Saturday, 23 September 2017


The Barbican, London
(Another exhibition reviewed after it closed. This one was about the future, so we can now tell how well it did.)

“Once considered niche, science fiction is now all around us”
- From the show’s opening text

All About Awe

Perhaps wisely, this journey through science fiction does not claim to map every street and alley of the unknown. In fact it’s something of a whistle-stop tour, with most of the making sense of the sights left up to the viewer. So, even more than usual, this essay might be tangential to the exhibition it’s ostensibly about. (Certainly, it will be partial. I’m almost entirely uninterested in seeing film props and costumes out of their context. It’s like hearing a few notes wrenched from their symphony. Worse, the nods to interactive exhibits seem somewhat half-hearted.)

Plus, following an exhibition devoted to science fiction in general, what follows generalises. For every rule it gives there will be exceptions, possibly multiples of them. Nevertheless, what we’re interested in here is tendencies, in following the through line. Exceptions matter, but so do rules. In other words, in an exhibition based on the popularity of SF, what follows largely focuses on popular SF.

In a science fiction show, you might expect things to start with Jules Verne. Though this one never really stops with him. It cites his “dual emphasis on scientific discovery and romantic adventure” as the recipe for the genre, handed down to successive generations. And it’s the recipe’s family secret, that sprinkling of the rational, that gives it the taste.

Later it adds “the genre explores the significant transformations and paradigm shift in society brought on by the Industrial Revolution”. This improves things. We’re never going to get a definition of science fiction which satisfies more than three people, so we’re better off looking to historical explanations. And the statement’s true as far as it goes. After the Industrial Revolution science and engineering saturated our world. Anything before then does seem at most proto-SF.

But is it a useful distinction? Relabel a flying carpet an anti-gravity belt and in that moment you’ve transformed fantasy into SF. As the Doctor says in ’Girl In the Fireplace’, when asked to explain what a “spatio-temporal hyperlink” is - “I just made it up. Didn't want to say ‘Magic Door’.” And SF is essentially a genre for people who don’t like saying “magic door”.

Worse, the arbitrary insistence on science as a required ingredient is often attached to to an arbitrary insistence on ‘proper’ science fiction, with everything discounted that doesn’t fit some narrow schema. It’s like a botanist devising a method to categorise only geraniums as flowers, while claiming it a coincidence they’re the one he likes to smell. The worst thing about this is that the genre gets approached as a raiding party would a storehouse, aiming to seize and make off with it’s greatest treasures, rather than seeing it as having its own ecosystem.

And arguably that relationship is not even being caught the right way up. ‘Alien’ (featured here) was a gothic horror, set in space not so no-one would scream but so no-one would ask awkward questions about where the monster came from. (Even if its own director later became confused about that.) Science fiction grew up under the oppressive shadow of the Gothic, and a recurrent source of tension was whether it would escape its gravity or not.

Arguably its relationship to the Industrial Revolution is most often to the one Gothic had to the Enlightenment. It provides a newly needed haven for irrationality, a place for the now-banished thoughts to go, where cities flew and dinosaurs still roamed if you said they did. That ostensible scientific rationalism, inasmuch as it did anything, offered a quasi plausibility which aided suspension of disbelief. It was putting sweets in a capsule so could pass them off as medicine.

As a child obsessed with science fiction in the Britain of the Seventies, all I wanted from it was an antidote to my humdrum suburban existence. If this is the known, there must be the unknown. If daily life is bound, there must the unbound. Assumptions soon followed by the questions – where can I find it? And then where can I get more of it? A subjective perspective, but one I’m willing to bet is fairly typical.

Jasper Reeves kicks off his Telegraph review, with the ‘Jurassic Park’ clip – and the “sheer awe” on Laura Dern’s face as she spies her first dinosaur (still above). Because of course the dinosaur’s instrumental, a means by which to stir that awe. Science fiction is at root about finding ways to put that face on you. Its magazines were called things like ‘Amazing Stories’, ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ and ‘Science Wonder Stories’. The covers to which were rarely adorned with promises to adhere strictly to Newtonian laws.

In short, science fiction is normally not concerned with being rational but precisely with going mad. One of the cigarette card collection ‘Vignettes Viellemard L’an 2000’ (1901), ‘A Croquet Party’, shows people play croquet underwater. It’s the combination of strange and familiar, the billowing dress with the diving helmet, which makes it winning. Or… well whatever is going on in the cover of ‘Amazing Stories’ 1 (1926, below).

But of course those images are in the show. It’s similar to the Barbican’s earlier ‘Watch Me Move’ animation exhibition in it’s sense of sheer sensory overload – science fiction truly is all around you. Perhaps it even exceeds its predecessor, through not being staged in the cavernous main gallery space but cramming itself into the smaller Curve. Exhibit cases jostle with multi-imaged LED screens, while clips from films play overhead.

Sometimes pressing proximity makes individual exhibits hard to see and hear. But the upside is that this throw-it-all-in approach is carried through to content. Even as we read that restrictive rational explanation, clips are playing of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘One Million Years BC’. Neither of which are actually science fiction by that definition. But on the other hand, who cares? A journey through science fiction shouldn’t just take you through the respectable suburbs. It’s a genre which encompasses ’Stalker’ and toy plastic robots, and the show does the right thing in spanning that.

Judging a Genre By Its Cover

Compounded to which, the more of this exhibition I saw, the more convinced I became that this was primarily a visual medium. Popular science fiction was about narratives only in the sense that they allowed a framework to insert images. If those pulp magazines were filled with text stories, what sold them was their lurid covers and crazy illustrations. Even John Campbell, editor of ’Astounding Science Fiction’ and seen by many as the bold Martin Luther figure who singlehandedly raised the standards of magazine SF, regularly asked for stories to match the ready-supplied cover art. Once more visual media was widespread – comics, films, TV shows and later computer games – the pulps had their role usurped. But even those successors were still a little too in hock to narrative. SF was best seen in slideshow mode.

Take the classic ‘Mars Attacks’ trading cards (1964, example above). They’re numbered, have brief narratives on their backs and follow a loose trajectory which roughly resembles a story. (There are Martians. They attack us. They unleash torments on us. We counter-attack. We win.) But what their format really allows them to do is cut straight to the next cool image. And frankly ‘Independence Day’ (1996) would have been a whole less dull if they’d followed that lead, and just showed the smashed-up White House while not bothering with those cliched characters and their tiresome sub-plots.

(It’s also a further example, as if we needed one, of how thin a veneer the science is in SF. The Martians, which become the central characters by default, are effectively depicted as skulls in plexiglass helmets. They’re Death in SF trappings. They unleash Biblical plagues upon us. (Including ones of giant flies and another of giant spiders. It’s not clear why the spiders go for us and not their more traditional diet of flies, but there you go.))

Though if SF was about images, there was never a house style. Both Frank R Paul and Virgil Finlay illustrated for the pioneering ‘Amazing Stories’. That’s Paul’s cover up above, and it’s not surprising to see him adorning the first issue. Both in composition and imagery, he’s considered as pioneering if not defining. His penchant was for dramatic depictions of technology, often at vast scale, with human figures marginalised if present at all. You’re not surprised to hear he had a sideline in technical drawing, or that human figures were not his forte.

While his art looks suitably awesome the lack of sophistication also makes it engaging, slightly fannish the better to be engaged with by fans. Whereas Virgil Finlay’s more accomplished work often foregrounded the (human or alien) figure, building it up with stippled contours with an effect nothing short of sumptuous. See his ’Spacesuit’ (1956), above. It made for a great double act.

But the predominant tendency was to sharp, clear-cut images, in some ways the equivalent of the text stories’ direct and functional prose. Brian Aldiss wrote in his SF history ’Trillion Year Spree’ “the stories were built like diagrams, and made clear like diagrams.” And so was the art. Arthur Radebaugh’s newspaper strip series ‘...Closer Than We Think!’ (1958/63, example above) even use descriptive arrows.

Cities Going Up

When the show promises to focus on “where mankind was headed: upwards!” it’s not immediately clear whether they mean space rockets or city towers. But perhaps that’s as it should be, for the future city is a trope just as verticality is a motif of SF. Most obviously the future city is the antithesis of the current city – the congestion and pollution after a Fairy Godmother has waved her wand over it. But more widely the awe-inspiring city is the counter to, and predicated upon, the Romantic evocation of the sublime in nature.

The first skyscraper went up sometime between 1849 and 1885, depending on who you talk to. But any of those dates seem akin, or immediately prior to, the gestation period of classic SF. ‘Metropolis’ originated in a 1924 visit director Fritz Lang made to New York. His reaction, “the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize”, described a template which lasted decades. Future cities are often lightly but brightly coloured, as if lit up from within, or even pure white.

Yet even as it builds on something already in existence, the Future City itself starts from scratch. Any actual city you’ve ever been to is an accrued composite of different buildings, almost always an amalgam of different eras. Whereas the future city always has a unified look, any residue of the present done away with by that magic wand. But it often goes further than this. Many of the films shown in this section essentially make the city a character in it’s own right, the pioneering ’Metropolis’ (1927, still above) even naming the film after it.

