Not for the first time, the Russian avant-garde has been poisoned by politics. Due to the events in Ukraine, the UK-Russia Year of Culture has receded from the public consciousness into a difficult, politically framed limbo.
It is a shame as there are a number of exhibitions such as ‘Spasibo’ at the Saatchi Gallery and ‘A Game in Hell: The Great War in Russia’ at the Gallery for Russian Art and Design that should have benefited from the context of cultural celebration. Instead they have been curiously neutered by the political fallout. And that makes them all the more poignant. Both exhibitions are worth a visit, as is the superb ‘Russian Avant-garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design’ at the V&A.
Encased inside angular scarlet walls, this treasure trove of early 20th-century avant-garde drawings, paintings and models is hidden deep inside the bosom of the V&A’s theatre and cinema galleries. It is very much the beautiful and intriguing heart alluded to by Dmitry Rodionov, director of Moscow’s Bakhrushin Museum, who addressed the press at the opening.
It is a beating heart too, for all the reinventions and reimaginings the modern age bore during and around the First World War were most fecund in Russia. The exhibition is loosely chronological, starting with a corridor of costume designs. Vera Mushin’s images for the unrealised The Rose & the Cross show machine-like outfits, morphing away from the warm storybook illustrations of knights and damsels and into the new world.
Order – moral, social and aesthetic – is being viewed from a different vantage point, soon enough marked by Victory Over the Sun and the Art Deco idealism of Exter’s designs for the science-fiction film Aelita. These costumes look oriental in inspiration but their stark modernist lines make any sense of social tradition or decoration insipid.
They contain movement beyond the theatre, they are themselves lines delivered to camera and statements of intent, cinematic in their realisation, embracing the dizzying possibility of the new medium. The characters are pragmatic personalities, their names representative of new spaces where the individual meets the social agenda: The Queen of the Martians, The Satanic Bullet and The Guardian of Energy.
Such a comprehension of the new medium and its translation of the old is further seen in Eisenstein’s own set designs. Macbeth has been given a serious makeover, the highlight being the Porter’s new costume, now resembling a troubadour trapped inside a multi-coloured traffic cone (pictured above), while the great director’s set for a reimagining of Shaw’s Heartbreak House resembles a gigantic collapsed machine. It is all a wonderfully vivid rendering of satire, the licence of abandon afforded the rebel is everywhere proudly on display, so tangible you feel you carry it with you.
Such staggering creativity is an important reminder of how total the revolution was and, although it ate its sons and daughters in the end, it is clear how indebted art remains to these men and women. The set for Hamlet designed by Irakli Gamrekeli would benefit any stage today, while Evgrafov’s costume designs are resplendent in their contemporary sense of fun.
Much is made of the work of Malevich, Radchenko (pictured above), Tatlin, Popova and Lissitsky but with 159 pieces on display from 45 artists there is a wealth of lesser-known work that gives a welcome depth to lose yourself in. The blood-red backdrop of the diagonal walls adds to a loss of perception; the viewer could be forgiven for feeling that perhaps they themselves are inhabiting a theatrical set, each art work a window through which they are viewed by modernist imaginings, who are dismayed by our inevitable banality. I felt genuinely pitied by the Dadaist leanings of Lissitsky and unyielding boldness of Popova’s set design for The Magnanimous Cuckold (pictured top).
For all the drama and history there’s the inevitable, and persevering, sense of tragedy. The artists flee Russia as the revolution turns and Social Realism bites, martyrs such as Meyerhold refuse to be cowed and are taken into the great Stalinist void off-stage. The politics is depressingly real.
But this exhibition is a triumph of art in spite of its history; these creations are as powerful now as they ever were. Soviet politics previously tried to poison this art; we can now enjoy and appreciate these masterpieces of vision beyond ideology. The art has won – a timely lesson for the UK-Russia Year of Culture.
Russian Avant-garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 25 January