Revolutionary Russians
Commemorating the centenary of Shostakovich

23 September 2006 – 28 January 2007

selected works

Valentina Kulagina 'Poster: Kunstausstellung der Sowjetunion' [Art exhibition of the Soviet Union] 1930 colour lithograph Purchased with the assistance of Jack and Mel Banning 1993 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Valentina Kulagina   Poster: Kunstausstellung der Sowjetunion [Art exhibition of the Soviet Union]   1930   colour lithograph Purchased with the assistance of Jack and Mel Banning 1993   Collection of the National Gallery of Australia   more detail

2006 marks the centenary of the birth of the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He was born in St Petersburg on 25 September 1906 into a Russia wracked by revolutionary ferment. In the hundred years that followed, Russia endured continual upheavals and at least four revolutions. The first began in 1905 and lasted until 1907, while the year 1917 saw two in February and October. As well as the Civil War of 1918 to 1921, the new Soviet Union saw Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s, then invasion by Nazi Germany in the Second World War. This was followed by the turmoil of the Cold War from 1945, until a largely peaceful revolution saw the end of the Soviet Union and its empire between 1989 and 1992. Political and economic dislocation was mirrored by cultural and artistic advances and retreats, breakthroughs and stagnation.

In the visual arts, the twentieth century was distinguished by the adoption of new, modernist visual languages, especially the multiple images of printing, photography and film. These are all media where the aura of one original work is replaced by numerous identical versions. In Russia the idea of cheap and plentiful art objects mirrored the ideal of creating a new society, in fact a new human being: Homo sovieticus. The utopian idealism of the project lasted only a few years, but the form continued into the 1970s.

In 1905 the first Russian revolts of the twentieth century began as the Tsarist regime’s imperial adventure, the attack on Japan in 1904, began to fail. The shock of European defeat by an Asian nation was complete: Russia’s ambitions for a Pacific empire and a warm water port were crushed, along with its navy, at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. In contrast to the aristocracy’s leisured, luxurious life, peasants and workers suffered under appalling conditions, and were joined by the intelligentsia in opposing the autocratic and incompetent regime. On 9 January a peaceful demonstration at the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg turned into the massacre of Bloody Sunday when troops fired into the crowd, killing and wounding more than a thousand people.

Unknown artist 'The responsible editor swallows the amnesty' in 'Maski [Masks]' no. 9, 10 April 1906 colour lineblock Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Unknown artist   The responsible editor swallows the amnesty' in 'Maski [Masks]   no.9, 10 April   1906  colour lineblock  Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

In the tradition of the lubok, the coloured folk woodcut print, and the unauthorised pamphlet, hundreds of savagely critical illustrated newspapers were published in the temporary relaxation of censorship when the government floundered between 1905 and 1907. The National Gallery of Australia’s collection of 167 issues includes some harrowing images of the poor, victims of the Tsar and his three agents (the nobility, the military and the church). Bloody Sunday altered the view of the Tsar as protector, the Little Father of the people: Nicholas II was now seen as an oppressor like the others. Radical, broad, and excoriating in their depiction of the forces of repression, most surprising perhaps is the hatred their artists and illustrators expressed towards priests. One extraordinary image shows a naked woman crucified – unusual in a prudish culture where nudity was banned apart from a few high art representations, and where the Orthodox Church controlled religious discourse. But a bare-breasted female Jesus? Even now it appears confronting.

In the years before the outbreak of war in August 1914, Europe was convulsed by modernism in the arts. Russia was industrialising rapidly, producing a larger and liberal middle class as well as some enlightened patrons. The painters Kazimir Malevich, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov all produced original lithographic book illustrations in the style of Russian Futurism. In Gardeners over the vines 1913, for example, Goncharova develops the idea of Rayism, where bolts of lines and divided forms dissect images of the natural world. Radical verse and writing were accompanied by abstracted compositions, which could be produced in large, cheap editions to broadly disseminate radical artistic ideas. After the Bolshevik Revolution this became state policy, which would lead to criticism and then suppression of individual creation.