And the spaciousness of city fits well with the sleek, slipstreamed lines of SF art, for example ‘Clean Air Park’ by Fred Freeman (1959, above). That sheer verticality is sometimes implied to have transcended even gravity. Many of the images up above are unconcerned with natural viewpoints, we’re simply looking in from whatever angle best conveys the scene. Whereas in Freeman’s example, we have three corollaries for our elevated perspective. There’s the plane, the monorail (with passengers’ faces at the windows), but most of all the terrace on the left – those heads’ view-spot almost matching our own. In the future even everyday folk will have a semi-omnipotent God’s-eye view.

Cities are often found not just full of flying stuff but floating in their own right, particularly in ‘Air Wonder Stories’ (“Science aviation stories”, Hugo Gernsback’s sequel to ‘Amazing Stories’, 1929/55). They’re frequently held aloft by whirring rotor blades, like a helicopter but with suburbs. Or failing that they can be under the sea, the better to allow for floating people or equipment.

The show comments how “the idea that the future was linked to commercial innovation led to the concept of ‘tomorrow’ being widely used in advertising… providing the newest and most indispensable commodities that capitalism could imagine.” Sometimes the connection is so oblique as to be confounding. What mind thought the way to advertise Seagram’s Canadian whisky was futuristic cityscapes? But adverts such as Bohm’s ’From Airport to Town Through Monorail’ and Shell’s ’Through the City Of Tomorrow Without a Stop’ (both above) look like SF images with the logo of a company sponsor appended, the future as product upgrade.

Okay, so everything floating, in perfect alignment and gleaming white… if that starts to look a little like paradise, then technological utopianism could almost be defined as turning heaven from a function of space into one of time. And yet the line between utopia and dystopia seemed strangely thin. ‘Metropolis’, which did so much to define the trope, was a clear-cut dystopia. The workers are downtrodden at the same time the walkways are raised. The domineering building in the centre of the still above was called the New Tower of Babel, and the film is stuffed with catacombs, hallucinations and other Gothic tropes.

While a Penguin edition of Orwell’s well-known dystopia ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ gave it a skyscraper cover (above) which could easily be modelled on the Barbican complex we’re in. As mentioned another time, the future city of ‘THX 1138’ becomes so antiseptically white it becomes dystopian in it’s own right.

Two parallel displays of magazine covers are helpfully labelled as utopian and dystopian. And yet the same gleaming towers are in each. It’s just on one side they stand boldly upright, while on the other they’re being toppled. (See Paul’s cover for ’Wonder Stories’, 1934, above). We can rise. Or we can rise and fall. Those would seem to be the options. Providing fans got their requisite dose of awe, perhaps it didn’t matter much.

Its Roots In Rule

Primitive societies often conceive of the future as behind us, as it creeps up on us unseen. SF takes precisely the opposite tack, insistently setting it firmly in our sights, straight ahead. Yet a list of things SF was by and large unable to predict would be long. It wasn’t even able to foretell its own future, for the most part. It could hold a distorting mirror to its present, that was all. Switch the TV on for a random film, and it’s often easier to date it to an era if it’s science fiction than if it’s contemporary set.

Pretty much every day I go to work among a group of different genders and sexual preferences, and from different races. I expect you do too, and I expect neither of us think about it very much. But that diversity, which we take so for granted, for most of SF’s history either lay unimagined or consigned to the most ruinous dystopia. Women, for example, don’t just not show up in the workplace – they don’t appear at all for much of the time. And when they do they’re mostly (in the words of the 'Mars Attacks' card above) prize captives for aliens to grab. But let’s focus on race, as it has a special place here.

After the Industrial Revolution the show comes up with a second origin story for the genre, which seems more on the money. For science fiction’s roots lie less in the science than the colonialism of the Nineteenth century. The more telling example is ‘An Explorer’ also from the cigarette card set ‘Vignettes Viellemard L’an 2000’ (1901) if somewhat less charming than the previous example. The titular European explorer buzzes above an African village in his propellor plane, frightening the superstitious natives. They’re depicted, unsurprisingly, the standard racist colonialist way. But the plane is futuristic looking, the colonialist image already morphing into something SF.

In an irony, this means a genre so concerned with the fantastical had its roots in actual accounts. Tim Youngs has argued 
“Explorers, missionaries, soldiers, colonial administrators, scientists and others produced accounts of their experiences… Their writings should not be seen as entirely separate from the novels or poetry of the time. Explorers and novelists read some of the same books and one another’s works.” Those accounts were often popular in themselves, such as Henry Morton Stanley’s ’How I Met Livingstone’ (1872) and ’Through the Dark Continent’ (1878), which coined that once popular term for Africa. But they also sparked a rise in popular adventure stories.

The point is less that fiction was being marshalled into cheerleading for colonialism, even if that was often an effect. (Ideology replicates itself without trying, most of the time.) In fact it was driven as much by discovering the ruins of ancient civilisations as it was by encountering living cultures. The point is more that, by opening up and throwing a spotlight onto the liminal, colonialism created space for story settings. So it led to a literature which could place the fantastical on the periphery, while having a ready-made means for encountering it.

It’s contradictory nature was to evoke the strange, exotic and otherly, whilst simultaneously insisting that we had a place there. This is most exemplified by the trope that explorers were taken as the return or the reincarnation of the foretold ancient ones (used in H. Rider Haggard’s first two main books, ’King Solomon’s Mines’, 1885 and ’She’ 1886). Colonialism came with an inbuilt futurism, “we are more advanced” easily eliding into “we are the future”.

But as colonialism was also expansionist that periphery was forever pushed against. Africa, Asia and hazily located ‘lost islands’ were invoked as story settings by the accounts of explorers, only to be surpassed as soon as they returned with their confoundedly complete maps. This didn’t happen in a neat or schematic way. Edgar Rice Burroughs starting writing with a series set on Mars (John Carter) in 1912, followed by the Africa-based Tarzan books later the same year, then another series set inside a hollow earth (Pellucidor) two years later. But it was the general direction of travel, and one circumstances mandated.

Antarctica would prove the last stand. Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ (1936, above) locates his Elder Things there, inspired by a South Pole expedition a few years earlier. Yet it’s written with the conceit of being a warning, of deterring further expeditions – which perhaps sums up the irony.

Whereas Arthur Radebaugh’s painting ‘City in Antarctica’ (1960), is not of Lovecraft’s ancient city, strange and foreboding, it’s very existence enough to shake your sanity from you. Conversely, it’s a human centre. A handy label explains how nuclear power dispels that pesky cold. Those liminal spaces where the strange hung out have now become inhabited by us. Yet Lovecraft was already setting up the next step, as he associated his ancient civilisation with aliens. After Earth-based adventures quite literally ran out of space, the solution was… well, space. The colonialist’s pith helmet soon transformed into a space helmet.

But then, to expedite the process, three things happen in parallel. There’s an emerging criticism of colonialism, there’s colonialism itself taking softer forms relying more on economic dominance than naked land grabs. And there’s America, itself a former colonial subject, becoming the dominant global power. So SF’s more metaphorical take allowed for a figleaf; as sensibilities got more delicate, those savage black tribesmen could be recoloured a decoy green or substitute blue. But in the same step science fiction exacerbated the distinction between savage and civiliser, put them more than poles apart.

Dreaming Of a White Future

It should be said that SF scarcely stands alone, much art of this era is whitewashed. If America was a multiracial nation, you wouldn’t know it from its received self images. New York street scenes, for example, are often depicted with all white faces. For a long period music histories tended to assume black people kicked off genres which white folk went on to develop. More in touch with their animal instincts, they could hit on things we couldn’t. But without us those things stayed in stasis. It was us who turned their twelve-bar blues into the more sophisticated rock music, and so on. (This is such blatant nonsense you might wonder how people could ever believe it. But they didn’t, they assumed it.) 

But combining this whitewashing with futurism has a potentate effect. The techno-utopians were dreaming of a white future, where along with pollution and litter black people were consigned to the past.

Which is why it’s a good, if not an obvious, choice to include Sun Ra’s 1974 film ’Space Is the Place’ (1974, still above). Back-to-Africa movements, however understandable, always risked playing along, trapping of black people in the past, while his Afro-futurism did the opposite. The film portrays him both as an alien and as visiting royalty. His UFO takes off again with black folks aboard.

(Reviews concentrated more on Soda_Jerk’s “video cycle” ‘Astro Black’ (2007/10). It’s best conceit was a formal one, presenting the video in two screens to match the twin turntables of the hip-hop DJ. But it’s insertion of SF images into hi-hop videos, such a flying saucers placed behind Public Enemy, became an over-elaborated gag, an overlong YouTube video. The juxtaposition of the musical theme as greeting in ‘Close Encounters’ with Sun Ra, on a nearby film screen, seemed more attention-grabbing for being accidental.)

Friends and Relations

When a show’s on a subject as vast and sprawling as SF, you inevitably come away with a wish list of things you’d have liked more focus on. Let’s focus on just one. What might be the connections to Modernism?

