This was accidentally a London weekend full of references to Lenin and 1917 — both in the (planned) visit to the art of the Russian Revolution exhibition at the RA, and in the (impromptu) attendance of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. (Tom Hollander in the lead as the aging Henry Carr! Brilliant! British Consul in Zürich in 1917, when that city was host to Tristan Tzara, founder of Dada, James Joyce, and Vladimir Lenin! Amazing!)
Here we have Lenin as the ideal:
As a human being he did not live up to this ideal, no one could. I am in agreement with those who tire of hearing (leftist) people cite him chapter and verse. I loved Stoppard’s gleeful Brechtian treatment of him through consul Henry Carr’s fading memories. Loved the brilliant physical acting of Forbes Masson as Lenin (even at this grand moment when he is being called back to Russia) tossing his beruffed head when dismissed in a huff. Sticking his neck through a window to sing. Working hard at the library writing his book. Loved the socialist burlesque scene, the whole of the witty repartee, the sudden hilarity. The limericks. I admire Lenin. I am still troubled by him because I never did agree with his vision for achieving the revolution. Because he was conservative in many ways, his taste in art and music among them, and he had no right to stamp down on the wild flourishing of creativity that the revolution both inspired and made possible.
I think his praxis arguably set the stage for what happened in Russia under Stalin. And of course Stalin was inexcusable, unforgiveable, unforseeable, caused the death of millions. He betrayed everything the revolution stood for.
But goddamn, wasn’t the Russian Revolution glorious for a while? Didn’t it end the terror of the Okhrana and desperate lack of nutrition/education/health care/housing/women’s rights/right-to-anything-at-all-especially a decent life or a dream for the future that comprised existence for so many existing, just existing, under the tsar? Didn’t it open up conversations about democracy and the rights of workers, women, ‘colonised subjects’, writing, art, space travel, architecture? Didn’t it go beyond survival to start thinking about the meaning of a full life for all and create a moment when suddenly the whole world stopped and wondered if that were possible?
Yes, yes it did. We still fight for that possibility. People all over the world have been inspired by it. Still believe that there is an alternative. Still believe that revolution doesn’t lead inexorably to Stalinism. Surely the question becomes how do we strive to reach it without this streak of authoritarianism emerging through our struggle — an authoritarianism that only mirrors what we face. How dare that be forgotten by those who are comfortable in an ever-more unjust world full of hunger and want and bombs falling. To collapse revolution itself into Stalinism is fairly intellectually sloppy, but that was much of the message I received from the exhibition’s written commentary (as opposed to the art itself). Another blogger, whose beliefs run rather counter to mine as far as I understand them, seems to have got something of the same message:
The show arrives, I think, at a particularly timely moment, when artists here in the West have fallen in love all over again with the idea of supposedly avant-garde art as a vehicle for promoting supposedly leftist political causes. As such, the event at the R.A. offers a spectrum of what can only be described as awful warnings.
— Restless Revolutionaries: A Timely Look At Russian Art By Edward Lucie-Smith
I’m not quite sure what that means exactly, staring at it doesn’t help. I’m not sure if the awful warnings are for artists to beware left politics because that leads straight to the gulag (as if art weren’t always political already), or that those fighting for a better world should avoid the avant-garde at all costs. (I’m rather sure that’s not what she’s saying, but makes me laugh all the same.) There’s a similar dire warning of something or other in the Guardian. Do not celebrate this art it says. It rather turns my stomach.
To me, this exhibition rather avoided a full understanding of those early years, being rather too full of phrases expressing sentiments like this one:
Many Russian artists, philosophers and writers were nostalgic for the beauty and charm of the old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses.
I lie, that was the most extraordinary of the sentences the exhibition exhibited.
As if the poor had not been systematically shut out from beauty and grace in the previous centuries of exploitation. As if the artists on display here were backward looking. As if they were not propelled by excitement of what suddenly became possible with the overthrow of a violently repressive aristocratic order. As if that violently repressive order did not underpin the ‘beauty and charm’ for a limited few in old Russia. As if the true tragedy of revolutionary Russia was not the immense hope and promise which flourished, only to be crushed in what was not an inexorable process sparked from the moment Russia dared dream of a true revolution, but something rather more complicated. A complex historical process, just as the Bolsheviks and their part in a wider revolutionary movement was complex, full of contradiction as they themselves were full of contradiction.
