Arguably one of the most important emancipatory events in human history, the October Revolution in 1917 Russia sought to end the exploitation of man by man, which described the human condition as shaped under capitalism. The Revolution had decisive repercussions on artistic creation, as many artists adhered to the communist project and wanted to participate through their works in the construction of the new society.
Motivated by authentic beliefs, these artists sought to define what should art be under socialism. However, the rise of the Stalinist regime saw the introduction of socialist realism, a traditionalist, representational form of art - national in form, socialist in content - which was meant to depict the communist reality, not as it was but as it should be.
Forty years after the Paris-Moscow exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, the institution is organizing another survey of this story, with its tensions and its ups and downs. Titled Red. Art and Utopia in the land of the Soviets, the exhibition brings together more than 400 works, drawn from the Centre Pompidou collection and lent by major Russian museums. It explores a history where material innovations and ideological constraints, inextricably linked, raise the question of a possible politicization of the arts.
The first part of the exhibition highlights the debates which vigorously animated the Soviet art scene in the aftermath of the revolution, extending into the 1920s. The main question was: What should be the art of the new socialist society? A large part of the avant-garde advocated for the abandonment of art forms considered "bourgeois" in favor of an "art of production" which would participate actively in the transformation of the way of life.
Through the works of seminal figures such as Gustav Klutsis, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Lyubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, design, theater, photomontage and cinema became the privileged mediums of this radical enterprise.
This artistic utopia of the fusion of art and life was quickly thwarted by the growing hostility of Bolshevik power towards the avant-garde, looking to promote art "understandable to the masses" which would reflect the ongoing transformations of society.
This initial pluralism was put to an end with the rise of the Stalinist regime. The regime considered figuration as the aptest form to penetrate the masses. Artists playing a central role in the slow definition of the pictorial foundations of socialist realism included Alexander Deïneka, Yuri Pimenov, Alexander Samokhvalov and Alexei Pakhomov.
Through thematic sections, the exhibition explores the works dedicated to the workers, the body and bright future. It also features works devoted to Stalinist architecture which became monumentalized. It concludes with a selection of works testifying to the advent of realistic socialist dogma, when art entirely became a subject of ideology.
The exhibition Red. Art and Utopia in the Land of the Soviets will be on view at Grand Palais in Paris until July 1st, 2019.
It is organized by the Réunion des musées nationaux - Grand Palais and the Centre Pompidou Musée national d’art moderne.
Featured image: El Lissitzky - Etude de costume (Milda) pour Je veux un enfant (mise en scène non réalisée de Vsevolod Meyerhold au Théâtre d’État Meyerhold [Moscou]), 1927. Pencil, watercolor, glued paper, printing, white lead on cardboard. All images courtesy Grand Palais.