Modernism was, like SF, about fashioning a new art for the future, with one main group in each even calling themselves the Futurists. Modernism, like SF, had a strangely polarised relationship with science and engineering, sometimes embracing it, sometimes actively siding with it’s irrational other. Modernism, like SF, was reliant on colonialism, Picasso for African masks, Gauguin for primitive Tahiti. Modernism, like SF, was a multi-media movement which always seemed to centre visual art even when it didn’t intend to.

You can scarcely look at the clean lines of those future cities and not think of Corbusier’s plans to raze and replace downtown Paris. Or Berenice Abbot and the New York photographers of the Barbican's earlier ‘Constructing Worlds’ exhibition.

And perhaps that’s not surprising when the chronologies run so closely. If we follow the show and take Verne as the start of the classic SF era, then we could reasonably pinpoint his ‘From the Earth to the Moon’(1865) as the starting gun. The first Impressionist exhibition was a mere two years earlier.

Yet, to quote Aldiss again:
“Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism exerted no influence.” Modernism moved away from straightforward depictions of things, even if this wasn’t the linear march into abstraction that some like to imagine. Whereas SF art often moved in almost the opposite direction, a hyper-real slickness which culminates in the endlessly empty grandeur of Chris Foss’ airbrushed book covers. True, the slickness could lend a deadpan quality to the absurd images, like Escher’s etchings. But that was a different path to Modernism.

As ever, exceptions apply. Perhaps the closest connection to SF was not Italian but Russian Futurist art, coming out in the open with the Constructivist look to Protazanov’s ‘Aelita Queen of Mars’ (1924, still above.) But for the most part SF art meets Modernism, and abruptly stops, at Pop Surrealism. For this reason the connection doesn’t seem to be a rich one, as that tween-stool genre so frequently looks simply trite. Their paths cross so seldom you figure they must have been avoiding one another, like two siblings who dislike admitting their attachment.

But exceptions to Aldiss’ rule apply, such as Arthur Radebaugh and Chesley Bonestell’s aerospace industry adverts of 1957/60. ‘Probing Beyond Present Knowledge’ uses almost Suprematist abstractions, presumably to better attract applications from the alpha scorers.

And things became different after the classic era of both traditions, when they were less keen on their own identity. The Sixties ’New Worlds’ featured illustrations by Pop Artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. The two most influential SF films of the Seventies, which defined rival aesthetics which remain with us today, were ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Alien’. And both got their looks in large part from Jodorowsky’s abortive ‘Dune’. (Described here dryly as “widely regarded as one of the greatest SF films never made”.) And Jodorowsky was strongly Surrealist influenced, to the point of wanting to cast Dali. Yet his script happily played fast and loose with Herbert’s classic novel, while he cheerfully claims never to have read.

Like There’s No Tomorrow

To go back to that opening text, science fiction is no longer a minority pursuit of geeks and enthusiasts, it’s gone mainstream. (By this point the argument is self-evident. If it hadn’t, there’d hardly be an exhibition about it at the Barbican.) And yet fandom remains.

It goes unremarked on by this show, but in fact fandom was one way SF was genuinely pioneering. It engendered the first fandom, kicking off a concept that then spread to other areas. Nowadays we perhaps tend to focus on the negatives of fandom, seeing it as the possessive lover who doesn’t like their significant other fraternising with anyone else, however casually. (And seeing as we are all fans, there may well be some displaced self-criticism there.) But it can also mean a dynamic, not merely a transmittive, relationship between creator and audience. As such, like the genre it’s a fan of, fandom is not monolithic but multitudinous. But, as with the genre it’s a fan of, let’s generalise a little.

I expect most people reading this will know of the Puppygate farrago, where a bunch of disgruntled far right dickheads tried to game the Hugo awards. (Their claim was that SF had a social justice bias which required correcting. A more accurate explanation might be that, with science fiction having grown up without them, a bunch of man babies threw a tantrum.) And fandom rightly responded to their overt racism and misogyny by collectively stymying them. Which fits with my personal experience that science fiction fans tend to be at least socially liberal.

But fandom largely remains the preserve of white, well-off Westerners. And, as is so common in modern political debates, so furious were the anti-Puppy arguments over racism and misogyny that no attention was paid to class. Which tends to be something of a general blind spot these days. But then that might have a particular truth for fans.

Things have moved on from the days of Asimov’s ’Foundation’ trilogy, where SF was overtly a literature about an intellectual elite for an intellectual elite. But it remains an exclusive club where the alpha brains get to meet. As is common with the privileged, fans are often keener to imagine they got their way through their own efforts than their privilege. And the fact that they were proven to be ahead of the curve, that everyone finally caught up with their once-eccentric interests, is just further proof they were right all along.

As an example of the type SF fandom attracts, many exhibits in this show come from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. And Silicon Valley entrepreneurs notoriously see themselves as Ozymandian types who should be given the freedom to techno-fix the world, while the job of the rest of us is just to get out of the way of their bright bulbs lest we stop them lighting up. And SF is popular partly as a sandbox for their elevated imaginings, where they work out what the future should be so they could let the rest of us know.

These ideas are concerning because, rather than the fantasises of cranks they seem zeitgeisty. Or, to put it another way, “no longer niche”. However what’s curious is that, at the very same time, techno-futurism never seemed on shakier ground. As said over the Seventies return of Quatermass the world of that era seemed contrapedal, which became reflected in an SF endlessly flipping between utopian and dystopian. Now, it seems, that coin has landed. And it’s tails.

Time was, when people would suggest that the Gothic was tied to a particular historical period and that SF had superseded it. But, like the Titans of Greek myth, popular SF has been swallowed whole by its older sibling, Gothic horror. Which then swelled up to apocalyptic proportions. That essential awe can now come only when accompanied by fear and revulsion.

Films are probably the most popular SF medium today. And for every ’Star Trek’ there’s multiple apocalypses of one kind or another. Even Gothic’s quasi-Medievalism is now everywhere, the Breughel painting appearing in ’It Comes At Night’ or the most Medieval laboratory you’ve seen lately showing up in ’Alien: Covenant’ (above). Perhaps that opening quote is wrong. It’s the Gothic which is all around us. Like ’Mars Attacks’ or ’Silence in the Library’ its skull just resides inside that SF space helmet (below).

Which is something of a paradox. We have a self-assured technocratic elite whose interests and assumptions have effectively gone mainstream, where limiting their operations would be widely seen as folly. Yet they operate inside a society that has almost completely given up on the notion of a better future. You couldn’t write a fictional society like that, it would just look like you were contradicting yourself. And yet that society is the one we live through…

Saturday, 16 September 2017


Brighton Dome, Thurs 7th + Fri 8th Sept

Stephen Merritt (aka the Magnetic Fields) is another classic example of someone I’ve always intended to check out, only for them to finally show up in Brighton. Though this isn’t starting in the shallow end. The latest release, ’50 Song Memoir’, is an account of his life to date, delivered at a rate of one song per year. And he takes the bold decision to play the five-disc affair in it’s entirety, split over two nights.

He tells us from the start “autobiography need not be the same thing as truth,” and concludes in a closing song he’s probably remembered it all wrong anyway. And that kind of subjectivity holds sway. Despite numbers being pinned to years, there’s very little pastiching the music of past eras. And when such a thing is done, it’s because such a sound crossed his idiosyncratic path. So, for example, the song about his first band is self-parodically lo-fi simply because that’s how he remembers them. (He plays the same guitar he used for their sessions. Or at least that’s what he remembers.)

In fact, it’s perhaps the first of the four parts which works the best, focusing tightly on his cloistered childhood world. Childhood is always going to lend itself to an idiosyncratic perspective on things, and this is abetted by an eventful upbringing courtesy of a dotty hippy mother. (Including being taken to a Jefferson Airplane concert at five. I got Warwick castle.) One song’s called ’I Think I’ll Make Another World’, a childhood impulse I remember all too well, another starts with the line “My Mother found herself another jerk.”

All of which is emphasised by childhood bedroom built around him on stage, which stays up for the duration. A neat idea with the unfortunate side-effect of blocking out most of the other musicians. (Though the motivation might have been part practical, for Merritt’s hearing has become sensitive.)

This does mean proceedings dip a little as he ups and leaves home. Perhaps subject matter steers closer to standard song fare. But the main obstacle for me was the degree to which New Wave synth-pop intrudes. Which Merritt was much taken with back in the day. While I, despite being much the same age, decidedly wasn’t. (I saw those silly hairstyles and plastic beats on ’Top of the Pops’ and quickly concluded I preferred the old Romantics.)

It should be said this was more to do with genre than quality, so may have been a problem just for me. For a fifty-song album run right through, there’s precious little filler – exquisite melodies replacing one another as if on a conveyor belt. Overall, the music’s baroque chamber pop built around his even baritone voice. There’s a spaciousness to it, quite unlike the tightness of a rock band. And while there’s a signature sound most numbers managed to find their own identity. Musicians swapped instruments quite bewilderingly, quite often mid-song. Instruments sometimes so unusual they were pretty bewildering in and of themselves.

