by Paula Osa
I entered the screening room with a little scepticism. I was afraid Margy Kinmonth’s new documentary would romanticise revolutionary art to an extent that the viewer forgets all else happening at that time in Russia. Shortly, I was afraid she would not link art and politics. This would have been catastrophic in my eyes, as I am very familiar with Russia’s politics at the time, especially those of the Soviet Union – my parents grew up in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Nevertheless the first part of the film makes us forget about politics, the focus is largely on the art – the abstractionism, the shapes, the emotion, the freedom. It is utterly and absolutely fascinating and will draw in even people who are not that enthusiastic about art. Kinmonth’s main focus is on the phenomenal period in Russian history between the October Revolution in 1917 and Stalin’s violent crushing of Avant Garde that began in 1932. In this review I will introduce you to the main ideas represented in the documentary.
The film introduces us to revolutionary Avant Garde artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Nikolai Suetin, Gustav Klutsis, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Petr Kotov, Nikolai Punin and more. The revolution started with the belief that all workers in Russia can unite and in result they can all have equal rights, even the artists. It can easily be said that the artists undertook the revolution, because the art revolution began before the political. One by one Kinmonth introduces her viewers to Russian artists by showing their work, describing them and explaining them. What makes it more realistic are the interviews with the descendants of the artists, most of them being artists themselves and of course experts of their grandparents’ art. This gives the viewer a possibility to have a glance inside, rather than simply observing from outside. This effect can possibly make it desirable to a global audience. Kinmonth also visits Stroganov Moscow, one of the oldest Russian schools of art, and we see the students discuss Russian Revolution art. Precisely Malevich’s Black Square, in which some see the universe, and some see just a black square. But the truth is, a black square can be anything.
What Kinmonth successfully underlines is that the Avant Garde artists believed in art existing without things and without needing objects. Wassily Kandinsky famously said: “There is no must in art, because art is free.” He explained his abstractionist art with “I let myself go.” Furthermore Kinmonth explains the basis of the revolution – Lenin favoured the artists and this possibly caused the artists to believe they can change the world. And possibly, they did. At least until Lenin’s death. Kinmonth smoothly squeezes in multiple speeches both by Lenin and later by Stalin. By doing so she highlights the differences between their views towards socialism and art.
After Lenin’s death Stalin rose to power, and with this the Avant Garde scrambled and began the severe suppression of artists and free thinkers. The victory of new over old ceased to exist and so began Stalin’s “purges”. The socialist propaganda became more prominent than it was during Lenin’s rule. Lenin had believed that art can create a new image of Russia, but Stalin did everything in his power to destroy Avant Garde movement and return to realism. Thus socialist realism was born, an example to which are famous propaganda photomontages. The art began to have ideological restrictions and artists were forced to flee the country, many were declared enemies of the country. Kinmonth explains that Stalin wanted unity, he wanted everyone to paint the same way, which caused a shift in thinking. Many Avant Garde works were burnt or hidden. Kinmonth also takes her viewers to the stalls of museums, where some of the Revolution art works are even now. I doubt anything else can better represent how Avant Garde was treated after the revolutionary movements were shut down.
Revolution – New Art For The New World represents the turning point in Russian history and art, when for a short fifteen years, barriers were open for possibilities of building a new proletarian art for the new Soviet State. Kinmonth effectively describes it as “a time of astonishing creativity and collection of art by the ruling classes, who patronized and nurtured it in abundance.” I believe that these words effectively capture the essence of her documentary, the one that conveyed that art, revolution and politics go hand in hand. Nevertheless they are not equal, as Russian art is admired, but Soviet Union’s politics frowned upon. There is nothing better than a well researched, well written and well represented documentary.
Coincidentally or not, the Royal Academy of Arts is holding an exhibition of Russian art from the period of 1917-1932 from February to April 2017 and it will consist of over 200 works. I am certain everyone who sees Kinmonth’s documentary will be dying to go and experience this in person.
Dir: Margy Kinmonth
Scr: Margy Kinmonth
Featuring: Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, James Fleet, Eleanor Tomlinson, Daisy Bevan
Prd: Margy Kinmonth, Maureen Murray
DOP: Gennady Nemikh, Maxim Tarasyugin, Patrick Duval
Music: TileYard Studios
Country: The Russian Federation and The United Kingdom
Run Time: 85 min
REVOLUTION: NEW ART FOR A NEW WORLD will be broadcast in the BBC’s upcoming Russian Revolution Season and will air on Monday 6thNovember 9pm on BBC4