Revolution: New Art for a New World review: where art and politics clash

Who among us can honestly say they haven’t got their history from the movies? Sometimes, at least. And while Hollywood epics are known to take liberties with the facts, some movies seem to be more immediate sources. Take Soviet history. If you are a silent film aficionado you will have seen how Soviet cinema is constantly re-presenting events from its own recent past. And even if you don’t mistake reconstruction for documentary fact, these films provide their own window on history. The government involvement is often painfully clear, but that in its turn provides its own commentary on the events as presented on screen. A new documentary about Soviet art history, Revolution: New Art or a New World, recounts a familiar anecdote about Eisenstein’s October (1928), a stirring re-enactment of the 1917 revolution. On the day of the premiere, Stalin himself entered Eisenstein’s editing room, and ordered that all scenes involving Trotsky be excised.

So the film, intended to create a certain impression of the workers’ struggle, and of Lenin’s leadership, loses a fragment of what truth remains inside the propaganda. But, of course, this story is almost well known enough to be a companion-text to the film. October becomes known as the story of the 1917 uprising, but without Trotsky, on Stalin’s orders. That said, I hadn’t realised quite how much exaggeration went into October’s depiction of the assault on the Winter Palace. Revolution put me right on that too.

Rodchenko Photographs. © Foxtrot Films
Rodchenko Photographs. © Foxtrot Films

What I’m saying is that context is always important, and this documentary, released on DVD next week is especially welcome as a survey not of all Soviet history, but the art scene, and its relationship with the changing political regimes. For Lenin, art was the best form of propaganda, and he channeled plenty of funds into hiring artists to make monuments and sculptures of socialist heroes. Never mind that many of those artists had absorbed the revolutionary spirit of the times themselves and felt passionately that their work should not be beholden to religion or state. There is a great line here about the anarchism of Malevich’s work coinciding with Bolshevism, rather than there being an cause-and-effect at work between the two.

Margy Kinmonth’s film is a wide-ranging survey of the at the Soviet art world. Vertov and Eisenstein are the only film-makers to get a mention, but Kinmonth covers Chagall, Rodchenko, Kandinsky and less familiar names (to me at least) such as Gustav Klutsis. She has spoken to the artists’ descendants, and visited archives, to broaden her scope. The stories here are largely of radical artists with visions of new forms being cultivated, manipulated and often exiled by a regime that promised to share their ideals. The horrifying idea that artists who best expressed the revolution’s ideas of equality and liberation found themselves sent to die in gulags casts a shadow over their vibrant, energetic work.

Malevich - Black Square (1915). Photo ©
Malevich – Black Square (1915). Photo ©

It was the medium of painting, according to the film, rather than film-making or design, that was subject to the most state interference – which may speak to a certain political and military distrust of a form considered to be elitist. Malevich’s famous “Black Square”, hung in place of a religious icon, is shown here to be every bit as disruptive, and baffling, as a bomb or a coup.

This is a talking-head documentary for the most part, although, and this is slightly disconcerting, well-known British actors voice the words of the artists and politicians, alongside Kinmonth’s voiceover. The occasional mirrored frame odd a nod to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, but otherwise the film is shot straight, allowing the art works to shine. Revolution is a fantastic introduction to Soviet art and artists – their thrilling ideas, political crises and divergent paths. It zips by at just under and hour and a half, though, so for those who want to delve in further, the DVD comes supplied with extra feature material on most of the topics covered.

2 thoughts on “Revolution: New Art for a New World review: where art and politics clash”

  1. The problem with the film, just as with the exhibition itself is that it simplified (and by that actually distorted) an already complex and contradictory situation that was the revolution. I think the first point to make, and one that is overlooked both in the film and in the exhibition, is that the outcome of the revolution was never certain as proposed by film and exhibition. It’s failure was not inevitable, but their belief that it was has coloured their view and approach to the subject. The myth that artists and film makers worked under duress is just that – many embraced the new life as they saw it, with enthusiasm and love, passion and gusto. They genuinely believed this was a new world being born. All things were now possible to them and humankind. This may seem naive now but we have the luxury of 100 years of hindsight and revisionist history. The exhibition and film both ignore fundamentals e.g. no one (including Lenin or Trotsky) actually believed a revolution would break out in Russia. Germany, France and even England was the most likely contenders as far as they were concerned. The Russian people were so surprised they didn’t even know how to address each other at first, using the only template they had (the French Revolution of 1789) to form the address of “citizen”. The use of comrade came in later. In the arts, in context of the age, manifesto and debate were as important, if not more so than actual works. But this fundamental aspect is overlooked, like so much else. Even Warren Beaty’s sentimental and Hollywood-ised “Reds” got closer to the essence when Beaty’s John Reed explains to the discombobulated anarchist Emma Goldman that (and I paraphrase) “sure we’ve made mistakes. We’re making it up as we go along … we have to, there’s no blue print … ” The debates in art and film about the future of humanity and the arts were many and varied, profound and sometimes out right surreal – I leave a quote from Trotsky who seems a perfect mirror of the revolution – both complex and contradictory character that he was, he wrote monographs on Proust and contemporary French literature whilst on his armoured train speeding from front to front as he commanded the fledgling Red Army’s defence of their new born revolutionary republic against 13 foreign invading armies of intervention:
    “… from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian. It finds the necessary rhythm of words for dark and vague moods, it brings thought and feeling closer or contrasts them with one another, it enriches the spiritual experience of the individual and of the community, it refines feeling, makes it more flexible, more responsive, it enlarges the volume of thought in advance and not through the personal method of accumulated experience, it educates the individual, the social group, the class and the nation. And this it does quite independently of whether it appears in a given case under the flag of a ‘pure’ or of a frankly tendentious art …”

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