By Isaac Kaplan
Aleksandr Deineka, "Bez Boga." (Without God.) and "Zhizn' v gospode boge." (Life Under the Lord God.), illustrations forBezbozhnik u stanka (Atheist at the Workbench), 1926. Courtesy of the Merrill C. Berman Collection.
As this year comes to a close, so too does the centennial of the 1917 Russian Revolution. At the height of the Cold War, it seemed that the revolution was practically unmatched in historical relevance, giving birth to one of the two powers that could light the powder keg of mutually assured destruction and quite literally end the world. But almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the legacy of the Russian Revolution—essentially ignored in Vladimir Putin’s Russia—is more murky, especially in light of the horrors of the Soviet regime, including Joseph Stalin’s paranoid purges and the death of untold millions from famine.
So what is to be done to mark, parse, critique the revolution for the centennial in the proverbial West? Some, including leftist art historian T.J. Clark, would prefer we just “let it go.” But a fantastic exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago does just the opposite, focusing on the urgent questions raised by those revolutionaries and artists in 1917.
On view until January 15th, “Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test” is a stunning display of art, photographs, furniture, and other objects created by individuals who questioned the ideologies of the past after the Russian Revolution’s historic break, putting forward a multiplicity of models for what an uncharted future could look like. As curator Matthew S. Witkovsky puts it, the show stems from the core question, “What happens when you have an earth-shaking change in society in which artists are taking a very active part?”
Indeed, the exhibition is grounded in an open-ended questioning, rather than in a chronological march towards the eventual violent repression of the Soviet state under Stalin. “Rather than binding our chosen objects firmly to the fate of a miscarried revolution, ‘Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia!’ allows for more skid and slippage between art and history,” write Witkovsky and co-author Devin Fore in the catalogue introduction.
The exhibition is divided into 10 thematic areas (Factory, Festival, and Press among them), which are all worth exploring. The line between art and propaganda was often thin, or even porous. The warm visions of a communal utopia often masked much different realities, or even allowed them to continue, as much as they provided a model to aspire to. …………….
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