Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Russian arcs: "Revolution: New Art for a New World"

Margy Kinmonth is the British documentarist who - unlike certain U.S. Presidential candidates - has been entirely upfront about her close links with Russia. A few years back, she gave us Hermitage Revealed, a scholarly tour of that venerable art institution; her no less stimulating follow-up, Revolution: New Art for a New World, hones in on several of the key works the Hermitage houses, while also allowing itself to roam a little further afield. As its title suggests, Revolution's core interest lies in that art fomented in the course of the uprisings of just under a century ago now, transforming the look and scope of not just painting but architecture, sculpture, cinema, theatre and graphic design. Again, Kinmonth's methods are of an older documentary school. Sit-down interviews with experts are intercut with dramatic reconstructions and readings that bring out the featured artists' personalities: we are introduced (or reintroduced) to the excitable mythomane Eisenstein, the brooding Malevich, the dreamy Kandinsky and Chagall. As the film director Andrei Konchalovsky, interviewed about his painter grandfather, phrases it, theirs was "extremist, even terrorist art". These guys, like so many angry or agitated young men, wanted to blow shit up.

While providing a broad overview for philistines like me, Kinmonth digs deep into the archives and comes up with interesting new material: she makes an especially good case for the early "analytical realism" of the long-buried Filonov, a painter who used dots and grids to render the human body as though on a cellular level, before he reverted to more conservative representational methods as the Stalin regime exerted its grip. Some kind of rhyme emerges between the unconventional shapes being flashed up on screen and the unconventional personalities responsible for them. Here were creatives who tesselated but for a brief moment in the teens and Twenties, and were obliged to shuck off their edges once order of a sort had been restored, their status shifting almost overnight from allies of a vibrant and radical new political movement to - in several cases - enemies of the state.

Kinmonth certainly isn't blind to the social limitations of this art: she shows that it failed to put food on the tables of the starving peasantry, and how it was swiftly co-opted by commerce, as almost all vital artistic movements eventually are. Yet she's at least as fascinated by the process of making art during those long Russian winters as she is by the end results, and that fascination permits us to grasp how many of this movement's better known works were separate expressions of the same revolutionary goal - most obvious in the link between Battleship Potemkin and Rodchenko's 1930 photograph Steps. It ends unhappily, with canvasses being shredded and torched, and a round of executions by the firing squad - proof, if nothing else, of the ongoing threat great art poses to the powers-that-be - but the work as framed here continues to hold and beguile the eye, relics of idealism and change that far outlasted their political moment.

Revolution: New Art for a New World screens in selected cinemas tomorrow night. 

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