The 1917 Russian Revolution unleashed a torrent of creativity in every field of art, from painting and sculpture to acting, poetry and architectural engineering.
But much of the information about these artists and their work have been lost. A new film, Revolution—New Art for a New World, aims to uncover this hidden history.
The film-maker’s interpretation of the revolution obscures rather than clarifies the history. But there’s enough information to allow us to read between the lines.
Original footage of works of art and scenes from the revolution itself give insight into the artists’ aspirations to “destroy the old and create the new”. Interviews with the artists’ surviving family members give space to authentic voices.
For example, Nina Suetin—daughter of graphic artist Nikolai Suetin—describes how the young artists had all been on the barricades.
For them, the revolution was a breakthrough to a new world.
The film offers an opportunity to see the work of Russian avante-garde figures discussed in an historical context. Artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Rodchenko and filmmakers Vertov and Eisenstein are featured.
It’s also clear from the film that revolution was not just producing new forms of art but new artists.
Among the leaders of the movement were painters such as Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, the son of a maid and a shoe maker, and Gustav Klutsis, from a peasant background.
There’s also the artist who invented photo montage, Pavel Filonov—the sixth son of a cab driver.
The film demonstrates this was art for the people. Early footage shows “agitational” trains painted with avante-garde images which were sent cross-country to deliver lectures, theatre and music to workers.
Alongside Rodchenkos famous poster of Lily Briggs shouting “books”, it conveys the excitement around the “agitation for literacy” taking place.
The use of artists’ own words describe the anxiety felt as the revolution faltered. Kandinsky thought, “The more frightening the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.
“The nightmare of materialism which has turned the life of the universe into an evil useless game, is not yet passed. It holds the awakening soul, still, in its grip.”
We also see how the rise of Stalin brings with it the cult of Lenin and the promotion of Socialist Realism.
Censorship and other ideological restrictions were used to stifle the creativeness and free thinking of the avante-garde artists.
Revolutionary artists, writers, poets and scientists were declared enemies of the state. Many were executed or sentenced to hard labour as decrees were issued to destroy their works.
Despite its flaws, there is enough in this documentary to give a sense of the aspirations and achievements of the revolution and the role played by its artists.
But it is also a warning of the consequences of defeat.