"Budding the Revolution: Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-35"

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"Budding the Revolution: Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-35"

Royal Academy of Arts, London.

October 29, 2011-January 22, 2012

"Building die Revolution," now on view at the Royal Academy, tries to link together the art of the early Soviet Union with its architecture, but the connection is only fully maintained at the level of the abstract and politicized discussions of the Russian intelligentsia of the 1920s. The actual items on display provide two excellent, but only peripherally related, exhibitions.

The first is an exhibition of avant-garde Russian art which arbitrarily begins in 1915, two years before Lenin seized power. It would have made sense for this section to reach back further to the flourishing of self-consciously non-figurative art well before World War I. The second exhibition consists of Richard Pare's magnificent color photographs of the distinctive modernist buildings of Russia and the Ukraine, designed and built in the years before Stalin finally and decisively imposed socialist realism and wedding-cake-Classicism on Soviet architecture. Pare's photographs provide an important historical record of the housing and office complexes, the theaters, garages, clubs, factories, and radio towers of that era. The photographs are taken with such insight into shape and perspective as to constitute works of art in themselves.

Schools of art and thought such as Cubo-futurism and Suprematism were in place before the Bolsheviks seized power, but the October Revolution brought their styles into the limelight because the figurative art of the old order employed images and symbols that were nows forbidden. Socialist Realism, with its muscular Stakhanovites and cheerful sheaf-bearing peasants, had not yet been fully developed. There was an interlude in which an elitist geometrical art could triumph, provided it was labeled progressive and seen as contributing to hope and change. They called it Constructivism.

Prominence is given in the exhibition to the paintings of Liubov Popova, who called several of them "Painterly Architectonics." As assemblages of shape and color they are inspired, but they do not relate to architecture, nor does her masterpiece in oil and marble dust on plywood, Spatial Force Construction (1920-21). She had a skill in giving a swirl and vigor to the decoration of surfaces and succeeded not in architecture but as a designer of stage sets. Kazimir Malevich, who had been a talented and influential painter, gave up his art and turned to making architectural models of what imaginary Cubist buildings would have looked like, as with Architecton Zeta (1926). Fortunately, nothing like it has ever been built. It is a piled-up aggregate of children's building blocks that displays his total obsession with the right angle; it hardly fits with his expressed interest in non-Euclidian geometries.

The most exciting buildings are those whose functions required or allowed an abandoning of the tedium of the right angle. Vladimir Shukhovs Shabolovka Radio Tower (1922) is constructed of a "series of six stacked steel-lattice hyperboloids," with each segment built separately on the ground and hoisted up through the inside of the tower to be slotted into place. Its image was widely used in propaganda posters as a symbol of Soviet industrial progress. Shukhov had in fact been using the same basic principles to build water towers since 1896 and had borrowed many ideas from American engineering and technology--but why spoil a good story? Let us rather consider how superior it is to Vladimir Tatlin's downright silly Model for a Monument to the Third International (1919). Thankfully, it was never built, but a replica of the original scaled-down model sits in the courtyard of the Royal Academy looking like a cross between the Tower of Babel and a helter-skelter in a funfair. If Malevich is children's blocks, Tatlin is an Erector Set.

The other fine buildings that use imaginative shapes are Ivan Zholtovskii's MoGES (Moscow city electric power station) (1926), with its rather dull classical exterior but wonderful inner facade, a series of very tall, angular glazed bays that carry down to the ground the line of the chimneys above. …