Despite all this chronologising (if there’s such a word), there’s something time-defiant about Merritt’s music. Synth pop aside, it’s a world in which everything in rock music since Elvis just happened in some other room. The matching of urbane lyrics to hummable tunes seems to stem more from the days of Cole Porter. The Dome theatre’s… uh… theatre-like-ness makes for a fitting venue for proceedings, but the ideal one would probably be some old-style Music Hall. (He flashes an image of such a place, from small-town California, up on the screen before one of the songs.)

The anti-spontaneity of the set is underlined if not made a point of principle, with Merritt’s twixt-song talk as polished and prepared as his vocals. Even the interval is precisely delineated, determined to last for precisely seventeen minutes. While the almost remorselessly pointed lyrics are frequently laugh-out-loud funny. (That staple rock theme of surfing is treated with “Boring people go surfing/ In those horrible shorts/ What’s the purpose of surfing?/ I believe there is none.”)

Rock music relies upon songwriting but tends to disguise it, the better to evoke spontaneity. And so songwriting becomes like seams on clothing, a necessity best worn concealed on the inside. Which can make it appealing to hear someone parading the musical equivalent of a fine-cut suit.

Leaving me disregarding one of my own prime pieces of advice – beware projects. In fact Merritt seems to do his thing best when writing to order, even when it’s a matter of him giving orders to himself – a one-man Tin Pan Alley. He’s the guy who wrote the self-describing ’69 Love Songs’ and ’i’, fourteen songs starting with that letter, helpfully arranged in alphabetical order. In fact the rock auteur in poised expectation of genius striking, that’s the sort of thing he’d probably dash off another pithy put-down over.

And that “other jerk” his Mother found? “He clearly hated Neu! and Can.” A line not just delivered as a sure-fire sign of jerkdom, but as he sang it Merritt crossed himself in memory of recently departed Holger Czukay. The gesture of an anti-jerk, if ever there was.

A song about the family cat, from Edinburgh...

Royal Festival Hall, London, Sat 9th Sept

Lubomyr Melnyk is Ukriainian pianist performing as part of the tenth anniversary of Erased Tapes. (A label of which I know almost nothing, save the CDs they cheerily handed to us punters.) He’s often associated with Minimalism, and true enough he does eschew dynamics for the mesmeric force of repeating patterns.

Though to me his music doesn’t have the pulsing quality of Minimalism, and while it’s effect on the listener might have some of it’s serenity it’s more at turns reflective and rhapsodic. His own prefered term is continuous music, having written a treatise under that title which I can’t claim to have read. It would be impossible to hear his music as a series of individual notes, with it’s loops and cascades, and so much sustain it becomes slightly hard to figure when he’s finished playing.

I tend to think of it more as a latter-day form of Romanticism. Where real-world analogues at Minimalism only really work at the extremes of scale, Melnyk’s sound does seem more attuned to water flowing or trees rustling. Though I’m not sure whether he’d appreciate the analogy, as between pieces he was keen to stress the metaphysical nature of music. (However much I liked the muisc, I did find his twixt-song talk rambling and somewhat hippy-dippy. Would that he had Stephen Merritt’s concision!)

The gig started at the somewhat unusual time of half five, which actually proved to be ideal – with the sun just starting to go down, after the bustle of the day was done. It reminded me of the way Indian ragas are written for specific times of day.

From the Lattitude festival…

The Ropetackle Centre, Shoreham, Fri 15th Sept

Having not only seen Martin and Eliza Carthy separately before, but even at this very venue, I can confirm that the father and daughter combo is the dream ticket.

There are those who think old folk songs need to be spruced up for modern ears. Whereas, rather than ribbons and bows, Martin Carthy wraps his songs up in brown paper and string. By the opening number, he was already singing about only having bread and water to eat, and only a chair as furniture.

It works because of his idiosyncrasies, which not only take time to work on you but could possibly pass you by were you not in the right mood. He’s like a radio station where not only is the signal faint, but the static is part of the process. A family accompaniment amplifies the signal, draws something out, while not losing any of the idiosyncrasies. The points where they sang together sounded extra special, the differences in their voices just accentuating the combination.

Eliza sounded mildly exultant in explaining that one number was a not a genuine folk traditional but a broadside ballad – an early version of Tin Pan Alley, where rush-written songs printed on cheap paper were sold in the street. Chasing the song rather than some chimerical notion of authenticity clearly appealed to her, as well it should.

Songs almost entirely came from the new album ’The Moral of the Elephant’. And if I didn’t like every number equally, they managed to work musical variety into what was a maximum of two voices and two instruments. My favourite moment was the segue between ’Grand Conversation on Napoleon’ and ’Moral of the Elephant’, which closed the first half.

’Queen Caraboo’, not from the Ropetackle…

Friday, 8 September 2017


Royal Academy, London
(A sequel to something started here)

“The Bolsheviks could not have retained power for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years, without the most rigorous and truly iron discipline”
- Lenin

The Peasants Are Not Gruntled

On reaching this show’s ’Fate of the Peasants’ section, smartly hung so it’s the first work you encounter, Boris Grigoriev’s ’Land of Peasants’ (1917, below) gives the most guarded of welcomes. There’s the golden corn fields, stretching over the horizon, which would later become a staple of socialist realist kitsch. Yet they’re placed to the back of an elongated frame, with a whole lot of figures arranged between us and them. Three adult faces, abetted by two children, push themselves to the front of the composition, not in bright peasant colours but black, white and brown. Hands clutch implements tightly enough to make fists.

While his ’Old Dairy Woman’ of the same year abets the title character with the large horned head of a bull, one lot of leathered skin not looking dissimilar to the other. In their slightly reserved welcome, the images aren’t unlike Grant Wood’s ’American Gothic’ (1930), simultaneously shown in the Academy’s other gallery as part of ‘America After The Fall’.

And how could it be otherwise? Despite the Bolsheviks’ reassuring symbol of the Hammer and Sickle, promising the peasants partnership, it was the factory worker who was considered the revolutionary subject. The peasant was an unfortunate necessity, often seen as suspect if not an active obstruction. Ideology was so strong people would dismiss the peasants even as their bellies rumbled.

This relationship is accurately if inadvertently summed up by a dish of a peasant girl, designed by Elizaveta Rozendorf in 1920. The head of it’s nominal subject is caught in the side dip, semi-obscuring it and instead throwing the focus on the pumpkin she carries. It’s oversized, almost as wide as her arm is long.

At best the revolution would be brought to the peasants, intact and fully formed, allowing them to climb aboard. Check out the clip below of Dovzhenko's ‘Earth’ (1930). They’re almost unmoving before the tractor arrives, as if the country was some pre-revolutionary purgatory and all that was good and new came from the city.

While Grigory Ryazhsky’s ’The Collective Farm Team Leader’ (1932, above) portrays that tractor-based collectivism once in place. As with the revolutionary images we saw last time, it’s centred round a central block of red. But this time it’s not only naturalised but has softer oranges and yellows radiating around it. This probably stems from being painted date, actually the final date in the show’s span, when the anti-formalism of socialist realism was ascendant. But it was anti-formalism only of a sort. There’s something almost heraldic about the tractor at her shoulder, and the labouring peasants arranged around her.

But not only was Russia primarily agricultural, the combination of revolution and war with the Whites had increased the rural population, as many fled the impoverished cities to go back to the land. And the peasants, meeting mistrust with mistrust, would often resist the enforced collectivisation and “requisitioning” of their grain by hiding or even destroying their crops. This only increased after June 1918, where conscription to fight the Whites was enforced on pain of death.

But once things had been very different. It wouldn’t be too much of a generalisation to say that Russian art had divided between those who wanted to take up an international Modernism versus those who wanted to immerse themselves in an indigenous folk art. Seen one way, that distance to Paris was vast. Seen another, that space was actually a treasure trove brimming with unique art history. (Older readers may remember my waxing more about this after the ‘From Russia’ exhibition, staged at the Academy almost a decade ago.) Things had begun to change only in the years leading up to the revolution. And much of the old attitudes remained.

Certainly Symbolist painter Mikhail Nesterov painted ’Philosophers’ (above) during 1917, as if none of the events going on about him had registered. The two philosophers stand, sombre and static, clearly intended as metonyms of Russia. They don’t seem to look at the landscape. Cut off at the knees by the framing, they seem more plantedin it – as much as the trees behind them. The wooden walking stick aids the comparison.

It’s quite likely the Futurist artists would glower to be hung in the same space as this. Yet in it’s stillness it’s a companion piece to those industrial Futurist works – the way an opposite bookend can be seen as a companion piece. And besides, it’s simply a great painting, in that it not only conveys all that it intends but seemingly without even trying.

Marc Chagall, meanwhile, makes for a good example of the fusion of these approaches. Though Belarus born, he had moved to Paris and only been back in Russia after the First World War had made a trip home permanent. His ’Promenade’ (1917/18, above) is not sombre or ordered, assuming some eternalised tradition, but possessed of great vivacity and abandon. He was recently married and the two figures are believed to be the happy couple. The male figure clutches a bird in one hand while the woman flies in another, suggesting the symbolism of folk magic. The dome of the Orthodox Church behind them completes the picture of the idyllic Russian village.

