The Future that Faded Fast: Soviet Art and Architecture at the RA

25 Oct

Heading into the Royal Academy this morning, I didn’t really know what to expect.  I’d scrawled ‘RA Soviet’ in my diary but that wasn’t very enlightening.   I tottered up the stairs to the top floor (part of my pre-season skiing preparation although the stilettos are probably comfier than the hefty ski boots) where I found a faultless and fascinating exhibition.

Contrasting with the crowd-pleaser downstairs, the upper-level galleries have, once again, gone for a slightly edgier and, perhaps, riskier exhibition.  The risk has paid off – this show is a stunner.

Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy. Own photograph.

Building the Revolution tells the story of Soviet art and architecture from 1915-1935 looking at the intriguing dialogue and shared language of the two.  The new state of Soviet Socialism required buildings in a style free of past associations.  These were streamlined, flat-roofed and white-walled, with no excess, contrasting with the traditional low-built wooden structures that had previously dominated the landscape.  Constructivist architecture believed that function should dictate external form, employing only simple geometric shapes.  This brief period of Russian avant-garde architecture reflected the optimism and ideology of the new State.  Moscow and St Petersburg (as we now know them) were transformed.

Although still standing, many of the buildings are in desperate need of some TLC and have fallen into a dilapidated condition.  Richard Pare’s photographs, which make up a substantial body of this exhibition, document these iconic buildings, recording their condition over the past two decades, in a campaign to capture this much-neglected architecture.

Richard Pare, Tsentrosoyuz Building, 1995. Own photograph.

Rather than a normal chronological study, the exhibition is arranged into building types be they residential, industrial, health, recreational and so on.  It is stunning, leading you on a veritable journey through Russia’s architectural treasures.  Juxtaposed with the contemporary photographs of Pare is a series of never-before exhibited vintage photographs, showing the buildings either under construction or just completed.  The vintage works are presented on a different plane offering a contrast, but not distracting, from the saturated colourful works shown on the wall.

Works on different levels in Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy. Own photograph.

Pare’s photographs capture the beauty in these often near-Brutalist forms.  As a schoolboy, listening to lectures on art and architecture, Pare noticed they weren’t shown work by Russians.  The images were unavailable.  In 1993, after a trip to Moscow with a friend, his interest peaked and he began what is now an unquestionably brilliant series of work.  And, he’s nowhere near finished.  There are many cities he hasn’t yet visited and, he says, even in Moscow there are closed and inaccessible buildings that he has yet to record.  The project is a race against time, against the authorities who wish to see these buildings and this part of history erased.

Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy. Own photograph.

One gorgeous example is Melnikov House, a building constructed as a home for the architect and his studio.  Melnikov explained that the building consisted of two cylinders intersecting across one third of their diameters, covered with multiple hexagonal windows that fill the interior with light.  Inside, three practically circular spaces were allocated for sleeping, living and working.  It was innovative, radical and dynamic.  Its future is now uncertain.

Melnikov House photographs in the exhibition. Own photograph.

Running parallel to this intriguing photographic display is a series of works from the Costakis Collection showing the experimental nature of visual artists and the key relationships between their work and that of the architects.  Many of these pieces were new to me and indeed, for many, this is their first showing in the UK.  They show the introduction of a new visual language in Russia, rejecting the bourgeois associations of more figurative art forms instead using a ‘constructed’ form of composition.

Liubov Popova’s Spatial Force Composition embraces the three governing principles of Constructivism, using her work to guide viewers towards socialist aims while strongly referencing the Revolution through the use of the colour red.  Despite the period of social imprisonment in which she was working, she manages to capture a sense of freedom and dynamism.  Her forms come together to suggest structurally unified components.

Liubov Popova, Spatial Force Composition, 1920-21. Own photograph.

The show is beautifully put together and the structure and curation even seem to have an architectural influence with curving walls and different levels.  The last room focusing on the Lenin mausoleum is a shocking contrast with the red walls recalling the highly polished, dark red granite marble.

The courtyard has also been taken over for this exhibition with a reconstruction of Tatlin’s Tower proudly in place.  Regardless of your knowledge of the period, you will recognise this structure, now regarded as the epitome of the bold new styles of the period.  Designed to be the tallest man-made structure in the world, it was intended to rise to the height of 400 metres and to act as the headquarters of the Third International.  The Tower was unbuildable due to steel shortages and its huge technological demands but the model acted as a stimulus for great debate and further experimentation within the fusions of art and architecture.  Tatlin aimed to combine “artistic forms with utilitarian intentions”; he was a painter turned sculptor who truly expressed the synthesis of the two art forms.

The Royal Academy Courtyard with a reconstructed version of Tatlin’s Tower. Own photograph.

Allow time for this exhibition – it deserves it.  It is also accompanied by a fabulous catalogue in which I have been engrossed all evening (although everything needs a counter-balance and after a day of such serious study, I think it’s time for a good old rom-com).  The catalogue too deserves time and study.  Great thought has gone into producing it and even the use of different papers is perfect.

Constructivist art and architecture was never much admired, illustrated by the condition in which many of the buildings now find themselves.  These photos and, indeed, this exhibition aim to bring these buildings back into the spotlight.  Whether or not you admire the forms, the very fact that these buildings exist against all adversity is incredible and surely their architects should be heralded.  Many, regardless of whether or not they are protected by conservation laws, are ruthlessly being torn down, not due to a lack of space or money but a fear of what they represent.

Skip the queues and head upstairs at the Royal Academy to see this real gem.  It is an exhibition that fuels a desire to know more.  I am notoriously critical (in a positive and constructive way, of course) but this show presents a body of wonderful, wide-ranging artworks from a narrow period in a perfect format.

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 opens this Saturday 29th October in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy until 22nd January 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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