To mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Norwich presents two exhibitions – Royal Faberge & Radical Russia. Running 14th Oct-11th Feb 18.
The exhibition highlights contrasting art, life and culture in Russia before and after the Revolution. Tickets from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich are available here.
The first exhibition, Royal Fabergé, will explore the glittering saga of the world’s greatest artist-jewellers during the decades preceding the First World War. The second, Radical Russia, will show how avantgarde artists – who had scandalised conservative society with outrageous and subversive painting, poetry and theatre – came with revolution to briefly become the State’s officially approved culture. Ultimately both high points of human artistry were to be laid low by horror and terror.
The Sainsbury Centre’s Russia Season will be completed by the permanent installation of the dramatic model of Tatlin’s Tower conceived as the most iconic architectural project of the Soviet era, though never built. With an immense impact on subsequent architects and designers, not least the architects of the University of East Anglia, the 10-metre tower will now rise in the sculpture park alongside the Sainsbury Centre.
It has been estimated that between 1884 and 1917, Peter Carl Fabergé directed the production of 200,000 fabulous pieces of jewellery, silverware and miniature objets d’art including his celebrated eggs. After the Bolshevik Revolution most of the jewellery and silver was melted down and the component gems and metals sold abroad for hard currency. Many smaller objects survived because the artistry in them was more valuable than the amounts of precious materials they contained.
There’s a special connection between Fabergé and Norfolk. In 1907 Edward VII, on a suggestion from Alice Keppel (the Duchess of Cornwall’s great-grandmother), commissioned Fabergé to produce portrait sculptures of dogs and horses at Sandringham to please Queen Alexandra. Later the project was extended to other animals on the Royal estate. The best sculptors went to Norfolk to make wax models which were then taken to Russia to be rendered in hardstones, gemstones, gold, silver and platinum.
‘Royal Fabergé’ will reveal how the exquisite creativity of the Fabergé workshops ranged from St Petersburg and the Romanov court to a dairy on Norfolk’s Sandringham Estate, through the patronage of two sisters – Danish princesses who, as Alexandra and Maria Feodorovna, became queen consorts in Britain and Russia, and who strove to bring their adopted countries together. Fabergé’s London store was the only one outside the Russian Empire.
More than 60 Sandringham-linked loans from the Royal Collection – in addition to the magnificent Basket of Flowers Imperial Easter Egg from 1901 – will provide the centrepiece of the exhibition. Featured creatures will include the champion racehorse Persimmon, whose winnings helped fund the Norfolk estate, and Caesar, Edward’s favourite Norfolk terrier. The wider naturalistic genius of Fabergé will be shown with major loans from private and public collections in Britain and America. Over 200 works including vintage films and photographs will illuminate the extraordinary talents of the Fabergé makers – skills used to create glorious enamelled and bejewelled plants set in rock crystal vases as well as the famous Fabergé eggs and other royal gifts. The mastery of making was so complete that some of the techniques cannot be matched today.
Royal Fabergé will also tell the saga of Sandringham – the newly bought royal retreat where Alexandra went after her honeymoon in 1863, and where she died in 1925. Latterly she withdrew here to the company of her beloved pets, while many of the Norfolk men who had helped to set up the Fabergé commission formed the Sandringham Company. Land agent Frank Beck vanished with 16 estate staff one afternoon, in August 1915, at Gallipoli. His gold watch, a gift from Alexandra, was retrieved after the war and returned to Sandringham for Frank’s daughter on her wedding day. The watch will now be exhibited for the first time. This is a story about the huge significance of small things.
A spectacular and sinister crow was added to the Royal Collection in late November 1914, when the First World War was already in a bloody stalemate and these birds were scavenging the battlefields. By then the Fabergé workshops were producing millions of bullets and hand grenades. Dowager Queen Alexandra never saw many of her Russian relatives again – nephew Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in Ekaterinburg where Fabergé’s hardstones had been mined. But the British Navy rescued her sister, Maria Feodorovna, the dowager empress, from Crimea and brought her back to Sandringham where she had spent happy visits in another world. Fabergé himself also escaped with British help, to die in Switzerland in 1920.
