Mary Kinmonth’s visually striking documentary examines the avant-garde art movement in Russia which emerged alongside the Revolution. Both shared similar aims, to sweep away the old order and create something new. Many of these young artists supported the Revolution and allowed their work to be co-opted for political means. However in the years afterwards as Stalin came to power and began the purges they would become enemies of the state and their work would be hidden away or in some cases destroyed.
The avant-garde movement was already underway before the Czarist regime fell but the Revolution gave it impetus. Young visual artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Kazamir Malevich rejected the traditional European influences on Russian art and embraced the extremities of the avant-garde. They found an ally in Lenin who recognised the power of the image in country where most of the population was illiterate. “Art is the most powerful means of propaganda available to the socialist cause” said Lenin who allowed a certain amount of freedom as long as they obeyed the party line and did not belittle the Revolution.
There are ground-breaking advancements in photography through the work of Alexander Rodchenko and in film two of the most influential directors of the 20th century emerge, Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera) and Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin). Indeed, Kinmonth’s interest in making Revolution: New Art for a New World came from seeing the storming of the Winter Palace sequence in Eisenstein’s October 17: Ten Days that Shook the World and finding out it was a myth designed to please the Bolshevik regime. Eisenstein in effect was doing what John Ford would later do with the Western. Printing the legend.
Having worked in Russia directing a film for the South Bank Show about the origins of The Nutcracker ballet Kinmonth has used her contacts in the arts world to gain access to paintings long unavailable for public viewing. These artworks appear alongside archive footage, photographs, interviews with art historians, and readings by actors (including among others Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, and Daisy Bevan). Location filming gives us a sense of time and place as well as the social conditions under which this work was done. An amusing role playing sequence performed by young art students recreates the arguments over Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ paintings, literally paintings of black squares to which the viewer is invited to find their own meaning.
Kinmonth also speaks to descendants of the artists, some of whom have devastating stories to tell about the effects of Stalin’s purges on their family. Some fled the country, others survived by amending their art to suit the demands of the state, while others faced the gulag or execution. Sergei Eisenstien’s assistant-editor on October 1917 was a certain Josef Stalin who personally oversaw the movie’s final cut and made sure there was nobody resembling in any way shape or form his political rival Leon Trotsky. Film director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train, Tango & Cash) talks about his grandfather, the painter Pyotr Konchalovsky, who turned away from the avant-garde and focused on more traditional forms of painting in his later years.
Revolution: New Art for a New World is fascinating to watch during our own current period of political uncertainty, especially with new media and technology clearly being used for propaganda purposes. Great artworks may well outlast the society in which they are created, but this illuminating documentary suggests they are better understood together.
A Foxtrot Films Production
Revolution: New Art for a New World
On DVD from 3rd April
Directed by Mary Kinmonth
Running time 85 minutes