Art and the Russian Revolution

I didn’t foresee that one post-Christmas morning spent vegetating on the sofa, I would become quite so enraptured in Doctor Zhivago on the telly. I couldn’t resist it. It took over quite a substantial portion of my day, but it was worth it! Based on Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago, our hero Yuri played by the enigmatic Omar Sharif experiences cataclysmic changes in his country ’s culture and politics and responds to the revolutionary fervour of 1917

           “Just think what extraordinary things are happening all around us!” Yuri said. “Such things happen only once in an eternity… Freedom has dropped on us out of the sky!”

I then discovered an apt and informative article by Martin Sixsmith writing about ‘The Story of art in the Russian Revolution’ published 20th December 2016 https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/art-and-the-russian-revolution .

Written to coincide with The Royal Academy blockbuster exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932on from11th February to 17th April 2017


Martin Sixsmith describes a momentous exhibition marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, He charts the course of a pivotal period in art, from euphoric creativity to eventual repression.

He also describes Pasternak’s imagery as febrile, hopeful, anticipating a new beginning and a new life. You can feel the excitement in the Russian air. He references the film of the novel in the form of Lara and Yuri and the love they had for each other which grew from adversity and how he as an artist/poet survived and developed despite and also because of the extreme circumstances into which they were flung.

Some artists in Russia were to renounce their art under the immense pressure of war, however some flourished in the immergence of a liberated country. 1917 saw the blossoming of Avant Garde art that had been there under the surface for many years before including the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall.  Suppression and being very closed off from western culture forced artists who were already very innovative to take completely new directions.

Futurism, Suprematism and constructivism among other movements were born. From this you can understand why this period in art history is so fascinating and influential.

Kazimir Malevich

(An example of Suprematist art by Kazimir Malevich in 1916)


The exhibition at the Royal Academy -covers one hundred years on from the Russian Revolution, this powerful exhibition explores one of the most momentous periods in modern world history through the lens of its ground-breaking art.

I have a personal interest in matters of Russian art, from a purely theoretical point of view being heavily influenced by constructivist art in my early days as an artist and from having been lucky enough to visit Russia and experience it first hand in the nineties.

Not too many people might know but Chester was at that time twinned with Ekaterinburg near the heart of the Ural Mountains in Russia. It was the thing then to be twinned with as many towns in as many counties as possible. Chester Hosted several artists from Ekaterinburg. They stayed with local families and had an exhibition at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester. Lectures were held so people could learn about Russian art, the history and what it was like to be a contemporary artist in Russia at that time. We are talking 1996-97.

In return three artists were selected to go to Russia to exhibit examples of Chester Artists work in the Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts. I, along with Russell Kirk, (painter) and Jos Wright (installation artist) were chosen.

It was an adventure to be sure but also an education in many ways. We were provided with studio spaces in the annals of the museum along with one of Russia’s foremost icon restorers.

The Museum housed many important artists’ work, some had been left behind after being rescued from The Hermitage during the great Patriotic war.

This is the part I was just a little bit excited about. On a tour of the collection by our renowned icon restorer we came across a room of modernist work, including one small sized painting by Kazimir Malevich painted in a typical suprematist style. “touch it” he says “no! I couldn’t possibly” I said of course, “it’s ok, it’s my work, I restored it” He turned it over and showed me the back. Indeed there was a huge patch of new canvas on the back. He told me during a flood a piece of wood had gone right through it and he had had to repair it. I have never seen such a good job, you absolutely could not tell anything untoward had ever happened to it. How do you restore a red block of colour without leaving any evidence? I stroked the canvas on the back with my fingers as though touching it would somehow bring me closer to the artist himself.

Just one amazing thing that happened on our slightly surreal busman’s holiday. Another was being able to get an insight into what it was really like to be creative in a place like Russia at that time. I was told that unlike the great metropolis cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow some parts of Russia were still playing catch up. I didn’t need to be told this as it was immediately obvious. Ekaterinburg had only been properly open to the west since 1985. Although struggling financially It was as though it was culturally flourishing once more in a as it had done in 1917.

It was so different to my own experience, children were educated about culture in a classical way. Children learnt mathematics whilst listening to classical music and students were taught art by learning how to draw the human body anatomically. It felt as though we were living in some sort of parallel universe, what kind of art would I be producing if I lived here? So; this was then. If Russian art was a butterfly emerging in 1917 and in 1997, what is like it now nearly 20 years on?

What better way to learn about how innovative, pioneering and aspirational work can spring from adversity than to experience it as first hand as you can. The Royal Academy are reconstructing a Russian apartment designed for communal living along with everyday objects such as ration coupons and textiles to help us stand in their revolutionary shoes.    Limitless and aspirational, this is an important exhibition marking this historic centenary in an evocative and grittily realistic way.

by Lucy E. Jones