Royal Fabergé is curated by guest curator Ian Collins with the Sainsbury Centre and will be accompanied by a new publication Fabergé from St Petersburg to Sandringham which will expand on the exhibition’s themes
‘Radical Russia’ will show how the avant-garde succeeded in transforming Russian art and culture in the 20th century, well before the Revolution of 1917. The exhibition will include paintings, sculpture, books, ceramics, furniture, games, costume and objects relating to everything from theatre to architecture and urban planning, spanning the period 1905 to 1930. Highlights will include suprematist paintings by Malevich, designs by El Lissitzky and Tatlin, and ceramics from a number of countries.
Art played a vital part in Russian society during the 19th century, with great writers and painters utilising their works to put important social issues in front of the public. Russia’s ‘Silver Age’ (c. 1890–1925) promoted the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ but Russia’s artists and writers never lost their affinity for their homeland and for Russian national tradition. The exhibition will include pieces produced in the early years of the 20th century, showing the way in which the new Russian modern art included specifically Russian themes, especially relating to the peasantry.
The exhibition will examine how artists such as Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) turned to abstract forms, even as she continued to refer to the deeply symbolic Russian landscape in works such as Forest (1913). It will also include Kazimir Malevich’s (1878–1935) striking geometrical work, Red Square. Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866–1944) Improvisation 19 (1911), Alexandra Exter’s (1882– 1949) Still Life (1914) and Mikhail Larionov’s (1881–1964) Sketch of a tree (c.1911) will also be on show, displaying the energy and vigour of Russian painting in the dying years of Tsarism.
Much of pre-revolutionary radical Russian culture was anarchic and subversive and the exhibition will include some of the startling books published by the avant-garde before 1917. Tango with cows (1914) Vasily Kamenskii’s (1884–1961) book of ‘ferro-concrete’ poetry, is printed on flowered wallpaper, while Alexei Kruchenykh’s (1886–1968) Game in Hell (1912) includes a terrifying demonic image by Goncharova on its cover. The text of the first futurist opera, Victory over the Sun (1913), with its ‘crazy decor and…gibberish’, as a reviewer described it, will also be part of the exhibition.
The revolutions of 1917 turned Russia upside-down, and Russia’s radical artists discovered that they had an unthought-of opportunity to place their work on a grand stage. The avant-garde operated across the whole artistic spectrum, from poetry to urban planning, and the exhibition will demonstrate their vitality and creativity at a time of intense social and political transformation. Ceramics, book designs, furniture, costume and urban planning all attracted the attentions of the Russian avant-garde as they attempted to ‘live the revolution’. The exhibition will include a wide variety of types of object, ranging from Suprematist ceramics which utilised revolutionary symbolism, to book covers which exemplify the unity between the written word and the visual arts.
Some of the startling ceramic plates produced by the State Porcelain Factory in the early 1920s, with their images of heroic commissars and the Bolshevik emblems of red star, hammer and sickle will be on display, along with the extraordinary Reds and Whites chess set (1922) by Natalia Danko (1892– 1942), inspired by the civil war that followed the Revolution. Radical designs for theatre sets and costumes, photomontages showing Lenin juxtaposed with symbols of technological progress and designs intended to educate the Soviet people, such as El Lissitzky’s (1890–1941) Four rules of arithmetic (1928), will demonstrate the energy and imagination that Russia’s radical artists devoted to the cause of the new Soviet state. Alongside this, the exhibition will contain some of the purely artistic pieces produced by the avant-garde, with Goncharova’s sketchbooks, Alexandra Exter’s Still Life and Popova’s Spatial Force Construction showing how their ideas for reimagining the actual lived experience of revolutionary Russia were founded in the abstraction produced in the years before 1917.
The avant-garde also wanted to transform the physical environment of the Soviet state and a centrepiece to the exhibition will be a dramatic model of Tatlin’s Tower which will be situated in the sculpture park outside the Sainsbury Centre. Conceived by Vladimir Tatlin as the headquarters and monument to the Third International, this is the most iconic architectural project to have been designed in the Soviet era. It was intended to straddle the river Neva in St Petersburg at a height of 400m. The tower was never built but its impact on subsequent architects and designers is considerable. The model is 10m high (12.5m on its plinth) and based on Tatlin’s original drawings of the Tower which were reinterpreted by architect Jeremy Dixon.
‘Radical Russia’ is curated by Peter Waldron and will be accompanied by a new publication Radical Russia: Art, Culture and Revolution. placing the exhibition in its wider cultural context.