A documentary that encapsulates a momentous period in the history of Russia and the Russian avant-garde, drawing on the collections of major Russian cultural institutions.
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We all knew what to paint.
But the message was workers of the world unite.
Everyone was going to have equal rights.
And that included the artists.
Comrades, we are passing through one of the most critical,
the most important moments of history,
a moment when the world's socialist revolution is in the making.
We need to mobilise the masses to progress fast.
Art is the most powerful means of political propaganda
for the triumph of the socialist cause.
We are breaking with the past because we cannot accept
We ourselves are creating our own hypotheses, and only on them,
as in our own inventions,
can we build a new life and a new world view.
More than anyone else, the artist knows this intuitively,
and believes in it absolutely.
That is exactly why artists above all undertook a revolution.
My search for the new art for a new world started here in St Petersburg,
where for centuries the vast Russian Empire had been controlled
from the Winter Palace by the Tsars, who believed they had
the divine right to rule with no elected government.
They enjoyed a privileged life,
while 80 % of Russians were peasants.
Despite the abolition of serfdom in 1861, they still had no rights.
So, in the early 1900s,
the peasants flooded into the cities from all over the Empire,
desperately seeking work.
They formed the proletariat
and united with a revolutionary approach to politics, and to art.
For over a decade and through the First World War,
discontent had been growing against Tsar Nicholas II.
After the mass riots at the Women's Day March of February 1917,
the Tsar was forced to abdicate
and power ceded to the provisional government.
But despite this, the voiceless people grew angrier.
So, how did the artists respond?
In July '17, photographer Viktor Bulla stood here
at his studio window
and took one of the most iconic images of the 20th century...
..as the government troops opened fire on the crowd
at a demonstration below.
In this street, on that day,
hundreds were injured, and dozens lay dead.
With tensions rising,
the Bolshevik Party was gaining in popularity,
and in October the awaiting crowd
hailed the return of their exiled leader.
Comrades, with all my might
I urge you to realise that everything now hangs by a thread.
We must not wait. We may lose everything.
The government is tottering.
It must be given the death blow at all costs.
Many young artists were at the vanguard of the movement and joined
the optimistic crowds on the streets looking forward to a new utopia.
-They were all revolutionaries.
They fought at the barricades, fighting for the revolution.
For them, the revolution was a breakthrough into the new world
from the old world, which they were fed up with.
It was the ambition of the young people, they were, then,
18-20 years old.
Naturally, they were striving ahead.
Finally, the Bolsheviks closed in on the headquarters of the provisional
government - the Tsar's Winter Palace.
The whole revolution was planned
at the example of the French Revolution.
So, there was storming of Bastille,
so you have the storming of Tuileries, so you had to storm
So, it was partly performance, and then it was made a performance.
The famous film of Eisenstein, October,
which shows the storming of the Winter Palace is an absolute lie.
Russia's pioneering film director, Sergei Eisenstein,
would portray the version of events the Bolsheviks wanted remembered.
His masterpiece, October, which has influenced film-makers ever since,
depicts the armed masses heroically streaming into the Winter Palace.
Nothing of this kind ever happened.
There was no storming, only a very few armed people who just got in
and arrested the provisional government.
It was peaceful. The Winter Palace was taken by the revolutionaries
without a big fight.
And they had been cutting the portraits of the Tsars
which had been hanging in some of the places.
This is most of the damage which... what happened in the Winter Palace.
With the Bolsheviks now in power
and Tsar Nicholas under house arrest in the Ural Mountains,
the court photographer, Boasson,
captures here an aristocratic era now at an end.
The entire family were later executed by firing squad
and thrown down a mine shaft.
In 1918, the capital was moved to Moscow.
Successive layers of history have buried this extraordinary period
To find out more about the life and death survival
of the great avant-garde artists,
I wanted to delve beneath the anonymous face of the metropolis,
go into the archives, and meet surviving descendants,
many of whom are working artists in Russia today.
Why don't you start off by telling me, who was your great-grandfather?
My great-grandfather was an artist who lived in Moscow
during the period of revolution.
Fedor told me that his great-grandfather worked right here,
in this Moscow apartment, 100 years ago.
Through the open windows,
he heard the church bells, which inspired him to create
his architectural pictures.
Lentulov loved very much Russian architecture but especially
at the time of revolution,
and he depicted crowds of moving people on a background
of old Moscow churches.
Long before 1917,
a huge artistic revolution was already well under way,
but it took the famous political events to unlock
the massive outpouring of creativity in all fields of art.
From 1900, or 1902, or 1903 up to 1915...
Russian art became...
I would say, the most avant-garde in the whole of the world.
A giant in the avant-garde was Kazimir Malevich.
His anarchistic attitude coincided perfectly with the Bolsheviks,
and their promise of political change.
Malevich, he was working on the theory of suprematism in Vitebsk.
There were a group of people connected with Malevich,
and he was a crazy man with his idea of suprematism.
I have broken the blue boundary of colour limits.
Come out into the white.
Beside me, comrade pilots swim in this infinity.
I have established the semaphore of suprematism.
