Post-revolutionary Russia witnessed a burst of innovation in art and architecture as the country’s artists formed a new visual language with which to interpret and promote the new world of Soviet Socialism, writes Rakesh Ramchurn
Suprematism and Constructivism gained currency as representational art and sculpture were abandoned in favour of two dimensional or three dimensional compositions that drew attention to lines, forms and shapes. As for architecture, Socialist Modernism articulated the new order; as with European Modernism, form was to be informed by function, characterised by the use of pure geometric shapes, banded fenestration, flat roofs and the use of pilotis. Both art and architecture went back to basics, renouncing the bourgeois trappings of previous styles. There was interplay between the two in defining this new visual approach, and crucially, the spirit of optimism was shared not only by artists, architects and thinkers but also by the regime, leading to a dynamic creative movement that was supported by the government.
Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 at the Royal Academy explores the creativity of this period through photographs of key buildings taken by photographer Richard Pare, placed alongside vintage photographs of the same structures taken during or just after construction. Accompanying the photographs are works by Constructivist artists such as Gustav Klutsis, Liubov Popova and El Lissitsky.
Upon entering the Royal Academy’s courtyard, visitors are confronted with a scale model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, commonly known as ‘Tatlin’s Tower’, designed between 1919 and 1920. The tower was never built but its design is testament to the scale of ambition at the time; it was supposed to rise 400m above St Petersburg – higher than the Eiffel Tower – and to hold three vast rotating chambers which would accommodate the country’s legislative assembly, executive and an information centre.
Tatlin began his creative life as a painter and sculptor, and his move into construction design shows the fusion between the worlds of art and architecture, epitomised by his words in 1920: ‘Engineers and bridge-builders, do your calculations and invent a new form.’ A model of the tower was exhibited in both Moscow and St Petersburg and its radical design did much to inspire and fuel debate among artists.
Communication was an important aspect of Soviet Russia as the new regime sought to control the media and to spread its Socialist message further afield. The exhibition includes photographs of Vladimir Shukhov’s Shabalovka Radio Tower in Moscow as well as the Izvestia Building which housed the printing presses of the official state paper. And far from the notion of an artist resisting the government agenda, Gustav Klutsis’s elegant designs for propaganda kiosks, two of which were actually built, show the conviction among many that Soviet Socialism was the way forward.
This conviction can be seen in the residential projects built during the period too. Mass migration from rural areas into cities as a result of industrialisation programmes led to a shortage of housing – and an opportunity for social engineering through large residential developments that encouraged communal forms of living.
The Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow, designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis, is a great example of housing complex as social project. Most activities took place in a communal block which provided a kitchen, dining and leisure areas. The only private activity expected of people was sleeping, with accommodation provided in a separate building. Throughout, wide corridors, glazed to retain warmth, encouraged social interaction. Interestingly, the Narkomfin Communal House included some larger, self-contained apartments with private kitchens, for families as yet ‘unready’ to commit to communal living.
This is perhaps what most strongly separates Socialist Modernism from European Modernism; the ideological facet which informed not only the appearance of new buildings, but their function too. Workers’ clubs fostered a shared identity between workers through communal leisure, social and educational facilities. Sporting facilities and spas were designed to give workers respite from labour and to keep the workforce healthy, and new schools were built across the country to tackle illiteracy.
The exhibition succeeds in showing the creative energy of artists and thinkers of the time, and is sympathetic enough to show that the period was characterised as much by idealism as by propaganda and state control. Richard Pare’s photographs are lush in their detail and show the optimism with which the buildings were constructed, as well as the damage caused to the buildings by misuse and years of neglect. However, Pare took his photographs with an artistic rather than a documentary eye, so many of the square-on portraits showcase important features but give little sense of the true scale of the buildings – something the vintage photographs do much better.
The Soviet experiment with Modernism was to end in the 1930s, as Stalin clamped down on avant-garde movements. Socialist Realism became the favoured style in art (and became state policy in 1932), while there was a return to Classicalism in architecture. Many Constructivist buildings fell into disrepair as public opinion turned against Modernist architecture, and many are now threatened with demolition.
Building the Revolution succeeds in portraying the power and dynamism of Constructivist buildings, which even in their current derelict state manage to impress with their optimism and self-belief. The exhibition also succeeds in providing a glimpse of just how dazzling these structures must have been at the time, springing up in a period fuelled by revolution and upheaval.