Revolution: New Art for a New World
A fresh new history on the art and the artists that helped shape the Russian Revolution
K. Malevich, Supremus no. 56. 1916. V. Stepanova, Dancing Figures. 1920.
Acclaimed documentary and film maker Margy Kinmouth explores the lives, art and politics that collided to produce the Russian Avant Garde in the new documentary film, Revolution: New Art for a New World. Produced in celebration of the centenary of the 1917 revolution, the documentary examines the relationship between the artistically revolutionary avant-garde and the revolutionary politics of the era. This means that the film is not confined to art history, making it accessible for anyone with an interest in Russian history and culture. Kinmouth takes a forgotten period of Russian art out of museum storage rooms and makes it captivating for a modern audience. As with all great documentaries, Revolution will give you something to think about long after the credits roll.
This is not Kinmouth’s first film about Russia, having previously produced acclaimed documentaries about topics such as the Hermitage, the Mariinsky Theatre and The Nutcracker. Inspiration for Revolution: New Art for a New World came from Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic film October, which features in the film. The distorted, propagandist portrayal of the October Revolution prompted Kinmouth to consider the role of art in propaganda and ideology. This question underpins much of the film, considering both the creative and political role of the artist. And yet, when watching the film, what is poignant is Kinmouth’s emphasis on the individual. By interviewing descendents of the artists featured - most of whom are artists themselves - Kinmouth humanises figures who are otherwise viewed through an analytical lens. The film poses questions about the personal identity of the artist, political machinations and how both relate to the art itself. And yet, miraculously, it is not weighed down in ethical questioning and pondering. It manages to stay serious without getting wrapped up in its own philosophising, a fate which many otherwise great documentaries fall into.
A. Rodchenko, Steps. 1930. K. Malevich, The Black Square. 1915.
Russia: New Art for A New World is aesthetically fascinating and diverse enough to reflect the avant-garde styles. Visually, it is beautiful. The art, at the forefront of the documentary, is exquisitely filmed. Interviews, rare archival footage and performances keep the film from becoming static or slow-paced. This is interspersed with beautiful shots of Russia - landscapes, architecture and nature - which reminds us that this movement and its history is deeply intertwined with a sense of Russianness. Contemporary footage unearthed by Kinmouth anchors it in the period, and the modern role play by History of Art students is a nice touch, creating a link to the present. Performances of Meyerhold’s ‘biomechanics’ techniques and clips of Vertov’s propaganda films bring a more dynamic side to the art and create an eerie sense of discomfort for the viewer. The likes of Tom Hollander as Malevic (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Night Manager) and Matthew Macfadyen as Lenin (Pride and Prejudice, Ripper Street) lend their vocal talents to the speeches of politicians and artists to give a voice to the figures Kinmouth presents. The original soundtrack by composer Edmund Jolliffe suits the film well, and is catchy enough to get stuck in your head, so be warned.
A. Rodchenko, ‘Knigi’ 1924. Advertisement for Lengiz Publishing House.
Although you may not think you know much about the Russian avant-garde, you will almost certainly recognise some works, styles or influences of the movement. Any Russian student - or person vaguely familiar with the Soviet Era - will recognise the photomontage style invented by Gustav Klutsis. The classic ‘Soviet style’ of propaganda and advertisements which has been endlessly recreated was directly created by avant-garde artists like Rodchenko and Klutsis. And - as Kinmouth points out - in many ways it is the beginning of modern art in the 20th century. Malevich’s “Black Square” (the black square hung in the corner of the room, taking on the cultural and religious significations of an icon) was the genesis of a whole new phenomenon - he painted something that wasn’t anything. Even if modern art isn’t your thing, the basis of abstract art in the Suprematism and Abstraction which formed part of the Russian avant-garde might give you an insight into the importance of the movement.
Kinmouth’s film focuses as much on the lives of the artists as the art itself. The film features well-known names such as Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, but equally prominent are artists less well-known both in Russia and abroad such as Konchalovksy, Petrov-Vodkin and Filonov. Many artists who, had they in any other period, would still be revered worldwide as masters of their craft, pioneers and creative thinkers. Yet, they and many of their works have been ‘filed away’ as an inconvenient period of history, the political connotations eclipsing their individual and artistic significance. Their descendants keep their memory alive and are able to provide a unique, personal insight - Alexander Lavrentiev fondly wonders how his grandparents Varavara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko managed to live together as two fiercely creative spirits. He, like many others, has promoted and researched his relatives’ artistic legacies.
Interview with Anna Kaminskaia, granddaughter of Nikolai Punin
Despite the majority of political and artistic figures featured being male, the role of women is pleasantly prominent in the film. The film opens with a woman’s voice and young women painting political slogans on red sheets - “bread, work, vote”. From the offset, the idea of a woman’s voice is heard, hinted at in the hope that “everyone was going to have equal rights”. More importantly, female artists are mentioned, a sad rarity for art history documentaries. The artists Varvara Stepanova - married to Alexander Rodchenko - and Valentina Kulagina - married to Gustav Klutsis - are given as an examples of the women who had achieved equality for their art. Although it may not be a major consideration of the film, it is notable that the Soviets encouraged the involvement of women, and that there was a great upward movement in the rights of women in the first half of the 20th century.
Filming of the women painting banners
The film’s title - New Art for a New World - ties the movement to the revolution. The artists of the avant-garde welcomed the revolution - both movements were non-conformist, attempting to overturn the status quo and the ideological trappings of society, in art and politics respectively. Initially, it seems that the two phenomena naturally coincided and many avant-garde artists supported and promoted the revolution through their work. Yet, as the film proceeds, the relationship turns sour. A continually revolutionary movement that pushes boundaries cannot continue to exist under a stabilised, authoritarian regime and the avant-garde was eventually supplanted by Socialist Realism under Stalin. The risk faced by non-conformity to the accepted convention was greater than that faced by innovative artists prior to the revolution. These artists eventually became enemies of the regime, with all innovative, creative thinkers being purged for fear that they might subvert the regime. The film ends with a list of all the artists featured and what ultimately became of them - a sombre end to a film that began with hope.
K. Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy. 1925.
Kinmouth’s film shows that the Soviets knew all too well the power of the artist. Lenin seized the avant-garde and harnessed it to spread the ideals of Communism, while Stalin recognised the dangers that free-thinking artists presented, thus labelling the artists that had helped the fledgling state to blossom as enemies of the regime. The film concludes that it was a ‘political coincidence’ that the state had supported the avant-garde - but you are free to draw your own conclusions. Kinmouth has an obvious respect for the art and artists that is infectious, so that by the end you find yourself completely invested in narrative. Certainly a must-watch for any Russian student doing an art or 20th century history module, and highly-recommended to everyone else.