I have beaten the lining of the coloured sky, torn it away,
and in the sack that formed itself, I have put colour and knotted it.
Swim, the free white sea lies before you.
The new step he did is trying to show ideas,
not to show existing reality.
His art is not about reality.
He's very idealistic.
It's a way the world can be structured.
And this obviously comes from the cosmos.
There are certain pieces that are wonderful, certain pieces that are
And they're still absurd, but they're considered masterpieces,
but they're absurd.
Like, Black Square, I think it's absurd.
So, can you explain to me what is the Black Square all about?
Well, Malevich had, of course, painted the Black Square
in the summer of 1915, and exhibited it at the end of 1915,
and he placed his Black Square in the corners of the room,
across the corners of the room in the position that an icon would have
occupied in a Russian domestic interior.
So, he was imbuing his Black Square with the metaphysical and spiritual
connotations of the icon.
Religion is opium for the people.
Religion is a sort of spiritual booze in which the slaves of capital
drown their human image,
their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.
The yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind
is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.
The mass movement of denying God
or church by the young generation was extremely strong.
As Dostoevsky said,
"If there is no God, everything is allowed."
"You can do everything if there is no God."
So, that was the basis of the Russian Revolution.
There were very young people that accepted the revolution immediately.
And they fought White God, they fought church,
they fought everything,
trying to, first of all, destroy...
..without thinking what they're going to build instead.
The Black Square is the end of the world
and the beginning of the new world, like the big deluge, the big end.
It's the symbol of the new beginning,
and to begin something anew,
you need to end everything that was before,
but everything, and that's the Black Square.
The Communist ban on religion would result in the systematic destruction
of architectural symbols of worship.
They chose Russia's most prominent cathedral of Christ the Saviour
in Moscow and reduced it to rubble.
For centuries, Russia's ruling
classes had looked to Europe for cultural influence,
and the artistic scene was dominated by the Imperial Academy of Arts
in the then-capital Petrograd,
where teaching was traditional figurative art.
mostly they are coming to the Academy to study classical art.
And we're doing it for nearly a century until today,
and it's the system of Academy.
But by the beginning of the 20th century,
the young artists wanted to break all these rules.
It was the conflict between the school and the new way of thinking,
and the new way of doing art.
Some of them came to change the world,
because I think as artists they think they could change the world.
The Academy is a mouldy vault in which art flagellates itself.
Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion.
It no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners.
It wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such,
and believes it can exist in and for itself without things.
I have transformed myself in the zero of form and dragged myself out
of the rubbish-filled pool of academic art.
Well, artists were really
confronting the Academy and the powers that be
with art which outraged them, which was simplified,
which was dramatically kind of colourful,
really did all the things that were against the Academy.
And because of the connection between the Imperial household and
the Imperial Academy,
their rebellion against the Academy
had a political connotation from the very word go.
They were trying to be more modern, more avant-garde than the West.
And that was...
..very typical for Russian artists,
that kind of
extremist, and I would say tyrannist in art, in a sense, even.
Painters flourished in this utopian period,
including one of the greatest,
He was known as the father of
abstraction and would change the course of painting forever.
Abstract art places a new world which, on the surface,
is nothing to do with reality next to the real world.
Each colour lives by its mysterious life.
In every painting, a whole is mysteriously enclosed.
-Kandinsky is a kind of
a complicated story of a relationship
with the Russian Revolution.
Kandinsky created his own movement, abstraction.
But Kandinsky's abstraction, in my view, was never separated.
Unlike Malevich's suprematism,
it was never removed completely from the image.
He always mixed his abstraction with some kind of figurative images,
similar to figurativism in his paintings.
I let myself go.
I thought little of the houses and trees and applied colour,
stripes and spots to the canvas.
Within me sounded the memory of early evening in Moscow.
Before my eyes was the strong, colour-saturated scale of light and
atmosphere which thundered deeply in the shadows.
This era generated a massive number of very diverse artists,
encouraged by the new freedom of expression.
But not every one was in favour of
the revolutionary avant-garde movement.
In 1917, the Moscow-based painter Pyotr Konchalovsky,
part of a cultural dynasty,
was already a well-established and prolific artist.
What about the politics?
How did he fit in with political events in Russia?
Was he a political animal?
At that time, the artists that were left wing,
the artists of avant-garde,
they wanted to...
To go more left,
more revolutionary than it's supposed to be.
My grandfather was, you know, doing
nature mortes and portraits,
and I think he started to be regarded by that
revolutionary part of artists as a conservative person.
But he was very satisfied with this point of view.
He didn't want to jump on this wagon of modern art,
that it was always
far beyond even Cubism.
It started to go into abstract.
And he's stayed...
Basically, he's stayed with the truth.
As he realised, for him, the truth was his art.
If you analyse the background,
just the wall, you analyse the colours that are used in the grey,
you realise it's not a grey.
It's a full
rainbow of colours that give you more grey than grey itself.
The huge amount of art produced in this period
was piled up in museum stores,
surviving for decades as only a myth.
In St Petersburg,
I was fascinated by this treasure
trove of unique work by an individual
called Pavel Filonov.
Barely known outside Russia, he remains an enigma in the West.
