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THE centenary of the Russian Revolution provided cultural institutions with a theme which was interpreted in questionable ways.
By far the worst was the Royal Academy’s exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932. Favoured by an enviably generous budget and excellent connections with post-Soviet Russian institutions, it gathered an impressive body of art and design, some being virtually unknown in Britain.
But rather than explaining the Soviet artists’ socially committed motivations, a vindictive curatorial approach shamefully contextualised the works in didactic attacks on the revolution’s ideals and achievements, reminiscent of liverish 1920s Russian emigres fretting over their lost fortunes.
The British Library’s Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths was less well resourced, but more scholarly and less hostile. Based on its own collections, it presented fascinating objects and facts.
We saw Lenin’s application for his reader’s pass under a pseudonym and learned that far from storming the Winter Palace, as dramatised by Eisenstein, the Bolsheviks just walked in through the open gates. But the curator’s desire — or need — to present a “balanced” view resulted in an over-lengthy focus on the pre-revolutionary period and this diminished the impact of the revolution’s excitement and importance.
The best exhibition marking the revolution was the Design Centre’s Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution.
Posters, architectural drawings, photographs and well-written wall texts imparted the sheer visionary excitement, imagination and audacity with which early Soviet designers and architects embraced modernity to symbolise and shape the new worker state.
Devoid of anti-Soviet carping, its well organised and focused sections successfully conveyed how inventive but practical buildings and designs improved the people’s lives. The reasonably priced entrance fee and excellent ecologically conscious catalogue echoed the social responsibility which informed the exhibition’s subject.
Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation : Art in the Age of Black Power was also a joy. A true revolutionary fervour spurred African-American artists of the 1960s and 1970s to combat social injustice through socially committed art and this was a true eye-opener, rectifying decades of racially prejudiced critical and curatorial exclusion.
Jae Jarrell’s superbly tailored Revolutionary Suit wittily subverted its bourgeois connotations by her addition of a military-style bandolier with bullets replaced by coloured crayons while Carole Lawrence’s paintings, widely published as posters, celebrated her people’s African cultural heritage and inspired them by incorporating decoratively painted, life-affirming slogans.
Equally memorable were Emory Douglas’s visually powerful Black Panther posters, which were originally pasted throughout Oakland, California to educate, agitate and organise its dominant African-American residents to resist racial oppression.
Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery reassessed the work of John Minton (1917-1957) in the centenary of his birth. A leading British artist in the late 1940s and early 1950s, his reputation was eclipsed by the cold war promotion of abstraction.
Full marks, too, for incorporating his illustration work alongside his paintings. Both have weathered well. Often including a solitary, melancholic male figure, the high horizons and intense colours convey claustrophobic ambiences suggesting the emotional pain inflicted on homosexuals like himself in that intolerant era.
Minton’s Jamaican paintings, especially, express a blend of joyful thirst for sensual pleasure, laced with anxiety and sadness, whose complexity and emotional depth show he well deserves this critical rehabilitation.
The Barbican Gallery’s exhibition Basquiat: Boom for Real fizzes with energy and irreverence. Evolved from his early New York graffiti, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings burst with cheeky, subversive social comment and knowing digs at art world pretensions.
A social outsider, he had something worthwhile to say and did so with visual intelligence and fun. One of the best exhibitions of the year, it closes in late January. Go if you can.
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