Kazimir Malevich 'Nu i tresk-zhe, nu i grom-zhe! [What a boom, what a blast!]' 1915 colour lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Kazimir Malevich  Nu i tresk-zhe, nu i grom-zhe! [What a boom, what a blast!'   1915  colour lithograph   Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The upsurge of patriotism which greeted the First World War produced some extraordinary visual creations, such as Goncharova’s portfolio War: Mystical images of war 1914. Symbols of nation states – the white eagle of Russia and the English lion for example – co-exist with images of death and destruction: the pale horse; the doomed city; a common grave. Angels hover but cannot protect the Russian army. Malevich used the lubok woodcut style in his jocular, bloodthirsty posters exhorting the defence of the Motherland, with verse captions by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Despite the initial support, carnage on the front and incompetent military command led to the liberal February Revolution of 1917. The Kerensky government’s inability to end the war sparked the Bolshevik Revolution in October, the victory of Lenin’s Communist Party and the eventual establishment of the Soviet Union.

In the first heady days of the Revolution many artists enthusiastically joined the struggle, especially after Western Powers, including Britain, France, the United States and Canada, intervened in the Civil War to support the White Army. The movement of Constructivism grew out of the attempt to bring education and modern art to the masses, through the famous Agitprop trains (agitation and propaganda travelling in rail carriages), publications, clothing design, architecture, films and radio. Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin and Gustav Klucis led attempts to modernise Russia though radical aesthetics, under the auspices of Narkompros [the People’s Commissariat for Enlightening] as the Education and Culture Ministry was called.

Inventive women artists and designers, notable in their numbers and predominance even before the start of the First World War, continued to figure prominently until the 1940s. Olga Rozanova, in her Transrational book 1915, plays with the conventions of the medium itself: the cover has a button attached to a cut-out red paper heart; inside, Aleksandr Kruchënykh’s transrational verse is rubber-stamped at random across the text pages, accompanied by colour linocuts based on playing cards. Valentina Kulagina’s striking poster for the Art exhibition of the Soviet Union 1931 shown in Switzerland presents as metaphor for the building of the new society and pin-up of modern design a cylindrical orange-red construction worker.

Sergei V Chekhonin 'State Porcelian Factory Teapot ' My work is my truth' 1921 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Sergei V Chekhonin State Porcelian Factory Teapot My work is my truth  1921  Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

An odd continuation of Tsarist tradition occurred through the use of porcelain blanks from the Imperial Porcelain Factory, founded in St Petersburg in 1744. Artists, including Wassily Kandinsky, decorated plates, cup and saucers and teapots in various styles to fit the times. Sergei Chekhonin’s teapot, My work is my truth 1921, combines an elegant and animated crimson ribbon with the flower motifs of folk art, encircled by the emblazoned slogan. Even under the new order, work of this quality was too expensive for ordinary people, and such porcelain remained a luxury for the well-connected or was exported to sympathisers and collectors in the West.

El Lissitsky was originally a disciple of Marc Chagall at Vitebsk in the revival of Jewish culture in Russia, made possible after the Revolutionary government lifted a Tsarist ban on printing Hebrew letters. He then became a convert to the pure rationality of Malevich’s abstract cause, and contributed his considerable talents as a book and exhibition designer to the service of the Revolution. Lissitsky went to Germany in 1921 as a surrogate diplomatic representative of the Soviet Union, which was not recognised by the Western powers. They imposed economic, political, military and cultural blockades against the new Russia after their unsuccessful military intervention in the Civil War from 1918 to 1920. Lissitsky found artistic confrères in Germany at the Bauhaus, as well as in The Netherlands, especially Theo van Doesburg and other Neo-Plasticists. His playful use of red and black typographic symbols to construct Mayakovsky’s poems in For the voice 1923 underlines Lissitsky’s combination of intuition and expertise.