I suppose we were sat in Burlington House in the West End. Heart of the Empire. What did I expect.
The period leading up to the revolution was full of struggle and heady new ideas full of what was possible, and then it came and what artists created was extraordinary. How could the art of the exhibition not be most wonderful? The inspiration for the exhibition no less exciting:
Taking inspiration from a remarkable exhibition shown in Russia just before Stalin’s clampdown, we will mark the historic centenary by focusing on the 15-year period between 1917 and 1932 when possibilities initially seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium.
Fantastic…and indeed, one of my favourite rooms was that of Malevich recreated from photographs of the exhibition of 1932 ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, with his white architectural forms and brilliant faceless farmers (his nod to the demand that he be more ‘representational’ — I share the frustration at such a demand. In the here and now the frames have all been reworked to a plain Ikea style, though the picture of the original exhibit gives a sense of the different feel of it).
Then we discovered the Suprematists made food coupons! Amazing. We saw Kandinsky, one of my very favourite artists, The Blue Crest (1917):
Another favourite, Marc Chagall. The painting description notes how Chagall was inspired by his wife pictured here, and said she floated above all of his work. How wonderful:
This exudes the happiness of those early days.
They were showing excerpts from Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and other clips including a manic one from Eisenstein showing thick and disturbingly spurting milk all over peasant hands and faces.
I especially loved the mixture of paintings, posters, ceramics, textiles and film. I mean, could there be anything more awesome than the phrase ‘agitational porcelain’? Followed by Konstantin Yuon’s New Planet?
Another room that contained El Lissitzky’s design for a new apartment, rebuilt here in all of its streamlined glory. I know Owen Hatherly disapproved, writing
This reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s putative design for a flat in Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building, made for the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), has a similar discomfort. Lissitzky’s room wasn’t laid out in real space when the building was constructed, between 1928 and 1930; he made a photomontage to show how the duplex flats of this collective apartment building could be furnished.
I see his point, it almost looks shabby hovering in cardboard over the gleaming parquet, but I rather loved it.
The textiles were awesome, like Andrey Golubev’s Red Spinner.
Pavel Filonov — how did I not know Filonov before this? How was he not in Janson’s History of Art, which continues to reverberate through my life with wonder as I finally get to see the originals of those pictures I only ever dreamed of?
But he wasn’t there. Nor was Sofya Dymshits-Tolstaya’s cool glass paintings — This lovely thing Peace to the Sheds, War to the Palaces. How much did I love that?
To end…Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, a model glider that was … impossible to say it was my favourite thing in this exhibition full of wonderful things, but. Well. Wondrous.
I knew all about Vienna in 1900 but had no idea what was going down in Zürich in 1917, even though I have chased Lenin in Krakow and elsewhere in Europe. Just a way to explore the city. I chased Joyce in Dublin and Paris. I’ve never chased Tzara, however, despite having chased Aragon and Breton. If I go to Zürich I will start. Of course I will go.
Still, how lucky I am to have been able to see the gallery, these paintings, and then rest my weary feet here, in the eagle’s nest. The only time I love gilded anything is in the theatre. The more there, the better.
And this wasn’t even everything we saw in London. I wanted to say more about Stoppard, but think I will have to read the screenplay. And write more later perhaps.
While in exile Lenin lived in Krakow a little while, and it is always our tradition to try and find the haunts of radicals and revolutionaries while visiting a city (like the Parisian cafe where he played chess with Trotsky and etc). For some context, I give you Israel Joshua Singer’s description of Lenin from The Brothers Ashkenazi (which you can read about as it relates the anti-Jewish sentiments to Marxist theory here):
…the squat man with the naked skull and Tatar features didn’t wax sentimental upon the occasion….He gazed ironically at the forest of red flags, his bald pate reflecting the gleam of the military trumpets blaring the “Marseillaise” in his honor, and narrowed his slanted eyes at the hordes of welcomers…Their speeches left him unmoved. A narrow smile played at the corners of his sly slit eyes as he patiently listened to their cultured voices and waited to douse their rhetoric with cold, sobering logic.