Similarly, the prologue to Grigory Kzointsev and Leonid Truberg’s film ’The Youth of Maxim’ (1935, above) is not of a static peasant past like Dovzhenko but captures the wild rush of a sleigh ride. After an initial blur of lights the camera settles aboard the sleighs themselves, cutting sharply from one to the other.Mixing it up, a car can be seen among them. The music, though based on polkas, is by Shostakovich.

But perhaps the most telling way the peasants were depicted were the two runs by Malevich. As recounted after the Tate show dedicated to himMalevich originally evoked the peasant as a symbol of the Russian soul. However by the time of his (not entirely voluntary) return from abstraction the type had become a contentless form. In ’Peasants’ (1930, above) faceless faces peer back at you, the plain behind them featureless save for bands of colour.

Notably, the show comes up against the same problem as I did after that Tate show, in working out the balance between intent and forced circumstance at work. It states “blank faces hauntingly evoke lost identity on the collective farm”, as if the work’s a quiet protest. But then adds “these were Malevich’s attempt to conform to the Soviet dogma that required art to be representational.” Whichever, perhaps the two were snapshots taken of a work in regress.

And speaking of Malevich...

Permission to Deviate

One nice feature of making an exhibition so all-embracing, so concerned with spanning the breadth rather than searching for the through-line, is that it captures works which would have passed through the clutches of more focused fingers. This next section’s on the mavericks – the artists who saw their activity as enabled by the Revolution, and may even have cheered it on, but without the same sense of being in service to it. To them, it just gave them permission to pursue their own path as far as it went.

Malevich is a classic example of an artist who would have been horrified to hear he’d been consigned to maverick status. Not only did he see his art as very much in step with the Revolution, in his teachings he persuaded many to agree with him. (In contrast to the ostensibly similar abstraction of Kandinsky, who was back in Russia-revolution but often had his teachings dismissed as irrelevant and “bourgeois”.)

You might think that after being the subject of an entire Tate show, Malevich was a done subject. Not so. Like the Tate show, duplicating one of his contemporary exhibitions proves a masterstroke, this time the 1932 retrospective ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’. (They did love their catchy titles.) A photo of the original exhibition is below.

Malevich’s work doesn’t just seem to benefit from being shown as a group, it even starts to look like one great meta-work just made up of individual components. With the Suprematist works arranged symmetrically behind some of his architectrons (which impressed me little when seen in isolation), the whole thing does look remarkably like an altar. And the three central Suprematist paintings look designed to be shown in this arrangement, one aligning right and the other left.

Malevich claimed he was painting in his Suprematist style two years before he’d exhibit anything, which given the speed of change at the time seems bizarre. The most likely answer is this, he understood this need for them to not be seen singly but as a group.

It was common for artists of the era to either design for, or have their works copied onto, everyday objects such as plates or teapots. This was seen as one way to bring art to the masses, and perhaps was more effective in the days before the exit-through-gift-shop was doing a roaring trade in such things.

However, perhaps as proof of Malevich’s maverick status, when the State Porcelain Factory put his work on plates the result is merely jarring and ineffective. His art aimed at the ineffable, and became trapped when pinned to objects in this world. The Design Museum’s ’Imagine Moscow’ exhibition (coming up, honest) commented that Malevich was influenced by his contemporary Pavel Ouspensky, who propounded esoteric theories of a fourth dimension beyond our perceptions.

Pavel Filonov (who briefly appeared in the previous instalment) may have been something of a fellow traveller to Malevich. Both actively supported the Revolution, even though their own art was essentially mystic in nature. Except where Malevich envisaged other dimensions, Filonov saw our reality as one level in a picture simultaneously bigger and smaller.

We tend to think of the human head, representing both individual identity while forming one of the most basic shapes, as one of the those irreducible ‘building block’ of art. Yet with Filonov’s ’Heads (Human in the World)’ (1925/6, above), we can only show a detail for the whole thing is remarkably intricate. (A larger, complete version of it lies here.) The heads, though never realist, vary in detail - some are completely cartoony. At first glance they seem to be arising out of a geometric lattice. Yet the points where the lines bisect often become frames for still-smaller images, as though the heads are themselves a mass of tattoos. While at one point the background shows quite a naturalist scene, of a red-roofed shack out in the woods.

Some reviewers compared Filonov’s works to fractals, yet no elements really recur. Filonov himself called it “universal flowering” or “anti-Cubism” - a form of Cubism uninterested in surface features but inner elements. The show suggests a metaphor for time, saying “his images seem to emerge from the flow of memory, representing ancestors, folklore and urban groups”. Certainly the emphasis on heads suggests Filonov is talking about what constitutes us. But the notion’s probably too narrow. Instead we need the shamanic conception of ‘the web without a weaver’, where time, space and scale are assumed to be not just interconnected, influencing one another, but indivisible parts of one integral tapestry.

Unlike the always accomplished Malevich, Filonov was closer to an outsider artist. Remarkably he manages to keep ’Heads’ explicable by reducing the colour scheme and pushing some elements so boldly into the foreground. There’s a kind of tipping point, where we only recognise the work’s complexity at the moment we find ourselves getting lost in it. However, at other times he simply indulged his obsessions without such consideration for the viewer. ’Formula of Spring’ (1927/9) offers no way in to it whatsoever.

After the ‘From Russia’ exhibition, I’d dismissed Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin as a mere copyist. And it’s true that, though they gain more attention, his ‘revolutionary’ works such as 'Fantasy' (1925) or ‘Death of A Commissar’ (1927) just look odd and off. His influences were more Russian icon painting, Western Renaissance and Post-Impressionism than the seemingly de rigeur Russian Futurism. As the show says “ultimately his art is metaphysical rather than political, a reflection of the human spirit and the cycle of life”. It's Petrov-Vodkin’s portraits and still lifes which sing.

We effectively saw this last time with the contrast between ’Still Life With a Herring’ (1918) and ’Beside Lenin’s Coffin’ (1924). But let’s add to the mix ’1918 In Petrograd (Petrograd Madonna)’ (1920, above). Ironically, conditions in Petrograd were probably at their worst in the year between when the work was labelled and painted, when the city was besieged by the Whites. But they were not a picnic at any point.

There’s a strange dichotomy between the work’s apparent subject and where your attention goes, like one of those family snapshots which just happens to catch the Twin Towers being hit in the background. Those amassed and yet strangely isolated figures at ground level pull at your attention, but Petrov-Vodkin is all about the saintly figure on the balcony. The blue of the building which frames her is a very Renaissance touch.

Ironically it may be Petrov-Vodkin’s lackings as a political artist which saved him when the shutters came down in the Thirties. In 1932, as Malevich and Filonov languished in official disapproval, he was appointed President of the Leningrad Regional Union of Soviet Artists. There was simply no sinning Russian Futurism to beat out of him.

Konstantin Yuon had once been an Impressionist artist, which seems a long way from ’New Planet’ (1921, above). You could match this work to the regular Revolutionary iconography examined last time, with Kustodiev’s brobdignigian Bolshevik and the minaret replaced by planet-sized symbols. We see the red planet coming in towards the earth, the masses flocking to it, as the yellow one recedes. (Blue and gold are the standard colours of Russian Orthodoxy, so maybe yellow could be made a stand-in.)

Yet those rays of light seem introduced precisely to screw with the simplicities of the colour scheme. And more importantly, with so vast a scale, that reading would seem reductive - as well as blind to the work’s tone. Kustodiev's Bolshevik is raised into a giant, but remains human against the minaret. There’s nothing human level here. It could be described as cosmic but there’s also something eschatological to it, as if the historical forces of the time were as remote but as powerful in their effects as the gravitational pull of nearby planets. The Royal Academy magazine refers to it’s “euphoric energy”, (no. 133) but “convulsive” would seem closer. The figures mill this way and that, in some combination of hope and fear. Many raise their hands as if hoping to climb aboard, others simply run away.

Time To Stop Play

With both the Russian Futurists and the mavericks, when they thought they finally tasted freedom it was in fact their last gulp of air. But perhaps it was always the crisotunity of Modernism to live the most in the most interesting times. There’s only one other place which can rival Russia in the whole history of modern art. (Let alone Modernism.) And that’s Germany from the same era. And the people there didn’t have much of an easy time of it either.

Alas, times managed to become uninteresting without getting easier, and they did it fairly soon. The show separates the Revolutionary days from the Stalinist era via an appropriately long corridor. As we’ve seen, the 1932 exhibition ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’ still included Modernist work. But in April of the same year the Union of Soviet Artists formed, to enforce Socialist Realism. The Great Purges of 1936/8 saw no reason to exclude artists from their ranks of those they imprisoned, exiled and killed. Nikolai Punin, who curated the ’Fifteen Years’ exhibition, was among them. Filonov became so marginalised that he simply starved to death.

To say art was censored in Stalinist Russia is perhaps too feeble. It wasn’t about a list of things you couldn’t say, because instead there was a list of things you should say, that you were obligated to say and with instructions on how to say them. The resultant Socialist Realist kitsch was a glut of bad taste. It reeks of that fake pine freshness smell they put in cleaning products, the better to mask the smell of the gulags.

