paintings while its construction demonstrates the rational principle of form following function.

After the civil war, despite continuing shortages of food, fuel and materials, structures were built for the social and industrial needs of the young Soviet Union. Architecture, that most directly social of all the visual arts, would improve the cultural and working lives of the people.

Novel types of buildings conducive to social interaction and co-operation were invented. Workers’ clubs and “Children’s Palaces” included theatres, reading rooms and sporting facilities. Numerous public canteens, creches and laundries liberated women from domestic drudgery and freed them to participate in creating the Soviet Union.

New factories provided air, light, and rational organisation of space for the workers. Democratic relations between manual and intellectual workers were encouraged by housing them in the same buildings.

Semen Pen’s Palace Of The Press in Baku, dating from 1932, housed editorial offices and printing presses, while its roof terrace and wide balconies provided fresh air and sunshine.

Communal facilities such as laundries, dining halls, kitchens and reading rooms were included in housing complexes such as Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House, built in 1930.

Designed along rational principles it floats on “pilotis” – piers – and its horizontal banded windows sweep across the facade providing maximum light and air. Behind, wide, heated corridors offer tenants the opportunity to interact and its planned roof garden aimed to promote good health.

Stripped of the curls and curlicues of past styles, the beauty of the new buildings depended on basic geometric forms used with sensitive attention to proportion, scale, composition and planning born of the buildings’ function.

Since 1993 Richard Pare has been photographing Soviet avant garde buildings and his large photographs are works of art themselves.

Composed according to Constructivist principles their curves and angles recall the paintings and drawings which had originally inspired the architects.

He is passionate about the urgent need for preservation so his photographs show evidence of decay. He also stresses the need to respect the buildings’ original intention.

Of Moscow’s Izvestia building, 1927-9, he comments that “the building is still there but it may as well not be; gigantic adverting hoardings obliterate the top storeys and the ground floor public reading room is franchised to multinational fast-food outlets.”

Unfortunately the story ends with the usual line that meaningful Soviet culture was killed by Stalin, so that the Modernist revival in art and architecture which lasted for three decades after Krushchov’s mid-1950s thaw goes unmentioned.

But the Royal Academy’s exhibition catalogue and explanatory leaflet are informative and largely free of anti-Soviet sniping.

Exhibitions about architecture are often worthy but dull. But, by exploring the dialogue between art and architecture and by representing the buildings with black-and-white period photographs below Richard Pare‘s stunning colour prints, the curators have created an inspiring entity.

It’s informative, intellectually stimulating and aesthetically gratifying.

Runs until January 22. Box office: (020) 7300-8000. Christine Lindey will lecture on Soviet avant garde art and design at the Society for Russian and Soviet Studies in London on December 2, telephone: (020) 7274-2282.

See also here.

Exhibition of Russian-Soviet artist Vladimir Tatlin in Basel: here.

A remarkable exhibition, featuring the art and architecture of the early Soviet Union’s Vkhutemas [acronym in Russian for Higher Art and Technical Studios] school, is currently at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, until April 6. For the first time, some 250 works—drawings, sketches, paintings, photographs and models, mainly in the field of architecture—created by the students and teachers of the Moscow workshops, which existed from 1920 to 1930, are on display: here.

6 thoughts on “Soviet art and architecture, London exhibition

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