I was drawn in by the tiny little
brushes Filonov used to show every atom
in the human body.
He created his own formula of the revolution in a new style which he
called analytical realism.
Filonov had a big following because
he came from a very simple background,
a sick son of a cab man.
The workers felt he was one of them,
and they really liked his art.
The Bolsheviks appointed the art
critic Nikolay Punin as their arts commisar.
He was close to Malevich and one of
the most passionate supporters of the avant-garde movement.
-He highly appreciated all of them,
despite the fact that they were very different.
The attitude to the revolution was
changing greatly throughout his life.
Maybe in the first revolutionary years he was a romantic.
He thought that the revolution could be some kind of cleansing.
Since the artists were on the bread line, with no money for paint,
they needed worker status to get food coupons.
But Commissar Punin could help them, and a new visual arts department was
set up. The grand surroundings of the former Tsar was where they met.
We're here to discuss art and art for the masses.
I want to know what you all propose for the promotion of our glorious
October 1917 revolution.
Avant-garde artists were the ones who were young, they were keen,
they wanted to participate in all the new artistic reforms.
They were the ones who were at the right time at the right place.
They were artists from different sides of Russian avant-garde.
And quite often they couldn't even agree on the same developments in
-How is a black square relevant?
Because a black square can be shaped.
You're saying it's like you created the shape.
I didn't create the shape. I created the concept.
You're asking somebody who wears
clogs, who has never seen a picture in his life,
to come and have a look at it and actually take it seriously.
Yes, that person understands a square, doesn't he or she?
All people understand emotion.
-No-one understands a black square on a white background.
It can mean anything.
You put forth a singular idea understood by a bunch of
pseudo-intellectuals, it'll mean nothing to anyone.
We have to be looking at the next 100 years.
What's going to be hanging in the Winter Palace in 100 years' time?
-What do you think?
-Will it be the Black Square?
-I've got a pretty good idea it could be the Black Square.
-Thank you, sir.
The Bolsheviks turned to the avant-garde artists who were quite
enthusiastic about this revolution because this coincided with their
concepts of the world, which is
for 100% changing.
So, it was a kind of combination of
circumstances which brought them together.
Lenin announced a decree for the
immediate switch at the Institute of Arts
in Moscow and Academy of Arts in
Petrograd from traditional to avant-garde art.
So, it was the Free Artists' Studio,
then the Institute of Proletarian Art, then another one.
After 1918, there were a lot of changes inside the Academy,
new professors like Petrov-Vodkin.
And he's from outside.
He's not from the Academy.
I should say that Petrov-Vodkin was the first artist who used the
spherical perspective in his paintings,
in the still lives, in landscapes.
It was the conception of three colours,
and spherical dimensions,
-Respect and admiration,
these are the feelings that I have
towards Petrov-Vodkin, my grandfather.
He was born in a small town of Khvalynsk on the Volga River
in the family of a maid and a shoemaker.
enthusiastically to the revolution and it's known
that he was one of the six cultural figures who came voluntarily to work
with the Soviet authorities.
He was confident that the creative powers of the Russian people would
be able to rise and make a brand-new country.
Very soon after the October Revolution,
Lenin announced his plan for monumental propaganda.
Comrades, I intend to decorate Russia's squares with statues and
monuments to revolutionaries and the great fighters for socialism,
the likes of Karl Marx, and the heroes of the French Revolution.
These monuments will be street
pulpits from which fresh messages will flow
and inspire the consciousness of the masses.
We must make a marriage of
convenience with the artists who are keen and democratic.
My plan for monumental propaganda
needs to be executed fast and efficiently.
At the time, they couldn't afford to make sculptures out of bronze,
for example, so it was all temporary materials,
so they often were not very well preserved,
especially with Russian winters.
I uncovered this rare archive film in Moscow.
It's about the only record of these propaganda sculptures,
as barely any have survived to this day.
They were mainly heroes of the French Revolution,
because they didn't have enough Russian heroes at the time.
A lot of sculptures to Tsars and generals
who were popular in Imperial Russia
were removed and replaced by the new sculptures,
so it was a victory of new art over the old.
It was quite fascinating how in the first years after the revolution,
at the time of starvation, when
there was no electricity in Petrograd,
people were freezing, starving,
huge funds were allocated for decorations of the city.
This square, that was the main square of the Russian Empire,
Nathan Altman, who was the artist of the revolution,
he did several very nice designs of the square,
using this column as a centre and
making a star around it, the Red Star,
and also different slogans would appear everywhere.
I would say the revolution
established this connection between art and
politics because politics wanted artists to create its world,
wanted artists to create the image of the new country.
That's why artists were engaged to play with the revolution.
Another artist, the legendary Marc Chagall,
was commissioned to decorate his hometown of Vitebsk,
here at the celebration
of the first anniversary of the Bolshevik uprising.
He was liberated by the revolution.
Previously, Jews were prohibited to move beyond the pale,
the line of settlement established by the Tsars,
100 kilometres away from Moscow and Petrograd.
The revolution gave all the Jews
freedom to come because they were just
people of a new country, and they could come and go,
and, of course, he was inspired by
this new revelation that the revolution brought out.