The way everything is so overwhelmingly jumbled together in such a cacophony is at once the success and the failure of the show. There’s perhaps too much of an emphasis on painting over posters and films, with the latter displayed as something of an afterthought – the films in particular were often hard to see. But this also means you can catch a little... a very little... of the heady feeling of the days it depicts. You'd stand in front of something like a classic Kandinsky, then think “must press on, more to see”.

Which means no review can possibly be comprehensive, but must inevitably settle for scattershot. Like the recent Abstract Expressionism show, only more so, everything is thrown in rather than reduced to a neat narrative. Like that show, it often throws up names brand new to me, and this time from an era I fancied I knew something about. The Russian Revolution will stay with us for a long time yet.

Coming soon! Meanwhile back in Soviet Moscow…
Coming sooner! Probably something else...

Saturday, 2 September 2017


Royal Academy, London
The first of a two-part look at (an inevitably already closed) exhibition, this instalment on what was self-avowedly revolutionary in Russian art of this era

“Like the chewed stump of a fag, we spat their dynasty out”
- Mayakovsky

Art All Anew

They’re strong words in that show title, but accurate ones. The Revolution changed art in Russia. It changed art around completely, and it did it at a stroke. Here’s how...

Check out Camilla Gray’s ’The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922’and the first name mentioned isn’t an artist but a patron, Savva Mamontov. We need to get three pages in, past a few more patrons, to come across the first actual artist. There are patrons who get as much space devoted to them as artists.

And how could it be otherwise? The mind lends itself to images of Modernist artists starving nobly in garrets, while busily being ahead of their time. But back then the only viable alternative to having a wealthy patron was to be wealthy yourself. And we shouldn’t stereotype these collectors as a necessary evil, as moneyed philistines after bling to hang. They could be quite deeply involved in the movements they championed. Another patron, Sergei Shschukin, requested Matisse completely change the colour scheme of what became ‘Harmony in Red’ to better fit his dining room. But he also opened his own house to the public every Saturday, from where he promoted the most advanced forms of Modernism.

Indeed it could be argued that they took to Modernism not despite but because of itself. It more accurately reflected their culture, the dynamic world of the merchant and industrialist over the old certainties of the aristocracy. Mamontov was a railroad magnate, and both the railways and Modernism connected the otherwise isolated mother country to the rest of Europe. Modernism’s growth in Russia merely reflected the growth of the middle class, and it’s a romanticisation of ours to imagine anything further.

Nevertheless the revolution of 1905, if a failure in itself, was a short in the arm to art. And 1917 went on to prove a gamechanger. In that very dawn it was exciting to be alive, but to be an artist was very bliss. Provided you weren’t a heavy eater...

The prognosis might not sound good. Artists were at a stroke deprived of the seeming life blood of their patrons, unable to exhibit privately, officially labelled bourgeois and so given the most meagre of already meagre rations. With art production effectively nationalised, the only thing they had to rely on was the state. And, creatively at least, they flourished.

Mia Lobanov-Rostovsky, a “noted authority on revolutionary ceramics”, commented how porcelain designers would work not only long hours but, due to food and fuel shortages, on empty bellies while in coats and mittens. Yet “they later remembered it as an exciting and exhilarating time... and they managed to express some of that excitement in their work.” (’Royal Academy Magazine’ 134, Spring '17)

Two exhibits exemplify this, a ration card adorned with bright Modernist designs and a still life of a plate of rationed food. Kuzuma Petrov-Vodkin’s Still-Life With a Herring’ (1918, above) is painted as if all he had to eat was all he had to paint. There’s a lot of empty cloth on that table. But rather than a protest against meagre rations, it’s the perspective of a man who has looked forward to this humble repast all day. Which only makes it more poignant. 

Alastair Sooke comments in the Telegraph “the picture is imbued with a fervent, almost luxurious spiritual intensity that is at odds with the austerity of the meal.” You can almost imagine the artist saying a secularised prayer of thanks over it. At the time there wasn’t even enough canvas to go round, so the work was done on oilcloth.

And this was because you got those rations simply by registering as an artist. At this time you were effectively at liberty to do what you wanted. The field was open. Anyone who chose could enrol in art college, while exhibitions were often open access. But there was more than giving everyone a level playing field. New art now went with a new society. Art seemed not just to be changing in synch with society, there was even a positive feedback loop between the two. In April 1918, very soon after the Revolution, Lenin announced his Plan for Monumental Propaganda. Modernists could even hold rank in this brave new world, the same year Tatlin becoming head of the Moscow Department of Fine Arts, and Rodchenko head of the Museum Bureau.

And this sense of your role having a social function is vital. I remember with some fondness the days of using the dole as a social wage, for whatever artistic or political avenues you were minded to pursue. But the act of claiming it always involved the pretence that what you really wanted out of life was wage labour, even when that was mostly lip service. This situation is quite different.

The artists who most readily took up Lenin’s call for monumental propaganda were the Futurists. (Though they weren’t the only group, as we’ll see.) Their heady mix of Italian Futurism, Cubism and Dadaism had led to them being widely seen as wastrels, fantasists and attention-seekers, the antithesis of seriousness. Now, convinced the tomorrow they agitated for was finally emerging, they found in themselves a resourcefulness as endless as their energy. They laboured not just on artworks which spread the revolution but on the means of spreading them, of traversing the huge realm of Russia.

Trains were festooned with revolutionary posters, their insides converted into mobile libraries. The Maxim Gorky plane, the largest of it’s day, contained a rotary press for leaflets to be printed then dropped, a lab to develop photos taken in flight and a cinema screen to be unfolded on landing. Kashican and Kolesnik even designed shells which would unleash not explosives but revolutionary propaganda leaflets.

Yet though their enthusiasm drove such endeavours the truth, inevitably, was shabbier. For a population speaking different languages or simply illiterate, spread over so vast an area, only the image was going to spread the word. Yet there was an irony. They were never truly in favour with the Bolsheviks, who saw their antics as suspiciously bourgeois. At the time Lenin resolved to work with the artists he had rather than the ones he wanted. “Art for me is a just an appendage”, he confessed, “and when its use as propaganda – which we need at the moment – is over, we’ll cut it out as useless: snip, snip!” Arguably, problems were being stored up even from that early point...

The New Icons

Nikolai Terpsikhoron’s ’First Motto’ (1924, above) depicts a darkened grey room, illuminated only by a small window in the upper corner. Yet the banner being painted is vivid scarlet. Similarly, if the high window makes it look more a basement than a garret, the basic stove plonked arbitrarily suggests an artist’s simple hovel. Yet the painter is anonymised, in a hat and coat, his head bowed. The classical statues around him go ignored. Instead he paints letters on a banner, hardly art that needs the hand of an artist.

My Russian is just good enough to tell me the banner says “All Power to the Soviets”. (Oh alright, the show translated it.) It’s a similar effect to Eisenstein’s red flag raised in a black and white film, in ’Battleship Potemkin’ the following year. Or the bright orange of the book on the Spanish Republic in Clive Branson’s ‘Noreen and Rosa’ (1940), as seen in the Pallant House show on the Spanish Civil War. Even as the work’s a painting it’s actually of a banner, and the naturalistic rules of painting become subservient to that banner.

Boris Kustodiev’s ‘The Bolshevik’ (1920, above) recycles the red banner, this time as a perpetually unfurling ribboning flag, taking up the width of the picture. If we were to imagine it realistically we’d have to conceive that it was miles long. Again there picture contains one element jarring against an overall naturalism, this time a giant – taller than many of the buildings – leading the masses. His flowing scarf, though not itself red, further associates him with his banner. This titular titan is placed against the minaret of an orthodox Church, effectively placing a humanised figure against a depersonalised power system. (The Church representing how Tsardom was perpetuated by ideology, superstition and so on.) It’s the Godzilla versus Mecha-Godzilla of revolutionary iconography.

But why have the two things, the giant personification of Bolshevism plus the large crowd around his feet? Why do we need both the masses and their symbolic representative, this team-up of all the Davids with their own Goliath? Delacroix’s pictorial tribute to the uprising French, ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1830) also used a emblematic, flag-waving figure. But he merely centred the figure in a realistic image. Whereas Vladimir Kozlinksy’s propaganda poster ’The World Revolution Proceeds With Gigantic Steps’ (1920) portrays a red giant, but silhouetted and with no attempt at placing him in any kind of setting.

But that rupture is part of the point. It’s that friction which makes the image striking and dramatic. It has the depth of field, the detail of a painting, yet at the same time the impact of a poster. (It’s striking enough today to have been made the poster image of the show, see up top.)

It’s inspiration may have been more local. Peasant and religious art remained influential upon Russian Modernism, something we’ll come onto. And folk art commonly assigned size not by scale but by importance. Yet here it’s not Jesus, not a Patriarch, not a Tzar, not even Lenin but a Bolshevik.

