Bliss it was to be alive but to be an artist it was bloody murder
The Russian Art 1917-1932 show at the Royal Academy can make you weep. That glorious dawn when the most oppressed people in Europe threw off their chains turned into the darkest night for them and the world. From which they and to some extent us have still to completely emerge. If Social Democracy under Kerensky could have held out… well it didn’t. The last room at the show is a slide show of some of the millions who perished so that Stalin could triumph.
No group danced wilder and with more purpose in 1917 than the artists and for a few glorious years Russian art, design and film can only be compared to the Elizabethan period of playwriting such was its volume, intensity and innovation.
So as Stalin turned creative hope into totalitarian realism the Peoples Tragedy became the artists deep freeze. The show is a must see, though many of the images, personalities and ideas are familiar ,especially for those who go to the Courtauld.
But one thing did strike me anew. Like many I had never heard of Pavel Filonov and no artist was a more obedient cart horse on Stalin’s farm. Born in 1883 he worked as a house painter and tried four times to get in the Academy of Arts. He was not easy to get on with, few great artists are. There were many times that he was his own worst enemy. When offered a teaching job he demanded the whole college changed its methods, result, no job. He worked tirelessly 18 hours a day, the sparkling detail in his pictures almost miraculous. He believed that pictures should grow organically like flowers, layer after layer, dot after dot.
Along with Malevich and Mayakorsky he was making waves from 1910 onwards. No one was more passionately for the Revolution when it happened than Filonov. Unlike the others at the forefront of the Russian artistic explosion he made no trips West and so was unknown.
Eventually his wonderful colourful detailed abstracts paintings were deemed by the totalitarian Stalin as not worthy of the two men a girl and a tractor which social realism demanded. His works were stored unseen for forty years. Even when he was accepted ,being a born again ultra Communist, he refused to sell his pictures and so lived in poverty dying eventually of starvation in the siege of Leningrad in 1941.
His work of which there are four magnificent pieces on show at The Royal Academy has been described as “pulsating and breathing crystals,knots and nets flowing into each other.” Whatever, brilliant.