Aleksandr Rodchenko Back cover of 'Sergeiu Eseninu [To Sergei Esenin]' by Vladimir Mayakovsky 1926 colour photolithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Aleksandr Rodchenko Cover of   Sergeiu Eseninu [To Sergei Esenin]   by Vladimir Mayakovsky  1926  colour photolithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The tall figure and bald head of Mayakovsky haunt 1920s modernism in Russian art and literature. Rodchenko used him as a subject in the always enjoyable cover illustrations to Mayakovsky’s poetry pamphlets, his large head adorning the back covers, his brain with aeroplanes circling it standing in for the world. They collaborated on the radical art journal LEF, which stood for Left Front for the Arts, and its successor, Novy LEF or New LEF. Rodchenko used the face of Mayakovsky’s muse, Lilya Brik, for the cover of Pro eto [About this] 1923. It was the first book ever to be illustrated using photomontage, and the artist increasingly demonstrated his grasp of the dynamic and abstract qualities inherent in the medium of photography.

The Communist Party saw culture as an important tool in the transformation of society, and controlled it through state associations such as the Union of Artists and the Union of Composers. By the end of the 1920s, as Stalin tightened his grip on power, modernism was seen as counter-revolutionary and bourgeois, and Socialist Realism became the only acceptable artistic style. Rodchenko also worked with Stepanova, his wife, designing books and journals such as USSR in construction, an ironical title during this time of great famine stemming from the failed collectivisation of agriculture and ideologically-based mass murders in the Soviet Union from 1930 onwards. It may be this contradiction, and the betrayal of the original ideals of the Revolution, which led many artists to withdraw from the public realm. Rodchenko’s tender, contemplative Portrait of my daughter 1935, while still using radical angles and unusual juxtapositions, could hardly claim any political territory or any Soviet identity.

Musicians, like many visual artists and writers, fell foul of Communist Party edicts commanding Marxist optimism and clarity while banning bourgeois decadence. Modernism was seen as incomprehensible to the masses, counter-revolutionary in its visual sophistication and complexity. Film and photography escaped the harshest strictures, as they could be defended as inherently narrative and naturalist, if not distorted too far by such techniques as superimposition and collage. Dmitri Baltermans’ brilliant snapshot of soldiers in action, Attack! 1941, counterposes the blurred figures of fighters in motion with focused, static shooters.

As well as its great literary culture, Russia had a glorious tradition in the performing arts: drama, opera, ballet, classical music. The latter produced two of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky emigrated to Switzerland in 1914, returning for a single visit in 1962, while Shostakovich composed his joyous, serious, frivolous and profound oeuvre in Russia. As well as his fifteen symphonies, substantial chamber music such as the profound string quartets, operas and ballets, Shostakovich composed more than thirty-five film scores. It is his aural contribution to the Gesamtkunstwerk of Soviet cinema which is celebrated in this exhibition.

Dmitri Balterman 'Attack!' 1941 gelatin silver print Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Dmitri Balterman  Attack  1941  gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

From the beginning of sound in cinema, Shostakovich worked with many Soviet directors, especially Grigori Kozintsev, with whom he spanned his film career from New Babylon in 1929 to King Lear in 1970. Their finest collaboration was Hamlet 1964, perhaps the best screen version of a Shakespeare play ever made. It is only rivalled, visually and for its psychological insight, by their King Lear 1970, with its outstanding acting, photography, direction and score. Shostakovich supported his family in the early twenties by playing the piano to accompany silent films. As well as his many original film scores, his music has been orchestrated later for the soundtrack of silent film masterpieces such as Battleship Potemkin 1925, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, and Man with a movie camera 1928–29, directed by Dziga Vertov.

Shostakovich died in Moscow on 9 August 1975, as the Soviet Union he had known for almost all his life faltered into its last, corrupt, decades. The Revolution was soon to fail and dissolve. Its main legacy was terrible loss and destruction, yet some of the original optimism of trying to build a new society remains in the creations of revolutionary Russian artists.

Christine Dixon
Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture

Click to see Victory over the sun; Russian books and prints 1912–1935