Much of Chagall's subject matter is symbolic of his Jewish roots in his
hometown, where he and his wife Bella grew up.
This important work is one of
Russia's gems and shows the liberating power
of art and imagination over oppression.
This painting of floating figures is absolutely a dream.
It's something that can't happen.
And this is a dream that comes from this small village.
This very, very prescribed life
and very detailed everyday living.
He's trying to fly out, come to a dream, to a love story,
and that is, of course, the dream
that was given by the new reality that he was living in.
I discovered that the Russian
avant-garde flourished across all cultures, including the stage.
The revolution opened doors to brand-new radical artists,
who enthused each other with their ideas.
Theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold
was a member of the Bolshevik party.
His quirky experiments in
unconventional new Soviet theatre were very popular.
Rarely practised today, this technique for training actors,
known as biomechanics,
was used to learn movement and
express emotion physically by assuming poses and gestures.
Another pro-revolutionary artist was Aleksander Rodchenko.
Aged 26 at the time of the revolution and highly prolific,
he taught at the same Moscow art school
where his grandson lectures today.
So can you please describe your grandfather,
what kind of artist he was?
I have the image of a very tall figure.
Whom I definitely know that is my grandfather.
Later on, after my mother Barbara's stories,
I learned a lot of him.
We can consider Rodchenko to be the founder in many areas.
Almost in every lecture, we somehow remind our students of his heritage,
because he worked as a multifaceted artist in so many areas.
We know that he laid down this concept of contemporary photography,
valuing the real, journalistic, documentary view of events.
His way of doing layout and graphic design is also very well recognised.
Usually, people don't pay attention to such things as different angles.
He took this famous high and low angle
with this absolutely silly,
absolutely small and amateurish Kodak camera.
You know, if he wouldn't be a photographer,
he would definitely be a film-maker.
Because everything that he did had this sort of kinetic background.
The way we walk around the street,
the way we get into the streetcar,
the way we are standing in queues,
and Rodchenko paid attention to such very tiny effects of everyday life
and activity and he reduced it all with his ability as an artist.
So there are a lot of things that
are important for us today which were laid down by this talent.
Rodchenko's design work included posters and set design for his
collaborator, the revolutionary documentary film-maker Dziga Vertov,
who was aged just 22 in 1917.
Vertov was pushing the boundaries of experimentation
with editing and cinematography.
In Moscow, I met Maria Kulagina,
an artist whose grandfather, for me,
is a true hero of the revolutionary period.
-Gustav Klutsis was a very well-known artist in his time.
He knew and worked together with
such people as Rodchenko and Malevich.
Klutsis was from a peasant background in Latvia,
and moved to Moscow before the
revolution as a fully paid-up member of the Communist party.
He's seen here having taken part in the Battle of Moscow,
in Lenin's car in the summer of 1918.
Klutsis was one of the major figures of the generation.
He was the inventor of the so-called photomontage.
Our family is an artistic family.
My parents, my grandma and grandad,
my children and my husband, too.
Everyone is an artist.
Maria told me about her grandmother,
Married to Klutsis, she was also a pioneering artist.
She also did a lot of posters,
where she worked independently as an artist in her own right.
First of all, they all believed in the new political regime.
They absolutely believed that everything would be great,
socialism would win, that Communism would come,
and it would be something totally new.
And their art was in line with this.
They wanted to destroy the old and create the new.
The new political freedom won by
Russian women after they got the vote
gave them equality, and a platform for their art.
These artists flourished in the revolutionary climate.
Non-objective creativity is a movement of the spirit.
A protest against the narrow
materialism and naturalism that has begun to control life.
This has been particularly characteristic for Russia,
where our smart young painters have
come to negate the object and painting.
And this is understandable,
since Russia has long been a country of the spirit.
Varvara Stepanova, who came from peasant stock,
was aged 23 at the time of the revolution,
and was married to Rodchenko.
It's interesting how they could live together,
because it's always difficult to
find peaceful coexistence of two creative persons.
In my compositions, geometric abstraction plays a key role.
Colour, sound and form come together, arming the imagination.
Revolutionary politics and art also
influenced architectural engineering.
A constructivist radio tower in Moscow was designed to broadcast
Lenin's propaganda to the masses.
Tell me about the tower.
This is a Moscow radio inclusion tower.
But the main name and more understandable name for
everyone everywhere is the Shukhov Tower,
of course, because that's the name of the engineer who made it.
It was a dream of Vladimir Shukhov, before the revolution,
and he starts to make kind of the calculations
and starts to think about the design.
Obviously, a broadcasting tower,
because he understands very well in the future
of the human civilisation,
they start to transmit information through big and long distance.
In a vast empire with a largely illiterate population,
Lenin cleverly used the avant-garde
artists again to spread the message of socialism.
So they created these educational trains,
which were covered with avant-garde paintings,
and then they did some posters.
And in the carriages they would have lectures,
and they would show films.
The film maker Dziga Vertov was
taking part in this propaganda programme,
and spent three years running a cinema car on the trains.
