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.
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.
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.
- Revolution: New Art for a New World is released on 3 April 2017, RRP £19.99. You can order a copy direct from Foxtrot Films here.
- You can read more here.