But the combination also suggests that Bolshevism leads the workers, rather than is something of them. While that billowing red flag, contrasted to the blue of the minaret, suggests the man is not so man-like after all and that Bolshevism is one ideology set against another. Over in the Yankee imperialist West, Superman has often been described as a flag with a man attached, due to the fetishisation of his cape. And this brobdignigian Bolshevik seems similar. Delacroix painted his crowd full size partly to convey plurality, an alliance overcoming difference which had swelled the revolutionary’s ranks. Kustodiev’s masses are little more than dots.

Isaac Brodsky’s ’Vladimir Lenin and a Demonstration’ (1919, above) again shows a giant figure alongside the masses. Though this time we’ve moved from the big Bolshevik to his boss, Rook to King. And Lenin sits calmly, looking statesmanlike, a contrast to that mighty striding Bolshevik. But his outstretched hand is near the opening in the red (yes, again) curtain, and so near the amassed masses. This could fairly easily have combined into a naturalist scene. Just paint a window and the masses passing outside it. But the extent of that ruffled curtain seems there to obscure that possibility. Which throws the emphasis still more onto the proximity of arm and masses, as if they move at his command.

‘Beside Lenin’s Coffin’ by Kuzma Pretov-Vodkin (1924, above) was painted shortly after Lenin’s death. Again the work is ostensibly realist even as it pushes one element to the foreground, again it finds an area to give a generous application of red. This time it could, with some violence, be subject to naturalistic perspective. Though Lenin’s head looks about the same size as the nearest man’s torso, leaving him looking more like a horizontal statue than a dead man. Overall, the composition looks naive and slightly awkward. The plant given such a central position, part obscuring the funeral crowds, is particularly odd.

Lenin’s body was put on display in a mausoleum, and is there to this day. People talk about the iconography of Lenin secularising religion rather than abolishing it, and no doubt rightly. While significantly Petrov-Vodkin had previously studied Russian icon painting. But this work has a strange relationship to that tendency. While mourners could go and look at Lenin’s body, and did so in their thousands, painting it was a different matter. In fact, this work was not publicly shown in it’s day.

Then in contrast to all of that we have another work by Isaak Brodsky - ’Lenin in Smolny’ (1930). Despite being an official portrait it uses none of the elements previously described. It shows a humanised Lenin in a casual pose, not at the centre of the composition, his face semi-shadowed in such soft lighting that it recalls the Flemish Renaissance. The show talks of it giving the viewer the sense they could walk up and sit alongside him. It’s a humanised Lenin not a titan or icon, depicted more in the way you might expect Tolstoy, a major break with the way we imagine revolutionary iconography to have portrayed him.

‘Demonstration on Uritsky Square’ (1921, above) is again by Boris Kustodiev. It’s of a May Day parade but unlike ’The Bolshevik’ the only giants are the buildings. The base of an unseen statue is cropped by the framing, giving the composition a sense of verite. There’s red flags again. But the crowd spills around the base, not arranged into ranks or types. Several are close enough to be individuated. Every work up to now I related to the art history or politics of the Russian revolution. While this reminded me of actual demos I’ve attended in London, sometimes passing close by the Royal Academy, that feeling of masses teeming beneath monumental architecture.

”Let’s Mechanise”

Russian revolutionary art is of course well known for making the factory into a subject, just as the peasants at their labours had been. Russia’s rush to industrialise was so acute that working in a factory was almost seen as a revolutionary activity in itself, and came to be celebrated in art.

In fact the striking thing about Ekaterina Zernova’s ’Tomato Paste Factory’ 
(1929) is how similar it is to the direct revolutionary art of above – an arrangement of figures around a central red block. True it it doesn’t really have naturalistic elements, to the point its whole colour scheme is blocks. But that virtually glowing red still dominates. Only one worker is given a face, which is impassive – they’re effective ancillary. This factory makes tomato paste and revolution.

But there was an important new element to factory art. The Russian Futurists disdained previous Modernist movements as unworthy of the name, as never having really broken with Romanticism. To them, nature was now out, mysticism was now out. Theirs was a machine age and they were to make the art of the machine. Their art championed and reproduced mechanisation, not only of the factory but the newly collectivised farms. The title to this section is stolen from Alexander Deineka’s painting ’Let’s Mechanise Dombass’ (c. 1930).

You can see the trajectory they took through two works. Natan Altman’s ’Russia. Labour’ (1921, above), an assemblage of geometric abstract objects on a mahogany panel, seems typical of the transitional stage from painting. It looks back to Cubism, but instead of fractured it’s neat and smooth. It’s not of a machine but it could be some kind of a blueprint. Works of this era often have dynamic and semi-mechanistic names, such as Popova’s ’Space-Force Construction’ (1921).

As painting came to be abandoned, this led to works such as Rodchenko’s photo ’Steering Wheels’ (1929, above) with it’s slightly fetishistic close-up of machine parts. Human figures tend to be ancillary to the machines, less workmen than onlookers, or even absent. (More was said on this transition after the Academy’s earlier ‘Building The Revolution’ show.)

Pavel Filonov’s ’Tractor Workshop at the Putilov Factory’ (1931/2, above) again recycles the circular motif of wheels and gears, but more bizarrely. Particularly in the lower part of the picture the workers’ heads jut out between the tractor parts. With their impassive, virtually interchangeable faces beneath identical caps, they look like they have become parts themselves. Yet the image is otherwise realist, with perspective and naturalistic lighting.

Alexander Deinka’s 'Textile Workers' (1927, above) perhaps pushes the bar still further with mechanisation. Here the human figure is dominant, but it’s not life as we know it. To our modern eyes with those whites and neatly gradated greys, it doesn’t look like a painting so much as a piece of vector art, somehow transported back in time. While distant cows moo past the window, the women look less workers in a factory than aliens from a passing UFO. The image looks strangely weightless, as if taking the sweat out of labour. The central, barefooted figure could almost be floating. It, if inadvertently, conveys the sterility of seeming utopias in a way much Seventies science fiction would do. (To the point where whiteness would become a shorthand for it.)

And if it feels the worker is either a subsidiary figure or semi-mechanised themselves, later images would show more of a partnership between man and machine. But not, alas, for the best of reasons. Arkandy Shaiket’s photo ‘Komsomol at the Wheel’(1929, above) recycles Rodchenko’s wheel motif, but with an important distinction. Instead of focusing on the machine he places an idealised worker at the highest point in the composition, biceps flexed as he gazing boldly into the distance. While Isaak Brodsky’s ‘Shock-Worker from Dneprostroi’ (1932, below), though a painting, is similar in composition and effect – the worker stripped manfully to the waist, raised on a platform.

As Brodsky’s title makes clear these are ‘shock worker’ images, themselves associated with the Five Year Plans which had begun a year before Shaiket. Sometimes called Stakhanovites, after one of their more famous brethren, they were held up as model workers who laboured hard to raise production.

Moving from the streets to workplace, the brobdignigian Bolshevik became replaced as the icon of the revolution. It was now the muscled man in a cap, preferably brandishing a lump hammer. He represented a new race of super-workers, almost synthesised with the machine. (“We grow out of iron” Alexsey Gastev asserted in 1923.)

And they go alongside images of the greater militarisation of labour, such as Georgi Zelma’s photo ’Red Army Soldiers By Power Cable’ (1931), with it’s comparison of bayonets to power lines. Now you were expected not just to follow in his mighty footsteps but work as hard as him. The shock workers were the school prefects of counter-revolution. It’s underlined by the ceramic plate from the State Porcelain Factory, decorously adorned with the slogan ”he who doesn’t work doesn’t eat”.

Overall, and inevitably enough, hindsight makes clear that the Futurists never really broke with the Romanticism they disdained. Artists such as Turner had already depicted an ‘industrial sublime’, which perceived the new machines precisely as though they were not social products but outside forces rearing up at you – trains flying towards you through the mist.

And we see all that here. Things had moved from Altman’s machine aesthetic to Rodchenko’s aestheticisation of the machine. Like the gestures of a stage magician, the gears and pistons of the machine are merely showy accompaniments to the central act of magic. The viewer is not unlike the peasants, show in Eisenstein’s ’Old And New’, 1929, (clip below), an awed audience in euphoric wonder at the workings of the machine. It’s just become the new mysticism.

And arguably that’s inevitable. Art aestheticises by definition, so in many ways taking an anti-aesthetic direction was just self-confounding. But then, as said many times before, Modernism can be seen as a series of fascinating failures.

Another related direction is what could be called ‘meta productivism’ - works which do not metafictionally draw attention to their form, such as a picture pointedly being enclosed by it’s frame, but to their production. For example Andrey Golubev’s textile design ’Red Spinner’ (1930, above), features as its the design the textile machines which made it.

Similarly the films of Dziga Vertov often made their subject their own making, sometimes starting with their budget money being counted out, even featuring their being shown to an audience. His ’Man With a Movie Camera’ (1929, still below) stated in it’s opening credits it’s intention as “the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature." (Compare to the f/64 photography group from the ‘Radical Eye’ exhibition.)

Here the mechanistic fetishism jumps from the machines to their society. Walter Benjamin embodies this attitude in his famous 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction’: “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie.”