They would go to all over the Soviet Union
and tell them who Lenin was,
and why Marx was so important,
and trains played a major role in this process.
Aleksander Rodchenko embraced this
new artistic medium of agitational design.
They were agitating for literacy.
If you remember the famous poster with Lilya Brik shouting, "Books,"
you can understand what I mean.
So it's a very strong image, a very strong agitational image,
which is copied, by now, everywhere.
It tends to be an icon of agitation.
In my exploration of the museum's stores,
I found this rare agitational propaganda,
kept out of the public eye in Russia since the 1920s.
These prototype collages were
developed for posters and festive street decorations.
Revolution and art and politics are very much connected.
So an artist is not somebody who creates his own life,
but he is in service to the revolution.
You must obey the population, and you must obey the party.
You must obey the revolution.
This new propaganda art brought many people to the Bolshevik way of
thinking. But others disagreed with Lenin.
So with revolution came civil war.
The Red Army pitted against the Whites.
With the Government over-requisitioning grain,
and two years of drought,
another era of mass starvation developed across rural Russia.
Cannibalism was rife,
and up to 10 million people died.
The revolution was a big problem.
Basically, it was a total disaster for many people.
And artists, only, they tried to build a new world,
and try to feel themselves part of this.
But the reality was very poor.
-What amazes me in
Petrov-Vodkin is that he was able to turn ordinary, simple
subjects into some kind of symbols.
Then he always felt the difference between what he expressed in the
paintings, that is the high notes of the revolution,
and what was really going on.
-He was a deeply Russian person.
That is what kept him in St Petersburg,
hungry and cold during this twisted time.
The conditions he had to work in at the Academy,
well, they caused dismay.
This tragic deprivation fuelled
strong anti-Bolshevik feeling among the population.
In 1921, after the suppression of a massive rebellion,
there followed a wave of arrests across the country.
The Red Terror was announced by Lenin,
because he realised that in order to keep order in the country full
of disillusioned people, hungry and cold, you had to scare them somehow,
and introduce some form of terror to make sure that they obey party
orders, and that another revolution, counterrevolution, doesn't occur.
There was a cultural exodus across all fields of art.
Russia would lose many of its most talented artists,
who were forced to flee their homeland,
some never to return.
his art of the post-revolutionary period has more a tone of alarm,
of anxiety, and so his works between the end of the 1910s and the
beginning of the 1920s are not optimistic.
This is, perhaps,
the most important thing that defines Kandinsky's work before his
departure from Russia, which was in 1922.
The more frightening the world becomes,
the more art becomes abstract.
The nightmare of materialism which has turned the life of the universe
into an evil, useless game is not yet passed.
It holds the awakening soul still in its grip.
When he fled to Germany,
Kandinsky was forced to abandon some
of his best and largest canvases in his Moscow studio.
In 1923, Marc Chagall also emigrated.
He joined many of his fellow countrymen in France,
where he experienced more artistic freedom,
but his Russian roots remained all-present in his work.
The Bolsheviks won the civil war,
but the Russian economy was now in tatters,
and industry was at a tenth of its prewar level.
Lenin needed to resuscitate the Russian economy,
and the artists would be key.
In 1921, Lenin introduced New Economic Policy, called NEP,
trying to bring the small trade back, co-operatives were open again.
Private tradesmen and state
companies were competing to sell their goods.
Many of the posters designed by
artists like Rodchenko were marketing their products.
This idea completely contradicted the principles of Communism.
They were literally selling peasants back the grain they'd grown.
Workers, do not be afraid of high prices and New Economic Policy.
Buy cheap bread!
I eat cookies from a Red October factory.
It was successful,
except that it meant that you had the danger from the Communist Party
point of view of redeveloping capitalist elements in society.
You are not a Soviet citizen if you
do not invest in the national airline.
One golden ruble makes everyone a shareholder.
But there was a growing dissatisfaction with the leadership.
1922 saw an assassination attempt when Lenin was shot.
Incapacitated, he was still leader but unable to assert power.
Russia's next ruler was already waiting on the sidelines,
bringing with him his own version of Communism
and his own ideas for art.
When Lenin dies in January 1924,
this is a great opportunity for the Bolsheviks to substitute a different
kind of religion.
That religion was the cult of Lenin,
and it was initiated by his successor, Josef Stalin.
The cross was replaced with a hammer and sickle,
and Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square
became the people's place of pilgrimage.
Even Petrograd was renamed Leningrad.
Russia's artists were put to work by Stalin,
creating statues and imagery,
this time of Lenin.
But Stalin forced many painters to
turn away from the avant-garde to the style of socialist realism,
a new form of propaganda depicting
an ideal world of industrious Soviet workers.
The Bolsheviks had realised that there are artists around them
which could be more useful for them than those crazy avant-garde artists
who were doing something which politicians didn't understand,
and didn't feel that this is
explaining or transferring to the minds
of the people the existing official ideology.
Stalin was very keen on artists
and he cared a great deal about them,
because he saw them very much as engineers of human souls,
in a famous phrase that Marx had used.
He thought that art could be used to persuade people to adhere to the
system and to participate in public life.