That cold, calculating logic wins the day, but Singer is unconvinced that is a good thing. Still, I could not get this description out of my head while staring at pictures of the statue of Lenin erected in the Stalinist workers’ housing development of Nova Huta — and still standing after attempts to blow it up, blow off its head, make of it a monument covered in cat piss, and etc.
Only to be taken down in 1989 and sold to a Swedish theme park. This reminded me of similar remnants of Lenin’s legacy in Prague, particularly the absurd Museum of Communism.
The fact that it was the workers of Nova Huta themselves, facing down immense state violence, who helped bring down the ‘communist’ regime shows just how far the USSR had moved from early ideals of all-power-to-the-soviets and its dream of a workers state. Lenin can’t, of course, be blamed entirely for that, but I personally feel he sowed a few of those seeds.
On a lighter note…this is an alternative view of Lenin, and his time in Krakow from a site more geared to the promotion of tourism:
Lenin arrived in Kraków on June 22, 1912 on the overnight train from Vienna, wife and mother-in-law in tow. Working as a freelance journalist for Russian papers like Pravda he took rented lodgings first on Krolowej Jadwigi, behind the Salwator tram terminus, and then at ul. Lubomirskiego 47. His favoured hangout was apparently Noworolski Café (Rynek Główny 1), a spot he used to entertain both wife and lover. One of Lenin’s great passions was ice skating, and he’d often be seen spinning deft moves on an ice rink which once stood close to the Botanical Gardens. In warmer months he’d pass time cycling in Wolski Forest as well as taking romantic walks through the Błonia Meadow.
Summers were spent in Poronin, just outside Zakopane, where he would play chess and hang out with Polish heavyweight writers like Witkiewicz and Żeromski. His reputation as a good-for-nothing finally caught up with him however, and on August 8th, 1914 he was arrested as an enemy of the state and imprisoned in Nowy Targ. Released days later he returned to Kraków to pack his bags and fled to Switzerland.
I laughed out loud at reading ‘His reputation as a good-for-nothing’ I confess. Another site mentions that his wife believed Krakow had mellowed him, and he was a fan of its zurek soup (rye soup) and hard liquor. Combine that with ice skating, and I can understand mellow. It also notes that Krakow was only six miles from the Russian border at the time, and a zone for smuggling of currency, goods and people. It also notes the move to ul. Lubomirskiego was made so Lenin could be closer to the post office.
Our trip to the Naworolski Cafe — its interior designed by Joseph Mehoffer, one of the artists of the Young Poland movement whose house was also well worth our visit.
The service was terribly slow, so we had lots of time to think about Lenin as ladies’ man and early-morning-paper-reader, hope that the coffee was better back in those days, and enjoy the view across Krakow’s main square:
Then there’s the Propaganda Cafe in Kazimierz, which was never a haunt of Lenin’s, but did contain a lot of awesome old stuff from communist days, including this picture. Also, the Gin and Tonics were exactly what we needed on a day whose heat almost killed Mark…
We were in the area of his first place of residence – Krolowej Jadwigi, behind the Salwator tram terminus. This is the tram station closest to the Kościuszko Mound which we visited. Here we walked through Las Wolski — a welcome escape for those who live in the city.
Another day we set off for ul. Lubomirskiego 47 on the way to the Botanic Garden, an area unlike any we had visited yet
We found ul. Lubomirskiego to be a rather interesting street:
We passed apartments like this, surely it would be like this we thought:
But no, the one shiny newly-painted building on the block was Lenin’s — a pale beigey yellow. I don’t know why my heart demanded Lenin’s old digs to be of faded splendour, but so it was.
Across the street, Krakow marching into modernity.
I think part of why I enjoy hunting down these places is how it helps you step outside the role of visitor a little, get a feel for more of the city.
That was all…but I think this will be my last Krakow post — too much to do: too many blogs that are hopefully working through material for my article on social movement, too many applications to write, too much work on Whispering Truth stories, too many more days of failing to finish my book rewrites and get this review done for City and these other articles wrapped up and submitted. I am looking forward to all of that work so little that I have managed to exercise every day despite the heat and have submitted three short stories to magazines and my book to another agent.
I hate that shit, but not as much as working on articles apparently.
But there is always Krakow.