This is materialism, but a crude deterministic materialism - in fact, a mechanistic materialism. The cinema turns out a different audience to the theatre or the art gallery, just like the factory turns out different products to the artisan’s workshop. Technology changes and in turn this changes us. Technology, in short has an a priori relationship to humans – it makes us. The main role of human agency in this story is either to pervert or to go along with what would otherwise be a linear development, Soviet Russia sailing the wind while Fascist Germany strives to row against it.

And its materialism isn’t Marx’s. Indeed, Marx had said: “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself needs educating.”

But just to make the machine the new subject of painting, or even to make art with the new equipment such as photography or film, seemed to many to be inadequate. Constructivism arose, seeing itself as a terminus station in the journey of Russian Futurism. It traded in all the flamboyant costumes, shock events and general weaponised outrage. Its new and more sober mission was to reverse the modern separation between art and science. Artists were now designers, inventors and engineers. They were now to wear overalls, not smocks.

And perhaps the leading Constructivist was Vladimir Tatlin. The show recreates one of his gliders, ’Letatlin’ (1932, above), punning on his name and the Russian word for ‘fly’. Tatlin intended this as a serious project, calling it “a worker’s flying bicycle”. Most commentators go with the line that, as it never actually flew, it acts as a symbol for a revolution which never truly flew either. And indeed projects of the time were often more imaginative than practical. The Maxim Gorky plane mentioned above crashed during its demonstration flight.

On the other hand, when Da Vinci’s blueprints never reached fruition he’s just described as ahead of his time. And the show even suggests the glider was influenced by him, which is perhaps most telling of all. Constructivism was the strand of Russian Futurism which saw technology not as a given, but as something created by the wit of man. But it saw that man as the genius inventor, who was merely sublimating his genius for the good of his fellows.

But there’s a reason why Renaissance men happened in the Renaissance. Technology had already moved on from that stage. Innovation now required consolidated work, building on the back of prior innovation. And Tatlin if anything jealously guarded his projects, rather than throwing them open to groupthink. He was an artist who fancied himself as an inventor.

And yet, what an artist he was! ’Letalin’ is well displayed, in an otherwise crowded show given it’s own room to spin in, where it casts shadows like a giant Calder mobile. 

But perhaps what’s remarkable about it is how machine-like it isn’t. It’s made not from metal but ash wood and is quite biomorphic, based on studies of bird and insect skeletons. If anything it looks back to the way flight was conceived before the engine. And in contravention to every received image we have of this era it’s individualised, imagining private transport taking to the skies in flurries, not public air buses. This elegant glider seems a world away from Filonov’s factory of human parts, while it’s likely they were actually worked on concurrently.

If it never fulfilled the function it was intended for, then it’s a superlative work of art. And perhaps it even needed that strange genesis to be what it is. It hits you with such a powerful aesthetic sense in and of itself, yet seems to have no interest in anything but function.

”Enemies Surround Us”

Reader, please note this next part is the political bit with strives to put the art into context, and so will lack the benefit of pictures or conversation. You can skip it if you like, but citizen if as a result you later end up before a People's Tribunal you can't claim I didn’t warn you. (The section title this time is Mayaokvsky’s, from a 1921 propaganda poster.)

Let’s lay some cards on the table. It seems evident enough that the Bolsheviks hijacked a revolution they had little part in creating. Lenin’s return to Russia did not precipitate events, it was in response to something which had taken the Bolsheviks by surprise. They’d previously theorised that ‘undeveloped’ Russia was unready for revolution. And despite this jolt to their vanguard mindset when they did take control they still wanted things done their way.

As early as 1921 Alexander Blok had died, heartbroken by the failure of the revolution, an event the exhibition pinpoints as the turning point. And arguably that was the year any genuinely revolutionary hope went, with the brutal suppression of the Kronstadt revolt. Or perhaps we might pick the year before, when, after allowing the Black army (also known as the less catchy Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine) to fight the Whites, the Reds turned on them when they won. Both significant events but both, alas, too late.

The true turning point was the Spring of 1918, with the introduction of “one-man management”. The party who had rallied under the slogan “all power to the Soviets” now unceremoniously stripped that power away. From that point factories were taken out of the control of workers’ Soviets and handed to Bolshevik appointees, often the pre-revolutionary managers returned.

As Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit put it: “the Russian Revolution had triumphed over the forces of external reaction only to succumb to the bureaucracy the Revolution itself had engendered… while the revolutionary party retained power, the working class itself lost it; that it was their own Party that defeated the workers, and not the classical forces of the counter-revolution.”

It’s often been observed that the Bolsheviks would justify their rule by claiming the workers lacked true revolutionary consciousness, while the truth was almost precisely the reverse. Turns out, it was the people going round shouting “counter-revolutionary” at everyone else who were the real counter-revolutionaries. Who’d a-thunk it?

And in this struggle art was essentially weaponised. The red flag in the grey environment, the giant Bolshevik leading the masses, both juxtapositionally shoehorned into an otherwise natural picture, are potent visual metaphors for ideology, ideas untrammelled by mere actuality. Some outside ingredient needed inserting into the picture to galvanise the revolution and that ingredient was Bolshevism.

But we need to face something less palatable. The Kronstadt uprising was not a solitary event, but neither was it a microcosm of the general situation. Mostly, it was an exception to the rule. It was the workers’ Soviets who were the backbone of the revolution. And mostly they simply surrendered control when told. As a tiny group in a vast country, barely present at the outset of events, the Bolsheviks could scarcely have seized power. Mostly, they were handed it.

Though when saying this we should be wary of over-ascribing credulousness to the workers. And besides, how did the Bolsheviks themselves come up with their ideology? To suggest they were merely scheming and evil is the stuff of melodrama, not history. (Anarchist accounts of the revolution often suffer from this.) ‘The Bolsheviks betrayed the revolution’ may be accurate as a statement, but it’s incomplete as an explanation unless you then go on to ask ‘what made the Bolsheviks Bolsheviks?’

What needs considering is the specifics of the situation. Firstly the Soviets had not, for the most part, been built at the behest of any political group, but had arisen organically when needed. (Sometimes you can’t help but feel that the Revolution took everyone by surprise, even those most actively involved in it.) Which can have an up, but also a downside. It meant that when the Bolsheviks showed up with their rehearsed narrative any response needed making up on the fly.

It’s even possible the Bolsheviks were, in their own narrow sense, right. You don’t need to read too much history to discover that nation states dislike revolutions happening in their neighbours, to the extent they’ll go all out to prevent them. Most countries had seen uprisings after the First World War, and most saw them suppressed. The prospect of widespread if not global revolution, then that prospect being snatched away, is the most central issue in Russian revolutionary history. Revolution being overturned became a likely, perhaps the most likely, scenario at the time. While, particularly with the war with the Whites, death stalked the streets through disease, cold and hunger. Things needed stabilising and quickly.

The only way to ensure the Revolution remained successful was to redefine success. Like the American Major in the Vietnam war who helpfully explained “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it”, the Bolsheviks saved the Revolution. But revolution being undermined from within had become the only alternative to it being destroyed from without.

More widely, the Bolsheviks’ overly schematic conception of history came to look like an advantage, as it seemed to offer an explanation of and route map out of the problems faced. In Russia the inevitable revolution had arrived early, when industrialisation was only beginning, and so faced much the same problems as a premature birth. It needed incubating, it needed special doctors. True emancipation would come later.

All of which meant the workers themselves were no longer the subject of the Revolution. It was now all about the plan. The Party was there to tell them the plan, and they were there to implement it. It didn’t matter much whether they fully comprehended it or not, they just need to know it was there. And if that seems reassuringly familiar it’s because that’s the relationship a wage labourer has to a capitalist under capitalism.

The notion that capitalism ended when planning began was then widespread. So the plan itself seemed interchangeable with communism, an ordering of things in opposition to the free-for-all ‘anarchy’ of the market. Lenin, later followed by Stalin, became the proverbial Man With the Plan. Like the Bible to an orthodox Christian, the Plan became the book of answers which could not be questioned, the book so important as to require guarding by the clergy.

And the art reflects all that, the confusion and the grasping at seeming certainty, like a barometer responding with volatility to volatile weather conditions. Life is never neat and you might not expect it to divide easily into Bolshevik and libertarian factions. But it’s beyond that, everything is hopelessly entangled. Ideological and aesthetic systems collide as often as they align. Kustodiev painted both the obediently led workers of ‘The Bolshevik’ and the unruly mob of ‘Demonstration on Trotsky Square’. Lenin is both trans-humanly powerful, unsmitten even by death, and a simple man sitting on a simple chair.

But above all, with the fetishisation of the machine comes the fetishisation of the plan. Art gives you a choice how you work on it. You can make extensive preparatory drawings, which then get executed in the realised work. Or you can splash paint on a canvas and wait for something to emerge. A machine allows for no such choice. It must follow its blueprint if it’s to function. Yet at the same time the machine doesn’t have to be understood by it’s operators, just attended to. They know there was a blueprint, even if they don’t know what it is. And in this way the machine becomes a kind of synecdoche of the plan. The icon which replaced Russian Orthodoxy was less Lenin’s face, however often that was reproduced, it was more the plan.

Coming soon! 
Well, that was the front line. But what was going on at the fringes..?