This portrait was painted by Pavel Filonov,
and marked a huge swing in his style from
abstract to socialist realism.
Censorship by the new regime also hit Sergei Eisenstein.
On the day of October's premiere,
Stalin came into the editing room
and forced him to alter scenes that
didn't fit his political agenda, including cutting out Trotsky,
his political rival.
There was a great period of
inventiveness that came just before and after
the revolution, but it was really
that inventiveness that Stalin wanted to stifle.
He didn't want people who were revolutionary and who would continue
thinking creatively and who would
come up with alternatives to what he was doing.
What he wanted was unity,
and he wanted everybody to think the
same and he wanted them to paint in the same way.
And the avant-garde,
because they were by definition people who thought creatively,
were a problem for him from the very beginning.
This shift in thinking saw the
return of the Academy of Art in Leningrad
to its centuries-old traditions.
They understand that they need to have all this, you know?
Emblems of Empire,
with architecture, sculpture,
traditional techniques or traditional style and traditional...
And then things change,
and for the Academy at that time it was a very good period,
because they came back to the past.
As you want to become an official artist and get state commissions,
and richly paid by the state, you do official art.
If you want to be an individual, you become a nonconformist.
If you're able to do it, you stay with us.
If you're not, if you don't want, we don't care,
you go to the other door.
-The ideological restrictions that the state imposed
on the works of artists broke Petrov-Vodkin.
Subjects were strictly regulated.
There was an agonising search for a
new type which would appeal to the commissioner.
This painful condition,
it undermines the artist. His creativity runs dry.
It was a big battle in the field of art,
initiated by the party and the realists,
people who painted real objects from real-life.
The Academy, in the old sense, they won.
And people like Malevich, they didn't.
But he forced himself to do it, so he tried to paint realism.
He turned into the area of figurative art,
that he has in his hands the means
which are not abstract, but which
are expressing something very similar
to what his abstract works were expressing, and, again,
expressing the drama and tragedy of time.
And would you say the artists, the artists of the avant-garde,
were victims or vanguard to Stalinism?
It's hard for me to say that Malevich himself
was the victim of what he had invented.
He had reflected the need of the time more than maybe any other
artist in Russia.
We need lots of letters from artists pointing out the incorrect bias in
the artistic policy that is being pursued by many comrades,
and which is leading art in a fatal direction,
despite the party's resolution that all trends have a right to develop.
At the present time,
during the building of socialism in which all the arts must participate,
must art return to a backward position and become figurative?
Malevich and two of his students, Suetin and Chashnik,
who were both important avant-garde artists, worked in the state
but they weren't happy doing Stalin's socialist realism.
Here, alone, they were able to
continue creating with their suprematist designs.
-When they didn't have money or anything else,
this was the only place where they could create form,
which they wanted to create.
Malevich was making these teacups and cups,
and Suetin as well was creating vases.
These were practically all suprematist shapes,
and it was the only place where
they could calmly do it all.
In decorative arts like porcelain,
a certain leeway was possible and
there were abstract designs until quite late.
Easel painting became the arena
where government control was exerted most strongly.
Other artists embraced this new socialist realism,
like the painter Pyotr Kotov,
whose style was known as Russian impressionism.
His work would be useful for the new regime.
Normally, he painted rural scenes.
But in the period of Stalin's five-year plan of industrialisation,
when they wanted to convince the
world of Russia's industrial prowess,
Kotov would gain many new state commissions.
-There were special
trips organised for Soviet artists, artistic brigades,
that were sent to different construction sites.
Sometimes he stayed there longer than was necessary,
or he returned on his own accord if
he wasn't able to finish something before.
It was impossible, of course, to
sell these works to anyone but the state.
He, by the way,
was among one of the first offered to paint a portrait of Stalin.
He asked, "And how many sessions can I expect?"
They replied, "Are you crazy?
"Which sessions? Photography, and that's it."
"But I do not paint from photos. I paint only from nature."
And he refused to make a portrait of Stalin.
Afterwards, everybody was afraid they would come for him.
In 1937, Stalin addressed the Russian people.
Stalin's decrees actually resulted
in what became known as the Great Purge. In the year that followed,
hundreds of people would be shot every day,
and the population of the Gulag prison system rose dramatically.
The definition of who was a political criminal changed so much,
and changed and evolved over time,
and it meant that really almost anybody could go there,
and the fact of its existence served to make people afraid.
It made people cautious about what they said,
what they thought, and, of course, what they did and, in this context,
what they wrote or painted.
There started to come the decrees,
signed by the highest state authorities,
to destroy these collections of the art of the avant-garde.
The specialists from the State Russian Museum,
they kept them behind the door,
which they painted and put plaster on it,
so nobody knew that behind this
wall was a real door and it was real storage.
But many of the works which were in
Moscow and many of the works which were in these regional museums
were burned and destroyed in the '30s,
and even as late as 1952.
I heard some of the museum directors who worked at the time in those
museums, what they were doing,
that they were taking the canvases from the stretchers,
hiding the canvases, and putting
them like sheets of paper and burning the stretchers.
Secrecy still remains over how much
of the avant-garde art was destroyed,
and how much the museum curators helped to save.
