Art galleries commemorate 100 years since Russia’s October revolution with revolutionary art

The beginning of November will see two more major exhibitions of revolutionary art open in London as part of the commemorations for the centenary of the Russian revolution.

Both Tate Modern and the Saatchi gallery will open exhibitions featuring prominent Russian artists. They will join the British Museum, the British Library and the Royal Academy who all opened exhibitions this year in remembrance of the Bolshevik revolution or the October revolution that took place 100 years ago this month.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, lead curator of ‘Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ at the British Library, explained why it is so important to appreciate Russia’s revolutionary past.

“The Russian revolution changed the course of history. Our exhibition brought a lot of heated arguments. People from the far-right and far-left of the political spectrum criticised the exhibition. There was also a heated discussion on our Facebook page about it which, for me, means that the revolution is still alive. We are remembering a lot of the events and we are looking into the history.”

Curator Katya Rogatchevskaia with the poster for her hugely popular exhibition at the British Library

“I think we need to remember the brutal history. What is wrong is to admire art and not know the history. If you know the history, if you learn from the history, then you can go back to the art and admire it and do it justice because a lot of artists ended up tragically.”

Rogatchevskaia went on to explain the relevance of her exhibition in today’s world: “When I was working on the exhibition, there was a section about Russian refugees and those who had to flee the country, and this was during the Syrian refugee crisis. It was a very significant moment for me, 100 years on and we are still not coping with the crisis.”

“We know that really tragic and violent conflicts are happening elsewhere in the world. But I am hoping that we are moving in the right direction.”

‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ by El Lissitzky, 1966, is one of the most famous works to be featured at Tate Modern’s ‘Red Star Over Russia’. Credit: The David King Collection at Tate

Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s chief art critic, criticised an exhibition at Mayfair’s Royal Academy in February, arguing that we “should not be celebrating revolutionary art” because it is “brutal propaganda”.

Dr Philip Boobbyer, an expert in Russian history at the University of Kent, interpreted Jones’ opinion.

“I’m not sure that celebrating the art is quite the right phrase. I’ve got some sympathy with Jones’ perspective. If you look at the art outside the context of Bolshevik ideology you can just think of it in visual terms, of whether it is innovative or not innovative. But the Bolsheviks were very ready to use violence, some of the art reflects that; there’s a quite sort of discreet affirmation of violence.”

“We need to understand and appreciate and think into who they were, why they approached the world as they did and the art can help us to do that. But I don’t think we have to, thereby, endorse all that happened as part of the revolution.”

Boobbyer hopes that visitors to the new exhibitions with no prior knowledge of Russian history would “learn more about the Russian art tradition and the intellectual tradition and the culture from which it comes from.”

“I hope that they would become interested in Russia. I would also hope they would discover something of the older Russian 19th Century paintings, the realists, the landscapes, people like Ilya Repin, look at those pictures. Then dig into the Russian religious tradition and dig into the iconographic church tradition, note the continuities and differences between the Soviet poster and the Russian icon.”

‘Red Star Over Russia’ opens at Tate Modern on the 8th November and ‘Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism’ opens at the Saatchi gallery on the 16th November.