One of the first things the visitor encounters on entering the Grand Palais exhibition ‘Red: Art and Utopia in the Land of the Soviets’ is Vladimir Tatlin’s ‘Monument to the Third International’. It is seen as a scale model, as an image on the cover of Nikolai Punin’s 1920 book, and in an enlarged, wall-sized photograph of the 1stMay parade in Leningrad where another model version is carried shoulder-high like the object of near-religious veneration that it was. Radical in design and futuristic in appearance, ‘Tatlin’s Tower’ functions as a symbol of the utopian visions brought into being in October 1917. In this exhibition, it stands alongside examples of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s ‘Rosta’ window-posters, film footage of an ‘agit-train’ delivering propaganda to Russia’s regions, and a minute-long sequence of grainy images from the 1920 ‘Storming of the Winter Palace’ staged by Nikolai Evreinov to mark the third anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power. All of these remind us of the urgency with which the Soviet regime worked to secure its grip on a vast empire beyond the febrile streets of Petrograd and the speed with which control of the historical narrative enabled both a rewriting of Russia’s past and a vision of what its new future could be.
The challenges facing the early Soviet state were, of course, immense. Utopian visions, like Tatlin’s design, could be invoked to sustain peoples’ belief in what the future might bring, but the immediate context was one of intense struggle to secure the gains of 1917 and lay the foundations upon which that future could be built. In the early sections of the exhibition, though, the viewer is often surprised at how closely artistic innovation is celebrated as evidence of revolutionary success. From Vsevolod Meyerhold’s developments in theatre and stagecraft to Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova’s Constructivist designs for everything from furniture to fabrics innovation is seen as an inherently Soviet quality. If the old political order was to be overhauled, so was the world in which that order had endured for so long. By the time we reach a reconstruction of the Workers’ Club that Rodchenko contributed to the Soviet Pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts we are faced not only with a radical reinterpretation of communal space but also of communal life. To join those sitting at the reading benches, watching newsreel film on the screen, or playing chess in the room’s ‘Lenin Corner’ is to become a member of a society rethinking ideas of communal leisure, and using design to shape behavior. From here it is a small step to the ‘social condensers’ or apartment blocks and factories imagined and built by Soviet architects. Tatlin’s Monument may not have been realised, but Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Building in Moscow certainly was. As the 1920s draw to a close, a Soviet Utopia is still seen to be viable.
And yet, before the visitor has reached the half-way point in the exhibition, it is clear that there is a change in the air. By the late-1920s the aesthetic style has become more realist: the photomontages of Klucis and Rodchenko are innovative in their composition, but reflect a trend towards using the photograph rather than the abstract artwork to more effectively articulate the political message. A small display of Malevich’s 1920s work is accompanied by an information panel detailing the closure of his artistic Institutes, his curtailed travels abroad, and his arrest in 1930. As the visitor ascends the giant staircase to the second floor they encounter an enlarged photograph of a citizen of 1932 beside an immense image of Stalin mounted on the wall of a Moscow building. The Soviet state of the 1920s has ossified into the Stalinist regime. The second half of the exhibition begins with a room devoted to the identification and punishment of ‘enemies of the people’. The Purges and Show Trials are not far away.
With content loaned from a host of major Russian museums and collections, alongside the already impressive Russian holdings of the Centre Pompidou, this exhibition is more comprehensive than the Royal Academy’s 2017 ‘Revolution’ display, and charts more effectively the process by which the creative forces unleashed in 1917 atrophied in the years of Stalinist rule. The success of the Grand Palais’ display is the care with which it makes clear how far what it calls the “exacerbated totalitarianism” of Stalin’s rule was a betrayal of the utopian thought of the early Soviet period but also how those living under that rule were encouraged to feel that they were nonetheless witnessing the fulfilment of those early ideals. In the 1930s, as Socialist Realism becomes the state’s style of choice in painting the walls of the exhibition are filled with canvases in which physically idealised and politically dedicated men, women, and children enjoy the opportunities of life in the Soviet Utopia. The massed ranks that are seen parading in film footage enjoy the benefits of a fully-realised socialist state, rewarding its people with the most grandiose architectural projects, from the ‘Seven Sisters’ of monumental Moscow tower blocks to the palatial stations of the city’s Metro. This state had chosen realism as its artistic style on the grounds that when its achievements were so immense there was no need of stylistic innovation to obscure what it had made palpably real. Purged of those who would have undone it, Stalin’s USSR betrayed the avant-garde aesthetics of its forerunner just as its monolithic power structure was accused (by those who dared to do so) of betraying the revolutionary spirit of 1917.
As the final rooms of this superb exhibition make clear, though, ‘realism’ was also an aesthetic that enabled the Stalinist state to represent things that were not themselves real in a manner that made them look as if they were. Thus, we cannot tell whether Vassily Svarog’s 1939 image of Stalin and other Politburo members surrounded by and joyfully engaging with a crowd of Young Pioneers in Moscow’s Gorky Park records an event that really occurred or whether, like Alexander Deineka’s sunlit pastoral of Lenin enjoying a car ride with another group of children, the outward realism of the image belies its fundamentally manipulated reality, allowing the long-dead Lenin (Deineka’s painting dates from 1938) to step out of history and enjoy an afternoon of leisure with the next generation of Soviet youth. ‘History’, like ‘reality’ could be altered, and in the form into which it ossified the Soviet Utopia becomes in its artworks both a state that has been realised, but one which bears only a superficial relationship with the country in which its citizens live.
Amongst the last things the visitor sees are clips of Soviet films in which the history of the Revolution, and of the Civil War, is subjected to interpretation and re-writing to allow Stalin to play a much greater role in the events of 1917 than he may have done, and to cement in the viewer’s mind the perfectly logical and legitimate succession from the those October days in Petrograd to the fully realized Stalinist state. Filling one wall of the final room is Sergei Gerasimov’s giant 1948 portrait of Stalin paying homage by Andrei Zhdanov’s open coffin. Here, as massed ranks of mourners blur into a background, the supreme leader of the state stands with hands clasped before the red-draped coffin of the man who defined the Socialist Realist aesthetic, now seen only as a pale face surrounded by a profusion of flowers. The image of consolidated power and tradition arguably owes more to the nineteenth century than to the futuristic visions of earlier rooms. By comparison, after three decades of Soviet power Tatlin’s Monument seems to belong to another age: a future that never arrived, or a Utopia that really was ‘nowhere’ after all.