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Coming in from the cold. New Art for a New Era: Malevich's Vision of the Russian Avant-Garde At the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 until 27 June

review

This Barbican Centre exhibition, 'New Art for a New Era', introduces a celebration of culture from the city of revolution, now returned to its original title. 'St Petersburg: Romance and Revolution' presents related films, music, poetry and theatre, including a new production of the 1913 Futurist opera Victory over the Sun for which Malevich contributed his now famous radical designs.

The exhibition is subtitled 'Malevich's Vision of the Russian Avant-Garde' and displays a selection from the 500 or so early-twentieth-century works that he assembled as director of the innovative Museum of Artistic Culture, which opened in Petrograd in 1921. The original concept for this and other such museums of the new Soviet state had been inspired by the fledgling Modernists - Malevich, Tatlin, Kandinsky, Punin, Filonov and Rodchenko included. The aim was to hand over responsibility for the acquisition of contemporary art, and for artistic education, to artists themselves.

The layout of the museum was devised to show the development of the new art from folk art and icons through to Cubism, Futurism and Suprematism; Constructivism was added later. In 1926, however, with the bureaucratic centralism that was one aspect of Stalin's ascendancy, this unique collection was swallowed up by the existing State Russian Museum, where it remained, hidden from history - a history rewritten during the terrible period of Stalin's rule from 1929-53.

But paradoxically, by being buried within the state archive, the collection survived the subsequent repression. It now amounts to a unique historical record of the breadth of vision of Malevich and his colleagues, and this is its first ever showing outside Russia.

The present layout follows the original concept, running in sequence through the eight upper-gallery rooms. Room one includes the early influence of French Impressionism in Larionov's Acacias in Spring (1904), alongside work of the more experimental 'Jack of Diamonds' group which included Natalia Goncharova and Olga Rozanova - later to become key figures of Futurism and Suprematism.

The second room juxtaposes folk art and icons with celebrations of everyday life and work by these two, and includes the iconic Sailor by Vladimir Tatlin. It's easy to see how the popular prints, such as the metaphoric Mice Burying a Cat, would evolve into the later agit-prop posters (and even the famous 1961 photograph of Yuri Gagarin).

A giant photograph of Petrograd's 1917 Mayday demonstration dominates the gallery bridge to rooms three and four. (Facing this from the gallery below, with unintended irony, is David Bailey's giant portrait of 1960s 'street fighting man' Mick Jagger - part of the concurrent 'Birth of the Cool' show.) Here comparisons can be made with similar movements in Europe: Pavel Filonov's The German War (1915), for instance, recalls Italian Futurism, but expresses horror at the chaos while the Italians revelled in it.

In the same section are the paintings of Boris Grigoriev and Kuzma Petrov- Vodkin which seem, at first glance, to anticipate the state-enforced school of Socialist Realism - yet a closer look reveals the harsh cycle of rural life: a funeral procession at the centre of Petrov-Vodkin's Midday and the expressive faces of Grigoriev's Land of the People showing through the bright colouring.

Next door, the images are altogether urban: factory chimneys and the dynamic of Cubo-Futurism sit alongside the sparse Still Life with Cherries and Sponge and Soap by David Shterenberg; reminders of years of hardship and continuing civil war that culminated in the famine of 1921. Yet a spirit of optimism pervades the colourful abstractions of the period, while the linocuts of Vladimir Kozlinsky, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova show how maximum effect could be achieved from simple means.

The exhibition concludes with Kazimir Malevich and Olga Rozanova's pioneering Suprematist paintings of 1915-16, while the Constructivist spirit is represented by the reliefs of Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaya and Vladisav Strzeminsky. These works, in their authentically grubby, utilitarian frames, are contrasted with the gleaming porcelain objects that signalled the final move from easel-painting to volume.

Looking at the work today, it is hard to comprehend the mentality that saw this diverse experiment as somehow threatening; but, with the state- enforced populism of Socialist Realism, the cultural initative of the Cold War period passed to the us State Department, whose policy of 'freedom of the individual' in the arts - personified by its support of Abstract Expressionism and Jackson Pollock in particular - dominated the post-war art market. Any tendency to complacency, however, was checked in 1957 with the sound and spectacle of the Soviets' orbiting Sputnik: surely the supreme achievement of Constructivist ethos and the Suprematist dream of cosmic space.

David Wild is an architect in London and author of Fragments of Utopia (Hyphen Press)

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