But a lot of it survives in this store in Moscow.
Here, I found another treasure trove of art,
much of which rarely sees the light of day,
by artists like Gustav Klutsis.
-I think that Klutsis
believed the new government very much.
He hoped that the world would really change.
Klutsis really wanted to save this
painting because the persecution against
the formalism began at the time and
he brought the work to the Tretyakov Gallery.
We had it in storage for a long time and, strictly speaking,
it has been preserved.
It's not just the art that struggled to survive through the Stalin years.
Many of the avant-garde artists
themselves were declared enemies of the state
and were victimised along with their work.
What happened to the artists, really, many of them,
as well as writers,
poets, scientists, went to Gulag or were executed.
But you should understand that this
had happened to every second or third
family in the country.
Like, if you would ask me, the two
grand-grandparents of my daughters
were victims of the regime.
One was shot in 24 hours as a German spy, and another one,
my grandfather, spent 20 years in Gulag.
Stalin's purges lasted for decades.
And many artists would not survive.
Nikolay Punin, the commissar who championed the avant-garde through
the revolutionary years, was arrested and taken away.
Many of the artists were exiled to
Gulag camps in the frozen reaches near the Arctic Circle,
making escape and communication almost impossible.
There, they were put to forced
labour in the name of the socialist cause.
-On the way to Vologda,
there is a transit point and Nikolay Nikolayevich managed to send a
letter from Vologda. He threw the
letter from a window of the carriage.
Somebody picked the letter up and, thank God, sent it to us.
In this letter, he wrote that he was at the transit point and now there
was the most difficult phase ahead to the final destination.
Where, he did not know.
When he arrived at this village in October,
the letters from there were arriving quickly enough afterwards.
But you could write only one letter in six months.
Frosts are very severe there.
Snowfalls are up to seven metres high.
And the harsh climate, of course,
influenced the health of Nikolay Nikolayevich.
He died on 21st of August at 12:20pm.
Others also suffered.
-There was the World's Fair of Arts in Paris,
and Klutsis designed the Soviet art pavilion.
He did it beautifully, and after
that it seemed that his career would only get better.
But when he came back to Russia,
the wave of repressions began
and, being Latvian by origin, he
fell under the millstones of history.
-Gustav Klutsis who
depicted Stalin, in my opinion, in the best possible manner,
and suddenly he was arrested as an enemy of the people.
This happened in January, 1938.
Along with the Klutsis art,
I was able to uncover these arrest files in KGB archives,
and not made public until 1990s Perestroika.
Klutsis, once driven through Moscow in Lenin's car,
was now vilified for being the first generation of Bolsheviks.
-I saw his famous
profile in the scary Gulag photos where he is shot from
the front and from the side.
Of course, my grandmother,
Valentina Kulagina, did her best to help him.
The life and art of those people
were truly devoted to the revolution and Stalin.
They couldn't understand what was going on.
Why is this happening to them?
The documents from the Soviet era also reveal the full horror of
suffering that prisoners were subjected to.
In order to gain confessions to trumped-up charges,
severe beatings were commonplace as well as starvation,
sleep deprivation, and psychiatric torture.
-There were very long interrogations.
I actually read these documents. It certainly was horrible.
Previously, they were written by hand and signed,
but then they were just printed on the typewriter and you can
see how he signs it.
It becomes physically hard for him to sign the papers.
On the night of February 26th,
when they sent the group of prisoners to be shot, he, in fact,
was not alive.
Klutsis died during the interrogations.
What saved Rodchenko, from my point of view, was that in the '30s,
when these political reasons were the main reasons for judging
the art, he was doing such things that were absolutely needed.
He was taking photography, because the magazine
USSR In Construction, which he co-operated,
was an international magazine,
printed in five languages.
You know, the Rodchenko photographs
were meant to be propaganda photographs,
and they show men hard at work and interesting, new-looking,
sort of modern angles on this canal construction,
and there are people playing instruments and so on.
But the White Sea canal was
publicised as a kind of socialist project.
"This camp is going to reform criminals and capitalists,
"and it's going to make them into good Soviet citizens."
And it was really a propaganda
response to criticism that came from the
West and from inside the Soviet Union about the camp system.
It was a show camp, if you will.
It was designed to be photographed, and artists were sent to paint it
and writers were sent to describe it.
The quality of his work helped him to find jobs.
But what was evil in this situation
was that not artistic reasons were
announced for separating good from bad,
but political and ideological reasons were announced.
That was a great harm to art
and to artists, because nobody could feel himself safe.
-I often say that I am a night-time person,
because, since my childhood, all my life happened at night.
My parents, father and mother, lived at night,
because all the arrests happened at night.
And when at night it was all quiet,
if someone walked in hard-heeled shoes,
you could hear him very well.
That is why we always listen whether someone was coming or not.
Suetin's time had come,
and his name appeared on the list of people to be arrested.
But first, the chair of the Union of Artists was consulted.
There was Suetin's last name,
and when he saw his surname he said,
"You've gone completely mad," and crossed his name out.
And it saved my father.
