From Russia

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Royal Academy of Arts

In the third room of this extraordinary exhibition there is a group of works painted in Paris in 1908-10. It was the time of Cubism, of Pablo Picasso's Dryad, of Henri Matisse's sensual Nude, Black and Gold and the wonderfully energetic Dance II that is the exhibition's emblematic painting. Two years earlier Paul C├ęzanne painted the last of his studies of the Mont Sainte-Victoire when the hill itself disappears behind the sheer force of the painter's hand; now we are no longer looking at a place but at the experience, the sight and feeling of the place.

No one can see this exhibition without sensing that this was a revolutionary moment in European art, when painting abandoned the attempt to record the world and began the search for a language to express how it felt to live. The previous generation, the Impressionists (like Claude Monet), were fascinated by the play of light and shadow; the new generation explored the hidden worlds of mind and experience.

In Russia a generation of young artists was looking for new directions - some turned to folk art, some to the Cubists and the innovations of European modernism and to Georges Braque, Matisse and Picasso. Others still were exhilarated by the celebration of industrial life expressed by the Italian Futurists. Yet they lived in a Russia still dominated by Tsarism. Why then would they identify with revolutionary modernism?

The exhibition organisers do not try to answer the question, but the answer is in the huge painting by Ilya Repin in the first room. It shows the crowds in the streets of Petrograd in 1905, during the first Russian revolution. 1905, though it ended in defeat, announced the possibility of a different future, rooted in the modern Russia of Petrograd and Moscow. That promise of transformation is expressed in the Russian art exhibited in the Royal Academy.

Some critics have contemptuously dismissed the Russian painters as crude imitators of the French. Just as the Bolsheviks stole the paintings (more of this below) so these underdeveloped eastern Europeans stole their style. It is rubbish, of course - there is no national ownership of artistic innovation. It is a view informed by prejudice and a very selective look at what is here. Even the Russian impressionists at the exhibition's beginning added a Russian dimension to the late 19th century landscapes. The Wanderers school, for example, went to the countryside and rediscovered the folk arts. The World of Art revisited the mythology of Russia through the myth-based painting of Maurice Denis and others. Bathing of the Red Horse speaks to both traditions.

Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov represent this new generation of painters. They are exciting and innovative artists. Every painting builds and develops on their last. And Nathan Altman's Cubist portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova is as profound and beautiful as anything out of Paris. It is obvious by 1914-15 that something is happening in Russian art - Vladimir Tatlin, Luibov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko and others who figure here are pushing back the boundaries constantly. And from 1917 it is they who are driving European art forward.

The next ten years blow open the world of art. In the wake of the October Revolution different schools of art contest and argue. Every aspect of daily life - clothes, furniture, cinema - is revolutionised. Some demand an art of the people; others insist that art must explore all the imaginative possibilities that a proletarian revolution makes possible. This is the time when Constructivism reshapes public space, in the imagined monuments of a new age like Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. It celebrated the creative possibilities of a new technology (though the realities of a revolution under siege meant that it remained as a project for the future).

Kasimir Malevich's Black Square has provoked the wrath of conservatives for years. But the square and its accompanying cross and circle take on depth and texture when you see them here, and the artist's insistence that they were spiritual icons for a time after religion begins to seem plausible. Marc Chagall, by contrast, found inspiration in folk tales, rural traditions and the popular imagination, like Wassily Kandinsky whose Composition VII of 1913 is so joyous and celebratory.

The exhibition curators do not answer the central question for their public. Why was there such an explosion of creativity after 1917? The revolution in Russian art was a response to the creative possibilities opened up by a social revolution that brought onto the stage of history millions who had never seen themselves as the creative subjects of change.

It seems that this is a difficult link for the curators of this marvellous exhibition to acknowledge. They are far too exercised by the fact that the Bolsheviks took these extraordinary collections amassed by two unbelievably wealthy entrepreneurs and made them available to a mass audience - "theft" they call it. On the contrary - the original theft was to make these works private property. When Lenin argued against the Proletkult group, who wanted to get rid of all bourgeois art, he insisted that these great works of the human imagination, far from being destroyed, should become the property of all. This exhibition is testimony to how important that is.


From Russia is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 18 April.