MARC CHAGALLs Forward, painted in 1917, reflected a hope that the world could be transformed
by Judy Cox
THE ART and artists inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution have been at the centre of a series of major exhibitions in London in recent months. Anyone who has the chance should try and get along. The exhibitions give a glimpse into the enormous flourishing of art sparked by the Russian Revolution.
The myth pushed by propagandists for Western capitalism is that the Russian Revolution led to a dull, grey uniformity with no room for creativity. But the years when the revolution was alive, giving hope that the world could be transformed, saw one of the greatest of cultural explosions.
Russia already had a lively avant garde artistic movement before the revolution. A circle of artists were influenced by wider European art of the time which celebrated the "modern"-the age of the machine and technology, of urbanisation, and a faith that this would bring progress. Artistic trends which came to be dubbed Cubism and Futurism were part of this. In Russia artists like Marc Chagall, Kazmir Malevich and others fused elements of this into what they called "Cubofuturism", art which was meant to be a celebration of the "heroism of modern life".
But with the 1917 revolution the whole of art was transformed in Russia. The revolution unleashed a contagious frenzy of public creativity and innovation. As workers fought to transform their lives and the world, artists became part of the process of actively shaping history too. In every field artists sought to give a voice to the revolution, and in those years of hope created an art of optimism. Writers like Vladimir Mayakovsky, artists like Vladimir Tatlin and Vassily Kandinsky as well as those mentioned earlier, the photographer Alexandr Rodchenko, the film maker Sergei Eisenstein and the composer Dmitri Shos-takovich are just some of the best know names of this cultural eruption.
At the centre of much of their work lies the hope and expectation of a liberated, egalitarian future. New artistic movements were thrown up, such as Constructivism, which aimed to be egalitarian and accessible. A symbol of this was the monument designed by Tatlin to the Third International, the organisation which sought to spread the revolution. The Tatlin Tower would have been 100 feet higher than the Eiffel Tower and was a metaphor for dynamism and change, spiralling skywards.
The workers' state helped and encouraged this artistic flowering. So Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar for education, made sure radical artists got their daily bread. He never sought to impose any uniform style, but rather encouraged all forms, and debates between differing approaches. Artists repaid the regime with interest, producing posters and street theatre. They helped decorate the agitprop trains, and the agitprop boat on the River Volga, which criss-crossed the country distributing leaflets and showing films-often to people who had never had access to such things before.
Artists like Rodchenko and Mayakovsky eagerly put their talents at the disposal of the revolution, creating brilliant adverts for campaigns and state products. This unity of artistic motivation, free expression and political commitment was, however, undermined by Russia's desperate poverty, the consequence of war and invasion. Many plans to celebrate the revolution with great monuments came to grief because of the shortage of raw materials. There was, for instance, not enough steel in the whole of Russia to build the Tatlin Tower.
With the isolation of the revolution, and its eventual defeat with the rise of Stalin, the spark of genuine revolutionary art that had burned so bright was extinguished. Stalin made all art that was not state approved a crime. Many artists died in Stalin's prisons as the state sponsored "socialist realism" developed into a travesty of the pathbreaking art of the revolutionary years. But the ingenuity and optimism of the revolution are still tangible in the works exhibited today. And the fact that people still flock to see the art of the revolution is testimony to its great power.
ON SUNDAY 23 May there will be a night of comedy, music and speeches against NATO's war in the Balkans at London's Hackney Empire theatre. JAN WOOLF is one of the organisers and a member of the Committee for Peace in the Balkans:
"It is part of the fundraising effort for the committee, a political event and a good night out. The performers will carry the politics in a way that will provide a focus in London for the growing anti-war movement. We are deeply concerned about the situation in Kosovo. But this military action has worsened that situation, not only for Kosovans, but for people across Yugoslavia. The comedians we've got will be carrying the same message as the politicians and writers speaking, but in a different form. We've also got work from graphic artist Ralph Steadman he has donated to raffle, and an Algerian band as well as the comedians and speeches."
BENEFIT CONCERT: Sunday 23 May, 7.30pm
Hackney Empire, Mare St, London E8 Tickets £8/£6
With: Jeremy Hardy, John Hegley, Junior Simpson, Seddik Sebiri. Plus Germaine Greer, Diane Abbott MP, Tony Benn MP
BLOODY BALKANS is a week long series about the war in the Balkans which promises to "go beyond" the news reports. Several programmes look like they will be worth watching.
BELGRADE BLITZ (Sat, 7pm, C4) was secretly filmed during NATO's recent raids over Belgrade and examines the reality of war for the ordinary people of Yugoslavia.
NATO ON TRIAL (Sun, 7.30pm, C4). Journalist Jon Snow questions NATO's motives and asks whether it has caused an even greater human catastrophe.
THE MARK THOMAS COMEDY PRODUCT (Wed, 11pm, C4). The left wing investigator and comic Mark Thomas takes New Labour to task over its vicious new Asylum Bill.
Also worth a look this week are:
CORRESPONDENT (Sat, 7.05pm, BBC2). This week's special programme looks at the reporting of the war in the Balkans.
DEATH IN VENICE (Sat, 12 midnight, BBC2). Director Luchino Visconti's excellent version of the classic story of the last days of a composer and his love for a young boy.
HOLDING ON (Sun, 9pm, BBC2). Repeat showing of the popular drama series by Tony Marchant about London life. The eight episodes are screened at 9pm every day this week.
LE SAMOURAI (Tues, 8pm, C4). Classic film from the Japanese film director Kurosawa.
LEVIATHAN (Wed, 7.30pm, BBC2) marks the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square by following the fortunes of the protesters who were forced to flee China.
THE DISABLED CENTURY (Thurs, 9.50pm, BBC2). This major new documentary explores disabled people's fight against discrimination this century.