This is a great film for socialists with an interest in art. Written, produced, directed and narrated by Margy Kinmonth, the film focuses on the artistic avant-garde that flourished in advance of and following the 1917 Russian Revolution.
It moves on to discuss the changes in art subsequent to Stalin’s consolidation of power. The film gives a basic political history of the 1917 Revolution and the events that followed.
It uses contemporary footage, lingering shots of the artworks themselves, dramatic reconstructions and interviews with curators, historians, family members and contemporary artists to tell the story of the political context and the art produced in the period.
The film makers do not seem to have a particular political agenda or framework, but revolutionary socialists may dispute or disagree with some aspects of the commentary. The film discusses artistic concepts such as Suprematism and Socialist Realism, but a detailed grounding in art history is not required to enjoy it.
The artworks themselves, including paintings, films, sculpture and photography, ably demonstrate how the period before 1917 and up to the mid-1920s was a time of enormous creativity. Art was used to reflect, build and deepen the revolution in the aim of establishing a new world. This cultural explosion was ultimately degraded by Stalin and his regime.
The film shows artworks that were banned and unseen for many years and some which are rarely seen outside of Russia. This makes the documentary an exciting opportunity to see these works. It also gives an opportunity to discover new artists. So alongside well-known names such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova and Marc Chagall, are lesser known artists such as Gustav Klutsis and Pavel Filonov.
A particularly moving segment describes the exile and murder of avant-garde artists by Stalin’s regime. They suffered and died alongside so many others.
The film also describes incidences of staff in museums and galleries acting to save artworks from being destroyed. Although some work was protected, much sadly was burned.
One of the interviewees comments that the works are “part of the history now”. While this is true — and brought into sharp focus by the disclosure that Malevich’s “Black Square” is now valued at $20 million — they have left a huge artistic legacy.
The ideas that fuelled the revolution of 1917 are still part of our contemporary politics as we continue to argue that we can build a new and better world.