-Today, we might think
that there was no real threat for Petrov-Vodkin because,
first of all, he was seen as socially equal.
He wasn't an aristocrat, but
he was one of the workers and peasants.
Secondly, he was always quite cautious in political statements.
He never made any political declarations.
Several times in 1933 and 1934,
he applied to the authorities for permission to go abroad for health
reasons. But they never let him go.
Pyotr Konchalovsky also survived the purges.
You know, before I thought that he made a mistake.
I thought he should have gone to Paris, he should have gone...
He should have stayed there and he would have been known in the West.
And now I realise I was wrong.
He thought if he would stay here,
he would be more free to stay where he is
than to go in the West and be
unable to sell himself.
Another artist who finally remained in Russia was Kazimir Malevich.
Despite his work being banned, he escaped the purges...
..dying instead of cancer in 1935.
Meyerhold was strongly opposed to socialist realism,
and in the early 1930s, during Stalin's repressions,
his theatre was closed down.
He was arrested in June 1939,
and finally put to death by firing squad.
The photographer, Viktor Bulla, fell
victim himself to political change when he was shot by firing squad,
falsely charged with espionage.
Other artists who had collaborated
closely with the regime were lucky and survived.
In 1953, Pyotr Kotov was to gain his final state commission,
that portrait of Stalin.
-They came to pick up Kotov,
and they said, "Get Ready, Dr Ivanovich."
He basically gathered all his paints
and they took him to the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions
together with several other artists.
So in the end, he painted Stalin from nature,
but in a coffin, and he was, if the word fits, glad.
The art produced in the Revolutionary era of Russia has
outlived both the artists and the politics.
I think the legacy, while it existed, it was wonderful art,
it was young art that didn't feel that any borders do exist.
And so they
presented wonderful examples of this.
It's a change but it's a great example,
which brought wonderful masterpieces in the collection of Russian art and
made Russian art once again famous and good.
Avant-garde always fights classical museums.
But avant-garde inside always wants
to be part of this museum in the future.
Even one of the most iconic works was once mothballed,
hidden away in a potato crate.
It's now worth millions and hangs in the State Hermitage
alongside da Vinci and Rembrandt.
Malevich's Black Square was a story, an anecdote.
Nobody really knew who he was and it was all hidden and destroyed.
And in all the intelligentsia circles, it was known.
So he was the myth.
He was a mythological figure himself,
as well as many other people like Kandinsky and so on.
In contemporary art, of course, when it was possible and the Soviet Union
was starting to collapse,
there were artists trying to come back to these stories and,
you know, non-conformist became now official art
and the best art of the country.
It's not any more prohibited fruit that you have to strive for.
It's just part of the history now.
All this big exhibition of Russian
avant-garde in New York, London, Paris,
of a certain period was connected with
some ideas of changes in Russia.
It was connected with these changes.
The country's not changed totally, but there were some changes and
avant-garde was the banner of these changes.
What the artists created over 100 years ago
was far more than just a utopian dream.
It's outlived Russian socialism and
its influence surrounds us today.
It was a generation of artists who
produced some of the most breathtaking
images and who went through and
experienced some of the most terrible times,
and in a sense,
their heroic struggle both with the past and with the present,
as they experienced it in Soviet Russia, is an inspiration today.
Maybe, as such a concept,
it could be and it is of interest,
but also I think that everybody understands
that that was a political coincidence
that the state supported this,
because at that moment that was
the only way of spreading their ideology around.
So I don't think that anybody wants this to be repeated again.
In their pursuit of a new art for a new world,
the artists of the Russian revolutionary period
have left a lasting legacy which has transformed the world of art.
I have destroyed the ring of the horizon
and escaped from the circle of things.
From the horizon ring which confines the artist
and the forms of nature.
Forms move and are born,
and we make newer and newer discoveries.
And what I reveal to you, do not conceal.
And it is absurd to force our age
into the old forms of time past.
Directed by acclaimed film-maker Margy Kinmonth, this bold and exciting feature documentary encapsulates a momentous period in the history of Russia and the Russian avant-garde.
Drawing on the collections of major Russian institutions, contributions from contemporary artists, curators and performers, and personal testimony from the descendants of those involved, the film brings the artists of the Russian avant-garde to life. It tells the stories of artists like Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich and others - pioneers who flourished in response to the utopian challenge of building a new art for a new world, only to be broken by implacable authority after 15 short years.
Stalin's rise to power marked the close of this momentous period, consigning the avant-garde to obscurity. Yet the Russian avant-garde continues to exert a lasting influence over art movements up to the present day. The film confirms this, exploring the fascination that these colourful paintings, inventive sculptures and propaganda posters retain over the modern consciousness 100 years on.
It was filmed entirely on location in Moscow, St Petersburg and London, with access to the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Russian Museum, the State Hermitage Museum and in co-operation with the Royal Academy of Arts, London. The film features paintings previously banned and unseen for decades, and masterpieces which rarely leave Russia.
Contributors include museum directors Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky and Zelfira Tregulova, and film director Andrei Konchalovsky. The film also features the voices of Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, James Fleet, Eleanor Tomlinson and Daisy Bevan.