Perhaps Russia in the decades after the 1917 revolution is summed up in the very last room of the Royal Academy’s exhibition “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932” which shows the blowing up and demolition of the 19th century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 1931, on the orders of Stalin, in order to clear a site for the proposed Palace of the Soviets, a massive government building which would have had an immense statue of Stalin at its top and would have been the world’s tallest structure in its time. Designed by Boris Iofan after an architectural competition, construction was halted in 1941 when the Germans invaded. Thereafter its steel structure was dismantled and in 1958 it was converted into the world’s largest open-air swimming pool. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this was removed and the church was rebuilt on the site from 1995–2000.
The story of art after the Revolution is similar – starting with great optimism which can be seen in the art and photographs of the time. Everyone was equal and the new government was investing in cities, factories, roads, railways, housing and offices to make Russia into an economic powerhouse. New modern styles of graphic art, textiles and ceramics appeared alongside film, painting and sculpture as artists such as Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagal, Filona and Deineka grasped the opportunity to create “new art for a new time”. With a stroke, this era of creativity was snuffed out when, in 1932, Stalin decreed that Socialist realism was the only artistic style. Some of those same artists such as Alexander Deineka who had celebrated the construction of new workshops (1926) and the focus on sports such as football (1924), now showed their frustration at how little had been achieved over the last five years with, for example, his painting “Who is Winning?” (1932). Today, like the rebuilding of the cathedral, contemporary Russian art has revived and is alive and well.
The end of this post-Revolution creative period overlapped with the Great Depression and the Royal Academy picks up the story with “America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930’s”. The stock market crashed in 1929 and between then and 1932, worldwide GDP fell by 15%, with unemployment soaring in the US and other countries, especially in heavy industries and mining. As in Russia, the Americans had a love affair with the city, but now it had an undercurrent as unemployment had its effect, not helped by the dark side of prohibition. Artists reflected on the city, and became nostalgic for the countryside, though, as crop prices fell dramatically, that idyllic way of life was also under threat, the classical painting being Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930). Edward Hooper’s paintings show hauntingly empty urban and rural landscapes, while Charles Sheeler paints the empty American industrial landscape of 1930, not unlike cities like Detroit today.
Meanwhile Americans were keeping a watchful eye on the changing political situation in Europe. As had been the case in Russia, artists reacted both with concern about the dark clouds across Europe and with optimism for the future: O Louis Gugliemi even included reference to Lenin in his “Phoenix” of 1936 while Philip Guston portrayed the destruction of the city with “Bombardment” (1937).
At the end there is optimism. The 1939-40 New York World Trade Fair had the theme “Dawn of a New Day” and was attended by over 44 million people. Ilya Bolotowky’s mural for the Medical Science Building in the 1938 New York World Fair, heralds a new era of abstract modernist painting, influenced by European artists such as Piet Mondrian. Bolotowky was himself born in St Petersburg, in 1907, moving to the USA in 1923. He had seen it all, but he was still optimistic for the future.
Within six months of the opening of the Fair, the Second World War had started, but the foundations had been laid for new creative movements of art thereafter. Nothing would be the same again and, with an additional twist, the Royal Academy is also showing an architectural exhibition “Futures Found: The Real and Imagined Cityscapes of Post-War Britain”, reflecting on the successes and failures of a few of the new architectural developments after the Second World War.